Fentie’s finances could foil fine idea

New Democrat leader Todd Hardy wants to build a university in the Yukon. It’s a fine idea. As Hardy noted in a speech to business leaders…

New Democrat leader Todd Hardy wants to build a university in the Yukon.

It’s a fine idea.

As Hardy noted in a speech to business leaders last week, a university is good for business.

There are no poor university towns, he said.

“The economic benefits of a university aren’t boom-and-bust; they last and last — they carry through what I believe you call the bumper season.”

Such an institution would also raise the bar for local education.

It would create homegrown specialists, and could foster understanding of the territory’s history, climate, geography, economy, government and people.

And it gives students a place to study at home, which would cut the expense and trauma of leaving the territory making it easier for people to give university a try.

Hardy also noted it would support fields of research that aren’t available elsewhere, and would draw pan-northern specialists here.

Of course, it would also bolster sales of local beer and, inevitably, lead to entertaining and bizarre new student initiation rituals in the fall.

On the downside, thefts of pizza delivery car toppers would increase.

But, generally speaking, a university is a great idea.

Which is why Hardy invited business leaders to gather over coffee to discuss ways of making it happen.

Sadly, none took him up on his offer. That was unfortunate because there are considerable barriers to the creation of such a facility.

First, Ottawa will have to be tapped to create such a facility. And the Conservative government in Ottawa is proving much less attentive to the needs of the North than the previous federal government.

Convincing it to divert, say, $100 million to a Yukon-based university is going to take some doing.

Second, the territorial government will have to lay the groundwork.

But there is some question about the Yukon’s ability to pay for even modest projects in the next couple of years.

Heck, some are beginning to wonder if the government hasn’t collapsed into a deficit position. (In the past, such an event would have triggered an election. However the Yukon Party government revoked the Taxpayer Protection Act).

In March, the government released its budget. After all expenses, Finance minister Dennis Fentie projected an  $8.9 million annual surplus by next April.

Since then, Fentie’s government promised Yukon teachers a three per cent wage increase. That package was not budgeted. It comes to more than $1 million.

The government is set to begin negotiating with the Yukon Employees Union. If it cuts a vote-softening deal with that union, the cost will far exceed the deal with the teachers. It, too, was not budgeted.

The government has announced it will top up the Yukon College pension fund, at an expected cost of $6.25 million. Again, it was not budgeted for this year.

The hospital corporation pension fund needs a similar top up. Again, no line item in the budget.

The government bailed out Dawson City. Cost, including capital projects, $4.43 million. In March’s budget? Nope.

Total costs there far exceed $13 million, well beyond next year’s surplus projection.

But there are other costs.

The government has committed to repairing Dawson’s sewage system and its rec centre. These, too, are expected to cost millions. They are not yet budgeted.

Fentie’s government has committed to building a new jail sometime in the future. Cost? More than $17 million.

It is proceeding with consultation on the waterfront development. Cost? More than $20 million.

It has also suggested construction of a new school in the Copper Ridge subdivision.

And, a future government will have to build a new high school, or perform substantial renovations.

These are soft promises that Fentie, or his successor, will have to deal with, or suspend, after the next election.

They will all take precedence over a university.

People have been discussing Yukon College upgrade version 1.1 for years.

Others were actually working on it.

People like Bob Jickling and Aaron Senkpiel were laying the foundation for such an improvement.

Unfortunately, Jickling left the territory. Senkpiel, tragically, died of lung cancer.

Few, if any, have continued their work of upgrading the college programming.

So there are many hurdles to creating a Yukon university.

Hardy has publicly resurrected the idea.

It’s a noble goal.

And we should start trying to figure out how to make it happen before it’s poached by our wealthy territorial cousins to the east.

Because, once that happens, the Yukon will be out of luck. (RM)