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Public weighs in on city budget during town hall

A virtual town hall meeting was held to allow members of the public to ask questions of city administration regarding the proposed 2021 city budget
Thunder Bay City Hall

THUNDER BAY - From how the city will cover expenses related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the transportation master plan, the indoor turf facility, to free fare transit, the people of Thunder Bay posed their questions to city administration on the upcoming 2021 city budget.

A virtual town hall meeting was held Wednesday evening where a brief overview of the upcoming budget was presented and questions from the public were addressed.

The 2021 budget includes a tax supported infrastructure deficit estimated to be $21.7 million annually, while the rate supported infrastructure deficit is estimated at $7.6 million annually.

The budget also includes a two per cent tax levy increase but expenses related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic are not factored into that increase.

“The one time costs associated with COVID have been excluded from the levy,” said Coun. Mark Bentz. “To be included in the levy it would be quite the significant increase, around six per cent.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is estimated to result in a $9.2 million shortfall for the city and Bentz said the city will be looking to reserves and other sources to mitigate that shortfall and lost revenues.

“COVID is still with us and it is worsening at the moment,” Bentz said. “We don’t know what the future looks like. There could be certain implications on our budget that we cannot predict but likely our revenues will be decreased. We are also experiencing costs. Putting those two things together is where we come up with the $9.2 million estimate.”

A question was submitted to the town hall asking if the money earmarked for the multi-use indoor turf facility could be used to cover the shortfall caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The short answer is yes, but council makes decisions and we carry on with that,” city manager Norm Gale said.

“Council has resolved to use that funding towards the project. It is up to council to make any decision and they could change it but at this point the resolution has been passed to use that funding for the turf facility.”

Several other questions were brought forward with other cost saving suggestions to help mitigate the cost of the COVID-19 pandemic.

One individual asked if money could be saved by laying off staff at the Thunder Bay Police Service and Thunder Bay Fire Rescue in two-week intervals without pay.

“We are deemed as an essential service,” said Thunder Bay Police Service chief Sylvie Hauth. “We need all our staff. We respond to roughly 54,000 calls for service a year and we have collective agreements that dictate what we need to do as a board.”

Newly appointed Thunder Bay Fire Rescue chief Greg Hankkio echoed Hauth’s response, saying the collective agreement language does not permit those kinds of temporary layoffs.

Other questions related to city services, including the transportation master plan and active transportation plan, and city transit.

A member of the community said the target completion date of the city’s transportation plan and active transportation is` 2038 and asked if the city is to realize these plans, should it not be start spending more money.

Kayla Dixon, director of engineering and operations with the city, said that in order for the city to implement the plans it is required to invest approximately $3 million per year. In 2020, it invested $3.9 million.

“In addition to the capital investment the city continues to support programming to encourage people to be active,” she said, adding programs such as Safe Cycling Thunder Bay and the temporary closure of the south bound lane on the Cumberland Street Bridge while the Boulevard Damn pedestrian bridge is undergoing rehabilitation.

The possibility of introducing free fare transit was also brought forward, with one individual saying those living in poverty rely on public transportation to travel to essential services, but the cost of transit can be a barrier.

Pascal Gauvreau, acting manager for transit services with the city said user fees account for approximately 35 per cent of the transit services budget.

“By providing free transit, we eliminate 35 per cent of our budget, which equates to $7 million,” he said. “We would have to reduce our service by 35 per cent to operate in the new budget, or increase property taxes, which is 3.5 per cent. It would be tough to do a fare free transit.”

The public is still invited to submit their thoughts on the 2021 budget. A survey is available online until Nov. 25. Residents will also be given an opportunity to present deputations to city council on the budget in January. For more information, visit the city of Thunder Bay website.

Doug Diaczuk

About the Author: Doug Diaczuk

Doug Diaczuk is a reporter and award-winning author from Thunder Bay. He has a master’s degree in English from Lakehead University
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