Adam: From taxes to transit, 2024 poses challenges for Ottawa Council

The councilors have finally learned to work cooperatively, which is good. But the city government faces the true test of its effectiveness this year.

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After a reasonably quiet first year, largely dedicated to fostering cooperation and unity among members, the city council enters 2024 with a series of big and complex issues that could really test its mettle.

Mayor Mark Sutcliffe inherited a legacy of bitter division, with councilors often acting as enemies rather than colleagues, and it is good to see him turn the council into a more collegial body that works constructively despite ideological differences. He deserves praise for steering the council away from the bitter divisions of the past. But as it enters its second year in office, this council will face tougher challenges and difficult decisions on several fronts.

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In his first year, he was forced to clean up the mess left by his predecessor over LRT failures and the impacts of the convoy protest. He had to deal with constant breakdowns on the Confederation Line, which undermined public confidence and called into question the city government’s ability to manage something as basic as public transportation. All of the issues the council faced depended on public trust, and the repercussions are being felt.

The demands will be much tougher this year. From affordable housing to OC Transpo shortfalls, LRT weaknesses, the ByWard Market, a lacking openness police board and, of course, property taxes, the council will have its hands full with unpopular issues.

The amount of property taxes citizens pay is always a priority, and especially right now when affordability has become Canadians’ top concern. However, City Hall’s first order of business should be affordable housing, if only because, for the first time in years, there is a huge amount of federal money going toward housing construction.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment of last year was the council’s refusal to include a single unit of affordable housing in Lansdowne 2.0, but that is now behind us. Fortunately, the federal government has a $4 billion fund to accelerate housing construction, and the city hopes to get about $150 million to build about 7,000 affordable homes.

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By now, someone at City Hall should be putting the finishing touches on a plan for the money, and at the first council meeting, we need to see action. There are no long reports or endless debates: simply make the necessary planning changes, take the money and start construction. People need housing.

Taxes will pose a much different challenge heading into 2025. Ottawa residents got two successive 2.5 per cent tax increases, for which homeowners are grateful. But the question is whether this is sustainable. No one wants to pay higher taxes, but we must ask ourselves what we are willing to pay for the kind of city we want: a reasonable investment in the services we need, or simply lower and lower taxes, for which we will pay elsewhere?

Take a look at Ottawa’s bad roads and you’ll realize it’s one of the results of previous governments repeatedly opting for low taxes at the expense of vital services.

This brings us to OC Transpo, which continues to have deficits that could impact property taxes. We have to decide whether transportation is a public service that we should subsidize with property taxes or one that should be self-funded. Finding the right balance is now the challenge. Meanwhile, we’re all on tenterhooks, wondering if another loose bearing or bogie malfunction will derail the entire system again.

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The ByWard Market is a city gem that is constantly in the news for all the wrong reasons: crime and violence. Everyone at City Hall knows what the heart of the matter is: addiction and substance abuse, homelessness, and mental health issues. And at night, the gangs.

The concentration of social services in the center, forcing those who need help to congregate there, is a major problem. One solution is to distribute services throughout the city so that not all people have to go downtown for help. The answers are there, but what is missing is political will.

Let’s hope this changes in 2024, which will be a big test for the city.

Mohamed Adam is a journalist and commentator from Ottawa. Contact him at [email protected]

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