Thunder Bay is entering into a period of fiscal restraint and decisive decision making which it has yet to see before. Budget deficits, MPAC reassessments, globalization and infrastructure deficits are all combining to force Thunder Bay’s hand when it comes to the decisions it makes now and into the future. Thunder Bay’s city council, administration and citizens need to be willing to accept change, embrace hard decisions and sacrifice. We need to part with, make sacrifices in order to sustain overall gains made over the last 50 years. Hard decisions will need to be made during the 2015 and future budgets but these decisions if laid out correctly will effectively repair Thunder Bay’s foundation for the future.
I am writing this open letter to ask a single member or council members to bring forward a recommendation that core services from now on be fully funded and effectively managed. These core services would include Infrastructure & Operations, Emergency Services, Transit, Administration and other provincially required mandates. Bringing these different operations to full funding in order to effective preserve the mandate in which the municipal government is required by the Municipal Act. After these services are fully funded and operational providing services to institutions like the Shelter House, Thunder Bay Art Gallery etc.. with funding that is requested if available. Our core services have been eroded in order to fund pet projects, well intention operations and items beyond the city’s scope. A return to our basic services will be hard and some operations will fail but we need to provide the best service possible and then go above and beyond.
Thunder Bay was recently given a C rating by an internal report which outlined the state of our infrastructure within city limits. This report states that we are severely underfunding our infrastructure and running an annual deficit of around $17 million dollars. It needs to be a priority for the City of Thunder Bay to raise the proper amount of funding for infrastructure to protect not only itself from liability issues but provide citizens with safe, clean infrastructure. The Enhanced Infrastructure Renewal Program (EIRP) is an effective start but more money will need to be allocated through the capital and tax supported budget moving forward. Returning to basics in how council funds projects would see items like roads, sewers, sidewalks along with city own buildings be renewed and upgraded at a much faster rate. Using money currently allocated for other items would provide both potential tax reductions for citizens or potential cost reductions in deficits and backlogs of projects. Roads when left to decay often cost much more then if they were replaced at their proper time frames. We annually add cost to our bill by deferring projects to the next generation.
The Event Center is a hot topic in Thunder Bay but it is an effective means of taxpayers money when it comes to replacing existing city owned property. The benefits of the project have been laid out in the Phase 3 report found here: http://www.thunderbay.ca/Assets/City+Government/Event+Centre/docs/Phase+3+Feasibility+Study+Report+Presentation.pdf. Along with replacing aging city own venues this building will make use of existing infrastructure and increase the tax values of neighbouring businesses. As an infrastructure project I feel it is something that needs to be promoted and pushed ahead. Our current facility has seen its life come and go and needs to be replaced. This is not simply a facility replacement but needs to be a representation of the community as it stands today and where we hope it will be in the future. There are many ways to reduce the cost associated with this building and managing its operational costs.
Emergency Services are a hot button issue for Thunder Bay but we are seeing the detrimental effects of under-budgeting annually. Thunder Bay Police Service are expected to run a deficit in their budget and are asking for additional money come budget 2015 to ensure capital budgets are maintained at effective levels. I personally feel that it is more prudent budgeting to set aside more for these departments then to annually come back with deficits. Providing the departments with their proper budgets means they will come back with budgets in the black annually. This will help for future budget projections and to maintain emergency services effectiveness and operations. Thunder Bay needs to receive some help from the emergency services in order to maintain these budgets going forward. We need to look at the potential for items such as a volunteer-public operation of fire halls in the suburban areas of town. Reducing the number of firefighters on city payroll with volunteers can be an effective way of providing fast and reliable service but at a reduced cost. Thunder Bay Police could also look at a auxiliary program to get more officers onto the road and have more 2 man vehicles for officer safety and cost savings. Many businesses experience a majority of their costs with wages and our emergency services are no different. If at all possible wage increases should be maintained at inflation or below for both Thunder Bay Police Service and Thunder Bay Fire Department. Population stagnation and a tax base collapse has caused these two items to become a significant strain on the overall budget. These jobs are difficult and deserving are paid very well but lower costs associated with wages could allow for increases in personnel or increased assistance with items such as mental health. We can have a productive meeting with the members of both groups and come to a outcome that works for both groups.
Transit is an important part of the lifeblood of Thunder Bay. Thousands of people use the system daily and it helps to reduce the strain on city infrastructure, the environment and negates negative health effects. The transit system will need more then funding from council to maintain its service and grow the system. It needs a promise from Thunder Bay city council and administration to fast track development along its routes. Promote density around the areas of its terminals/stops and provide the citizens of Thunder Bay with a fast and effective system. A fully funded transit system will provide many benefits for its citizens and could help to rein in the outward urban sprawl that has been sapping Thunder Bay of infrastructure dollars. In a follow up blog post I will present a proposal to change Memorial Avenue to be as transit friendly as the Mississauga Express Link. There are a number of bright, young individuals coming up in the transit management such as Mr. Jon Hendel who will see Thunder Bay Transit through to its future. Introduction of new routes and improving existing ones will be important for its promotion as a viable option for travel. Working with businesses and events to show people who normally wouldn’t travel transit it is viable will be important for its exposure. I am extremely proud of Thunder Bay transit for having a completely accessible transit system. This is something that all citizens should be proud of.
There are a number of provincially mandated operations in which Thunder Bay needs to operate and should continue to operate as effectively as possible. Operations such as the DSSAB, Pioneer Ridge retirement home among others should be funded to the provincial average.
Providing these departments with their respective required funding will not be cheap and will require that the Citizens of Thunder Bay lessen their requirements/expectations of the city and allow for services to be reduced or eliminated. Below are a number of services and items, I personally believe should be looked at in order to reduce the cost associated with the city.
City print shop – Many private operations can do this
City owned Daycares – Daily losses of $3000. Sell these spaces to the private sector and rent the buildings to these operations.
Reduce number of ball parks/soccer fields – Number is too great to support and maintain
Close Neebing Arena and Grandview – Buildings cost $1 million in annual losses. Replace with a second sheet at Port Arthur Arena and Delaney.
Close the Conservatory – $600,000 annual losses or 0.6% tax assessment
Eliminate sidewalk plowing for residential areas (minus those heavily populated with seniors)
Reduce Staffing associated with these areas and simplify the management throughout the entire system.
Sell Trowbridge Campground and Chippewa Campground
Introduce technology to make working away from desk (on site) easier for staff members
Introduce pay-per-use fees. 15% fee on top of capital fees to pay directly for the use of that site. Ex. A complex gym membership – 15% goes to replacing equipment and upgrades.
Find ways to reduce the 17 million annual payment from Tbaytel. Allow the Tbaytel board to set this based on their income and business needs.
While not all will agree with my list of closures or what I view to be as core services there is one common denominator. Thunder Bay has some big decisions to make in the coming years. Either it continues to increase taxes, over extend itself and provide a number of different services at lower quality levels or it can focus itself on a smaller number of services offering them at greater levels. Thunder Bay is in the predicament where its industrial tax base is being ripped from beneath it by globalization and MPAC. It cannot afford to continue offering all these services at the same rate it once did. Thunder Bay finds itself now looking and choosing which services it believes it can afford and which ones it can’t. I like this option of picking and choosing cuts rather than the potentially disastrous option where we need to cut and slash without mercy due to budget restraints. Even if Thunder Bay sees a boom from a mining sector growth or massive tax increases it still needs to adequately fund the core. Without doing so we will find ourselves in worse condition tax wise and infrastructure then we currently are when the taps run dry.