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ANALYSIS: Council's budget debate this week is the start of Campaign 2022

The idea that the municipal budget should be a wash when expenses are put up against revenue — in fact, under provincial law the city can't run a deficit budget — has been thrown out the window during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ottawa City Hall

Wednesday’s budget meeting might as well be the kickoff to the next municipal election campaign, even though candidates can’t sign up until May.

The 2022 budget will be the last one of the term, and, although there are a few big policy decisions remaining before the election campaign — such as a new solid waste master plan, inclusionary zoning policy and another revitalization pitch for Lansdowne Park — the budget will likely be the biggest piece of legislative business before the October election.

The budget is the last chance for councillors to make sure they’ll have a heavily inked flyer with all the things that received city funding over the four-year term when they hit the campaign.

The budget is largely designed to draw shrugs among the politically moderate, or ideally, most property taxpayers. No longer should there be a surprise to see nearly across-the-board increases to taxes, water bills, swimming lessons, marriage licences and most other fees that city hall charges to help break even on its annual budget.

The idea that the municipal budget should be a wash when expenses are put up against revenue — in fact, under provincial law the city can’t run a deficit budget — has been thrown out the window during the COVID-19 pandemic.

During these strange times, the city has been writing budgets with big financial gaps, assuming the upper governments will backfill the holes to cover pandemic-related costs that the city has no means to cover on its own.

The city has lined up $4.14 billion in spending in 2022 and some councillors aren’t convinced it’s enough to address Ottawa’s social, housing and transportation problems.

All committees and boards have weighed in on their departmental forecasts for 2022 and there are two areas that will dash any hopes for a quick budget meeting on Wednesday.

The Ottawa Police Services draft budget process started with the police force asking for a tax levy increase of 2.86 per cent, but the police services board recommends council knock it down to two per cent. It would leave the police force scrambling to find another $2 million in savings on top of $2 million the force has already trimmed.

The debate around the police budget has been reshaped by the recommendation coming from the police board. Instead of a battle over whether the police budget should be frozen, the discussion now moves to whether council should accept the police board’s compromise approach or give the police force what it originally wanted.

As a result, three camps will likely form around council: those that don’t want to ding the police force, fearing an impact to boots-on-the-ground policing; those that find value in the compromise; and those who have no time for any thought of giving more tax money to police in 2022.

Then there’s OC Transpo, and, speaking about compromises, transit commission chair Allan Hubley believes he has a good one when it comes to transit fares. The commission liked his idea to hold off on a 2.5-per-cent fare increase, scheduled for Jan. 1, until 15 Alstom Citadis Spirit trains are operating at one time on the LRT system.

But Coun. Catherine McKenney has signalled an intention to ask council to hold fare prices for the entire year and make property taxpayers fund the difference in Transpo’s budget.

McKenney’s political play is bigger than simply providing a one-year fare freeze. It’s a commentary on how Transpo is funded — traditionally, and moreso before the pandemic, split between taxpayers and fare-paying customers — and whether it should be funded like other services that rely almost solely on tax money.

When it comes to taxes, Wednesday could bring a significant milestone for Mayor Jim Watson.

If he can convince the majority of council to approve the draft budget he helped create, and there’s no indication that he’ll have trouble making it happen, he will have fulfilled tax promises for each term going back to his election in 2010. He ran on maximum tax increases and, so far, he’s delivered.

It would surely be comforting to the mayor to follow through on the tax platform of his election campaigns, especially during a transit controversy. Ottawa’s biggest completed infrastructure project to date, the Confederation Line LRT system, will come under the scrutiny of a provincially ordered public inquiry next year.

Watson hasn’t said yet said if he’ll seek re-election in 2022, and, if he had any intention of announcing his plans over the last two months, people might understand why he’s held off, no matter which way he’s leaning. People are enjoying free transit fares this month, but the LRT system is still a punchline.

Vocal councillors who often criticize Watson, like Diane Deans, Shawn Menard and McKenney, are determined to lead a political makeover at city hall.

And, if Watson decides he’ll seek re-election, it will be one helluva 2022 for council, especially with an anticipated return to in-person meetings.

Buckle up for a 10-month election ride at city hall.