Thursday, July 13, 2017

Greater Sudbury Council is Out of Control

Maley Drive. A new Kingsway Entertainment District. Four-laning MR 35. Six-laning MR 80 to the Valley.  Straightening the S-curve on the Kingsway by buying up vacant lots. Building a new parking facility at Bell Park. Funding for a new Synergy Centre, for a new library, for a new art gallery, and for the Elgin Greenway.

All at a time when the experts are telling us that our city and region is not likely to experience growth.  And not just right now – but over the next 20 years.  All at a time when the experts are telling us that we are an aging community – and that more of us will be living on fixed incomes in the coming years as we transition from the active workforce and into retirement.

Taking the bus around the City, I can’t help but notice the number of For Sale signs that seem to be growing almost as quickly as weeds fed by June rainstorms.  Yes, the rate of unemployment isn’t presently something that should worry us – but with a cold housing market and expectations of rising property taxes thanks to the hundreds of millions of dollars of new spending that our Council has committed us too – most for projects that we do not need and which will not help us grow jobs beyond temporary construction jobs – we need to worry about the long-term sustainability of our City.

In 2014, voters kicked out most members of what can only charitably be described as a lackluster Council.  Criticized as divided, and unable to take action, candidates standing for election in 2014 vowed to be more decisive. The Council that we elected to replace our previous under-performing Council  is one that clearly wants to be seen as making decisions and getting things done.  For many in our community, that’s enough – and it may very well be enough to see the current Council mostly returned to office in 2018.


However, what is becoming clear is that the spending commitments being made by this Council are lacking prioritization, and lacking any solid financial plan for their implementation.  While approaching senior levels of government for funding remains an option (with unknown and unknowable outcomes), debt financing appears to be the solution that Council has struck upon for funding many of the projects that they have approved or are now entertaining.

In normal circumstances, debt financing presents a viable option for municipalities – especially if funding is directed to constructing a municipal asset that is intended to have an economic impact  Debt financing a new events centre, for example, makes more sense, due to the anticipated economic spin-offs, than for the creation of a new road, like Maley Drive – a road that is not anticipated to result in any new economic activity, but simply the relocation of existing economic activity at best.  It’s not as if the ore trucks will stop driving around the City if we don’t construct Maley Drive.
Of course, maximizing economic development potential should be priority one for Council – especially if debt financing a community asset is considered  But instead of following the advice of Council’s own hired expert from PriceWaterhouseCoopers, and instead of listening to our local Chamber of Commerce, or looking to the experiences of other cities that have built events centres in their downtowns, our Council opted to embrace an economically risky venture on the Kingsway, primarily out of the hope that by doing so, it might stimulate additional development in the area.

In other communities in Ontario, the approach embraced by our Council might have some merit.  The creation of a brand new Entertainment District anchored by an events centre, a new casino and a motorsports park might be a way of capturing new economic development activity that complements existing core areas of the city while stimulating job creation and ultimately growth.  But Greater Sudbury in this respect is not like most other similar sized cities in Ontario in that we know we are not growing – there is no growth available for us to capture.

Confronting the "Growth Paradigm"

Some members of our Council believe that this is a defeatist message.  They believe that our City can capture growth by embracing bold new initiatives, and improving our roads.  They may even be correct about how some new initiatives could potentially lead to growth in our community – but for the most part, the initiatives they’ve embraced – Maley Drive, 4-laning MR 35, and putting the community events centre in a greenfield on the Kingsway – are the wrong initiatives needed for our City to meet the challenges of the 21st Century. Not only will they not lead to new job creation and growth - they'll actually impede our ability to fund the initiatives that will deliver long-term, creative class jobs.

More importantly, ignoring facts and evidence that is available and known when making decisions – and substituting personal opinions about growth expectations in place of facts and evidence – is a sure-fire way to doom our City to the consequences of irresponsible decisions. And make no mistake – this Council has exceeded expectations when it comes to making irresponsible choices for the City.  Even those Council members who initially passionately embraced locating our community events centre in the downtown core, and who then opted to select the Kingsway as the only remaining choice left on the table – they too are complicit in this gross irresponsibility.

