Northern Economist 2.0

Saturday, 12 September 2020

Thinking Big in Thunder Bay


Thunder Bay City’s Council’s agenda for September 14th based on the available documentation has quite a few items that one imagines will have cost implications for Thunder Bay though the full documentation as of Saturday morning seems a bit light on the City website.  The usual tomes of several hundred pages seem to be absent but perhaps they will be posted later.  Nevertheless, from the very brief documents available, some of the issues:  Traffic Signal Review, Boulevard Lake Cleanup & Dredging, Police Facility Needs Assessment Update, Solid Waste Management Strategy Update, Homemakers Program, and a Transit Service Update.  There is even an eye on the future employment of our municipal councillors with a report on Municipal election readiness for 2022.  However, the issue that will probably chew up the most time is this:


Permanent Thunder Bay Word Sign

Memorandum from Councillor S. Ch'ng dated August 18, 2020 containing a motion recommending the design and installation of a Permanent “Thunder Bay” Word Sign at the waterfront.

(Pages 74 – 75)

With respect to the memorandum from Councillor S. Ch’ng dated August 18, 2020, we recommend the design and installation of a Permanent “Thunder Bay” Word Sign at the waterfront;

AND THAT up to $100,000 of funding be approved through the City’s unallocated Municipal Accommodation Tax funds for the design and installation of the Permanent “Thunder Bay” Word Sign;

AND THAT any necessary by-laws be presented to City Council for ratification.


The Northwood councillor wants to design and build a sign, similar to ones seen in cities around the world, including Toronto. This has already received some local media attention and of course many comments and a TBNewswatch poll that suggests the idea is almost as popular as going ahead full bore with the Turf Facility was.  


Predictably, there has been a focus on the cost which at $100,000 has struck many as excessive but then our councillors will likely consider it a bargain given that replacing a similar sign in Toronto in front of their city hall with permanent new letters will cost $760,000.  At $100,000, Thunder Bay’s sign will only cost $10,000 per letter while Toronto’s will come in at $108,571.43 per letter.  Needless to say, our more mathematically inclined councillors will fall over themselves with long speeches on how much more efficient we are and the alphabetical value of money.


However, Thunder Bay likes to think big. Indeed, for $760,000, never mind a small piddly Toronto style sign – with that kind of money one could create a giant white letter Hollywood type sign on top of the Sleeping Giant in our harbour! Or perhaps, we could have a Mount Rushmore type set of carvings of all the members of our current City Council preserved forever in a pose of distant thoughtful gazes with a giant inscription below stating: “They came, they saw, they spent!”  Truly, this will be another opportunity for all of us to think big and achieve Toronto style ambition at Thunder Bay prices.


If members of council are inclined towards frugality, I would suggest that the letters of the proposed Thunder Bay Sign be made from the creative intertwining of all the surplus copper piping and water connection lines that seems to dot the lawns in so many of our neighborhoods these days.  Not only would this be very artistic and creative, but cost-effective and also an example of wise environmental stewardship as it involves a major effort at recycling.  Advertising is all about messages and this would send the message that in Thunder Bay, we recycle more than ideas.


Friday, 11 September 2020

Stuff My Students Say - Online Teaching Edition


Well, this was my first week of classes and all things considered, it went remarkably smoothly for me and about 95 percent of my students though there were a few glitches. Turns out my bright idea for separate google Gmail accounts for correspondence with each course does not work very well for large classes given Gmail’s mailout restrictions on personal accounts and my own university’s spam filter so I guess I am going to have to use my course mail mailer on D2L which is a bit cumbersome but it will have to do.  Most students appeared to get started on self-directed web based learning reasonably well. This is the approach I have opted for with informal office hour type Zoom sessions where there can be some personal interaction and questions answered.


A couple of things for your amusement based on this week's observations.

1) About 5 percent of the students generate 90% of your email. However, that can be a lot of email when you have 150 students and the same ones email you multiple times to make sure you got their message.

2) Many students do not read the course plan provided or anything else it seems including the instructions sent by the university.

