Budget Briefs – Dec. 10: Finishing touch to be put on popular public art

The ring of silver dancers in Sombe K’e Park on the shores of Frame Lake will soon be changing colour – regularly. Some time next year, the United in Celebration sculpture is getting a new coat of paint that changes colour as the sun crosses the sky.

While the sculpture, perhaps Yellowknife’s most notable piece of public art, was erected by the late Francois Thibault (T-Bo) in 2009, it’s remained with nothing but a primer coat of paint since. The edges are starting to rust, the metal oxidize and perhaps most importantly, the artist’s vision is incomplete.

During Thursday night’s municipal budget deliberations City Council agreed to set aside $45,000 to complete the sculpture, but not without some disagreement.

As part of sweeping cuts that saw $2 million cut from the capital budget, Coun. Rebecca Alty suggested axing the paint job, as well. “For me, this sculpture is completed. It could be painted to give it a different look, but if we want to spend $45,000, I think we could look to support a different or new art project,” she said.

Her suggestion received a frustrated response from Senior Administrative Officer Dennis Kefalas.

“The project’s not completed. We have MLAs coming in, we have the family coming in, we have people from throughout the community saying ‘please finish it,’” he said. “Eventually we have to paint it … As time goes on the price to repaint it will go up as well as the prep work to paint it will go up.”

With the exception of Coun. Niels Konge, who joined Alty in opposing the painting, the rest of council threw their support behind the project.

“I’d hate to think all of the work that went into this, and all the groups and all the people who participated in getting this thing done, that we would lose it simply because we don’t want to do proper upkeep,” said Coun. Bob Brooks.

“It’s called United in Celebration, we’re not going to be celebrating too much if we start to see the whole thing rusting apart.”

City clearing brush to reduce fire hazard

After a summer of fires and criticism the City wasn’t doing enough to fight them, council is investing $100,000 annually over the next several years to “firesmart” the city.

The plan has two major components: investing in emergency structure protection kits – hoses and sprinklers that are set up around houses to keep wildfires away – and brush clearing – removing trees, cutting off low-hanging branches and getting rid of dead wood lying on the ground.

“One of the reasons this past summer the spread of forest fire was so severe, wind conditions were one thing, but the amount of fuel on the ground, and the branches,” said Dennis Marchiori, the City’s Director of Public Safety.

Most of the work will happen on the south side of the city, he said.

“It’s our most-hazardous exposure due to the growth of trees and everything else. The northern part of course has a nice big lake, and we have Giant mine that slows it down on the one end…. That area close to the airport where there’s a lot of green space, right behind Parker Park, it’s noted as an area where if the fire were able to make it through the Sandpit area, and through Engle … it would come into the residential area,” he added.

At first Coun. Adrian Bell asked for brush clearing – which will make up around 80 per cent of the $100,000 – to be struck from the budget.

“We’re jumping the gun in this budget ask, we need more information before we approve this budget,” he argued. However after hearing from other councillors and from administration he tabled the motion, clearly recognizing its importance.

As Coun. Dan Wong put it, the GNWT’s department of Environment and Natural Resources “has been advising us to do this work for many many years. I think we’ve been gambling. After the horrific fire season last year, for us not to do something about this, I think it’s very short sighted and could be dangerous.”

The $100,000 next year is just the beginning, said Marchiori. ENR has advised him that $400,000 over the next four years may not be enough to make the city safe from forest fires, and may require up to ten years worth of work.

Following confusion, Mayor votes down councillor salary freeze

Council had to recess in the middle of a vote to freeze council wages on Thursday, after a muddled 50-50 tie put Mayor Mark Heyck in a position that looked like a conflict of interest.

Council split down the middle when Coun. Phil Moon Son suggested councillors “lead by example” and forgo their annual wage increase, this year around two per cent on a roughly $18,000 salary.

One the one side, four councillors said they wanted to demonstrate their own commitment to fiscal restraint. The other side argued any discussion about wages should happen during the upcoming governance review council agreed to last week. They also seemed in agreement with the “history lesson” from long-time councillor Bob Brooks, who argued having a set annual increase depoliticized the issue.

“In the past we used to have a debate on council salaries every single year, because there’s always at least one person on council who wants to lead by example,” he said.

Tiring of the debate, the council of the day struck a committee to look into the issue and found, according to Brooks, “not only that the council was not getting paid anywhere close to the average all across Canada, but they didn’t have a system in place to make sure that didn’t happen.”

What they settled on was an annual rise calculated by multiplying the wage increase guaranteed to City employees by their collective agreement and the municipal price index.

With council divided equally, Heyck broke the tie. Although the vote was not about an increase to his own wage, it became unclear if he, in voting publicly on his colleagues’ wages, was in conflict of interest. Council recessed mid-vote to discuss the issue with administration. When they returned, it had been decided the Mayor could, in fact, decide the fate of his colleagues’ salary jump, and voted to keep the status quo.

“I recall my days as a city councillor and the amount of time spent on this job for very little pay, and I think it would be unfair to many councillors, present and future, if we fell into that situation where we’re essentially freezing what councillors get paid,” he said.

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