Monday, July 9, 2007

Talking to Ottawa City Council About Their "Transformation" Agenda

Good afternoon. My name is Leonard Poole. I speak to you today as the Green Party candidate for the riding of Ottawa-Vanier in the upcoming provincial election of October 10.

It was with considerable fanfare and sense of excitement in the air that the 20/20 visioning exercise was launched as the new City of Ottawa was formed.

I was just beginning my volunteer work with the Overbrook-Forbes Community Resource Centre and the Community Council of Overbrook.

I was impressed with the thrust of the proposals. After widespread consultation the clear consensus was that we needed to incorporate long term sustainable practices into the very fabric of our decision making process.

Today I shall first explain the fundamental roadblock I see to our efforts to effectively implement our 20/20 vision. Secondly I shall speak to how these few pages in this Strategic Directions document work against promotion of sustainable practices. Finally, I shall urge you to lobby for a complete overhaul of our method of municipal taxation to move us toward true sustainable thinking in our municipalities.

The flaw in the 20/20 exercise was that although we agreed to lofty goals; we did not incorporate a process to take us there. We did not recognize that to move toward sustainability we must have a mechanism that captures all costs. It is accepted by numerous municipalities worldwide that every decision made must account for not only the immediate financial impacts, but also the long-term environmental and social costs, or the triple bottom line.

Most of us remember the horrendous 2004 budget process. Everyone was focused on ???fiscal responsibility???. Many, including a number of you around this table, insisted on a zero percent tax increase. Representing the Community Council of Overbrook, I brought the following definition of ???fiscal responsibility???.

For some it means spending the least amount of money, every year, and do whatever it takes to avoid a tax increase. In our view, it means spending the correct amount of money today to ensure that in the long term we spend the least amount of money.

Our point was that when you only focus on minimizing immediate financial costs you inevitably incur larger costs in the long term. In essence, we download our social and environmental expenses on to future generations. Time and again we have been guilty of this as we seek the lowest possible tax rate and view only the immediate financial implications.

Time restrictions permit me to only highlight what I view as the most egregious aspects of this document.

1. Page 6, point C3. Close the gap, in an environmentally responsible manner if possible, in general facilities and park renewal by 10% per year. This is outrageous. Why should we be leaving ourselves an opening to behave in anything other than an environmentally responsible manner? A clear example of passing our problems onto future generations.
2. Page 6, point D4. Reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 20% by 2012. Is it necessary to point out how meaningless this is? Rather than setting an aggressive minimum goal of reduction, it tells us to limit our efforts to no more than 20% improvement. I thought we wanted to be a city with swagger that could boast of its achievements? Instead we can boast that we did nothing and still met our stated goals!
3. Page 8, point b4. Deliver agreed-to level of service at the lowest possible cost. Although sounding like a laudable goal, this statement speaks only to immediate financial costs. We assure ourselves of higher long-term costs when we fail to capture the full environmental and social implications of our decisions. Once again, we burden future generations with the responsibility of dealing with our short-term thinking. Reference to a move to a method of triple bottom line accounting procedures is a glaring omission from this document.
4. Page 9, Sustainable Finances. Once again, it is what is missing that stands out. The fundamental problem for city financing is the method of taxation. It is an antiquated, 19th Century system that is completely ill suited for the 21st Century. The amount that a taxpayer is assessed has absolutely no relationship either to their ability to pay or to the cost of the service provided to them. It is calculated on the basis of their possession of an unrealized capital gain. Is it any wonder that taxpayers are outraged at any tax increase? This puts intense pressure on all of you around this table to think short term to eliminate tax increases. I urge you to include in this document a commitment to join with other municipalities to lobby the Provincial Government very strongly to develop a more progressive, transparent, and fair municipal taxation system. This is a key issue that I shall speak to during my election campaign and what I shall do once elected to the Ontario Legislature.

I conclude with the words of Zen master Lin Chi who told us over 1,000 years ago,

"The miracle is to walk on earth."

Our responsibility is to ensure that future generations may continue to do so. Finally, I ask that you consider my personal vision of a Greening, Sustainable world that is part of my written submission to you.

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