Allison Hanes: 'Sober' Montreal budget marred by expense accounts

The city $6.9-billion budget was tabled after a roller-coaster week of 11th-hour negotiations for public transit funding and political upheaval at the executive committee.

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Mayor Valérie Plante took off her pink blazer, hung it on the back of her chair and rolled up her sleeves as she took her place at the front of a room draped in black to table the city budget.

Intentional or not, the sombre decor at the new Centre des mémoires montréalaises on St-Laurent Blvd. fit the mood of the occasion and matched the mayor’s serious tone.

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Plante started her presentation by enumerating the extraordinary crises Montreal is facing: opioid addiction, homelessness, mental health issues, inflation, the growing unaffordability of housing, a slowing economy and climate change.

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But a series of political crises also made this year’s budgetary exercise all the more tumultuous.

First, there was the 11th-hour arm-wrestling match with the Quebec government to fill a hole in the finances of the Montreal region’s public transit agencies. Ultimately, Transport Minister Geneviève Guilbault only agreed to cover 70 per cent of the deficit for 2024, amid a dispute over the real amount of the shortfall. So the Société de transport de Montréal now has to figure out how to find $35.6 million without drastic service cuts.

Then there was the resignation of Dominque Ollivier as executive committee chair Monday, two days before the delivery of the city budget. Ollivier lost the credibility to preside over Montreal’s finances after media reports exposed lavish expense account claims billed to taxpayers in her previous role heading the city-funded public consultation office, including a $347 charge for oysters in Paris.

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After losing her second-in-command and a symbol of her administration’s diversity over the scandal, Plante is left to contend with the current president of the Office de consultation publique de Montréal clinging to her post despite the mayor making it clear she has lost the support of city council. Besides sending in the auditor general and summoning Isabelle Beaulieu to the finance committee Friday, Plante is talking to Municipal Affairs Minister Andrée Laforest about other ways to “clean house” at the city-funded OCPM.

And on the eve of the budget, Plante had her own explaining to do after Le Journal de Montréal uncovered her office-expensed $538 for four bottles of wine — two white and two red — consumed during a $1,878 supper for 12 in Vienna last spring while on a mission to study solutions to the housing crisis.

Plante vowed to repay the wine tab and pledged new rules for buying booze on the taxpayer dime.

“Citizens should in no case pay for the wine of elected officials,” said Plante, when asked about it Wednesday. “I sincerely apologize. It’s not our way of doing things. That’s not the way we manage the city’s finances.”

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This hangover from questionable expenses certainly gives the word Plante used to describe the 2024 budget in English double meaning.

“This budget is quite sober given what is happening, the economic reality,” she said. “I’m not minimizing that this is (an increase) in taxes, but in order to have the services that we want, that people deserve to have, it’s actually quite sober.”

Meanwhile, as the Montreal police get an 18.3-per-cent boost to their funding and tensions over the Israel-Hamas war boil over into antisemitic attacks on the Jewish community and an increase in Islamophobia, chief Fady Dagher is on vacation.

All this drama will also make Plante’s pitch that her spending plan is “modest” and “responsible” difficult  to digest for the increasing number of Montrealers who are struggling to pay rent and put food on the table.

The $6.9-billion budget levies an average property tax hike of 4.9 per cent for residential dwellings and 4.6 per cent for commercial properties. That’s the steepest increase since 2010, when it was 5.3 per cent for residences, and eclipses last year’s already painful 4.1 per cent.

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Spending is up 3.5 per cent from 2023. However, Benoît Dorais, who was hastily (re)appointed to his old job on the executive committee to replace Ollivier, argued that in a period of inflation, when the price of everything from snow-clearing to printer ink is climbing, this increase still shows discipline and restraint.

“We’re not asking taxpayers to do all the work,” he said. “We’re making our own efforts.”

But property taxes now account for 64 per cent of Montreal’s funds, up from 63 per cent last year, despite efforts to diversify the sources of revenue. And even with an optimization exercise underway, Montreal still plans to hire about 400 more people in the coming year. This includes: 225 more police officers, 33 fire prevention officers, 20 school crossing guards and 15 cybersecurity experts.

Plante insisted that Montrealers don’t want her to abandon priorities like the ecological transition, public transit and making sure children can walk to school safely.

But between wine and oysters, Ensemble Montréal finance critic Alan De Sousa’s quip that the city is “spending like drunken sailors” is likely to stick.

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