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Oh, what a night!

This week's Market Square highlights the surprising surprises of Guelph's supposedly no-drama budget night
shocked surprised
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To stop everything to define “surprise” in the middle of a meeting that started with a declaration of “No Surprises” as the surprises were compounding? Surprising.

This week, City Council passed the Tax-Supported Operating Budget for 2018, and it was quite the roller coaster ride watching the people around the horseshoe try and balance fiscal restraint with a variety of new spending demands coming from pressures both inside and outside the City. The whole thing was passed in a tight five-hours, but there were a number of fascinating diversions.

The meeting kicked off with Mayor Cam Guthrie disclosing that he was not proceeding with his purchase of a share of the Guelph Royals franchise, saying that the apparent conflict was interfering too much with his ability to participate in key budget votes.

That breaking news made my inner Wolf Blitzer happy, and it perhaps should have been a sign that this was not going to be a laidback and sanguine kind of budget meeting.

Councillor June Hofland would later remark that she had not seen a council process “messier” than what she was seeing before her. I wonder if she forgot the 2016 budget process, where council went to 1:30 in the morning only to watch the final vote fail, which forced the meeting to reconvene the next day as council scrambled to get a motion enough people could live with? That was messy.

But that statement would come later, and after the first big vote, which was the approval of an extra $100,000 for the Guelph Neighbourhood Support Coalition. Everyone on council probably agreed that the money was for a good cause, but how would they do it? Where would they find the cash?

Councillor Mark MacKinnon, true to his word, moved that a commensurate $100,000 should be taken out of the Police Services budget. It was a bold move, especially after Chief Jeff DeRuyter was quoted on the City’s budget message board saying that the officer who endorsed the idea on delegation night was not involved in budgeting in anyway other than the minimal. Of course, nickel and diming the police is, itself, never seen as politically popular.

In the end, the money was found in the Affordable Housing Reserve, a motion by Councillor Karl Wettstein that passed by a slim 7-6 vote.

Understandably, this idea left a bad taste in the mouths of some on council, but a couple of things were lost in translation. First, it’s not like council drained the fund, it just means that they won’t contribute the regular $100,000 to the reserve this year. Second, I think it’s very likely that after years of hand wringing over affordable housing that there’s suddenly to be an affordable housing boom.

The biggest misunderstanding though is a common one. Council didn’t vote to cut social housing, or slash funding for housing for the City’s most vulnerable. No, the definition of “affordable housing” is basically housing that’s a little cheaper than that on the open market, so proceeding with the affordable housing initiative is first dependent on convincing developers to not make as much money as possible.

Having said that, maybe providing a little stability to a community support group is a better use of $100,000 then having the money sit in an account waiting for a leopard to change its spots.

Later in the meeting, Councillor MacKinnon tried again to secure $15,000 funding to allow the City to live-stream council meetings online. Considering that about half the meetings on the budget were filmed by a communications staffer with an iPhone on a tripod, councillors were perhaps able to literally see the need for such tech this year better than last.

But a bizarre conversation came from this concerning how Rogers might feel about council, in essence, competing with a service they (barely) provide. Councillor Mike Salisbury tried to make a point that the City can’t compete with Rogers’ production values, you know, like they’re Industrial Light and Magic or something.

Rogers, either through disinterest or attrition from lack of staffing, have been slowly abdicating their responsibility to cover municipal affairs for a while now. Not only did they bench themselves for much of what’s arguably the most important decision of the year, but last municipal election, Rogers didn’t make ward councillor debates that were held in the council chambers available to everyone via their website.

Hey, isn’t there an election next year?

Yes, so I don’t cry for Rogers losing their monopoly, and neither, it seems, does city council. That motion passed 11-2.

Things got considerably less conciliatory from the there. Salisbury was concerned about voting for the operating budget before debate began on the infrastructure levy; the decision on the latter may have informed his vote on the former, he said.

The cork was then popped, the spark was then lit, and the back and forth revealed a churning of doubt and conflict that had probably been beneath the surface and invisible for some time. Councillor Cathy Downer said that the process was known for a while, so why articulate the doubts then and there? Other councillors noted that the process had thus far been cooperative and collaborative, so why then the last minute monkey wrench?

Guthrie talked about how he was banking on a unanimous vote, and how he thought that council had trust instead of “artificial harmony”. The mayor also said that he was sure that nothing “weird” was going to happen during the levy debate, but let’s be honest, if politics depended on trust and faith in an absence of weirdness, the three of us that regularly sit at the media table in the council chambers would be out of a job.

But Salisbury’s concerns seem warranted when it was immediately apparent that council didn’t want to walk over the imaginary three per cent line. Approval of the operating budget got them to 2.45 per cent, and three always seems to be where the unanimity that the mayor covets hits a brick wall.

So in a maneuver I’m calling, “Solomon’s wallet”, council decided to fund the levy to 0.5 per cent, and find the equivalent of another half-per cent from rate stabilization. A similar move was used to find money for a one-year pilot for a security guard at the main branch of the library, and while there was a lot of hand-wringing and name-dropping of Peter and Paul, council eventually decided they were comfortable with that for the levy too.

In my flippantness, it’s worth noting that these are always tough decisions. That’s why councillors are paid the proverbial big bucks. Underneath the personal and political conflicts though is again the question of how we fund out cities. With both a provincial election and a municipal election next year, this should be an easy idea to promote, but I somehow doubt it will come up much.

In the meantime, the costs are only ever going to go up, and much of the mitigation that council did had to do with refusing specific increases, and not cutting present services. There was not one motion to roll back present base budget spending on any particular line item, and that’s not to say there should have been, but was there room to cut? Was there an appetite?

As the budget of no surprises with so many surprises closes, it will not be surprising if these questions form the basis of the next election. In the meantime, no surprise, the rate’s gone up a little less than three per cent.