A failure of leadership

The volunteers involved with the latest push to reopen Mount Sima have good reason to be upset, following Whitehorse city council's rejection of their proposal to help reopen the hill this winter.

The volunteers involved with the latest push to reopen Mount Sima have good reason to be upset, following Whitehorse city council’s rejection of their proposal to help reopen the hill this winter.

The Friends of Sima did everything city council had asked of them – they demonstrated community support through a pledge drive and crafted a new plan for the hill that would boost revenue and cut costs – yet, in the end, councillors didn’t have the stomach to support the cause.

There is good reason for councillors to have balked at the proposal, too. Sadly, this was not simply a decision about whether to spend a trifling $7,500 – the additional cost of supporting the Friends of Sima request, versus simply mothballing the facility for the year.

To start, many councillors must worry about the risk of having the volunteers return at a later date to ask for more money. We all remember how this happened with the earlier crowd that operated the hill. Many taxpayers understandably feel snake-bitten.

There’s also a bigger concern. Fairly or not, Mount Sima has become a symbol of sorts for profligate spending of public dollars. Many angry residents oppose funding the hill, not on the basis of the merits of the latest plan, but simply out of principle. It’s surprising we haven’t yet seen bumper stickers around town with the phrase, “Don’t fund Sima’s ski bums with my tax dollars.”

That’s why no politician on the municipal or territorial level is willing to show an ounce of leadership on this file. That’s why when city council faced the inconvenient realization that the Friends of Sima had actually accomplished what they had been asked, they responded by moving the goal posts and producing a whole new raft of objections.

This may all sound like good news for Sima’s naysayers. But they may be disappointed to learn that their real reason for being upset – the inexorable rise in municipal taxes – remains unchanged, even with the ski hill shuttered. At our current trajectory, property taxes will continue to rise next year, whether or not Sima is open.

What’s more, municipal taxes will continue to fund Sima’s operation – that money will simply go towards mothballing the operation, rather than keep it open. Many residents wish Sima wouldn’t suck up any more public funds. But that simply isn’t an option on the table, at least for this winter.

Once the current anger has simmered down, a few may even reflect on how a facility that cost $17 million in public funds to build is now sitting idle. That’s a strange thing for a crowd that probably imagines itself to be fiscally conservative to celebrate, isn’t it? Wouldn’t it be preferable to come up with a plan to ensure the community sees a return on this investment?

It’s similarly bizarre to hear people reject plans to reopen Sima on the grounds that they don’t care, because they don’t downhill ski. Guess what – the Canada Games Centre, curling club and cross-country ski club are all supported by public funds too. None of these facilities are necessary for the city to maintain – and if they were all expected to be wholly supported by their own user base, they may all have to close.

We should all be able to agree that would be a silly thing to do. Yes, municipal taxes would be cheaper. But the city would be a less attractive place to live. If you don’t like the new plan produced by the Friends of Sima, that’s fine. Let’s hear a credible alternative. At present, none are on offer.

It doesn’t help that some municipal politicians seem eager to throw gasoline on the fire, rather than help douse it. Nearly all the money sunk into Mount Sima flowed from Ottawa, rather than being raised by the municipal tax base, yet some councillors – we’re looking at you, Betty Irwin – are content to make it sound otherwise.

Having rejected the plan that they had asked for, you’d think it would be incumbent on Mayor Dan Curtis and his councillors to take the lead themselves. Not so. Instead, the mayor has called for auditors to pore over the books from previous years. If this exercise were really needed, rather than merely being a foot-dragging exercise, then the mayor should have proposed it before he sent volunteers on a wild-goose chase.