Opinion – Closing Neebing Arena Would Have Been Great

City Hall
City Hall in the middle of downtown Fort William

By Jim Mauro

THUNDER BAY – OPINION – About two months ago, while attempting to balance the budget, the city was presented with some options (cuts) by City Administration. Instead of Council leading the way and identifying areas to reduce spending, they left it up to City Administration to come up with a list for Council. If you were a skeptic, you might think that Council was just looking for a political way out of this budget mess.

Before I proceed further, I should tackle a small issue. I ran in the last election and was not successful. Some may think this is sour grapes and while it would have been fun to be on Council, I am not sorry that I am not there. Life is okay I must say. And it does provide me with the opportunity to provide commentary on issues that I feel are seriously lacking in our city. If they make even ten people pause before they vote and do a deeper dive on the issues, I will consider the effort worthwhile.

Returning to City Administration, they came back with a bundle of proposals to meet the budget shortfall of just over 2.1 million dollars if I recall correctly. Included in these cuts were the closing of Neebing Arena and canceling the bus service for First William First Nation. Other proposed cuts included a hiring freeze and the closing of one EMS location. Can you guess which two garnered the most attention?

When the “concerns” started flowing, we heard from our City Manager that they re-visited the bus service cancellation, and it would not be neighbourly to cancel this service despite the low ridership. Now like most in Thunder Bay, being a good neighbour is fine, but is anyone asking why this is being done at the cost to the local taxpayer. It makes little sense to me, but the issue gets cloudier.

A few days later, the mayor made a statement suggesting that the cancellation of this bus service may result in litigation. Is there a contract in place to provide this service to Fort Willima First Nation? If so, what are the terms of the contract, when was it signed and is there an expiration date on it?

If FWFN is providing funds to the city for this service, then they certainly have the right to object to this proposed cut that is now off the table. However, if there is not a contract, then it raises two additional questions: why did the mayor suggest there was one, and why is the city providing free services to anyone? Why are we not supplying bus service to Oliver Paipoonge or Shuniah for example?

When the bus route to FWFN was removed as a consideration for cancellation, does anyone recall what it was replaced with in terms of cuts, because I don’t? If the mayor was correct and it did open us up to litigation, that seems a remarkable miss on the part of someone in administration. Can we get any clarification on that, or as always happens in our mainstream media, will details just get ignored. Are there other city services being provided at no cost?

When this bundle of cuts was presented, why were other options not available for council to consider? Why did City Administration not come up with 3-4 alternatives to meet this budgetary shortfall? Again, being skeptical, a person could conclude that the inclusion of the bus service and Neebing Arena were poison pills to ensure they did not get cut.

The buck stops at City Council. Those elected to council should be driving this bus (pun intentional) and it is an abrogation of their role to not put proposals forward that would reduce the budget. However, by doing that, it puts the spotlight on those making those proposals.

For too long those who espouse being the “tax savers” on City Council have received a free ride from our mainstream media. The first question I would ask is why they have never put forward a proposal to cut something? Some councillors have made a career of talking about saving you taxes but have never done the heavy lifting to do so. When you propose cutting something, people in parts of the community are going to be angry and heaven forbid, they might vote for someone else. I have a great deal of respect for new councillor Casey Etrini, who did that exact thing by proposing the reduction of outdoor hockey rinks to reduce the budget.

Agree or disagree with the closing of some outdoor rinks, and I disagreed, but this new Councillor did what many long serving councillors rarely do, put an idea forward instead of just using airtime espousing the virtue of keeping taxes low.

I thought closing Neebing Arena was a great idea but once again. While this hockey rink serves the youth of our city, where ice time is often a scarce commodity, and closing this rink will cause many problems within the hockey community, we have a budget problem. Sacrifices need to be made. So, putting the budget at the forefront, I have some additional suggestions that I believe can save the city enormous sums and balance that budget in no time.

The community auditorium operates at a deficit. Either shut the doors or sell it to a private company. Keeping with that theme, we have two city owned golf courses, competing with private courses. Sell them both, even though we may not be able to sell Chapples. But before we do, can we ensure we get a better deal then the city got for Municipal Golf Course. Maybe we can go with the top bidder this time.

Close the Museum, the Hall of Fame, and most city parks. Cut the jobs associated with those facilities and we are well on our way to eliminating the budget deficit if not already operating at a surplus. While we are on a roll, let’s stop plowing the side streets except for serious snow falls and cancel the plowing of sidewalks like they do in other cities. Staying with sidewalks maybe we can stop putting more in or doubling them up on the same street that just leads to more maintenance and operating costs. But I saved the best one for last. Let’s sell the Canada Games Complex for a dollar.

If we can find a private investor to purchase this facility for one dollar, we would instantly save almost a million dollars a year, the amount it loses every year, not counting the tax revenue that would now be generated. There are countless other facilities in the city that provide most of what is offered at the Complex.

But providing these services is what makes a city, doesn’t it? Most cities provide services and facilities that are not profitable. That is why the private sector is not building them. Anyone know how that private sector soccer facility is coming along? It would have been built long ago if someone could make money at it. The skateboard facility at Marina Park, does not make a nickel. Should we close what has arguably been a great success? Is that who we are as a city?

