The past week or so has been interesting, as the direction of the City has been shaped for next 4 years. It began with a “strategic planning” meeting on Tuesday where City Councillors outlined their priorities for the term as part of the second fifth of the City’s 20 Year Strategic Plan. To my embarrassment, I wasn’t even aware that this prioritization was occurring so I read Brian Cross’s piece with interest, particularly the rankings that occurred.
Tied with nine stickers each were implementing the sewer master plan, ordered following disastrous floods in 2016 and 2017, and increasing the city’s tree coverage and eliminating the long wait time for tree trimming. Projects with eight stickers included: improving the city’s branding, such as the Welcome to Windsor signage as motorists enter the city; economic diversification; and implementing the soon-to-be-completed Active Transportation Plan which will lay out network of bike lanes and paths to increase cycling and walking.
Seven-sticker projects included: an aggressive traffic calming policy; adding more community events; and strengthening the property standards bylaw. Six-sticker projects included: intensify the population of people living in the city’s core areas by 25 per cent; and helping more neighbourhoods get streetlights and sidewalks.
Projects receiving scant or no support included: a new skateboard park (no votes); a long-envisioned pedestrian ferry service to Detroit (one vote); initiatives for families and youth (one vote): improving community policing; publishing the recorded voting records of councillors (one vote); eliminating the alarmingly high number of people waiting for public housing (one vote); and reducing poverty by 20 per cent. The projects with two or fewer stickers were eliminated from the strategic plan.
“They’re all valuable points, but I’d say the ones that have eights and nines are ones that will be coming back at budget time,” said Dilkens.Brian Cross, Windsor Star from here
I could spend pages digging into these priorities and my perceptions, but then another piece by Brian Cross related to 6th Concession and the need for its redevelopment despite it not being in the long term capital plan. It’s not that I think that neighbourhoods shouldn’t be complete, but the fact that the story popped up when it did was somewhat ironic in my opinion. A priority for a Councilor, that may or may not be met as a part of the overall vision and shares a spot in the ranking with urban intensification of the city core. Which given the location is likely going to undercut that other priority making them very much a zero sum situation.
Friday then brought two more stories. Anne Jarvis provided an excellent overview of what the top priority – Tree Trimming – could look like, with a $4 per tree assessment and ~$2 Million per year just to maintain existing coverage. The other news of the day was that the City wouldn’t be facing financial doomsday as the Ontario Municipal Partnership Fund (OMPF) would not be cut, saving the community a 6% tax increase.
This new is obviously important as the need for large tax increases just to maintain the status quo has largely been removed from the picture and fiscal restraint platform that the mayor ran on will likely be applied to all of the priorities outline above going forward. The result could be an interesting series of political horse trading for various councilors to get their priorities met, while still keeping tax increases at inflation or so. Although there is certainly room for a “budgetary coup” that drives up rates to meet additional priorities it is more likely that these ranking will now be political tool to push certain issues, many of which I support, at the expense of those not listed or perceived as a lower priority.
Finally, on Sunday morning (causing me to re-write this post) there was this story on AM800 by Teresinha Medeiros stating that the City was launching a fundraising campaign to build the shelter for the restored street car. I guess the fundraising began back in November, they are now shelling T-shirts and although I can recall the shelter being a part of the conversation from the beginning of that process, I always assumed that the shelter was included in the restoration costs. There wasn’t a conversation that I recall around the City not paying for that shelter and although I do think that sponsorship etc. can be a tool to mitigate the cost, if not forthcoming, is an extra $100,000 for a shelter something that Council or residents were aware of when the restoration process began? Maybe I missed this but to me this fundraising effort shows the potential unintended consequences that can emerge from ad-hoc priority shifting and attempting budgetary restraint at the same time.
