THUNDER BAY – City council has been urged to limit tax increases, invest in a waterfront trail, and reject an expensive proposal for a new police headquarters as it prepares to finalize the 2022 municipal budget.
Council heard four deputations Thursday at a virtual pre-budget meeting allowing the public to provide feedback on the spending plan.
The number of public deputations was down from five last year, and eight in 2020. This year’s group included the Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce, the Waterfront Trail Rotary Community Action Team, active transportation advocate Ken Shields, and former mayoral candidate Shane Judge, who urged council to reject the new police station.
Council will review the budget and propose changes in a series of meetings leading up to final approval on Feb. 7. That includes another chance for public feedback on Feb. 3. An online survey is also available until that date.
Chamber of Commerce president Charla Robinson had just one policy ask, telling councillors the business community didn’t want to see the tax levy increase rise above the proposed 2.29 per cent after growth (2.44 per cent before growth).
“We hope the challenges facing the local business community will help to frame your budget discussions in the days ahead,” she said, arguing owners could ill afford property tax increases as they struggled to make it through the pandemic.
The business community was “quite encouraged” to see a proposed tax increase below CPI, but asked council to take “every possible opportunity” to reduce spending further.
Couns. Rebecca Johnson and Mark Bentz pressed Robinson for more detailed feedback, asking if there were particular areas where the chamber believed spending could be reduced.
“I don’t have any specific suggestions for you, unfortunately, but I certainly hope you’re able to find any areas to continue to trim the budget,” Robinson said.
The Waterfront Trail Rotary Community Action Team (WTRCAT), a group founded by local Rotarians and other community organizations, looked to nudge council toward more serious investments in a unified waterfront trail linking its north and south ends.
The group will advocate for the city to commit to a more ambitious vision for the trail, seeking to double its length to 24 kilometres, with a southward extension to Fort William First Nation and ending at Chippewa Park.
With the city’s existing 12-kilometre plan estimated to cost $20 million and take a decade to achieve, member Warren Philp admitted it was a daunting ask that will require a “huge leap of faith," like that taken to redevelop Prince Arthur’s Landing.
“Prince Arthur’s Landing has been the start of a wonderful re-connection to the lake for the citizens of Thunder Bay,” said fellow presenter Donna Ostrom. “The lake has become a special place again, to gather, stroll, skateboard, skate, splash, attend festivals, concerts, and plays, to bird watch and go for a sail, and to simply enjoy the splendour of Lake Superior.”
In the short term, the group asked for a commitment to plan and cost a southward extension from the Jackknife Bridge on Mission Island to the James Street Swing Bridge, if not all the way to Chippewa Park.
The group also asked council to backstop an economic and tourism impact study on the proposed trail, if the project is not fully funded by the CEDC.
Costs to build a kilometre of trail are approximately $500,000 on average, the city estimated in 2020, but will vary wildly for different sections of the planned route, some of which will require new bridges, road widening, and negotiations with private landowners.
Philp said the group was encouraged by the proposed investment of $2.83 million in the waterfront trail in 2022, which will come almost entirely from reserve funds. However, he called on the city for a much larger long-term investment plan.
Philp said the group will aim to contribute up to 25 per cent of costs for the project. He admitted fundraising plans were in their infancy, but pointed to a history of community support.
Between 1992 and 1994, local Rotary clubs raised $200,000 to the Thunder Bay Recreation Trails project, encouraging matching funds from the city and province.
Federal and provincial governments have announced infrastructure streams that could support trail, he said.
“We’ve been talking about the waterfront trail now since 2006,” said Coun. Aldo Ruberto, who has championed investment in the project. “Council is supportive, I can see that verbally now… You’re asking council to actually put their money where their mouth is.”
Active transportation advocated Ken Shields offered some praise for the 2022 budget, calling it “very promising for active transportation,” but conveyed that much work remained to be done to reach the city’s own goals.
A connected north-south cycling route still doesn’t exist in the city, despite being recommended by consultants and advocates for decades, he said.
That won’t change in 2022, but Shields welcomed a planned investment of $2.5 million for the Vickers-Carrick Bridge in 2023 under the city’s capital forecast.
Work on the two streets will be needed to allow for bike lanes along the route, he suggested.
He also called for the city to consider investments to support winter cycling
Two-time mayoral candidate Shane Judge urged council to return a proposal from the Thunder Bay Police Service for a $56 million new headquarters in the final deputation of the night.
He alleged “no consultation” was held as police developed the plan, arguing there was little public support for that level of police spending.
The TBPS did hold a public engagement session in December of 2019, which they reported was attended by 25 to 30 people. The department also launched a single-question survey on the city’s Get Involved website that was completed by 68 people.
Judge also argued the building would feature “incompatible uses,” claiming locating a shooting range at the facility could be dangerous. Questioned by Coun. Aldo Ruberto, he admitted he had no evidence to suggest it would be a safety risk.
“Something bad could happen,” he said. “You never know if something’s going to go wrong.”