A year on, Watson adopts rogue councillors’ idea on tax for infrastructure
The property-tax increase Jim Watson is proposing to pay to fix our dilapidated roads and pipes is only a start on the work Ottawa needs, but at least it’s that. If he’s re-elected mayor, Watson says, he’d be OK with tax increases of as much as three per cent a year, the highest of his tenure, with much of the money devoted to closing the “infrastructure gap” that’s only worsened during his eight years in office so far. Recall how savagely Watson took down eight councillors’ attempt to raise taxes 0.5 per cent to raise $8 million for potholes and crummy sidewalks at last year’s final budget meeting. He sprung a $10-million surplus from the past year’s spending on them; he’d had a heads-up about the windfall as mayor and shared the information with some friendly councillors but not the insurgents. Their tax-increase idea died on the spot. That bought a year’s worth of extra work. Now what? Erm, a tax increase. Watson proposes to cap tax increases at three per cent instead of two per cent, giving the city wiggle room to deal with the unexpected — unforeseen costs from newly legal marijuana, for instance, or from changes the provincial Tories make to deal with the Ontario deficit. “If 20 per cent of those funds are required to address unexpected costs or losses of revenue, $8 million would be left to invest in infrastructure renewal,” Watson’s announcement said. What. A. Coincidence. The crucial difference is that this $8-million infrastructure boost is Watson’s idea and is therefore right and good and in the long-term interests of Ottawa. Last year’s $8-million infrastructure boost came from a group of city councillors who wanted to change the perfect budget Watson had laid down, which made it reckless and illconsidered and harmful. In 2016, the city bureaucracy told councillors we need to spend about $195 million a year just to maintain the roads and pipes and buildings and bridges we already have. We actually spend about $129 million. Watson proposes to raise it to $137 million, and then keep adding to it year after year until the gap is closed. We’ll still have hundreds of millions of dollars in deferred work to catch up on but at least the list wouldn’t keep getting longer. Ottawa has a long history of not taking infrastructure seriously. When he was mayor, Bob Chiarelli unilaterally cut the city’s capital budget in half one year. Just didn’t spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build and repair things, supposedly in the interest of fiscal prudence. Under Larry O’Brien, city council approved a three-year infrastructure levy to try to eat into years’ worth of deferred work, and then cancelled the third year of it because an election was coming up and councillors wanted property taxes kept down. Every year — and as someone who’s sat in a lot of budget meetings, understand that I mean every single year — the city’s finance and public-works managers would tell councillors that paying to fix small problems is a lot cheaper than paying to fix them once they turn into bigger problems. Better to patch the roof than to fix the water damage once it starts leaking, and then have to patch the roof anyway. The thing about roads and pipes and sidewalks and bridges is that you can almost always get away with not fixing them, patching them, replacing them. The odds of a catastrophic failure in any given year are low, even for something that’s well past its expected lifespan. The potholes just get a little more numerous, requiring a little more cold-patch to get through a winter. The pipes leak into the ground a little more but chances are there won’t be a sudden huge sinkhole anywhere. The sidewalks get a little tougher to push a stroller or wheelchair along but they don’t all turn suddenly into gravel. Bridges start to shed bits of concrete long before they just collapse (usually). You can probably push it. The whole city feels a little crummier, day by day, but this year’s never that much worse than last year. Until something does break. A collapsed culvert under a highway eats a car. More residents start complaining about the warped wheels on their cars and bikes from smashing into potholes. A tennis star declines the city’s offer to name the courts of her childhood after her because they’re too decrepit. By then, the to-do list is so long, the price of plowing through it so high, that it seems impossible. Fixing this place up is possible, though, if city council has the will and we’re prepared to pay a few bucks more to make up for what we should have been spending all along.
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