LONDON, ONT. -- Senior city administration included construction of a new city hall building to house municipal government in draft budget documents, but poverty experts say it’s the housing needs of low-income Londoners that should be prioritized.

London’s 2020-2023 draft budget includes a Master Accommodation Plan business case to spend $13 million over the next four years on consultation and design work, then $125.5 million starting in 2024 to construct a new city hall building.

“That is what we are looking at as a construction cost into the future, we are looking at about 5 to 6 years out if council approves the business case,” explains City Treasurer Anna Lisa Barbon.

The current city hall building at 300 Dufferin Avenue opened in 1971. Barbon says several municipal departments are now spread inefficiently throughout the downtown in leased office space.

A master accommodation plan determined three options for council; build a new city hall on the current property, build a new city hall on a new property or maintain the existing spaces.

She says constructing a new building would improve customer service and cost less than maintaining the aging facility and paying for leased office space, “It’s going to cost more if we do nothing, than if we go ahead and spend this money.”

Former city councillor Roger Caranci believes 300 Dufferin has exceeded its lifespan, but warns that spending tax dollars on a new city hall could be politically unpopular, “It’s a difficult subject to deal with because it’s not popular with the general public, but at the end of the day the city has to do something with city hall.”

The draft multi-year budget contains 25 business cases for new spending, 16 of them have been “prioritized” by senior city staff. That list includes the proposal to build a new city hall, but does not include four of the funding requests to regenerate and build public housing.

Those housing-related business cases not prioritized by senior staff, but that will still be considered by council include:

  • Housing Development Corporation funding for affordable housing ($2.8 million)
  • London Middlesex Community Housing (LMCH) co-investment with CMHC ($20.2 million)
  • London Middlesex Community Housing security and staffing enhancements ($6.9 million)
  • Regeneration of public housing ($5.3 million)

“To see that not hit the top priority list for me is disappointing for me, 'cause I know all Londoners understand housing is a big crisis right now,” says housing advocate Abe Oudshoorn. He says Londoners need to communicate their own priorities to city council before budget deliberations start Jan. 30.

Josh Browne, CEO of LMCH says in a written statement, “Although the MYB [multi-year budget] request does not address every need, the increase in funding is a significant improvement and step in the right direction. “

About the business cases not “prioritized” in the budget, Browne adds, “The co-investment opportunity through renew and repair CMHC funding that has been advanced through this budgeting process would see 60 per cent of the LMCH portfolio undergo significant energy efficiency and infrastructure improvements.”

He adds that, “ Increases to the base budget and the business case for staffing and security provide a basis to improve service areas addressing some of the greatest areas of need for our tenants and operational challenges.”

“We are not trying to say anything is more important than anything else, its simply trying to look at how we best manage the city's budget and its needs overall,” Barbon says.

She says long-term savings from the efficiencies created by a new city hall building would free up future budget dollars for initiatives including housing, ”The intent of this is to create more capacity on the city levy in the future, to actually give council more money to be able to support the initiatives that it very strongly believes in.”

Oudshoorn stresses, “Perhaps we do fund all of these things, they are all important long-term thinking, but if we are going to have to choose one over another, I really think right now the priority has to be on housing.”

If city council approves the consulting and design work in the four-year budget, Barbon estimates a new city hall could be in place in five to six years.