We are about six months away from Thunder Bay’s next municipal election and the race for the mayor’s chair and council spots represents an opportunity to examine directions and priorities. The last election was obsessed with the event centre and the issue was a distraction from important issues such as the sale of municipal public assets, economic development, the city’s economy, the sustainability of municipal finances as well as the ongoing saga of infrastructure renewal and in particular the James Street Bridge which has now been closed to vehicular traffic since 2013.
Sadly, with the exception of the events centre, which has ridden off into the sunset for the time being, all of these other issues are still ongoing. And of course, added to all of these issues are those with respect to relations with First Nations as well as court cases involving the city’s politicians and administration. Needless to say, Thunder Bay has garnered an inordinate amount of negative attention on the national stage in areas under the purview of municipal government and such attention is certainly not a magnet for business investment.
When it comes to economic development and the city’s economy, it remains that both population and employment levels in the city have been flat for the last four years. The low unemployment rate in the city results from a labour force that has shrunk faster than employment and of itself is not a positive harbinger for the future. Waiting for the Ring of Fire to kick start the economy appears to be a process akin to Waiting for Godot and all the talk of smelter locations in the world will be of no avail given low current chromite prices. As for the current trappings of prosperity in the city, they are largely the result of a large public sector and associated public spending which after the June provincial election could very well come to a crashing halt.
Of course, even without long term private sector wealth creation, the illusion of prosperity created by public sector spending has helped fuel municipal government spending and tax increases which over the last few years have averaged above the city’s inflation and GDP growth rates. Moreover, there has been a continued shift of the tax burden onto the residential ratepayer and they now account for about 70 percent of tax revenues. Added to this are the continued steep increases in user fees and charges which given the talk about “rainfall taxes” show no sign of abating anytime soon.
Indeed, the thirst for residential tax revenues also results in city council giving the go ahead to new urban residential developments outside core areas that while adding to the tax base in the short term also add to urban sprawl and require municipal servicing whose maintenance will add to city expense in years to come. The sustainability of this type of short term development formula should be a topic for debate and discussion but again it is an issue the politicians are happy to ignore when it comes to an election year.
So, what is to be done? Well, for starters Thunder Bay residents need to pay closer attention to the fiscal, economic and social issues affecting the city and ask candidates more pointed questions about what solutions might help address the situation. Perhaps one should ask why anyone might want to buy a new house in Thunder Bay if the property tax bill for a new bungalow is going to be in the range of $5000 to $7000 onto which will be added another $1000 a year in water and sewer charges.
Given the length of tenure that many current members of council have had, a legitimate question is whether or not Thunder Bay might not be better off with a substantial transfusion of new blood on City Council with new ideas and new energy to look at new ways of doing things. After all, current members of City Council have generally been the most comfortable with solutions that involve raising taxes and spending more money. While the claim is often made that millions in efficiencies and savings have been implemented, the fact is the tax levy continues to grow which means total spending is going up and not down.
Making Thunder Bay’s next municipal election count requires making an effort to create real change in the way municipal issues are dealt with and that requires some new blood. It truly is time for change.