Reducing Our Cost of Living
Council must find ways to bring down the cost of living so that local residents and businesses are better positioned to face the economic challenges ahead. As Mayor, I propose to pursue the following opportunities to lower the cost of living:
Negotiate a Better Deal on Power – In 2019, our current contract for power distribution will come to an end. We’re fortunate to have the example of Hay River for a strategy that can lead to substantial reductions in power rates. The Town of Hay River, when nearing the end of its power distribution contract, invited the Northwest Territories Power Corporation to submit a competing bid. NTPC won the competition and are now working through the process of taking over power distribution assets from ATCO. The hope is that by eliminating duplication, significant savings can be achieved. Whether our contract ends up going to a private or public sector distributor, the City of Yellowknife and its residents would be well served by following Hay River’s example and attracting competing bids. The result could be a significant reduction in our sky-high power rates.
“Loans for Heat” or “Green Mortgages” – After years of lobbying the GNWT, the City is close to being able to offer homeowners loans with low down-payments and low interest rates for the purchase of money-saving energy efficiency projects, such as the installation of pellet stoves or attic insulation. Unlike most loans, through this program homeowners will only make payments for as long as they live in their homes. By drastically reducing up-front costs and allowing homeowners to pass the balance on to future purchasers of their homes, many more residents will be able to invest in these green cost-saving measures. Getting this program off the ground should be a Council priority as soon as the related amendments to territorial legislation pass in the Legislative Assembly.
Connect to a Cheaper, Cleaner Source of Power – There is no greater opportunity to reduce the cost of living in Yellowknife than to work with our partners in the territorial and federal governments to connect our local power system to lower cost, green energy sources such as the Taltson Hydroelectric Facility south of Great Slave Lake or further south to the Southern Canadian power grid. As the largest consumer of electricity in the region, we have a lot at stake, and we have leverage. We must push for one of these two projects to move forward. Low-cost power would make a huge difference not only to residents, but to the local business community as well as any mining companies weighing the economics of opening up new mines in our area. Getting this done will require strong leadership at City Hall.
Eliminate Overlap with the GNWT – Governments at all levels need to be wary of “mandate creep” – stepping into areas of service delivery that are another government’s responsibility. This is especially true during challenging economic times. Competing visions and duplication of effort at various levels of government can result in wasted resources and reduced effectiveness. I will work with Council to examine whether some responsibilities could be more efficiently and effectively fulfilled by the territorial or federal government.
Eliminate the GNWT Infrastructure Funding Gap – In 2014 the GNWT conducted a review of community infrastructure funding to determine whether or not current arrangements are fair. The review concluded that Yellowknife is underfunded by $11 million a year. To put that in context, our entire capital budget for 2018 was $26 million. As long as this glaring funding gap remains in place, Yellowknife residents are subsidizing the infrastructure needs of other communities. The GNWT has yet to commit to a timeline to eliminate the gap. Lobbying our territorial elected officials to address this underfunding would be a top priority for me straight out of the gate.
Reduce the Price of Public Transit - One of the most important objectives of any public transit system is to provide an affordable means for people to get to and from work, and for their children to get to and from school. But our current pricing system keeps fares high while buses run close to empty for much of the day. Adding people to those empty buses would not increase the fixed costs of operating the system, so we must experiment with bringing down fares and increasing ridership.
The Coming Rental Housing Crunch – Yellowknife has very high average rents that just keep going up. In most cities with modest growth rates like ours, new construction keeps up with demand and rents stay relatively flat. But in the last decade in Yellowknife we’ve seen almost no new construction of apartment units (see this blog post for full details). This problem has been simmering for some time, and will come to a boil with the ramping up of the Giant Mine Remediation Project, which will employ 300-350 people, many of whom can be expected to be renters. If action is not taken, rents could increase significantly between 2020 and 2026. The City of Whitehorse provides a great example of how a municipality can use creative land use planning, tax abatements, inclusive zoning and partnerships to help developers access federal funding for the construction of affordable rental housing units. We must emulate our neighbour to the west, and quickly.
Grow the Tax Base Strategically – Population growth is one of the keys to bringing down our cost of living, but to have an impact on our current property taxes it must be done strategically. When we add residential or commercial density to areas of town where infrastructure is already in place, we bring the tax burden down for all Yellowknife taxpayers. We must seek opportunities to increase density primarily in the downtown core and the Old Airport Road corridor, where increased density will not clash with adjacent low-density neighbourhoods.
Stop Artificially Driving Up the Cost of Land – The City’s outdated land-pricing policies deserve a lot of the blame for disproportionately high taxation in areas like Kam Lake. Council recently took a step in the right direction to address the cost of land by eliminating the “revitalization premium” on new City-owned lots, but more must be done. Prices of lots that remain unsold for significant periods of time must be allowed to decline to the true market price, so that nearby established neighbourhoods are not unfairly taxed during general assessments, as Kam Lake was in 2014, and so that more residents and businesses can afford to acquire land for new homes. We have another general assessment approaching in 2019, and land pricing policies will be up for consideration shortly. We have to get these right this time.