Maley Drive and 4-laning MR 35 have long been on the books as road projects that the City (and before amalgamation, the Region of Sudbury) deemed necessary.  That few elected officials ever questioned whether the assumptions about traffic patterns today and going forward 30 years into the future are the same as those made back in the 1990s when the roads were first proposed shows a complete lack of vision on the part of a series of elected Councils.  Yes, I understand that the recently approved Transportation Master Plan continues to identify both road projects as priorities – but this plan was based on traffic data from 2005 which has not been updated and does not take into account changing transportation patterns – and is based on population projections which were significantly more rosy than what the experts are now predicting.

At the Council table this week, another road project long on the books reared its head – the 6-laning of MR 80 to the Valley.  Yes, this project is one that our traffic engineers have deemed necessary – even in a circumstance where growth is not anticipated to occur over the next 20 years. 

Confronting the Sprawl Paradigm

Of course, we know that the outlying areas are experiencing small gains in population, primarily at the expense of the inner city, which the Census shows to be losing people.  So the desire to push out and build new infrastructure that services a sprawling area of the City seems like a natural thing to do, for some. After all, if Chelmsford, Val Caron and Hanmer are where the only growth is happening (even if that growth is primarily from cannibalizing population from the former City of Sudbury – probably as a result of offering Valley homeowners a break on their taxes through Area Rating) doesn’t it make sense to widen roads and extend pipes to service new subdivisions?

Well, no – because the cost of taking this is approach is one that we can’t afford.  Growth never pays for growth –we know that from study after study.  It is a universal truth, despite what elected officials might claim when they thump their chests and point to all of the new property taxation greenfield growth will bring in.  Look at Mississauga they might say.  And in response I would say, yes, please, look at Mississauga – a City that relied almost solely on growth for new revenues in the 1980s and 1990s, but by the year 2000 was in such an infrastructure deficit that annual property tax increases to pay for work that the City should have undertaken itself at the time of its development bonanza have left now left Mississauga ill-prepared to tackle the challenges of the 21st century.  Of course, Mississauga has one advantage over Greater Sudbury – it at least is still growing – but it’s not growing by developing more greenfields.  It’s growing by building up, and not out – and that’s a lesson that our current Council just doesn’t seem to want to understand.

Municipal Investments as Economic Development Catalysts

And that takes us back to the prioritization of municipal projects our Council has approved.  Some of these projects can clearly act as catalysts for economic development – although with limited or no growth expected on the horizon, it’s not at all clear that the economic activity normally associated with projects like an events centre will be our experience, no matter even if the events centre had been located in the most sensible part of the City where maximum benefits could be expected (that would be the downtown). Ultimately, the City should be focusing on livability – the creation of new and rehabilitation of existing infrastructure so as to meet the needs and expectations of the existing generation and the one that comes after it.  After all, those are the people who are going to be paying for the decisions now made by our Council, particularly if debt financing is the way forward.  Even if senior levels of government pour money into municipal projects, it will be the next generation that picks up the tab – as both the Province and the Feds are already up to their eyeballs in hock.

But this Council seems determined to ignore the needs of the existing and future generation, and instead are committed to a spending spree on projects that might have seemed good ideas in the 1980s – but which are clearly not in keeping with the tide of history and the experiential needs of the very job-creating taxpayers that we hope to attract to our City to look after us in our fixed-income old age.  We know that millennials are highly mobile, and therefore quite selective with their employment choices.  We know that businesses and industry that rely on the creative class to fill their jobs and show leadership in innovation are looking to progressive cities as locations for investment.  We know that Greater Sudbury is in competition with places like Ottawa, Halifax, Kingston and Barrie as centres that are striving to champion a narrative that balances livability with low costs and a high level of citizen engagement in cultural, entertainment and social matters.

