While he campaigned on the slogan “zero means zero”, Ottawa Mayor O’Brien’s credibility is approaching zero for many. O’Brien was elected in November 2006 on the basis of a promise to freeze property taxes and to “transform” local government. At the time, the media lauded O’Brien as a successful high tech entrepreneur, but in reality this involved little more than running a temp agency.
“The mayor’s plan is a recipe for disaster, which reflects his refusal to learn from the many failed privatization schemes that litter the countryside. What we’re seeing is a mayor who is determined to introduce Bush-style right-wing politics into our city - whatever the cost to taxpayers,” says Brian Madden, president of CUPE 503, which is part of the coalition and represents Ottawa municipal workers. Ottawa child care workers, members of CUPE 2204, and the Ottawa-Carleton CUPE district council are also involved in the coalition.
The City of Ottawa managed to freeze property taxes in 2007 only by using up previous year’s surpluses, reserves and other one-time sources of funding.
Now O’Brien is proposing to freeze taxes in 2008 with a laundry list of ideas that will hurt city services, including: cutting over 1,000 city jobs, outsourcing, commercialization, selling off assets such as Hydro Ottawa, increasing user fees, putting off investments, and using public-private partnerships – all under the vague umbrella of “Smart Management”.
O’Brien paid his former campaign manager and lobbyist Gord Hunter $85,000 to produce a shallow and flawed report that sketched out potential savings through staff cuts and privatization. The reviews have been scathing. Even Ottawa’s city manager said that the mayor’s report “is significantly flawed and that it reaches for unreasonable and unsubstantiated conclusions.” Other reports quote the city manager labeling the report “a power point slide deck of personal opinions” that “support a stated conclusion for which there is no evidence.”
One of the mayor’s proposals, to privatize parking meters, has been handily dismantled by an Ottawa blogger and former city council candidate.
O’Brien has touted Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz’s drive to privatize as the model for his Ottawa plans. National president and Winnipegger Paul Moist responded by pointed out Winnipeg’s many problems in a letter to the Ottawa Citizen. Winnipeg municipal workers, members of CUPE 500, have launched a major campaign to defend public services.
With little or no support from council or even his city manager, O’Brien has written an appeal directly to local community associations. But the heads of a number of these organizations say the mayor’s plan is not credible.
Now the focus has shifted to the city staff’s draft budget, which lays out many cuts to public services, including closing libraries, pools and rinks as well as axing bus routes and increasing user fees. One proposed fee hike would see the cost of ice time go up nearly 80 per cent for children, freezing many children out of area rinks.
People for A Better Ottawa is encouraging residents to speak up in community budget consultations. CUPE 2204 member and community activist Shellie Bird is working with the coalition to mobilize citizen support and work with city council to stop the cuts and protect and enhance the quality of life in Ottawa.