If you want to change the system— change being the political theme of the day — you have two choices: Complain from a distance and hope that enough people happen to share your concern to grab the attention of relevant authorities. Or get involved.

Goodness knows there are enough opportunities for the latter. If only more people had the gumption to use them.

While the coffee shop regulars may think they have the answers to what ails Thunder Bay, their opinions often don’t go past the table. Meanwhile, other people take advantage of forums in which to make a difference.

Apparently a growing number of people have issues with the way the city is run. While the 2019 Citizen Satisfaction Survey says that 82 per cent of respondents are happy about their overall quality of life and their sense of community, that’s down five points from the last survey two years ago and 10 points since 2013.

The Ipsos polling firm went out of its way to gain a cross-section of opinions and found that the happiest people are older, feel safe and don’t experience racial discrimination. There is smaller majority agreement on quality of life among those who experience discrimination but still a majority, so that’s something.

Asked about city services, 81 per cent are very or somewhat satisfied. But here again, that’s down eight points since 2013. Declines are most pronounced for policing, bylaw enforcement, snow removal and street maintenance.

Oddly, support for infrastructure improvements remains high but has weakened. Meanwhile, support for recreation and multi-use trails is up significantly.

The number of people who say they get good value for their tax dollars is at its lowest level ever — a concern hardly limited to Thunder Bay.

Crime is the top concern here, rising dramatically 28 points from 2017. Only six in 10 residents feel safe walking in their own neighbourhood.

More people say they or someone they know has been the victim of a crime, though reporting of crime is down 25 per cent since 2011. How can police respond to crime if no one calls them?

Eight in 10 residents say racism and discrimination are a problem in Thunder Bay and 13 per cent of respondents — some 14,000 people — say they have experienced some form of discrimination.

There is much more to chew on in the survey and many issues for city council to contend with. They’ll either do it themselves or they’ll take direction from residents .

City Hall has made sure there is every opportunity for citizens to participate in helping to shape municipal policies. There are ward meetings with councillors, online surveys and a portal on the city website, thunderbay.ca/getinvolved. Here you can register to formally comment on the city budget, the strategic plan, the transportation master plan, join a committee or board or volunteer.

“Public engagement is a shared responsibility between the city and the community and contributes to meeting expectations of transparency and action,” the city says in the latest of edition of its Mytbay newsletter — yet another way to stay informed.

The current outlook for citizen participation is not encouraging. At a recent open house to allow citizens to interact with city staff about the coming budget and the long-range strategic plan, only about 30 people bothered to show up. There were as many administrators as there were people talking to them.

Among those attending were city firefighters concerned with a new Fire Rescue Master Plan now being developed “to guide operational improvements and enhance how Thunder Bay Fire Rescue services are provided.”

As positive as that sounds, firefighters fear it means cuts to the department’s budget. They might be right. Indeed, cost containment is a key objective. But is that wrong? Are cost savings impossible? Is Fire Rescue immune from spending review simply because it is an emergency service?

Taxpayers spend $30 million a year on a fire department with 211 employees. All but five per cent of operating funds goes to wages and benefits.

The fire union has proven adept at taking advantage of the provincial arbitration system that sees stalled contract negotiations handed to an arbitrator who usually awards the union whatever the last highest settlement was in Ontario. This is a wage ladder with no limit. The city has tried and failed to plead the need for raises that match affordability.

The bulk of Thunder Bay’s public servants on the annual sunshine list of those paid $100,000 and up are emergency personnel -- fire, police and paramedics, all of whom often race to the same emergency call.

Citizens can participate in an online survey to share ideas on this plan or attend an open house Tuesday. But how many will do so? How many will respond only if and when the issue gets contentious at council?

Online opinions will be considered until June 30 by Emergency Management and Training Inc. (EMT), hired consultants who have worked with other Ontario communities on fire department reviews.

“Saving lives is the bottom line,” is the heading on EMT’s website. Bottom line can mean one of two things: The final line in a profit-and-loss statement or the most important fact in a situation. Fire staff fear too much reliance on the former and stress relevance of the latter in terms of public safety.

EMT notes that fire services respond to a wide array of calls, not just fires but medical emergencies, motor vehicle collisions, hazardous material releases and are often called to handle a crisis when other agencies don’t know what to do. As such, developing a new master plan is critical, “ensuring the most efficient use of resources as the fire service continues to meet the demands of the community.”

The Citizen Satisfaction Survey found 73 per cent of respondents are very satisfied with the fire service. And no wonder. Their resources are enormous and impressive — a new pumper was just approved and a new 20-foot boat was custom-made. They get their jobs done quickly and effectively. But only a set of outside eyes can determine if Thunder Bay Fire Rescue is operating at peak efficiency. Public involvement in that assessment is important as council considers all spending in an era of needed restraint.

Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.

(Originally published June 15, 2019)

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