Northern Economist 2.0

Showing posts with label issues. Show all posts
Showing posts with label issues. Show all posts

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Thunder Bay Municipal Election Issues: Crime

The October 22nd municipal election in Thunder Bay should start heating up as we move into the final four weeks of the campaign.  There are indeed quite a few campaign signs sprouting up and in a sign that the race has intensified there is even some campaign sign vandalism.  On the one hand, having a large number of candidates should make for an interesting race but on the other hand with so many candidates, any real debate is going to be unwieldy to manage and I expect the final outcomes will largely favour incumbents with name recognition.  This means that despite what seems to be an enormous appetite for change, there will be very little come the day after October 22nd.  Still, one would be remiss on not trying to highlight some of the issues.

In my August 8th post, I did a brief summary of what the main issue categories  in the coming election should be and today I want to focus on one specific issue in particular – crime in Thunder Bay.  There is a lot of social media discussion as well as media reporting on crime in Thunder Bay and also a lot of informal chatting among people and concerns have been expressed about what seems to be substantial drug driven gang activity.  There are also statistics that measure crime and Statistics Canada has reported recently that Thunder Bay in 2017 leads Canadian cities in their murder rate for a second year in a row.

The police response to this news by the Acting Police Chief acknowledged the high homicide rate but the media report also noted that “Despite having the highest murder rate per capita for Canadian metropolitan areas and the second highest in terms of severe crimes, the overall crime rate in the city of Thunder Bay is down.”  The response of the Acting Chief accentuated the positive with the comment that “"Those numbers are great to see," Hauth said. "I think it’s continued work internally and working with outside agencies. We’ve made great strides in terms of doing things in the community."”

So what do the numbers look like?  Well, there are specific traditional crime rates for assorted offenses and incidents with the overall crime rate in terms of incidents per 100,000 of population actually down in 2017.  There is also what is known as the crime severity index which uses a weighting method to account for both the number of crimes and their severity.  There sometimes is confusion in media reports between the crime rate and the crime severity index and the confusion mounts if one goes up while another goes down.  However, if one looks at longer term trends, both sets of number tell a similar story.  Crime overall has come down in Thunder Bay over the last 15 years, but certain types of crime have actually gone up.  In particular, violent crime and homicides in particular.

In the case of Thunder Bay, the overall crime rate in 2017 declined from 6,771 incidents per 100,000 in 2016 to 6,576 incidents per 100,000 – a drop of 2.9 percent.  Since 1998, the overall crime rate in Thunder Bay has declined from 10,911 incidents per 100,000 to the current 6,576.  However, the homicide rate has exhibited an opposite trend going from 2.6 homicides per 100,000 in 1998 to 6.04 per 100,000 in 2017.  When it comes to crime severity, the accompany figure sums it all up quite nicely. 

The overall crime severity rate (with everything relative to a base of 100) was quite stable from 1998 to about 2010 and then fell and has stabilized since 2012.  For 2017, the crime severity index is up from 87.48 to 88.25- an increase of about 1 percent.  The decline in the crime rate however is being driven by the fall in the rates of non-violent crime.  What is more alarming is the increase in violent crime which in 2017 is the highest it has been since 1998. 

We can argue that crime rates are down overall, but the concern of the public is that violent incidents – homicides, assaults, etc… seem to be on the way up.  Drug possession or a vehicle theft is a problem, but the public is more perturbed by gang and drug related violence and homicides. The issue facing municipal candidates is what solutions can be offered to deal with the rising rates of violent crime in Thunder Bay?  And to help frame the discussion in a simple manner amenable to most municipal candidates, should solutions involve more resources to police or more effective use of existing resources and what should those solutions be?

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!

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Making Thunder Bay's Next Municipal Election Count

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.