Addressing our high cost of living is one of three planks in my platform. You can find my full platform here.
Many residents of Yellowknife believe there is little City Council can do to reduce their cost of living, besides restraining City spending, but that's not at all the case. With the right leadership, willing to apply the leverage that comes from representing 48% of the NWT's population, there are significant opportunities to bring costs down. As Mayor, I propose to do the following:
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.