3) I think a lot of students do not realize the size of the classes they are in, the limits of technology, and the limits to an instructor’s ability to deal with their issues:


Some examples:


"Looking at the course plan for your class and of my other classes all of the quizzes for Economics clash with my Marketing's quizzes. I hope we can find a solution on how to fit both course requirements to my schedule. If it helps Thursdays I'm free by 3:00 p.m. and Fridays my schedule is clear."


By the way, this was received after I told them in a revised course plan that there would now be a 24-hour window for getting your "1-hour "quizzes back.  It is a class of 130 students by the way…


Or, how about this:


"Thank you for your email. I had a question, do the activities on Mindtap count toward our final grades?"


While mindTap can be used for assessment, I have not done that.  Again, it is important to read the instructions that come with the course. The Course Plan says 4 quizzes and a final and Mindtap is a study guide resource for yourselves to help you learn on your own.  


I have a question. I saw you posted the sample questions and quiz for the week 1. I wonder which one we need to submit? And how to do that? Thank you!


But they are sample quizzes with the answers at the back for your own practice. Why would I give you a sample quiz and the answers and then ask for it back?


I have registered for the course ECON 1100. Can you please tell me the timings of the class? as it is not showing in my course link website.”


It is a web-based course – i.e., in an earlier day and age it probably would be called a “reading” course. There are no class times. Perhaps students are confused by language such as synchronous and asynchronous learning (I know I am).  Not sure how the type of stuff is being communicated to them.


Some other ones:


I was wondering if there is the possibility of completing one of your scheduled quizzes at a date which is earlier than specified. More specifically, I am referring to Quiz #2, if this makes a difference with anything. I would be looking to complete it a week earlier on the 14th or 15th of October. Obviously I am aware the material would be the same


Again, this is a class of 130 and not a seminar course of 10 or 20.  


In response to an informal Zoom Meeting invite for a short voluntary non-mandatory “ informal office hour/getting to know you” session set for 11 am on a Monday:


I may not be able to attend. As I work M to F 8 to 4pm.”


This was followed by a request from the student for a recording of the session and a link to it be sent.  To the student’s credit, upon further explanation, they realized that recording what are essentially interactions with other students in a question and answer session was understandably not a good idea.  There is indeed learning behavior on the part of students.


And my personal favorite:


Will future all meetings happen on this day/at this time? I ask because I have nine hours of lectures starting at 11:30 on Mondays


My sympathies are all with the student on this one.  What kind of Zoom lecture scheduling on the part of a university is that?


It is going to be a draining first term.


Monday, 7 September 2020

In Ontario, Its Back to School...and Back to COVID

As the September 2020 edition of Labour Day unfolds, the long summer of 2020 which for many students began in March, comes to an end in Ontario.  It is back to school at the elementary, secondary and post-secondary level and the rush to cram in as many outdoor social opportunities as possible during the good weather also comes to an end.  Like in many other parts of the world, the last few weeks have seen a relaxing of individual behaviour as also noted by pundits such as Andre Picard and the inevitable result has been a creeping up of the daily count of new cases.  The accompanying figure puts the start of the reversal of the downward trend at day 200 which coincides with about mid-August. 
While it appears the uptick in Ontario is being driven by GTA cases, as Picard himself notes, it is difficult to know exactly where or how people are being infected given the obsession of public health authorities in Canada with secrecy.  Sometimes, it would be nice to know when a case is reported in your community if it was due to international travel, inter-provincial travel, connected to a workplace or social event in an effort to personally gauge the threat level but such is not the case.  Of course, it is also difficult to know whether governments and public health agencies in Canada are being secretive or they simply do not have the capability to finely analyze and present data.  The latter possibility is even more disconcerting.

