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Donald Atchison

Look but don’t touch

I know most of us are more concerned with the roads but have any of you noticed the condition of many of our light standards in the city.  Some are almost completely rusted through.  I have poked at more than one and had my finger go right through.  Others are really swaying in the recent wind. 

According to city reports, City Council has not only ignored city roads but also our electrical grid.  I know, I know, marking priorities is hard.

There were roads, bridges, and snow to neglect and now we have light poles that are not structurally safe and are rusting out. It’s actually remarkable that council could let so many things at the same time.

Oh wait, amidst all of our infrastructure falling, we have a clear goal.  In case you have ever wondered what drives the Mayor and council’s desire to keep taxes low when our city needs revenue, it is Calgary.

This is from 2011.

Saskatoon’s mayor is eyeing a property tax increase of one per cent per year less than Cowtown’s over the next decade.
In 10 to 15 years, Saskatoon’s tax rate could equal that of Alberta’s biggest city, where ratepayers have the lowest property taxes among major cities in the country, he said.

Calgary has fun with this.

To help set its mill rate, Calgary relies on a so-called municipal inflation rate, a combination of costs for salaries, service contracts, fuel and materials. Saskatoon’s administration is coming up with a formula to calculate its own municipal inflation rate and Atchison has said in the past it makes sense to try to tie property tax hikes closely to that amount rather than the consumer inflation rate.

Property tax increases since Atchison became mayor have averaged 3.7 per cent annually. During the same period, Calgary’s property tax has gone up by an average of 4.2 per cent with the municipal portion jumping an average of 6.5 per cent.

Atchison’s wish already has a fiscally prudent Calgary alderman, Andre Chabot, chuckling.

He notes this spring council chose to boost the education portion of the property tax by a onetime whopping 10.4 per cent to take advantage of the province’s move to cut its portion of the property tax.

By comparison, Saskatoon’s property tax rose by a relatively small four per cent in 2011.

“For the mayor of Saskatoon to make a claim like that, it certainly is a politically astute kind of selling feature for his proposed tax increases,” Chabot said, “because he can always make the argument that it was at least one per cent lower than Calgary’s increase.

So how many miles of roadways does “politically astute” pay for?

Of course there is a reason why Calgary’s mill rate is lower.  They collect more business tax.

Jack Vicq, professor emeritus of accounting at the University of Saskatchewan Edwards School of Business, said there are differences between how Saskatoon and Calgary are funded that need to be accounted for. The amount in business tax collected in Calgary keeps its property tax rate lower, he said.

More from Vicq

“Let’s make sure the framework we’re in is the same,” Vicq said. “I would go at it from the perspective of really, what is it we should be doing in the city of Saskatoon and how are we going to do that? And maybe that takes a property tax that is higher than Calgary. You can get into trouble by just looking at Calgary and saying, ‘I want to be there.’

“You might lose sight of what you should be doing as a city or what residents expect as a city.”

As an aside, as the video below shows, I am not sure that our mayor even understands basic tax policy.

Back to what we are talking about.

First of all, the reason we have a lower rate is that we don’t fund the city the same way.  We have inferior snow removal and road repair policies to Calgary.  We also do things like underfund transit and force them to purchase worn out busses from places like Edmonton.  Parts of our bus fleet are so old that people come from all over North America to ride them.  The reason we keep using them, they are cheap to run (but you knew that already).

We don’t repair things like light poles is no big shock but now we have the cost of replacing them that is going to be a big shock to the bottom line.  Either that or we will just watch them fall over.

If you are ever in budget review meetings, you hear city managers say, “If you cut this amount, I can’t afford to do maintenance on parks” or “We won’t have enough for fuel”.  Those things are cut anyway.  You know because why do city vehicles need fuel budgeted for properly.  In many ways I think you can say that Calgary is getting far more bang for their tax dollars than we do.

Instead of funding the city the way it needs, we have actually developed our own spin that blames “freeze thaw” for bad roads (we don’t have a freeze thaw cycle, it just freezes) or that rain wrecks our roads (because we are too cheap to use rock base and instead only use sand).  My favourite is listening to council talk about how brave and hard working our city workers are doing instead of talking about how underfunding is creating this mess.  My favourite was when Pat Lorje suggested that city council was under siege last winter because of the lack of snow removal which was something she voted against.

The whole things reminds me of Winston Churchill underfunding the defences of Singapore in 1937 while First Lord of the Admiralty and then calling the British general performance there abysmal when Japan invaded in 1942 and they had no defences to work with.

We have roads that are brutal because the Mayor and council stopped funding the roads years ago.  We have light posts that aren’t safe because the city doesn’t have the cash (because of our desire to beat Calgary) and our city is dirty and grimy into July because it is cheaper to clean the streets slowly rather than quickly.  We get upset that we don’t have enough swim lessons but underfund leisure services as the city has grown.

Jack Vicq is right.  Instead of playing political games, we need a council (who can override the mayor) and fund the city properly.  Instead we get a Twitter feed that is constantly tweeting power outages because they take large dividends out of Saskatoon Light & Power, a #BetterRoadsYXE hashtag, new pylons and lots of emails from the city telling me how much they are doing (that’s another topic).

While the 2011 article mentions the mayor, it is also the fault of city council.  Darren Hill, Pat Lorje, Charlie Clark & Tiffany Paulsen have all been there at least two terms and are working on their third terms.  Mairin Loewen, Ann Iwanchuk, Randy Donauer have all been re-elected once.  They are all there when the council pulls a mill rate out of Calgary and agree to it.  When you are as integral part of the problem, can you be part of the solution?