And yet although we know this, we choose to spend our money on building roads we don’t need, upgrading roads that are not expected to see their traffic volumes increase, and building community facilities in areas that can only be accessed by cars – the very antithesis of creating a livable community.  That we do this through debt financing makes it even worse.  But that we do these things at the expense of otherwise investing in making our City livable is simply absurd.  The priorities of the Council are all wrong.

Evidence-Based Decision Making

And it’s not like Council doesn’t know this.  The City has an Official Plan that embraces the concept of promoting livability. And we have a recently approved economic development strategy that offers up 101 or 117 projects to move the City forward, most of which have a focus on helping create a livable community.  We know that our City is in a competition. We have the documents that map a way forward for our City to do the best that we can, with the constraints that we face.  But none of that seems to sink in.  Hell, we’ve even got one member of Council who appears to pride himself on NOT reading reports and documents.

Council hired an expert to determine the best location for a new events centre.  Council ignored the expert’s advice. Council hired an expert to tell the City what infrastructure it should now be investing in – and rather than looking to fixing what we have at a time when growth is not expected, Council instead commits to extending infrastructure – and commits to the additional maintenance costs it’s going to have to pick up as a result.

Through the Fire Optimization Review, Council had a chance to take real action and finally eliminate the perverse subsidy that exists in this City that favours outlying area homeowners at the expense of inner-city residents, it decided against taking any action at all.  When you have a lower tax rate in one part of the City, it’s not entirely unexpected to see growth occurring there.  When you have a lower tax rate in one part of the City and no actual aggregate growth in population occurring throughout the City, it’s not unexpected to see the lower-taxed area experience growth at the expense of the higher-taxed area.   That’s what’s happening in Greater Sudbury, according to the Census.  And it’s perverse, because we know that on the whole it costs more to provide services to residents of the outlying areas than it does to inner-city residents.  We’ve got area rating backwards – if anything (and I’m not saying I’m an advocate of this approach), we should be taxing the inner city at a lower level of taxation than outlying area properties, because if there is to be growth, it ought to be channeled towards those parts of our community where we can get the biggest bang for our buck: those areas that save the City money, are more livable and can be more easily retrofitted to meet the needs of the 21st century.

If we were growing, we might be able to have it both ways – the majority of growth in the inner city that will have lower costs to the City, with some more expensive-to-service growth in the outlying areas.  But we are not growing.  As a result, every development choice we make is one made at the expense of seeing development occur in other locations.  And on this count, our current Council is doing all that it can to accommodate inefficient growth in the outlying areas, by championing more development in rural areas through land division policy changes, and by approving houses on large lots on the urban fringes.  I get that just saying No is often not politically popular, but if our Council had made a concerted effort to promote sustainable development at the outset of its mandate, saying No to development initiatives that work against the financial health of the City would have been a lot easier.

Focus on Sustainability

But really, there’s little desire on the part of this Council to do much that’s sustainable.  Too many Council members are convinced that the way forward for our community lies in the pursuit of growth, rather than working within the constraints that we have. And that’s a huge problem, because we have decisions being made by elected officials that are not based on fact and evidence.  Council is chasing after unicorns – and it’s going to lead to our ruin. Pursuing the growth paradigm is not option – and people like me who repeat this truth over and over again to our elected officials are not being “defeatist” – we’re being pragmatic with the hand that our City’s been dealt.

I am encouraged by some of the decisions made recently by Council to move forward with the downtown Synergy Centre – a facility that really could stimulate new economic activity in our community.  I’m less thrilled with the idea of a new library and art gallery, even though I am a supporter of the arts and a frequent user of our municipal library system (but at a time when we ought to be practicing a little more fiscal restraint, it's not clear to me these two projects will be catalysts for economic development).  I’m happy that Council as least suggested that the groups behind these initiatives look to co-location – but I’m appalled that Council didn’t the do the same for a community events centre, opting instead to assess the merits of a stand-alone facility, either for the downtown or the Kingsway.  Co-location of the major projects which Council championed should have been a part of any options assessed.  And had Council actually engaged the public through an appropriate public consultation process on the events centre, the Synergy centre, the library or arts gallery, it might have heard that loud and clear from a public that seems to be more concerned about saving money than our Council does.

