During the budget debates, councillors grandstanded about cutting the budget to reduce the tax increase and then, without batting an eye, added another $6 million to the capital expenditure for the new art gallery.
Mike Gutek, director of major projects, said the money was necessary to ensure we have a world-class facility.
Fast forward a few days to the announcement of the rehabilitation of the University Bridge and its $8-million cost for the decking only. Gutek says the bridge arches and piers also need maintenance, but the City can’t afford to do it as it is spending pretty much everything it has on the decking.
Where in hell are council’s priorities?
To recap, almost a decade ago the Mendel Art Gallery board of directors asked the City for a $4-million commitment for an expansion and renovation of the existing gallery in order to attempt leveraging monies from senior levels of government. The Mendel facility had adjacent free parking, operated on a shoestring budget and had international status. When all was said and done, we now have a $100-million facility with user-pay parking, huge operating costs and we are still a year and a half from completion. If past performance is an indicator of future performance, we should expect further over-budget expenditures for this white elephant.
We have obviously hit a financial crunch if the City cannot come up with sufficient money to fully repair a major bridge to and from the city centre and beyond. The estimated time for closure is May through August of 2015, but don’t hold your breath on that timeline. The bridge purportedly carries 2,400 vehicles an hour during peak time and, based on earlier reports, close to 40,000 vehicles a day. It is an important access from the west side of the river and downtown to the university and Royal University Hospital. The closure will have a serious impact on business in the downtown and the numerous festivals that are held in the downtown and surrounding areas throughout the summer.
There can be no argument that the bridge rehab is necessary. But wouldn’t it make sense to completely repair this bridge while it is closed in 2015, rather than risking the impact of a second closure to repair the piers and arches at a later date?
Next up is the riverbank slumping, carrying a price tag of roughly $20 million. Gutek advises that since the City doesn’t need the lane for operational purposes that it wouldn’t be prudent to spend tax dollars fixing it. Was it prudent to spend taxpayer money on a world-class art gallery while a major bridge gets short-changed? Is it prudent to let a serious potential liability go unattended?
It is absolutely inane to expect that a handful of residents can or will pony up $20 million to fix the slumping. The residents would be better off walking away from their properties and letting the City reclaim them for unpaid taxes than to spend that kind of money.
Did the City give these residents the engineering report as to what has to be done? If one homeowner even tried to shore up their property, would it save them from the eventual slide if the other property owners did nothing? Is the City’s underground infrastructure intact or is it contributing to the problem? In order to repair it, would homeowners have to encroach on City property and, if so, since when did individual property owners get to tamper with City land and/or infrastructure?
Gutek claims that the problem is a “private property issue” for 11th Street East and Saskatchewan Crescent East residents, and it up to them to decide how to fix it. How in god’s name did the slumping from 11th Street East become the problem of Saskatchewan Crescent residents? Saskatchewan Crescent homeowners (mostly in condos) have no control over what the homeowners sitting above them do or over the City-owned property separating the two streets. To date, only Coun. Pat Lorje seems to think the City has to be involved in the fix. Coun. Charlie Clark, who represents this area, refuses to comment one way or another, simply saying the matter is “complicated.”
I hesitate to write this knowing it may mean yet another tax, but years back, when flooding occurred in the west end, the council of the day recognized those homeowners could not bear the flooding cost on their own and imposed a supposedly “temporary” $2 tax on every utility bill to fix the problem. That “temporary” tax is still with us today. Where is this money being spent? Is the slumping issue in Nutana similar to yesteryear’s flooding issue in the west end?
Meanwhile, back at the council table, our elected body spent endless time on whether or not to keep non-themed seasonal lighting up for a couple of extra months and whether it is a good use of tax dollars to spend anywhere from $1,000 to $6,800 to do so. Albeit a small amount, the question is why should taxpayers fund lighting up the Business Improvement Districts when these organizations already receive shared parking meter revenue to enhance their turfs?
Clark, who represents both the downtown area and Nutana, argues the lighting is a small cost to brighten up the city during our dismal winter months. But will it brighten up our city to look from our pricey River Landing viewing platforms at collapsed homes and debris from a slide across the river? Maybe this issue is too complicated for some councillors to understand.
Back at the ranch, council will debate behind closed doors whether or not to make public the investigator’s report on the committee leak by Lorje. To quote the fictional Rhett Butler from Gone with the Wind: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” But if you do want to debate it, do so in a public forum. This matter does not properly belong in an in-camera session.
It is time for councillors to get their heads out of party eggnog and set priorities on needs versus wants. Otherwise, taxpayers may be announcing last call and walking them out the door in 2016.