Thunder Bay City Council moves forward with indoor sports facility, tax levy increase and master fire plan
The packed council meeting continued well into the early morning on August 24
Money was top of mind for many councillors during the city council meeting in Thunder Bay on Monday night, and factored in heavily to debates on a range of topics including the targeted municipal tax levy for the 2021 budget, the future of fire services and the reopening of city services moving into the fall.
But most were waiting to discuss the future of the multi-use indoor sport facility. And it was precisely the heated debate that many anticipated.
The conversation started with at-large councillor Mark Bentz put forth an amendment requesting council to refer the decision to tender and finance the facility for 90 days.
Councillors were requesting more time before voting on the future of the facility called for more consultation and certainty about the financial implications of COVID-19, among other concerns.
Meanwhile, those in favour of moving forward with the vote on Monday night rebutted, saying there had already been years of consultations and suggesting there would always be an element of uncertainty when making decisions on large capital projects.
Eventually, council voted against the amendment to refer the decision by a margin of seven-to-six. After another hour of debate, council voted along the same lines to tender (upon completion of the tender package) and finance the multi-use indoor sport facility in Chapples Park.
Those voting in favour of the project included Mayor Bill Mauro and councillors Albert Aiello, Shelby Ch'ng, Andrew Foulds, Cody Fraser, Kristen Oliver and Aldo Ruberto. Those against the tendering and financing of the facility were councillors Mark Bentz, Trevor Giertuga, Brian Hamilton, Rebecca Johnson, Brian McKinnon and Peng You.
Council struggles with how to address COVID-19 costs in 2021 budget
With work already underway to prepare the 2021 municipal budget, councillor Shelby Ch'ng and city manager Norm Gale called on council to provide clarity for city officials moving forward with budget planning.
But there was anything but as the debate stretched longer than three hours as councillors tried to make sense of the impacts of the "one-time costs" of COVID-19 on the city budget.
The original recommendation was that city administration target a municipal tax levy increase — which is the year-over-year increase in the amount of taxes that the city must collect in order to pay for expenses — of 3.45 per cent for next year's budget.
That would be the largest tax levy increase in at least 10 years in the city of Thunder Bay, with a considerable portion of the increase resulting from an estimated $8.4 million in COVID-19-related costs.
Several councillors expressed concerns about whether community members could financially weather such a large increase, and if the costs related to the pandemic should be included in the 2021 budget.
Ultimately, council voted to have city administration target a two per cent tax levy increase and exclude the more-than $8 million in pandemic expenses from the tax levy increase, with administration reporting back with options to mitigate those additional costs. Those options could include drawing from city stabilization reserve funds and finding additional opportunities for revenue generation.
Report on the future of fire services presented to council
Council also received the Thunder Bay Fire Rescue (TBFR) strategic master fire plan, which provided a 10-year plan and a number of recommendations to "improve" fire services in the city and find long-term cost savings.
The report, presented by the president of Emergency Management & Training Inc. Darryl Culley, offered a series of options to council to consolidate and/or relocate several fire stations in order to present long-term savings for the city due to the reduction of stations.
Culley did not say which option he would recommend, despite at-large councillor Rebecca Johnson asking him directly.
Two of the three options would involve the consolidation of the Vickers and the North Central fire stations, relocating both to a newly constructed headquarters in the Balmoral Street and Central Avenue area. One option includes the closure of the James Street fire station, and another option includes the relocation of the James Fire Station to a newly constructed building.
Data presented within the report shows that the Vickers and the North Central fire stations were the busiest stations in the city in 2018, together responding to almost three-quarters of all calls made.
The report also raised concerns about the high number of medical calls that the Thunder Bay fire service responds to and the associated operational costs and resources. Statistics from 2018 show that 36 per cent of the 9,158 total calls were related to medical incidents.
Noting that TBFR is reported to be first on the scene almost three-quarters of the time and that the number of calls that TBFR responds to have increased by about 33 per cent between 2008 and 2018, the strategic plan provided options to reduce costs.
One of those proposed recommendations is to create two platoons of firefighters that would respond in smaller emergency vehicles specifically to calls related to medical concerns.
City officials will now review the report and associated recommendations, and will continue to report back to council as the work is undertaken.
More city facilities and services to open in coming months
As part of the continued efforts to reopen city facilities and services, council voted in favour of reopening the Canada Games Complex, the Ogden, Woodcrest and private child care services, and the Baggage Building Arts Centre by the end of September.
The 55 Plus Centre/West Arthur Community Centre is being reviewed for reopening, with a tentative program start date of September 24.
Recognizing a high demand for arenas, Fort William Stadium and Volunteer Pool, city officials are reviewing reopening plans for the facilities with plans to bring an update to council in September and October. The Current River arena was reopened on August 17, following a motion passed by city council on July 20.
The neighbourhood recreation program and community centres are also under review for reopening, and city council approved keeping Mariners' Hall (Prince Arthur's Landing) and city events closed for the time being.
Decisions on council size, program and service review to happen in September
A recommendation brought forward by councillor Kristen Oliver that would require city officials to prepare and complete a public consultation about the possibility of decreasing the size of city council to nine members from its current 13 was deferred until September 21.
City council agreed to establish a special committee that would review recommendations presented within the program and services review that was brought forth during a meeting in June 2020. The report made a series of recommendations to cut city expenses, including the sale or closure of several city-owned facilities.
That special meeting will be held on September 24 at 5:00 p.m., with requests for public deputations due to the city before noon on September 22.