Public Consultation and Engagement

And had Council opted first to consult the public on a community events centre, I expect that they would have also heard, loudly and clearly, that this was not the time to spend a $100 million on a new facility when retrofitting the existing community arena at a smaller price would lead to many, if not all, of the same outcomes as a new events centre. I suspect Greater Sudburians would have embraced a more sustainable, good-enough solution over what many are already calling reckless spending – especially since the location selected by this Council has not yet been determined to be viable for this kind of community facility.

But Council, in its wisdom, opted not to engage the public.  And a public, eager for information about projects that will critically effect the future of our City, and the budgets of taxpayers, were left at the mercy of a developer-driven public relations campaign that often provided misleading information or failed to correct the record of assumptions made by the public.   Maybe public engagement wasn’t something that Council really wanted at all – given the outcry that emanated from the public prior to the Maley Drive decision.  And Council might have had the recent experience with Lorne Street in mind, where it did decide to engage the public in providing input related to cycling and walking – and after hearing loud and clear that these were priorities in the community, chose to ignore the public’s advice.

I’m happy that Council is tentatively moving forward with the Elgin Greenway project, as it’s the sort of project that will help make our community more livable.  The Elgin Greenway, at least, was subject to considerable public consultation, through the recent Downtown Master Plan process.  I’m upset that Council opted to scale back the Greenway, out of concerns related to expenses – especially in light of the hundreds of millions of dollars worth of new projects that they’ve opted to proceed with.  Nickel and diming the Greenway just doesn’t wash – especially with Maley Drive – a needless road to nowhere – in mind.

Working Together to Build a Better Future

Despite some of these small victories for livability and economic development, the off-setting decisions to approve new roads and upgrade roads at a time when growth is just not occurring, and the decision to promote sprawl through road projects and putting community facilities in urban-edge greenfields can’t be ignored.  Nor, too, can the opportunities that have been missed by Council be ignored.  The conclusion is an obvious one, if a difficult one for me to arrive at, given my relationships with and past support for some of the members of our current Council.  It has to be said, though: Greater Sudbury Council is out of control. 

We have an opportunity coming up in 2018 to elect new members of Council.  Hopefully, my fellow citizens will opt for candidates that will use facts and evidence as the basis for decision-making, and who will champion sustainability rather than embrace a mythical growth paradigm.  Candidates who understand that spending must be constrained and focused on priorities that we need to make our communities livable and attractive to current and future residents, while acknowledging changing realities and trends (such as the need to confront the climate crisis at all levels; a shift towards electrified vehicles and alternative methods of transportation; and, a desire to end inefficient subsidies directed primarily towards those who don’t need them) should be the preferred choices of citizens.

Over the next year, I guess that’s what I’ll have to be working towards.  Not because I want to, mind you – I’d much rather not find myself in this position.  But I’ve got three children to answer to – three children whose future I very much want to be bright, and whom I very much want to see grow and prosper in this community.  I fear that the future this Council has committed to creating is destined to be one that does not meet the wants and needs of my children.  And so what choice do I have?  Other than to pick up and move to another community (something so many have already done, and whom I can’t fault for taking that action – as it’s not one that’s ever far from the back of my mind), there’s only one option remaining: to fight for the future of my children, in my community.

The good news for me is, I know that I won’t be alone. Others will take this leap with me – because if there’s one thing that the recent grassroots effort to promote a downtown events centre has shown, it’s that there are many in the community who are committed to fiscal, social and environmental sustainability.  There are many who are waking up to the fact that our current municipal Council members are making bad decisions which threaten the health and economic fitness of our City.  There is a palpable sense of anger, for sure – but there’s also a growing sense of hope and fraternity.  Together, we can do better. 

And we must do better.  Our children’s future depends on it.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada) 

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