The proposed budget with a 1.99 percent tax increase is a disappointment of the status quo, say progressive councilors who insist that 2022 is not the time for austerity, but investment to make Windsor a better place to live.
In recent years, the city has vigorously supported ambitious master plans to double Transit Windsor’s service and ridership, diversify and grow the economy (Windsor Works), address climate change, and improve the bicycle and pedestrian network ( active transport) of the city. However, the administration’s proposed budget puts those plans on a shelf, as it delivers what amounts to a city hall operations freeze, councilors say. They say that given inflation in the 4.4 percent range, that equates to cuts in real services. The budget does not include items such as a new $ 1 million per year east-west express bus route to the University of Windsor, hiring an active transportation engineer to push forward the master plan, or hiring a new planner to help to implement Windsor Works. It also calls for increases in user fees and transit fees, and even the creation of a $ 20 per visit fee for the currently free rat extermination service.
Ward 9 Coun. Kieran McKenzie said he is concerned that a zero percent operational increase will hurt the implementation of these aspirational master plans.
“Now we have to walk down the road,” he said Thursday, arguing that despite tough economic times, there is also pressure to improve the city’s quality of life.
He said transit is a big deal going into the December 13 budget deliberations, because the implementation of the master plan is now at a point where stagnant investments in 2022 will have a ripple effect in future years. What is proposed for 2022 but not recommended by the administration is the creation of an express route called 418X that runs along Tecumseh Road to the St. Denis Center. The 518X, started as a pilot project in September from Tecumseh Mall to St. Clair College, is recommended as a permanent route. McKenzie, who chairs the city’s transit advisory committee, said the 518X’s impressive ridership results prove the masterplan’s philosophy – that improving service will drive increased ridership. The 418X implementation will have a similar impact, he believes, and is needed before further improvements are made.
“The decisions that we are going to make with this budget almost have shock wave ramifications on public transportation that will affect our ability to move forward with the master plan,” he said.
Last week, Mayor Drew Dilkens described the proposed budget as skidding the line between keeping the tax increase manageable for residents hit by inflationary pressures and dark economic clouds, while providing needed services and amenities.
But he acknowledged that his position will be countered by other councilors who want to spend more. “I understand that zero percent with this group of councilors is impossible,” he said. “So I understand the realities that I have to play with.” Over the previous 16 years, the city council passed 10 tax freezes as the city escaped financial hardships followed by Dilkens’ 2018 election pledge to keep the line on taxes. But times have changed, Ward 4 Coun said. Chris Holt.
“Now is the time to start building our city,” making improvements and addressing issues, “rather than playing the ‘respect for taxpayers’ card as a blanket excuse not to raise taxes,” he said. “Creating a dollar store city is Windsor’s top priority and I think that’s wrong.”
Holt said that he is not necessarily asking for more spending, that changing priorities can achieve the goals he is seeking. For example, if Windsor were to invest more in transit, it would reduce the need to spend $ 510 million on roads over the next decade and address climate change and basement flooding at the same time.
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“This is the exact moment we need to do that and we are not.”
Ward 3 Coun. Rino Bortolin said that nowhere in Windsor Works is the city urged to have the lowest taxes. Instead, it calls for improved quality of life, with better pedestrian accessibility, resilience, and decent public transportation service. “Nowhere in this budget do I see a measure of quality of life,” Bortolin said.
“This is the time to invest in public transportation, but instead we doubled and built more roads.”
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He said Windsor is “last” among Ontario cities when it comes to how much it subsidizes public transportation.
“We are way behind in the rest of the world, but when opportunities arise, we postpone them.”
He and Holt both described the proposed budget as “status quo,” appeasing residents who oppose a tax increase.
“This is what we do every year,” Bortolin said. “This is much more egregious because it comes at a time when inflation is rising so much that in order for us to maintain zero internally we are hurting and cutting services.”