Align Region of Waterloo budget decisions with its established directions


The following are comments I made in a presentation to the Region of Waterloo Council at a meeting last night to get input on its 2014 budget.

Here’s a link to the video version of the evening. My presentation starts at 1:19.

 

Look at staffing costs for savings

I agree with Councillor Doug Craig.

We need to look at staffing costs before cutting services—especially services for designed to help people struggling in our community.

If you prefer not to eliminate 35 positions through attrition, do it in a strategic manner or look at other ways to lower staffing costs. But seriously addressing the Regional government’s largest expense is necessary before many of the service cuts before you are considered.

Delaying or killing rapid transit is false economy

I part ways with Councillor Craig when it comes to delaying funding for the rapid transit initiative. Doing so would be an example of false economy, the future infrastructure costs of delaying or killing rapid transit will be far greater than the costs to move ahead now.

We need rapid transit if we are to serve a growing population and protect our farmland and forests. Implementing the Region’s smart on growth approach in its Official Plan depends upon an efficient way to have more people living, working and enjoying life on its route through identified areas for intensified development—including fast tracking light rail through Cambridge.

Remain true to Region’s key strategies

When making your budget decisions, remain true to the Region’s key strategies. I’m concerned that the across the board budget reductions mean that many of the proposed service cuts are not consistent with key directions set by Council.

Greater frequency for GRT not less

Take for example the proposed cuts to Grand River Transit. I realize that some are not really cuts but more accurately a reorganization of routes. But how is reducing frequency of other routes consistent to building a transit-friendly culture that will help feed the LRT?

Reducing frequency is seen as a way to lower costs on underused routes. But that solution means that next year you’ll likely see a request to cut those routes due to even lower volume.

Concerned about low number of riders? Increase the frequency on those routes. Increase the number of riders. Increase your revenue. Cut frequency and you limit public transit only to people who have no choice—but even they aren’t likely to be well-served long term.

Discretionary benefits cut too much too fast

Let’s look at discretionary benefits now.

I can understand why with changes in provincial funding the Region wants to eliminate this cost. But $1 million dollars? All in one year?

Before you say that it’s a tough budget year and last year’s funding was clearly indicated as one time only, let’s review how we got here while remembering the dire situations of the people being served.

First, let’s remember that the province changed it’s funding to be equitable across Ontario. It based its new funding on the average costs per recipient for discretionary benefits. Compassionate Waterloo Region’s use of these funds was well above average so it’s the Regional government who raised expectations locally. If the Region is to reduce funding for discretionary benefits, it should be gradually over a number of years. (See my December 2012 post)

Secondly, let’s recall that the uploading of social assistance costs meant that Council had more than one opportunity to reduce taxes or provide more funding to help people escape poverty. Instead those large sums of money were used by Council to pay for other priorities. So if you’re are in a tough spot, it’s in part one Council created. I’m looking for you to get out of it without hurting those who are struggling when they most need support. (See my February 2011 post)

Thirdly, let’s recognize that cutting discretionary benefits deals a devastating blow to our local food hamper program by cutting its funding from $700,000 to $300,000. People need food to be able to survive poverty. They need food to be able to enhance themselves as a whole person in spirit & mind and have a chance of improving their situation.

The organization’s providing food hampers cannot simply replace this funding. Your experience with inReach shows just how difficult it is to replace that much funding even if given a year to do so. If your spending priorities are changing at least allow for a transition that keeps the system functioning.

I’d like to quickly speak to several other cuts that are not consistent with the Region’s established priorities:

Reduce poverty.

Access to public health’s dental clinic helps working families avoid going on social assistance. It’s also a critical bridge to help people who can work to get off social assistance and stay off social assistance. Keep the existing hours.

Keep employing students who keep applications for financial assistance including Ontario Works moving in the summer and ensure timely assistance is available to people such as for those facing eviction.

I agree 100% with Cyndy Jefferson of the Waterloo Region Child Care Network on using all of the new provincial funding for subsidies to access child care for that purpose.

Also keep the Social Development Research and Project Grants to maintain supports that build healthy communities.

Diversion of waste from the landfill is a priority.

So keep the drywall diversion program and continue to chip banned pallets.

Rural transfer stations are still needed because they help sort and divert waste that would go into the landfill if collected at the curb. Let’s keep them and add one to serve the east side of Kitchener. Distances from Kitchener to the landfill should not justify cutting the rural transfer stations, rather they should be an argument to better serve Kitchener.

Economic development by attracting the creative class.

Cuts to organizations such as the KW Symphony and the Creative Enterprise Initiative that contribute to our quality of life thus making Waterloo Region a desirable place to work and live.

Take care. I trust you’ll make decisions that are consistent with the direction you have established for Waterloo Region and without cutting services helping our neighbours who are struggling.

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