BY IAN PATTISON
Maybe members of Thunder Bay city council had other things on their minds. Like what to make of our too-short summer under the social limitations of a pandemic. Whatever it was, they were in no mood Monday to make headway on some pretty important issues.
The long-awaited program and services review landed with a thud on councillors’ desks. Consultants Grant Thornton offered 45 potential savings to a council intent on saving money in a community that is fond of criticizing spending, just not spending on particular favourites.
Set in the context of a forecast budget shortfall of $13 million due to the coronvavirus alone, one might have thought the council would engage in substantial discussion about these many ways to save cash. They picked the easy stuff but avoided politically difficult subjects.
When they spied an automated water meter reading proposal that would recover its $12-million outlay in six years and save $2 million annually from then on, and the positive impact of a better digital strategy, they were enthusiastic. Not so when it came to a suggestion to close and divest the Centennial Botanical Conservatory.
This is one of the city’s worst performing facilities. Attendance is sparse and it is a “cash drain,” losing $620,000 a year, This should be an easy cut. But its backers are vocal, so despite much previous study and endless discussion at council, the only talk this week was around ways to save it.
Will the conservatory’s supporters -- on council and in the community -- go for the consultant’s suggestion of a $10 admission fee to cover operating costs? If a partner in the local garden industry hasn’t come forward yet, as suggested by one councillor, it’s doubtful one will be found in light of a brutal economy. Instead, offer it for sale and a greenhouse business looking for a prime city property might be interested in maintaining some of the displays alongside a sales operation.
Another perennial topic around the council table is the fate of the city’s two golf courses which have poor financial performance. Sell Chapples and Strathcona and you will save $100,000 a year, the consultants said. But, like the conservatory, the local public golf community is politically persuasive.
Does Thunder Bay need to run two golf courses when there are seven other local courses for golfers to choose from? Council might be surprised at the response should it call for proposals. Private enterprise just might be interested.
A stadium in the centre of any town is a prime asset. But even semi-professional baseball teams have been unable to maintain sizable crowds in the 3,031-seat facility. It’s a shame that video games and TV streaming services -- and lately, COVID -- keep more and more people in their homes these days while an enthusiastic core of fans make it to the games.
Council needs to enhance well-used facilities like trails and rinks (even there eight rinks representing just 21 per cent of the total could be closed) and look hard at the future relevance of others.
One jarring suggestion was to close Boulevard Lake beach. Are there that many fewer people swimming in recent years? Chippewa Park is recommended merely for a review. Boulevard is a gem that may be missed enough during this summer’s maintenance drainage to be appreciated again.
Does Thunder Bay need five sister cities with a committee of a dozen people to manage operations and send delegations to China, Japan, Finland and Minnesota? Does the project meet the objectives of promoting friendship, goodwill, education, economics and tourism?
It is said the city could save an estimated $117,000 by reducing by half collisions involving city vehicles. How many accidents are there, anyway?
There is “low enforcement and compliance” around the policy limiting idling of city vehicles to three minutes. Hamilton (pop. 500,000) saves an estimated $2-3 million annually by adhering to this environmental necessity.
There is a policy governing who takes home city vehicles but it, too, is not tightly supervised. If you’re on-call, take the truck home. Otherwise, it’s a waste of money and a potential liability. Apparently, abuse is common enough that the consultants recommend the city “Develop measures that cannot be gamed that creates transparency to discourage breaking rules.”
The report found city fleet maintenance wanting, too. That’s a surprising lack of management oversight.
The report mentions the one subject that, more than any other, councillors would like to see go away. Victoriaville eats up $581,000 annually and rising. Currently the subject of a public review (along with the fire service and EMS), council needs to make a firm and final decision on whether to maintain and better use this asset (a covered mall in a winter city ought to be a positive, but isn’t) or demolish it once and for all and see if persistent calls to do so result in a return to a vibrant Victoria Avenue.
(In other business this week the council yet again put off a decision on a designated truck route. Make up your minds.)
Thunder Bay is rich in amenities that take advantage of its natural setting. These add immeasurably to a quality of life that is treasured and somewhat unique. But maintaining this many programs and services is costing more than the city can afford. Something’s got to give and this report gives council options that it must grapple with.
The report has been shelved until September. That gives councillors nearly three months to get straight in their own minds what is needed, what is badly wanted, and what falls into that grey area of nice to have but may be no longer viable.
That goes for citizens, too. Further open houses will be held and a survey conducted to ensure vocal minorities don’t hold sway over the wider public will. This is a very “public” process. It requires public involvement to work to public advantage.
Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.