Don’t get me wrong, I like trees, sewers and our economy does need to diversify I also think it is a great thing that our elected officials could agree upon some priorities for this term. My question is what is the opportunity cost of this prioritization? Based on the reporting above, low priority items are not only a not seen as a priority for this council but have also been removed from the overall 20 year plan. What does that say about us as a community?
You can desire density in the city core, but without a strategy or priority to solve the poverty, homelessness and opioid issues that are present in the core, will developers build without taxpayer subsidy? Will resident want to move there compared to suburban or other areas of region, particularly if investments in their livability are being made? We can work on branding the city, but if underlying challenges aren’t solved and negative news stories keep coming out, is it worth the money? If activists continue to agitate for change and speaking for those who aren’t normally heard, will that de-rail economic diversification efforts because it’s off message?
I would argue many of the priorities outline above, are not strategic needs, rather that are tactical wants of constituents and their councilors. By forgoing the hard strategic conversation for these tactical items there is an opportunity cost. So what are some of the opportunity costs of tree trimming?
- $2 million is annually a 10% down payment for a mortgage held by WECHC to build a 70 unit community housing project (estimate based on $38 Million for 145 Units in East Windsor). Amount could be scaled over multiple years depending on project sizes with the goal of eliminating the 4000+ person wait-list for affordable housing.
- $2 Million per year could massively scale outreach and support efforts by both City run and not-for-profit initiatives that are part of the City’s Housing First efforts, battling opioids and mental health issues and helping the city’s most vulnerable. At $50,000 per year you could put 4 social workers in every ward of the city based out of libraries and community centers.
- Put another way, Pathway to Potential the region’s municipal poverty reduction strategy operates at approximately $2 million per year supporting programming and subsidies across the region. This funding could be doubled.
- A standard non-bendy City bus is approximately $600,000 and is about 3X the amount for a regional transit pilot being put on by Leamington. We could actually lead on Regional Transit with this money.
- Investment in the infrastructure deficit whether roads, sewers or active transit are an option with $2 million per year likely supporting/completing a number of projects.
Maybe it is time to have a conversation about what our city should or shouldn’t be doing? Yes there was just an election, yes that election did frame the priorities outline above but my question is what kind of city do we want. One that lurches from the tactical cycle over cycle or one that stays strategic.
If we are looking to “Future Proof” our local economy as some have suggested, we are going to need to think outside the box. The Town of Strathroy is funding skill trades programs for youth directly in partnership with their school board. The City of Toronto is funding coding programs for at risk youth (and beyond). City Councillors in Ottawa, are attempting to battle their homelessness crisis by putting forward a 1% levee to build more affordable housing . Norfolk County leveraged provincial main street funding, not to put out garbage cans, but to give free storefront space to small businesses to help revitalize a small town downtown. Or Vancouver which is considering allowing anyone under 18 ride transit for free. To a community land trust in Parkdale Toronto that is buying land, both publicly available and through tax liens, to ensure that residents have a voice in the gentrification occurring in their neighbourhood.
Trimming trees and building sewers is not going to build resilience in our economy. As reported above we won’t be seeing a 6% tax increase this year as provincial funding came through (this year), but maybe we should. A Friday editorial in the Toronto Star called into question whether that city facing a growing list of priorities and challenges can effectively manage them through fiscal restraint and a hope that other levels of government will come forward with funding. Put simply, Windsor (most municipalities) faces a revenue problem. In general municipalities lack revenue tools leaving them with the option of raising property taxes/user fees or not spending. Paul Giroux said to Anne Jarvis:
Do you want to cut down your oak tree because you don’t like the acorns?
“A very proactive, progressive city would say, ‘I’m sorry. I’m not going to give you a permit for that,’”Anne Jarvis Windsor Star
He is right, there shouldn’t be a permit for that, but a progressive city also doesn’t leave people behind. For many in our community, acorns in their backyard are the least of their concerns. Which begs the question, given the breadth and scope of the challenges our city faces, and the priorities that we have apparently set, think of what we could do with $20+ million per year.