Peterborough City Council approved its 2018 budget at the last council meeting of the year on December 11, 2017, allocating $271 million in operating spending and $85 million in capital spending. Most departments got a 1.7% increase to their operating budget, and the police were big winners with a 2.2% increase. But not everyone got the money they say they need.
Community grants are frozen
Some of the only items in the entire budget that have been frozen at last year’s levels are the Community Investment Grants and Community Project Grants. A large share of these grants fund local arts initiatives like the Kawartha Youth Orchestra and Public Energy, and the freeze has arts advocates saying Council isn’t providing enough support to arts workers.
“The organizations that get those grants are the organizations that directly support living, working artists,” said Su Ditta, executive director of the Electric City Culture Council. “When we don’t give priority to those grants … we’re not making good strategic investment in what makes art actually happen in a city.”
When Councillor Pappas asked Ken Doherty, Director of Community Services, about the freeze at Council’s December 11 meeting, Doherty said that the grant money is usually increased less often, but by bigger amounts than other budget items. Last year, the funds available through the Community Investment Grant were increased by almost 10%, for example.
However, a look back over previous budgets shows that these occasional increases have not keep pace with inflation or the City’s own spending power. When you account for inflation, the 2018 grants are worth 10% less than they were at their inception in 2007, despite the City having grown and increased its overall spending significantly in that time.
Despite Mr. Doherty’s claims, these grants, which support our arts economy as well as other community-based charities and non-profits, are not growing at the same pace as the City’s other expenditures.
Council plays politics with DBIA budget
In a clear illustration of the political friction between City Council and the Downtown Business Improvement Area (DBIA), Council decided to block the DBIA’s plan to increase the levy it charges downtown businesses, even though those businesses had already voted in favour of the increase.
While the City does provide direct funding to the DBIA, the majority of the organization’s revenue comes from this levy, which the City collects on top of businesses’ tax bills and then transfers to the DBIA. DBIA members had voted at their AGM to increase the levy by 2%, but Council rejected this, though raising the levy wouldn’t have cost the City anything.
A typically blustery line of questioning from Councillor Riel set the tone for a testy conversation between Council and DBIA representatives during the budget talks, and one DBIA representative said he was offended by Council’s conduct, accusing them of giggling while the DBIA defended its record. DBIA executive director Terry Guiel later called the levy freeze petty and punitive.
Councillors Baldwin and Haacke questioned the propriety of the City interfering after DBIA members had already voted to increase the levy, and Councillor Therrien also opposed the freeze. But a 9-3 majority voted in favour of it, with Councillor Riel arguing that the DBIA wasn’t spending its money wisely and wasn’t keeping downtown clean enough, and Mayor Bennett saying more had to be done to increase a sense of security downtown. In any case, the DBIA now has less money with which to address both of those concerns.
City can’t find enough money to address housing crisis
Peterborough is in the middle of a housing crisis, and Council responded by increasing funding for four emergency shelters. But Councillors said there simply wasn’t enough money available to expand the City’s rent supplement program as well, not least because the province is cancelling $275,000 of support for rent supplements next year.
Rent supplements are payments the City makes to landlords to subsidize the rent of low-income individuals and families. They help to prevent homelessness by making housing more affordable for people who are struggling to pay rent.
Councillors appeared to be more amenable to funding the shelters because that’s a temporary expense that can be canceled in the future. “The issue that Councillors have with rent supplements is that they are operational funding. It’s never just a one-time influx of money,” said Councillor Therrien. Committing to rent supplements now means committing to them in the future as well.
In the end, Therrien convinced Council to expand the program by $50,000, though she and other Councillors acknowledged that this was nowhere near enough. There are hundreds of families who qualify for the supplement but are on a waiting list due to lack of funds, and Therrien said that in an ideal world Council would have expanded the program to include everyone who needs it.
Voting against Councillor Therrien’s plan to modestly expand the program was Mayor Bennett, saying “it would be nice if we could satisfy everyone’s needs,” but concluding that it just wasn’t possible. The Mayor says investing in projects like the casino and the Canoe Museum will alleviate homelessness by growing the economy.
In a follow-up interview, Therrien agreed that projects like the Canoe Museum might bring economic benefits, but that this wouldn’t happen soon enough. “People are struggling now,” she said, “so even when we’re talking about building out the economy over the next several years, that doesn’t do anything to help people that are living in poverty today.”
Cover photo by B. Mroz.