Sadly repairing the grid or maintaining the Traffic Bridge doesn’t get people elected.  New bridges and low taxes do.  This problem isn’t going to go away and if we don’t do something about it in 2016, the mess will be just huge when we do.

Mayors don’t create jobs or grow the economy

The next time you hear Don Atchison or any civic politician try to take credit for the economy or job creation, read this article.

It always rings false when political candidates promise to create heaps of new jobs. Conservative Tim Hudak claims he would wave his magic wand and create no less than one million, just like that.
When candidates for mayor vow to spin jobs out of straw, the boast sounds especially hollow. Most job creation comes from economic growth, and mayors have very little power over that. Even prime ministers and premiers exaggerate their influence over the business cycle and they have far more than mayors.

That hasn’t stopped this year’s crop of mayoral candidates from posing as magicians of job creation. Start with John Tory, a former Conservative leader and business executive who should know better.

On Wednesday his staff sent a bulletin to the media: “John Tory to unveil plan to create 70,000 jobs.” When the promised unveiling came the next day at an east-end coffee wholesaler, it turned out that he was merely expressing support for a private company’s existing proposal to develop some industrial land near the mouth of the Don River.

First Gulf wants to build a new business hub on the site, an ambition it announced a couple of years ago. Its chief executive says the development could bring “as many as” 70,000 jobs to the city. In other words, up to 70,000 people could work there one day. Making a place for 70,000 people to work is not the same as creating 70,000 jobs.

Though the proposal is promising, there are big hurdles to jump before it can happen. Making the land usable would require rerouting the east end of the Gardiner Expressway and running new roads and transit lines into the area at the cost of many millions. All of this is already being studied at city hall. Mr. Tory’s endorsement of someone else’s proposal that is years from fruition hardly amounts to “a plan to create 70,000 jobs.”

His other job promises are almost as implausible. He wants to start a new medical school at York University, exploiting the coming subway link with Humber River Regional Hospital and creating a “high-tech employment corridor.” Mayors don’t create medical schools. That is a provincial responsibility.

He wants to lean on companies to hire more young people, a plan that, according to his website, would “result in thousands of new youth-employment jobs in his first term.” He would use his personal connections, too, calling business contacts to remind them of their “civic responsibility” to hire the young. Even a man as plugged-in as Mr. Tory is unlikely to create many jobs just by picking up the phone.

How to cities encourage economic growth?

Rather than pressuring or forcing companies to hire, city hall should be creating the conditions that make them want to hire. That means keeping taxes reasonable, cutting red tape, providing good services, building and maintaining infrastructure – all the things that make a city an attractive place to live, work and do business.

Saskatoon has the tax part down, now if we could just cut red tape, provide good services, and maintain our infrastructure, we could become something some day.

Terry Alm Drive

In case you missed the amateur hour that was Saskatoon City Council, you missed the passionate debate over whether or not Mayor Donald Atchison should be able to name streets, parks, and bridges.   Here is what Ward 6 Councillor Charlie Clark had to say about it in his email newsletter.

City Council will receive a report with a few minor amendments suggested to the Naming Process.  Recent debates have raised the prospect of a more significant amendment to the process.  I would like the process to be changed so that the actual designation of names to parks and streets is not done solely by the Mayor.  Saskatoon is the only City in Canada that grants this power to the Mayor alone, and I believe it is time to change this. 

For me the issue is not out of concern with any specific names that have been applied in the City.  There are two main reasons. 

First having a single elected official hold naming power opens the process up to political influence, rewarding friends or campaign donors. This is not about Mayor Atchison specifically, but a question of good governance and creating policies that mitigate this potential. 

Secondly – there have been hundreds of names applied in recent years to streets and parks in the City, as we add on new neighbourhoods.  These names form the identity of our neighbourhoods and the City as a whole.  The responsibility for establishing this story for our community should not be the purview of one individual.  Ideally this is the kind of work that would have the input of people with historical knowledge and understanding of our community from several perspectives – to help ensure that as we make our mark on these communities with names that they capture a breadth of the history and identity of the City.  

There is a tremendous opportunity to develop a thoughtful process to ensure that these streets and parks capture the essence of who we are as a community and where we came from.  Right now the process relies on the public or property developers to bring forward names, a Committee made up of politicians and City staff determines whether a name can go on the “Names Master List” and then the Mayor picks the ones he wants to use. 

I think it makes sense to have a committee that has a mixture of elected people and the public on it to be part of the approval and application of names.  I also think that it would be worthwhile to engage our City Archivist and other historians to look at our Names Master List and identify which communities are being missed and a way to ensure that these get represented. 

Yes you read it right, Clark used the term, “tremendous opportunity” to describing a process that involved naming street names.  I don’t know what to say either except that its probable that Clark gets excited over governance things that I do not.

Whether or not you agree or disagree with this is irrelevant.  In my opinion it is a shame that we don’t have streets that honour Henry Dayday, Roy Romanow, Lorne Calvert, and even Grant Devine.  Heck I am all for an entire neighbourhood that uses names of former premiers. (austere houses are on Romanow Avenue while over mortgaged houses are on Devine Lane)

What does surprise me is that if council wanted to move on this, they should have done one thing really well.  They needed to have counted the votes for and against before the council meeting started and they never did that.  If they did do that and someone changed their mind (which it sounds like happened), that is politics but somewhere along the way, you need to know that stuff or you look like idiots.  So after some attacked and defended the mayor and in many ways made it personal, it was time to vote which was a five-five tie so the motion failed, the status quo continues and you look really small minded and petty.  Oh right, you have also just attacked the mayor (or one of the few perks the mayor has) and now you are left with nothing to show for it.  Well except with an even more divided city council.

Of all of the issues facing the city, fighting over who gets to name streets isn’t high on my list of things that need to be done.