Why city hall needs party politics

So how do we get yet another spending increase even bigger than they're letting on, dragging tax hikes behind it? I'll tell you: unanimously. Things are back to normal in the City of Ottawa and we're all going to pay for it.

I grant that under Larry O'Brien politics drifted much further from usual than we really wanted. But at least when he was mayor we thought big tax increases were just one among several choices and a bad one at that. Whereas under Jim Watson we're back to the soothing conviction that there is only one policy course open to reasonable people, which regrettably is lousy but we should all smile and look wise while lurching toward disaster. And the whole city council agrees.

I realize the headlines said the tax increase was only 2.45 per cent, which sounds sort of OK until you realize at that pace your taxes would double every 30 years. Moreover, as Randall Denley noted in Wednesday's Citizen, the official spending increase of $79 million is larger than the tax increase, at about 3.4 per cent. (And we all know what happens when spending goes up faster than revenues ... though our governments happily do it anyway and call it stimulus.) As Randall went on to say "it gets worse" because the real spending increase is $112.9 million or 4.95 per cent. It's just that "City staff have decided to make the figure look smaller by subtracting the revenue that growth provides, but there is no compelling rationale for that."

Actually, there is a rationale if you're in government and want to deflect attention from how fast the budget is growing and especially why. The latter is in fact the central question about the failure of the state in the late 20th century: Why, as we get more affluent, with far greater resources than our parents or grandparents for coping with our own problems and assisting our fellows, does government keep getting more expensive?

It should not necessarily get absolutely cheaper. More homes does mean more streets from which snow must be plowed and more trash to collect. The real issue is: Why isn't government getting cheaper relative to our growing wealth? Why are taxes outpacing our ability to pay them?

Even if a bigger, richer city generates more trash per inhabitant, and larger houses have a few more yards of street to plow per inhabitant in newer neighbourhoods, surely today's garbage trucks and snow plows outperform their 1960s counterparts as decisively as today's cars do. Plus if half a century of entrepreneurial innovation has made firms like Wal-Mart or Mc-Donald's massively more efficient, why aren't cities better at dealing with snow in winter or trash all year round which, the uninitiated might assume, is more predictable than consumer demand over time? And why aren't all those programs designed to mitigate social problems resulting from poverty getting less expensive as poverty diminishes?

In cities like Ottawa one reason leaps out, at least at me. Randall Denley began his column by complaining about "the abysmal job city council did of scrutinizing the budget." And clearly all the specific problems stem, ultimately, from that general one. Unless we fix it, we're in for politics as usual until our wallets cry Uncle. And we won't fix it until we ask: What is city council for?

OK, let's eliminate the funny but discourteous suggestions that just popped into our heads. Seriously, what do we pay these people for? They didn't write this 919 page budget (or, I fear, read it). Municipal staff did that. So why have 23 people rubber-stamp the thing when one clerk could do it way cheaper?

It won't do to explain that councillors are the board of directors of Ottawa Inc. responsible to "shareholders" for the performance of management. That model too easily degenerates into a mutual admiration society. I'd far prefer to have them act as a city legislature, using the power of the purse to control the executive on behalf of citizens and divided into one party that generally supports the mayor's program and one that offers an alternative.

Partisan politics gets a lot of bad press for obvious reasons. But oneparty government is a great deal worse. Even in a peaceful city in a civilized democratic country, where it doesn't get anybody shot or tortured, it means right out of the gate, Ottawa city councillors are all in this together, with a vested interest in convincing us that inexorably rising taxes may ruin the city, stunt the aspirations of the young and drive seniors from their homes but they are what all prudent, responsible non-weirdo-from-Mars types favour.

Sure, partisanship is ugly and mentally stifling. But it gives a lot of relentlessly ambitious people a serious incentive to delve into what's wrong with existing policy and suggest less hideous alternatives. Our municipal structure does not do that and we are paying the price ... every year.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson