As most of the world watched Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton duke it out at the first US presidential debate on Monday evening, city council met in their sparsely populated chamber to talk about recreational climbing, and the ineffable mysteries of intergovernmental relationships.
Up and Away
First up for discussion was whether to move forward with adding $185,050 to the city’s 2017 fiscal plan for the Yellowknife Climbing Club, to install and maintain climbing facilities at the Fieldhouse. Coun. Niels Konge pumped the brakes almost immediately: he didn’t feel that fulfilling the request would be “the fair thing to do for all the other clubs that are operating in the city,” and suggesting that since the club’s “biggest item right now is finding a place to have this facility… that that is where our focus should be. And not necessarily on a financial contribution.”
“We can help you with some things but other things you have to do on your own.”
Coun. Julian Morse pointed out that council was “not actually committing to spending the 185,000 right now; we’re just putting it in the financial plan,” and proposed adding a memorandum of understanding, then waiting for the budget debate to discuss it further. By which point, he suggested, “the climbing club will hopefully have a chance to raise funds and significantly reduce the $185,000 bill.”
After an interjection from Konge directly addressed to the members of the club in attendance — “We can help you with some things but other things you have to do on your own. And, y’know, buying all their own equipment that will be put in there is something that the city typically doesn’t do through this format. We do it through grants.” — Coun. Adrian Bell referred back to last year’s funding of the Yellowknife Fastball League’s sodding of Tommy Forrest Ballpark: “Again, it was a question of ‘Is this the way we should be supporting non-profit organizations and community groups?’ All of these things are evaluated on a case by case basis… But the test, come budget time, is ‘What does the group bring to the table?’ In that instance it was thousands of person-hours of work. We provided some support. But there was an incredible amount of savings that came from the fact that the work was done by that group.”
Coun. Shauna Morgan pointed out that the climbing club’s business plan presented the Fieldhouse proposal as a “revenue-generating opportunity… the proposal states that we will make this back, within, I think, four years, four to six years… This is a very special opportunity for the city in that we’re not just supporting a club but we’re providing an opportunity for us to enhance our own infrastructure and programs, and we will be directly making revenues from this project. It’s not just a gift to another organization.”
The amended motion passed, with Konge opposed.
Once More Into the Breach
After quickly approving phase 2 of the Engle Business District, it was time for a glimpse into the not always happy relationship between the City and the territorial government. In essence, the City is asking the GNWT — specifically the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs (MACA) — to open up the Cities Towns and Villages Act and update it with six proposed amendments that would let the City:
- Use Local Improvement Charges for energy retrofits;
- Impose a levy on lodging — or the much discussed “hotel tax”;
- Phase-in tax increases resulting from a General Assessment;
- Request payment in lieu of taxes if all reasonable attempts to collect the outstanding taxes have not been successful;
- Change the name of the “Grants in Lieu of Properties Policy” to “Payment in Lieu of Properties Policy”; and
- To send summons of a parking ticket by mail.
These are all amendments the City has been pursuing for years, to little effect. “If I’m not mistaken,” said Mayor Mark Heyck, “virtually — well, not every one, but almost all of them have previously been passed by this council, and by the NWT Association of Communities.”
Several councilors wondered if perhaps there was a more effective way of muscling these amendments onto the government’s agenda tout suite — maybe we could send a strongly worded letter, suggested Coun. Morse, or some other way to “add some political pressure to the GNWT to get this done in a timely fashion.”
“We’re blasting away and hoping something is going to stick. And if you don’t hit anything, you’ve scared them off…. I think we should change tactics and go to a sniper model”
A politely weary Heyck: “It’s not a matter of submitting this to the GNWT and sitting back and waiting, We’ll want to talk to our MLAs about it frequently… It comes back to our job as elected officials putting pressure on our counterparts in the territorial legislature.”
Learning that City Administration was to be meeting with MACA this coming Thursday, Coun. Bell wondered if the discussion should wait until after that meeting, and if enough groundwork had been done — wasn’t there a new deputy minister at MACA, for instance?
This prompted a response from City Administrator Dennis Kefalas that could have been a line from a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta about the GNWT: “The current acting deputy minister is the previous assistant deputy minister” — that is to say, a person well-acquainted with the entire project.
Much discussion of strategy followed, with Coun. Bell initially arguing that he felt the current approach was too vague. “I just don’t think this is the right way to make this ask. I think it’s far too easy for them to say no,” he said, suggesting that the City needed to present more beefed-up arguments for the amendments.
Mayor Heyck, giving an insight into the Sisyphean nature of dealing with the GNWT: “Many of these items have been discussed by multiple previous councils. And it’s also, I think, important to remember that given the pace of the territorial government’s legislative process, it may be the case that it’s a future council or two councils down the road that are benefiting from these changes.” After suggestions that councillors be provided with documentation about the six proposed amendments, he replied, with a small, somewhat mirthless laugh: “Anybody who wants to travel back to 2014 and talk about phasing in tax increases, we can try to arrange that.”
Coun. Konge, supportive of the hotel levy but not much else, wondered if putting the six items all together was too much, and would have “a shotgun effect. We’re blasting away and hoping something is going to stick. And if you don’t hit anything, you’ve scared them off…. I think we should change tactics and go to a sniper model: pick one of these and line it up, make sure that we’re going to give the GNWT everything they’re going to need to say ‘You know what? We’d be crazy not to do this one.’ I think it’s time to try something different.”
Kefalas’ response: Administration had been told in no uncertain terms by the consultant who’d helped them put the package together to “present your list of everything you want to change, because they’ll only open up the act once. Don’t expect them to keep on opening up the act over and over. That’s not how they operate.”
He added: “The government is there to serve us, to serve the residents of our city. And I can’t say that they’ve done that as well as they could have in the past, and we’re hoping that will change so we’re able to govern ourselves more effectively in the future.”
The motion passed, with Niels “Sniper” Konge still steadfastly opposed.