THUNDER BAY, ONTARIO, February 18. 2020 (LSN) City hall is where transparency goes to die. The proof? City councillors paid consultants almost a quarter of a million dollars for a study and never made the report public.
It took a Freedom of Information request to pull back the curtain on just what we got for our money.
Formally, the report is called the Thunder Bay Stormwater Financing Study. Many people knew it as the city’s plan to impose a rainfall tax.
AECOM, the consultants, tried to make the case that imposing a tax was “the right thing to do”.
“A stormwater user fee is capable of generating a financially sustainable, equitably allocated, fully supportive, an environmentally friendly mechanism for supporting the City’s stormwater program needs.”
But there were concerns. According to the report, city hall staff concluded the bureaucracy needed to collect the tax was going to simply cost too much.
More telling, though, is a phrase in the same bullet point in the report: “it is anticipated that a user fee would not be publicly supported at this time”.
The report recommended a couple of options. But until now they’d not seen the light of day.
(One was to change the current tax system to create new levies for urban and rural properties based on the services they received from the city. The second was to adopt a user fee for single family homes.)
But according to the consultants, when they met with city councillors to discuss the options, the politicians told them “not interested”.
Here’s what the consultants said about that meeting on April 04th last year:
“Options were then considered against the status quo and the project team engaged in informed discussions with councillors. It was determined that changes in stormwater financing in isolation is not recommended given that these changes may be short term and may not align with the future holistic plan that includes all infrastructure assets.”
After the meeting on April 04th, there was silence from city hall about the outcome of the study until June.
That’s when the city engineer overseeing the project issued a memo to council stating the department was shelving the quarter of a million dollar project.
It repeated the mantra that there was no business case for a rainfall tax because of high start-up and on-going costs of making it work.
The public information meeting that was supposed to be held once the study was completed was quietly cancelled.
All of this suggests council simply bowed to administration’s recommendation to drop the idea of a new tax without seeing the report and discussing it with the consultants. That after spending a quarter of a million to get the report. How believable is that?
Wasn’t it councillors’ job to have debated the pros and cons of a new tax? Shouldn’t the public have been consulted once the study was completed?
The public deserved to hear the debate about this contentious tax. It was an issue in the election campaign the year before. And with the decision to shelve the report, all the concern expressed by council and administration about the need to prepare the city’s infrastructure for climate change simply disappeared.
Just as disturbing: if the cost of implementing the new tax was the deal-breaker, this quarter of a million dollar study wasn’t even needed. Anyone could have figured out costs of the bureaucracy required on the back of an envelope. The numbers involved are publicly available from other cities that imposed the new tax.
Instead, it’s clear from the report that city hall wanted the consultants to sell the public on the idea of this new tax, to do all the heavy political lifting. It didn’t work. The study was quietly shelved with no public debate.
But we still got the bill.
By Shane Judge
Retired CBC radio reporter and mayoralty candidate
The views expressed in this opinion article are solely those of their author and are not necessarily either shared or endorsed by Lake Superior News / Lake Superior Media.
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