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Thunder Bay Municipal Budget 2021: Overview

Thunder Bay Municipal Budget 2021: Overview

THUNDER BAY, ONTARIO ~~~~~~  January 11, 2020 (LSN)  t is budget time at Thunder Bay City Council and this year’s discussion should be quite interesting given the coming together of the pandemic, numerous water issues that have affected residents directly in their pocket-books as well as the long-term effects of rising municipal expenditures combined with a flat population profile and an essentially stagnant property tax base.

The proposed 2021 municipal tax levy, which represents the total amount of dollars that needs to be raised from property taxpayers to fund City services, local boards and agencies and contribute to capital infrastructure programs, is $203,682,300 - an increase of 2.15% or $4.3 million over the 2020 approved municipal tax levy of $199,398,000. By comparison, in 2020 the municipal levy increase was $5.3 million, representing a 2.73% increase over 2019. Not included in the increase are costs associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, which are proposed to be funded from the Stabilization Reserve Fund in 2021 and one expects the millions of dollars in federal and provincial funds that have been provided for the purpose.

As well, there are numerous user fee increases not least of which is for water which comes in at 3.5 percent.  The irony of a 3.5 percent increase for water given the epidemic of residential pinhole leaks affecting thousands of residents is notable. As well, the 2021 proposed capital budget is presented at $51,607,300 gross of which $16,525,700 is funded by the tax levy representing an increase of 8.6% compared to the 2020 budget.  In terms of employment, the number of fulltime equivalent positions (FTEs) rises from 1724 to 1758 which we are assured is temporary because it has to do with cleaning costs associated with COVID.  This increase of 34 FTEs in municipal employment comes on the heels of 9 FTEs in 2020 and 10.5 in 2019.


 

 

If one wants some comparisons, Figure 1 plots the total municipal tax levy from 1990 to the current forecast for 2021 with the trend readily apparent. As well, while we know that Thunder Bay in 2020 had the second highest property tax rate of 35 Ontario cities, Figure 2 looks at the per capita levy in 2020 for 27 Ontario cities.  It turns out, that at $1783 per capita, Thunder Bay is the fourth highest.  For those purists who say it is unfair to compare us with cities like Toronto, very well, let us just look at the five major northern Ontario ones.  Here, Thunder Bay is ranked first – primus inter pares – above North Bay, Timmins, Sudbury and the Sault.

 

 

If City Council is to be guided on what to do this year it may want to heed the results of its own budget survey which had nearly 500 respondents though one expects that the expert statisticians resident on City Council will simply discount the results as based on a small and biased sample of negatively minded people not representing the true mind of the City of which only City Councillors have the divine power to ascertain.  Still, the survey results were quite telling as the general tenor of the responses was to focus on core services. 

 

As the report reads: “While there was a wide variety of topics covered, the strongest message and overarching theme centred around not spending money on extras considered ‘wants’ and instead focusing on essential ‘needs’. For example, not spending money on new capital projects such as the Multi-use Indoor Turf Facility, a waterfront sign, roundabout, or art gallery, and instead investing in existing City infrastructure (roads, facilities, fixing water pipes), and social services such as crime prevention and supporting vulnerable populations. It was also conveyed that citizens have experienced financial hardship because of the pandemic and do not want to see their taxes raised at this time – especially not to support new capital projects. Citizens outlined they would like to see the City invest in what we currently have and support the core needs without increases taxes – understanding this means giving up those items which would be nice to have but are not essential services.”

Indeed, based on a ranking of what is considered “very important or important,” the top programs and services in the city should be: emergency services, winter maintenance, drinking water, road maintenance and construction, garbage and recycling.  Included at the bottom are transit, child-care, libraries, recreation programs and facilities, animal services, and economic development.  There certainly does not seem to be a groundswell of support in this survey for new capital projects that do not reflect a core services mandate.

 

What should the City of Thunder Bay do this budget season?  Well, that is the $203,682,300 question.  First, it probably is time for Thunder Bay to visit the concept of core services in a more substantial manner.  Given our tax base, running the expansive set of services that we have is increasingly difficult given the size of the tax base. If the province wants us to fund an expansive set of community and social services on a local and regional level perhaps, they should foot more of the bill. Second, the 2.15 percent proposed increase does represent a retreat from the 4 percent or more number that was being bandied about earlier in the year.  While it may seem that City Councillors and administration have seen the light, it is unfortunately an oncoming freight train in a dark tunnel and more needs to be done. 

While 2 percent does mirror the rule of keeping increases to the sum of the rate of inflation (approximately 2 percent) plus population growth (pretty much zero), it should represent an upper bound rather than a flexible target.  There is more to be done to get levy growth even lower. Third, given that approximately 70 percent of costs are often associated with employment levels, there really needs to be a program of reduction via attrition and redeployment and retraining of staff.  For the next three years, for every two municipal employees that retire or resign, there should only be one replaced.  That FTE footprint needs to start coming down to where it was a few years back – say 1700 as in 2017.  At 100,000 per employee – which is not an unreasonable estimate of what each municipal FTE costs when salaries and benefits are combined, that would eventually reduce spending by $5 million a year.

 

Of course, all this talk of numbers and reductions is probably a lot for more upbeat members of council and one certainly one would not wish to bore them to death as they are perfectly capable of doing that to themselves during their marathon five and six-hour meetings.  A better way of framing all of this is via a simple analogy from the world of nature.  Simple stories are often the best ones as they can reduce complicated issues to the essentials needed for understanding.

Picture if you will, our municipal government as a Physalia physalis – also known as a Portuguese Man O’ War – floating serenely in a large aquarium.  It is essentially a large jelly like inflated bladder that in the end is rather brainless and feeds instinctively on the small fish and creatures in the aquarium via the lethal stingers in its tentacles.  Along with being rather brainless, it also really has no anus so it is probably recycling its own waste matter which can eventually get monotonous and a little stale given the size of its environment. 

As it sits in its limited environment and exhausts its food supply, it really is not capable of doing what needs to be done.  The solution is either to expand the size of the aquarium and restock it with new prey or replace the current Physalia Phyalis with a new and much smaller one or perhaps even an entirely new creature.  The current creature of course behaves by instinct and really is not capable of altering its size or its environment.  It is not capable of expanding the size of its environment – economic growth and an expanded tax base – and it does not appear to be capable of shrinking on its own.  I suppose that a solution has to be done by forces external to the situation.  I guess that is where the voters will ultimately come into the picture. 

by 

#LSN_TBay #LSN_Econ 

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The Northern Economist blog started on Shaw Webspace as commentary and analysis of economic issues and policy from a Northern Ontario perspective by Livio Di Matteo, Professor of Economics at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada. It had regular posts from November 2010 to February 2012. Posts continued on Northern Economist 2.0 until 2013 when I took an extended break. Occasional posts resumed effective December 2016. With Shaw terminating its blog space functions, I have archived the old posts at: northerneconomistarchive.blogspot.ca.

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