Back to school in Ontario will be interesting to watch unfold.  There apparently is a shortage of teachers given the anecdotal stories of retired teachers being phoned up and asked if they would like to come back this fall.  There is also a growing  shortage of school bus drivers.  And parents appear to be surprised that classes are as large as they are given that as much as one third of children will be doing their lessons online.  Of course, it is amazing how little people in general understand about resource allocation and basic economics.  Even online teaching requires teaching resources and they need to come from somewhere and given the anecdotally reported spate of sudden retirements it is no surprise that in-person classes are larger than expected.  Indeed, many JK and SK classes in particular are as large as previous years – that is to say 25 to 30 students.  It would be interesting to have more information and data about class sizes and their distribution, but provincial education ministries and school boards are as secretive as public health authorities.  If anything, the pandemic seems to have accelerated the tendency to less and less accountability on the part of government authorities when it comes to publicly available and accessible data and information. 
At the university level, the early cries of an enrollment collapse in the wake of COVID appear to have evaporated.  Overall enrollment in Ontario at the university level is holding its own and the numbers are good at both the domestic and international student level.  As of the August 2020 update, it would appear that  undergraduate confirmations are up at 107,001 from last year’s 104,635 – that is an increase of 2.2 percent and hardly the apocalyptic collapse many university administrations were articulating.  At my own university, as of this morning the total enrollment statistics showed the total enrollment down by several hundred but the system traditionally lags in presenting information which I think means that enrollment is pretty much on target.  My own first-year class is up 60 percent from last year while my upper year classes are either at the same level of enrollment or actually higher. 
It would appear that online education has actually had the effect of expanding choices for students because in person class schedules – especially at small universities with few sections - often meant there were scheduling conflicts.  I do recall in the past conversations with senior administrators chastising economics for its low undergraduate enrollment and never seeming to acknowledge the point that part of the problem was the class schedule itself given small departments and fewer sections of anything.  At Lakehead, more students seem to be opting for economics because they can actually fit it into their schedules this year. I suppose that is one proverbial silver lining to the COVID cloud.  The other is that universities – like other employers - have downloaded many of their costs onto people working at home and are saving a lot of money on their utilities and operating costs while keeping their tuition fee structure and other funding fully in place.  And unlike private employers, we are apparently not being provided with T2200  to help in the costs of any upgrading internet and computers at home to deal with larger classes.
So, it is September and once again the drama begins.  Another new school year but this time starting under conditions of a global pandemic.  Stay tuned.

Wednesday, 26 August 2020

Thunder Bay's Tax Crisis

As expected, Monday evening’s City Council Meeting was a long one wrapping up at 3am and as predicted the Turf facility is going forward if by a slim margin of  7-6 in favour.  For the record to assist you in decision making next election, those in favour of spending more money despite the caveats: Mayor Bill Mauro and councilors Albert Aiello, Shelby Ch'ng, Andrew Foulds, Cody Fraser, Kristen Oliver and Aldo Ruberto.  Those in favour of delaying the project in light of the current situation: Mark Bentz, Trevor Giertuga, Brian Hamilton, Rebecca Johnson, Brian McKinnon and Peng You.  In the end, Mayor Mauro got what he wanted and one wonders why he risked so much political capital to drive something that a large majority of the public seem to oppose.

The evening also discussed the budget and originally there was a proposal to raise the 2021 tax levy by 3.45 percent in order to deal with the $8.4 million in COVID-19 expenses – though left unexplained is why with $9 million in provincial and federal assistance coming, are those costs for 2020 not largely taken care of.  In the end, apparently the increase is now proposed at only 2 percent but that will likely change given Thunder Bay’s deteriorating tax base and the “need” for more money.  And, there was plenty of evidence in the documentation for Monday night’s meeting on the eroding tax base.

I suppose there was little time at Monday night’s meeting to discuss other items of business such as Corporate Report No. R 18/2020 included in the Committee of the Whole Agenda and buried on pages 236 to 239 (with a lengthy Appendix afterwards).  This report was on Property Tax Accounts with 2018 Arrears.  Of course, the table of numbers spanning properties that stopped paying their taxes over the 2008 to 2018 period was probably too much to process for the bleary eyed councilors.  Sometimes one wonders if City Council is some type of cult designed to ram through decisions by handing councilors 300 page documents and then depriving them of sleep with long meetings.   Of course, the more alert ones in favor of the turf facility may have been alarmed at the prospect of discussing the growing number of tax arrears properties at the same time new spending was being proposed and heaved a sigh of relief it did get too much attention.  Nevertheless, I suspect the numbers themselves would have little impact - pictures are much better and as usual I had to provide my own.



