Northern Economist 2.0

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Thunder Bay's Municipal Election Issues: A Brief List


With all of the candidates signed up and off and running, it is now time for the candidates running for municipal office in Thunder Bay to present their platforms and debate the issues they feel will define and shape municipal government here over the next four years.  While no one can predict the future, there are a number of issues that face municipal government in Thunder Bay and will affect its ability to deliver public services.  The role of municipal government is technically not to provide services to the public but to provide services to the owners of property.  However, when said and done what the City of Thunder Bay ultimately does is provide public services to everyone.

 

First and foremost, municipal services need to be paid for and so a  key issue is the long-term fiscal sustainability of municipal services in Thunder Bay.  This of course then becomes tied to property tax rates, provincial grants and user fees – the three main sources of revenue.  The City’s finances in terms of its credit rating are good though as I have noted before it is easy to be prudent when the ultimate budgetary insurance is simply raising taxes.   However, given that there has been a gradual shift to the residential property tax base, the candidates will need to address how much more can the residential taxpayer bear in terms of increased tax rates especially when the tax rate increases have been accompanied by rising user fees for water. What can be done to make city services more cost-effective?

Second, there is the city’s social fabric within which we can include crime rates – particularly homicides – as well as the homeless population, racism, poverty and the growing use of food banks.  The social fabric of Thunder Bay is a crucial issue given its effect on both the quantity and quality of life for its residents.  It is also an important issue from the prospect of attracting new investment in the city given the poor press Thunder Bay garners in major media outlets in the Toronto area.  While there is reason for hope, at the same time continued hope requires action.  How can we deal with our pressing social issues?

Third, is the issue of future municipal governance.  Thunder Bay currently has a council of twelve plus a mayor with five of the councillors At-Large and the remaining councillors ward-based.  We do need to have a conversation as to whether this is still the best institutional framework for municipal decision making.  The At-Large/Ward hybrid harkens back to Amalgamation in 1970 as a compromise to deal with the need to make city wide decisions in the face of strong regional loyalties to the old municipalities and neighborhoods.  However, it is not 1970 anymore and some thought should be given not only to having a smaller council - as a signal that there is a commitment to efficient government - but also one that is either all Ward based or all At-Large.  As noted in an earlier posting, my preference would be for an all Ward based system.

Fourth, is the general issue of what I would broadly term city development but encompassing not only the city’s economy – about which City Council actually not do much about directly – but also its urban development, infrastructure development (I would include a new bridge over the Kam here)  and demographics.  Aside from providing an environment conducive to business via tax and regulatory policy and ensuring cost-effective and appropriate services and infrastructure, City Council cannot really turbo start the local economy.  That is a function of national and international economic conditions and the demand for what we do here.  Ultimately, what can we sell to the rest of the world from Thunder Bay? Tourism is one area where we can still do more as a city.  However, we are also hampered economically by having a spread-out city that is costly to service with new housing developments springing up willy-nilly in outlying areas.  However, we have made some progress in core-specialization with many government services in the former south downtown and a thriving cultural/arts/restaurant scene on the north side adjacent to the waterfront.  We also face an aging population that is quite pronounced given that so many of our youth have left.  While the First Nation’s population is young and growing, much work needs to be done to ensure they are equipped with the human capital necessary to maximize their economic potential and many of those tools are under the purview of the federal and provincial government.  There are no easy or quick answers here but one hopes candidates have pragramtic and workable ideas.

Finally, I am somewhat cautious about bringing up the next point but feel that I should despite the fact it is the kind of thing that some candidates may latch onto and neglect the more important and difficult issues already covered.  We can all recall the last municipal election when the debate was consumed by the Events Centre with all other major issues relegated to the sidelines.  Still, I would be remiss if I did not mention that 2020 will be the 50th Anniversary of the creation of Thunder Bay and we should give some thought to what type of events or projects we will use to commemorate Thunder Bay’s amalgamation in a manner that is positive and celebrates our potential.  Again, I have had thoughts on this in the past but there may be other ideas out there.

So, without further ado. Let the campaign debates begin!