While we are looking at closing outdoor rinks and proposing to close Neebing arena, we contribute Five million dollars to an Art Gallery, and I must ask, who is responsible for cost overruns and any operating deficits? If it is the city, can we get an estimate on these costs that will be added to the tax bill as well. So, some projects are okay, some are not and some services we seem to provide for free, yet Council looks to City Admin for recommendations for cuts. And I thought the dog should be wagging the tail.

Now most of my proposed “cuts” were made in jest but a serious review of some of them should take place. What I am hoping to bring to the surface is the unwillingness, except for the rarest of cases for those on council to put something forward that meets the needs of the community. It is easy to say I care about taxes, but quite another to put something forward that will receive criticism.

Returning to my failed run for council what was most frustrating was the complete lack of any discussion on taxation. I proposed a maximum 1.75% increase in the budget for 2023. I can think of no other candidate that put a position forward on taxes. I didn’t invent the idea; I stole it from my brother who made this happen for three years.

The only comments on taxes from those running in the election, were the typical “will fight to keep taxes low”. One candidate at the mayor’s “so-called debate”, was asked if they supported the construction of the multi purpose facility and the new police station. This candidate provided a two-minute answer on a question they were given in advance and did not mention either building. Avoiding the topic all together, should be the lead story. Maybe candidates looking for your vote should have to answer questions instead of doing the two-step in avoiding anything concrete that might cost them a vote.

The only media coverage my tax proposal received was from NetNewsLedger. Our “mainstream media” wanted to appear fair, so they didn’t cover anyone. If you are running in an election and not putting out proposals, should that not be the story? So we are, where we are, where not alienating any voter by giving specifics of what you stand for is the best path to electoral success. Prime Minister Kim Campbell was vilified but it seems she was correct. An election is not the time to be talking policy.

Will most if not all of city council look at the real heavy lifting that needs to be done that could save a great deal of money and make some areas far more efficient for the taxpayer. We will save that article for a future date because I know the bombs that will be thrown my way when that article comes out.

We are a city that needs to provide services and facilities to make it worthwhile to live here. However, we have very little growth, so how we are operating cannot be sustained without a larger burden being placed on businesses, and taxpayers. There are ways to do things better but unfortunately, some of this is not new.

In the early 1990’s I made a proposal to save a large some of money at the police service and make things better for the people that worked there. It was rejected outright, and I was accused of proposing this for my own “self-serving interests”. About four months later, only due to the demands of the NDP social contract, my proposal that was deemed unworkable, was implemented and saved city taxpayers, many millions of dollars. It is usually not can things be done differently but more often do people want to do things differently.

It is going to take some tough decisions going forward. A strong media presence on some of these matters may be a good first step to put the focus where it belongs, around the table of thirteen at City Hall.

When you avoid making tough decisions, all you do is punt the problem down the road. It is then left to the next year or the next council. We have seen countless examples of this, even in Ottawa where spending is out of control. Controlling spending is necessary because unlike the federal government that keeps printing money seemingly without end, a city must balance the books. If we simply throw up our hands and say the only solution is increasing taxes, spending will never be a priority.

Closing outdoor rinks while perhaps not having the biggest impact on a population is symptomatic of the challenges we face. These challenges exist while there is still a large percentage of the population that wants an indoor facility. This is not even considering the “need” for a new police station that will easily top 80 million dollars or a new hockey rink.

Former councillor Lawrence Timko once asked a question about city staffing. What singular job could be eliminated to save the city money? The answer at least twenty years ago, was, none. There was not one job that could be eliminated to reduce expenses. Is it up to the City Administration to ensure that efficiencies are found or is it up to the 13 elected officials to demand them and not just accept one proposal to meet a budgetary shortfall when perhaps dozens should be on the table for consideration?

When the Neebing Arena was pitched as a possible cut, everyone, including our media should have jumped on this as evidence that this exercise was more optics than a good faith effort to rein in spending. Was this really the best we can do?

When Council voted to close an EMS location to save $25,000 while trying to carve $2.1 million from the budget, we still needed 84 more of these “savings” to reach our target. Are taxpayers so satisfied with the demands on our EMS, that eliminating a location is okay? All that said to me was, “we want to appear to be doing something”.

If we keep pushing necessary decisions down the road, there will come a point when we run out of asphalt, and the decisions then will be harder and will hurt more. We have been incredibly fortunate to own our telephone system, without it the tax burden would be enormous, but it is this flow of money that keeps the big decisions from being made. When the time comes, will the thirteen sitting around the table make them, or will they turn to City Admin to propose we close a splash pad, a children’s program, or some other service that makes a city, a city.

Avoid those decisions now, and we can all reap the negative rewards of our indifference, our unwillingness to vote, and our lack of any accountability from our mainstream media.

Because at the end of the day, the 43% of the population who voted in the last city election did so with very little media coverage of any position on taxation, services or infrastructure. There is enough blame to go around for the lack of coverage the policy decisions from City Council receive. At some point, the taxpayer, needs to demand far more transparency and far more proactive decisions from Council.

As I said above, sooner or later we will run out of asphalt. When that day comes, either taxes will increase astronomically, or services and facilities that people love will be stopped. The status quo is unsustainable and closing an EMS station to save $25,000 is not going to get it done. Just a thought.

Jim Mauro

The views, opinions and positions expressed by all columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of NetNewsLedger.

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