Next year is expected to be another rocky one for the City of Ottawa's transit ridership numbers, public health costs and recreation revenues, but staff still plan to craft a 2021 budget that holds property tax increases at three per cent.
Ottawa's finance and economic development committee set that goal Tuesday, which would mean an increase of $115 on the average tax bill for an urban house assessed at $415,000.
Staff will now come up with a draft budget to table Nov. 9, and will base their calculations on the assumption that the federal and provincial governments will come through and cover tens of millions of dollars in costs caused by COVID-19.
Mayor Jim Watson urged council colleagues to keep pressing upper levels of government to "fill that void," and said there appears to be an understanding that they will.
Municipalities are not allowed to run deficits.
The city has also learned that the upcoming second stage of COVID-19 funding will cover transit costs through to the end of next March, a point that hadn't been clear earlier.
Vice-chair Coun. Laura Dudas said the city couldn't "squander the goodwill" of those governments, however, especially if the pandemic's drag on the economy requires subsidies for another year or two.
"It's setting the tone for the year to come so our residents know we're going into this with a prudent vision ... that we're not thinking we're flush with cash," said Dudas.
Dudas's colleagues ultimately agreed with the motion she put forward, which asked staff to dig into the city's operations to look for savings and also consider which capital projects can be delayed if that government funding doesn't come through.
EquiPass to be frozen for 2021
But some councillors sought assurances that delaying work wouldn't lead to extra costs.
Coun. Eli El-Chantiry said he worried deferring projects would be akin to putting off roof repairs on a house, leading to more expensive fixes in the long term.
Chief financial officer Wendy Stephanson said Dudas's motion would guide staff if the city is forced to look for extra savings, but she also noted staff are already careful not to create extra costs down the road.
While COVID-19 might deal a wallop to transit and recreation revenues, and also increase for cleaning and protective equipment, the city sees a few other pressures, too.
The city must still also contribute an extra $5 million to transit capital costs, leading to a higher transit levy of 4.6 per cent on property tax bills. That's because gas tax revenues didn't materialize after the change of government from Kathleen Wynne's Liberals to Doug Ford's Progressive Conservatives.
On the other hand, the Ontario government's earlier plan to have municipalities take on a 30 per cent share of the cost of running public health agencies will not be felt until at least 2022, Stephanson said.
Ottawa's 2021 budget will also assume transit fares will rise by 2.5 per cent, although Mayor Watson has directed staff to freeze the low-income Community Pass, EquiPass and EquiFares.