THUNDER BAY – OPINION – As the election approaches and I begin to finalize my candidate selections, I have to say that I am heartily disappointed with the political discourse associated with our vision of the future of the city.
In particular, I’m disappointed with those who use our identified infrastructure deficit as an excuse to deprive our city from amenities that are conducive to attracting and retaining what economist and social scientist Richard Florida would describe as the “creative class”. If you are unfamiliar with the concept of the creative class and its implications for urban regeneration, I urge you to read up on it.
I suggest that the debate surrounding our Events Centre is not so much a debate about the Centre itself. Rather, it is a debate about the future direction of our city; whether or not we believe we can flourish and grow doing the same old thing, or whether or not we can support (and, I suggest, even hope to achieve) growth and development by reaching forward with bold, new ideas that seek to bring our community together. I’ve said before in past public writings that the Events Centre debate truly hinges on whether or not we are prepared to come to terms with ourselves as a cosmopolitan city, and everything the term encompasses.
I posit that it is this cosmopolitan aspiration that, in fact, will see us through to the future prosperity that we all want to see. It is what will tie together all of our seemingly isolated initiatives in health sciences research, arts and culture, education, industrial development and other endeavors. It is what will provide opportunities for my two boys to have their own lives, careers and families in their hometown.
Back to the infrastructure piece; how can we even think about catering to the creative class when we have roads and sewers to fix? It is understood wisdom in municipal finance that, as it turns out, debenture financing for capital expenditures is an appropriate way to ensure that the consumers of the asset are the payers for the asset over the course of its useful life. I am not suggesting that our city borrows hundreds of millions of dollars to fix all of the roads and sewers all at once. I am, however, suggesting that not all forms of debt are bad. As a comparison, a company that has zero debt on its balance sheet may look successful, but I suggest to you that it is underperforming, as it is not prudently leveraging its resources to achieve its ends.
Smooth, pothole-free roads aren’t going to bring growth, of course, but investing in amenities such as the Events Centre is critical to attracting and retaining the creative class that does bring investment and encourages growth. We have a responsibility to maintain our municipal assets in a good state of repair, of course, but we shouldn’t be afraid to debenture for asset upkeep as it fairly places the financial burden for the asset on the future payers (and users) of the asset. For the record, this also includes the small proportion of the Events Centre that our City Manager suggested for debenture.
I would make some very significant changes on the operating side of our municipal government, in tandem with the adoption of this new capital asset financing strategy. With a significant portion of our municipal service looking to retire in the next few years, there is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rationalize and refactor our municipal service delivery. Start with what’s called a Core Business Review, identifying areas of jurisdiction that are squarely in the municipal sphere of responsibility and setting aside those that are not. Task the Intergovernmental Affairs Committee of the City to either negotiate deals for senior government to rightfully assume non-core responsibilities that fall under their jurisdiction, or to negotiate sustainable funding agreements where the services would be delivered municipally, but appropriately funded by senior governments. Once this is complete, the next phase would be to engage in earnest a “lean” exercise, with the dual goals of world-class, citizen-facing service delivery supported by agile and flattened management ranks. As part of this initiative, I would also be prepared to look at outsourcing functions where there are identified opportunities for private sector collaboration and service delivery.
And finally, I would like to specifically see “cost recovery targets” in the lexicon of municipal government, something that has been wildly successful in shifting ever-increasing municipal costs off the tax base in other jurisdictions in the province. Fully public goods and services under the strategy would have zero cost recovery targets, by way of user fees. Fully private goods and services, however, would have 100% cost recovery targets, and mixed public and private goods should have a ratio of cost recovery that is commensurate with the public or private nature of the good or service. It is interesting to note that community buy-in on this strategy elsewhere has hinged on the reality that the cost of delivering services has to come from somewhere; when faced with user fees or tax increases, user fees were considered preferable to the extent that they were fair and appropriately proportioned.
I am bullish about the future prospects of our community. I know we can have first-class community services and infrastructure, fair taxes and push forward with a cosmopolitan vision for our city that includes an Events Centre and other amenities. I suggest to you that we can ill afford to do otherwise. It won’t be easy, but I believe that the capacity is there if we are prepared to think and act differently.