It’s Iqaluit’s time to decide
This Oct. 15, eligible voters in Iqaluit face a long list of big decisions. For starters, they must choose a new mayor, a new city council and fill vacant spots on three different school bodies.
At the same time, people and corporate entities who own property must decide if the City of Iqaluit can take on a new long-term debt of up to $40 million.
After that, members of the new council will face some big decisions of their own, including matters that have long been mired in immobility.
Take, for example, the search for a new cemetery. This dreary saga began at least 13 years ago, in 1999. Even then it was obvious the current site was running short of burial plots. In December of 2000, in the first of several spending decisions related to this issue, council voted $110,000 to cover the cost of finding a new place to bury the dead.
Since then, after more spending and after years of consultations, site selections and site rejections, the city has next to nothing to show for all that work. Along the aptly-dubbed Road to Nowhere there’s a pretty little spot bearing a sign that says “City of Iqaluit Site of Future Cemetery.” And that’s about it.
This was the last site to be rejected, after the city discovered the rocky soil in that area permits fewer burial plots than originally planned and at the same time produced unexpected cost overruns, which led to a work stoppage. This is not surprising. Most of the land around Iqaluit is glacial till, thin soil stuffed with gravel and boulders left by receding glaciers.
In any event, the city is now doing an “engineering review.” They will examine “options,” perhaps this year, perhaps next.
But at some point, city council will have to do what they have avoided for more than decade: make a decision that not everyone will like. Will the new council be up to the task of making a necessary but unpopular decision? Past history suggests not — but the final decision is up to you when you cast your ballots next month.
Yet another example of municipal immobility is the West 40 garbage mountain, still called a landfill site, somewhat less than accurately. After the Iqaluit dump caught fire in 2010 and burned out of control for many weeks, the city got moving on the studying front.
The consultant hired to do that work produced, in November 2011, a menu of six new landfill sites from which to choose. Since then, council has made no decision.
The next council, however, will not be able to dither much longer on that issue. They must make a hard decision that not everyone will like.
In addition, the new council must make decisions on where to build new subdivisions for new housing and new commercial and industrial buildings. Given the community’s recent rate of population growth, the supply of new lots has been chasing demand like a puppy chasing its tail. Dealing with this also means making hard decisions not everyone will like.
Finally, there’s one decision that, because of the Cities, Towns and Villages Act, city council does not have to make: the borrowing of up to $40 million to pay for a new swimming complex to replace the old pool whose lease expires next March.
This one lies entirely in the hands of Iqaluit ratepayers: people and firms who own property and pay municipal taxes.
Municipal taxpayers provide at least 28 per cent of the revenue that the city spends each year, which runs above $28 million a year, give or take, according to 2010 figures contained in the city’s Piqutivut infrastructure planning document. The rest comes from grants in lieu of taxes paid by the territorial and federal governments on their buildings, and other government transfers.
This means ratepayers too must make a tough decision. They must decide if the City of Iqaluit can be trusted to pay off a long-term debt of up to $40 million — without raising taxes to unaffordable levels.
The city has set aside only about $1.3 million in reserve funds for future capital projects. That’s not much.
But the city has recently finished paying off a $140,000 a year lease-to-own deal for the Iqaluit curling rink. The current swimming pool lease, worth more than $260,000 a year, is set to expire in March 2013. This means the city has at least $400,000 a year already available to it for paying off new long-term debt.
Many ratepayers know that tax increases aimed at paying for infrastructure projects in Iqaluit are not unprecedented. In 2002, the city approved a five-year capital plan that included tax increases of 2.25 per cent a year until 2007.
At the same time, the $40 million aquatics centre is part of a bigger set of plans that proposes a new combined fire hall and emergency services centre, a new city hall, and other recreation facilities. For all this, the city’s Piqutivut planning document estimates a total cost of between $99.7 million and $105.1 million.
Iqaluit ratepayers face an unenviable choice. JB