Figures 1 to 3 takes the data in the report and plots the number of properties (both total and residential) in tax arrears, the total value of tax arrears by year in dollars, and finally the value of those arrears as a percentage of the total tax levy that year.  The plots are disturbing as despite the occasional up and down, they show a clear upward trend over time.  Whereas the average annual number of properties in arrears from 2008 to 2010 was close to 100, for the 2016 to 2018 period, it averaged close to 300.  In essence, the number of properties in arrears has tripled over the last decade.  It is not just business properties, it is also residential.  The value of the tax arrears in 2018 was $2.5 million – a not inconsequential sum given that the original proposed tax increase of 3.45 percent would have likely added nearly $7 million to the tax levy.  Indeed, as a percentage of the tax levy, the trend is also upwards and reflects foregone revenue – which if looked at cumulatively since 2008 represents the evaporation of nearly 10 percent of the tax levy.

If property owners in Thunder Bay are stopping to pay taxes on their properties and giving up on them, there is a serious issue.  The solution is not stricter enforcement and chasing people down by hiring a Sheriff of Nottingham type with a half dozen tax facilitators and support people to extract the cash.  There are probably many reasons why people are unable to meet their tax obligations and give up on the property they are holding. 

For some, it is being on a fixed income or job loss or health issues.  Some are seniors with dementia whose families have lost track of the properties.  For others, it is a simple calculation: - given diminished circumstances, the value of what they own is not worth keeping given the tax burden that has been imposed.  This is apparent from some of the properties listed which are undeveloped lots and properties being taxed at high rates but often in locations where there is no prospect of them ever being developed let alone a market buyer found due to plans, zoning rules and regulations that only Thunder Bay insiders can navigate.   

What kind of city lets this happen?  How can so many councilors talk incessantly about how they care about social justice and equity and helping the socially deprived and at the same time not realize the long-term effect of their decisions, policies and actions in raising the economic burden on workers and families in Thunder Bay?  It is not just a provincial or federal responsibility.  Its theirs too.

Thursday, 20 August 2020

Thunder Bay's Priorities: Business as Usual

The City of Thunder Bay recently sent a delegation of administrators and councilors to the AMO meetings where they also had the opportunity to present their priority list to members of the provincial cabinet.  According to the report in the media, here are what the priority topics appear to have been:  Priority topics included:
  • Bombardier
  • Crisis centre
  • Non-urgent patient transport
  • RegenMed
  • Thunder Bay Expressway
  • Shelter House
  • Provincial Offences Act
  • Joint and several liability
  • Multi-sport complex
  • Multi-purpose correctional facility
  • Next Gen 911 service
  • Police services funding

What is intriguing about this list is that there is no explicit mention of any of Thunder Bay’s “water issues” – the current court case over the 2012 flooding and the water treatment plant, the issue of lead in Thunder Bay’s water supply or the epidemic of pinhole leaks in residential homes across the city. Perhaps the issue of “joint and several liability” is the code term for the water issues given that the province is going to inevitably be involved in any of this legal fallout given that municipalities are creatures of the provinces? Maybe, but then maybe not. 

Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing what the actual priorities are and there is no point in asking your councilor for insight or contacting someone at Thunder Bay City Hall to ask a question because more often than not, they will not respond.  Even worse, even members of council may be unaware of what is actually going on.  Thunder Bay appears to have become a full blown  “insider-outsider” city.  Those in the right social circles seem to know everything while those not graced with the correct social connections …well, you are pretty much left guessing as to what is actually going on.  Thunder Bay has always been a pretty insular place in this regard but the social isolation of the pandemic has made it worse.

On Monday night, there will likely be another marathon City Council meeting which will include another lengthy debate on the turf facility – which nevertheless will get approved despite the many reservations that have been raised.  It is always easy to approve new spending when it is someone else’s money and at present our City Council is no doubt being inspired by our federal government which after a 343 billion dollar deficit is going to dream even bigger. Then there will likely be a lengthy discussion of whether there should be changes to the numbers of city councilors to make the city more “efficient” but this has been discussed many times before and will be discussed many times again.  In the end, it will likely not matter because when it comes to the efficiency of any production process, it is not just the number of inputs that matters but also their quality. 

So, stay tuned for signs from the heavens to provide any additional enlightenment as to what Thunder Bay’s priorities are.  The only certain priority is that taxes will be going up in 2021.  It is business as usual for Thunder Bay's cozy inner circle.