Increase Competition in the Gasoline Retailing Sector – Gas prices in Yellowknife have a funny habit of shooting up when costs rise, then lingering at high levels long after costs have come back down. We saw this between 2012 and 2014, when prices remained fixed for years despite big reductions in wholesale costs. The City needs to not only keep in close contact with the Competition Bureau on this matter, it needs to adjust its restrictive zoning to allow for the construction of one or two new gas stations to increase competition. In the absence of GNWT regulation, more competition and ongoing scrutiny by the City are the only solutions to this problem. (Click here for media coverage of this issue from 2014).
Provide Relief to the Small Business Sector by Returning to pre-2014 Mill Rate Ratios –When the gold mines shut down in the 1990s, Yellowknife lost a major contributor to the tax base. The City Council of the time decided that the rest of the business community should make up the shortfall through the general tax assessment process, a decision that only added insult to injury for local businesses. In 2014, without Council consent, mill rate ratios were shifted again as part of a citywide general tax assessment. This must not be repeated as part of the 2019 general tax assessment, and Council should explore options for returning to our pre-2014 mill rate ratios. With economic headwinds headed our way, we must do what we can to ensure that our small business community can survive the economic challenges ahead. Otherwise, Yellowknife's small businesses may simply opt to close up shop and relocate somewhere that recognizes the vital importance of small business to a community.
Fostering Economic Development and Diversification
Among northern cities, Yellowknife has long stood apart on the strength of its economy, due in large part to the benefits we’ve received from mining and mineral exploration activities in our region. But with our current mines entering the later stages of their lives, economic challenges are appearing on the horizon for the residents and businesses of our city. While it is important to continue to support the mining sector in hopes that new mines will open, we must do everything we can to strengthen other sectors of our economy and to prepare for the challenges ahead. And we must do so immediately, while we still have the resilience to diversify our economy in a measured, rather than reactive, way.
I would like to see City Council focus on four key areas:
- Post-Secondary Education
- Recruitment and Retention of Residents
- Reorganizing our Economic Development Functions
Supporting the Tourism Sector
It’s no secret that the tourism sector holds huge potential for diversifying our economy. We have experienced incredible growth in aurora tourism, and experts believe that, if carefully nurtured, this growth could continue for years to come. But tourism is a globally competitive industry, and unless we come together as a city and fully tap into our potential, we may miss out on this great opportunity.
To maximize our tourism potential, there are several important steps that the City should take:
- Improve the Downtown – Tourists visiting our city are drawn to two areas: Old Town and downtown. Old Town has been doing the heavy lifting for years, ever-increasing its charm thanks to the investments of small business owners, beautification by residents and a sense of shared culture. But the state of our downtown detracts from the tourist experience and is a major liability for our tourism sector. In the past three years, the City and its partners have made significant strides in providing services to residents who are experiencing or vulnerable to homelessness. At the same time, however, little progress has been made to achieve the delicate balance of creating a safe, welcoming and respectful space for all residents of Yellowknife, much less tourists unfamiliar with our city. Disruptive behaviour should be discouraged, and tolerance and understanding should be promoted. I believe the strategy to improve our downtown should include the introduction of a Downtown Ambassador Program staffed by people skilled in social work and tourist outreach, closer collaboration with and more oversight over the RCMP, efforts towards reconciliation through collaborative projects such as art installations and plaques, and the implementation of City Council’s vision for the downtown. With these measures in place, and with the right leadership, new private sector investment in much-needed downtown residential development can and must be leveraged to bring more residents downtown and add new life to our city.
- Support the Arts Sector and Festivals – Exit interviews with tourists tell us that, as much as they love our aurora, they need more things to do when they visit our city. We need more content, and for that content we must turn to the arts sector. Yellowknife and its neighbours in Ndilǫ, Dettah and Behchokǫ̀ are bursting with talent and culture, and we must work together to support the arts and provide new venues for artistic and cultural expression. The City can help by re-aligning grant allocations to increase direct support for artistic endeavours and festivals – work I began last year – by supporting the establishment of an Artists in Residence Program and, perhaps most importantly, by bringing local arts organizations together with significant private and federal government sources of funding. In the past, the City has underachieved when it comes to accessing funding for arts infrastructure. With my background and business experience, this is something I firmly believe I can help make happen. We also have to take a more businesslike approach to building the arts sector and helping artists initiate and advance big projects. The arts community needs the City as a partner if it is to achieve its maximum potential, and our residents and businesses need the arts to flourish if our tourism sector is to grow.
- Open a Proper Visitors Centre – This one goes without saying. Although visitors centres are changing all over the world as travellers become more self-sufficient, they continue to be vitally important facilities. We need a visitors center that makes a positive, lasting impression on tourists and quickly connects them with tour operators, local businesses and events. Capturing the full economic benefits from tourism requires a careful and strategic approach, and a well-positioned visitors centre with a strong sense of what’s happening around town is a key player in doing it right.
