Balancing act

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“I don’t care what era we’re in, or what time, it’s always, always contentious,” asserted Waterloo councillor Angela Vieth on the discussion surrounding tax increases for Waterloo residents in the upcoming budget.

The budget for 2012-2014, which city council will finalize on Feb. 13, will see a tax hike of 2.16 per cent due to increases in property tax and storm water fees. While this may be a source of concern for some citizens, mayor Brenda Halloran assured that the rates are comparatively low to many neighbouring municipalities.

Highs and lows

“We work really, really hard to keep the tax increases as low as possible, always finding external efficiencies, and doing more with less and making sure that we keep things very efficient for the citizens,” said Halloran.

Creating the budget is a balancing act that must account for improving infrastructure and maintaining services at minimal cost to those who enjoy them. This becomes increasingly challenging with overall economic constraints leading citizens and governments to be more financially cautious.

Councillor Jeff Henry commented, “[Citizens] enjoy the programs that we do provide, many of them do want them extended, but at the same time we know that many folks are feeling the pinch, that they’re strained, and that’s not surprising given the economy that we have, so we’re certainly hearing that we need to be prudent and responsible.”

“There’s a real balance that we need to be aware of,” added councillor and finance chair Karen Scian. “People can’t afford to pay a lot more for things, but they still … want the services that they need.”

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Public consultation at an All Access Budget Town Hall in January, a unique and interactive process which saw the engagement of citizens through Facebook and Twitter, saw over 60 questions posed to the mayor and council.

Questions such as “what buildings are falling apart?” and “are our roads OK?” revealed underlying concerns about the city’s infrastructure.

Councillor Scott Witmer echoed these uncertainties, acknowledging that “some things have been left to degrade to a point where they need to be replaced completely.” Witmer indicated the need for continued efforts to improve the state of roads, sidewalks and facilities.

According to Halloran, budget priorities have now shifted from the creation of infrastructure to maintenance needs.

Shifting priorities

“We’ve kind of finished all our big projects and now we’re in more of a stabilized mode, and just keeping things running,” she indicated.

For Councillor and long-time city contributor Mark Whaley, this is more than a change in focus – it’s the beginning of a new era.

“Right now we’re going into a brand new era and it’s the post-building era at the city of Waterloo … what I’m calling the era of the caretaker,” he explained.

Whaley went on to explain that large investments, such as the rebuilding of Uptown Waterloo and the development of projects like the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) and Perimeter Institute, which defined both his early career as a councillor and previous budget priorities, should no longer be the expectation.

Whaley expects that efforts to pay down deficits at federal and provincial levels will be mirrored municipally, leading to constraints on budgets and reduction in services.

“We’re going to be just focusing on how to pay down infrastructure debt and how we’re going to maintain the quality of services we have provided to the citizens today,” he acknowledged. “If in the future we’re lucky enough to merely maintain these services it will be a miracle.”

“Back to basics. That’s the new buzzword for the future with respect to governance.”

In spite of these expectations, Whaley anticipates that investment by developers in Waterloo’s core will create ongoing change and infrastructure development in line with plans for intensification.

Proximity of the universities to areas of intensification means that development directly impacts students. While many will move on from the city post-graduation, being informed about budgeting and planning for the duration remains important.

“I think that gets them involved, and what a great way for students to learn and for city folk to learn from students and … to engage them and maybe encourage them to stay on here,” said Vieth.

Halloran reiterated, “I think if you come to a community, and you’re here for four years, it really is important to become engaged in what’s happening around you, and that’s just being a good citizen.”

Intensification through building up, not out was a key theme emphasized by each of the city representatives, as Waterloo has now reached the limits of its urban sprawl.

There was also consensus that the city had engaged in sufficient preparation for anticipated growth and change.

“A tremendous amount of work has been done in terms of creating the planning documents that will frame a long-term vision for the city,” said councillor Diane Freeman.

“We’re leading the pack for a lot of cities in urban intensification,” said Halloran.

“If you look at the developments that are happening just within a couple of blocks within our Uptown core and around the universities, you see our whole cityscape is dotted with building cranes.”

Questions or concerns about the budget can be directed toward the mayor and councillors, while people are also encouraged to take a look at “Budget Facts 2012,” which can be found on the City of Waterloo website.

The final operating and capital budget will be released early next week.

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