- Pursue Opportunities to Improve YZF – Last year, the GNWT took a first step towards adopting a more businesslike approach to managing the Yellowknife airport. The creation of a revolving fund opened the door to much-needed investments in building capacity, improving efficiency and increasing tourist traffic. But initial investments have not been particularly impactful or beneficial for residents, which suggests to me that the approach needs some modification. In my opinion, the GNWT should adopt what other Canadian cities refer to as an “airport authority” governance model, to reap the full economic development benefits of this vital tourism and transportation asset. I have been pushing for this as a member of the YZF Economic Advisory Committee, and, as Mayor, I will make it a priority in my dealings with the GNWT.
The GNWT spends in the neighbourhood of $47 million a year to support post-secondary education. That’s more than the City of Yellowknife’s entire operational budget. But the recent Aurora College Foundational Review tells us that the current model isn’t working. Change is needed, and Yellowknife is the key to a post-secondary educational institution capable of meeting the NWT’s labour demands, keeping northern students in the north, and attracting outside students and academics. Plus, as stated in the Aurora College Foundational Review, intellectual human capital attracts substantive investment. Building a Polytechnic University in Yellowknife is not only an imperative from an educational standpoint for NWT residents, but also a massive economic opportunity for Yellowknife.
Recruitment and Retention of Residents
Despite the economic importance of attracting new residents to Yellowknife, the City has invested little effort into recruitment and retention. We don’t measure it, we don’t have a plan for it, and we haven’t had a Mayor place particular emphasis on it. Recruitment is a sales job, and not everybody is comfortable playing that role. Not only am I happy to shamelessly promote our City, it’s a significant part of what I currently do for a living as a real estate broker and that I’ve done as Deputy Mayor. I believe I can make a difference in our recruitment and retention, and I hope voters give me the chance to prove it can be done.
Re-organizing our Economic Development Functions
Economic development is a priority for many Yellowknifers, but you wouldn’t know it based on the City of Yellowknife’s current organizational structure. Right now, the economic development role at the City is being carried out by two hard-working individuals who split their time between economic development and communications. This is not a model for success. The new Council must re-allocate resources to better reflect strategic priorities, and the City’s economic development function is the right place to start.
Improving the Effectiveness of Council
The Cities, Towns and Villages Act (CTVA) of the Northwest Territories states that Council is responsible for developing and evaluating the plans, policies and programs of the municipal corporation. Over the last twenty years or so, bit by bit, Council has set aside this very important responsibility and become bogged down by operational matters. The role of Council is to concentrate on policy-making and program monitoring, including evaluation of the current policies to make sure they are working as they should. In effect, Council sets the policies for Administration to follow as it does the job of running a municipality on a day-to-day basis.
However, for some time now, Council has given Administration inadequate policy guidance for running the municipality, leading residents to question, “Who is driving this bus?”
While it may not be flashy, fixing this problem is amongst the most important tasks ahead for the next Mayor and Council. Council must re-establish its role as evaluator and developer of City plans, policies and programs, to meet the challenges coming Yellowknife’s way.
I am proposing the following measures to clearly set out the roles and responsibilities for both Council and Administration:
Improve Transparency around Policies – Developing and maintaining legislative and administrative policies are Council’s responsibilities. Members of Council and the public need to be aware of, and have access to, all municipal policies relevant to them. This can be addressed through the development of a comprehensive policy book for Councillors for the purposes of the orientation process outlined below, as well as through the publication of all core municipal policies on the City’s website. To cite one example, until recently, Council was unaware that a policy existed for processing public complaints against municipal enforcement officers. That policy hadn’t been followed properly in years, but not being aware of its existence, Council was unable to address that problem.
Define Roles and Responsibilities – The role of Mayor is laid out pretty clearly in the legislation governing our city, the CTVA. The Mayor is obligated to provide leadership and direction to Council and fulfill the general duties as a member of Council, among other responsibilities. A single provision in the CTVA provides the only real guidance to Council as to its own role, however, and the Senior Administrative Officer’s role is loosely defined in a thirty-year-old bylaw. This, understandably, creates confusion as to the appropriate roles for each office. As early as possible in the new term, I would propose a policy laying out in detail the respective roles of the Mayor, Council and the Senior Administrative Officer.
Better Orientation for Mayor, Council and Senior Management – Once roles and responsibilities have been clearly defined, an effective orientation program must be put in place to provide the Mayor, Councillors and senior management with a good overview of their respective roles and responsibilities.
Set Aside Time to Do the Work – One of the reasons Council has strayed from its intended role is that, with all the competing demands of running a municipal corporation, bylaws and policies are rarely brought before Council for evaluation. Administration also rarely brings complaints from residents about systemic issues to our attention. This work and residents’ concerns should be prioritized at Municipal Services Committee meetings, and residents should be afforded adequate opportunity to provide input.
Modernize and Fill in the Gaps – Several of the City’s legislative and administrative policies require modernization and restructuring, having not been evaluated in decades. Council must work with Administration to review and seek public input on the current policy framework.
Rinse and Repeat – Updating policies is not a one-time job. While the work of reviewing and modernizing policies may be front-end loaded, keeping them up-to-date is at the very core of Council’s role and must be ongoing.