Whitehorse’s city council finds itself in a bind. On Monday, it votes on whether to provide $200,000 to a group of volunteers that aim to reopen Mount Sima this winter. No option is particularly appealing.
Granting this request would require councillors to find the funds elsewhere – either by hiking property taxes, cutting services or dipping into the city’s savings. None of those would be popular moves to make.
Denying the request, meanwhile, runs the risk of derailing the latest push to restart the hill. We could see the ski hill shuttered indefinitely. This would be a senseless waste: more than $12 million in public funds has been spent on building up the hill over the past 20 years, according to city administrators. (Contrary to what some councillors would have you believe, almost all this money appears to have originated from Ottawa, rather than from the property tax base.) It’s in nobody’s interest to see the hill’s equipment sit and rust, or be packed up and sold.
Community Services Minister Brad Cathers has cleverly boxed city council in. He’s offered to help support the ski hill, provided it opens this winter. But he’s made it clear that he expects the city to provide an operating grant. Cathers noted that early estimates suggested that it would cost nearly as much to mothball the facility as it would be to provided the needed funds.
City administrators have responded by drawing up their own, lower estimates as to how much it would cost to put the facility on ice. They’ve suggested the city only contribute that amount, which would leave the Friends of Sima with an operating shortfall of $131,400.
It’s not clear when the drop-dead date is for the volunteers to receive funding. But it strikes us as irresponsible for both levels of government to be playing a game of chicken over who ends up paying the operating grant, when doing so puts at risk the hard work of Sima’s new volunteers.
Mayor Dan Curtis had earlier called on the community to step up and provide new ideas about running Sima. It has. Rather than accept the premise shared by their predecessors that nothing but buckets of public money could save the hill, Friends of Sima have aggressively revised Sima’s business plan. They would eliminate management positions, slash top salaries and shutter the hill on slow days to lower costs, while raising revenue with an aggressive fundraising drive that, according to pledges, would treble the number of season passes sold.
True, the hill would still depend on public funds to operate for the year. But that subsidy would be just one-quarter of the amount proposed by Sima’s earlier operators. Surely this is encouraging progress. It would be ideal for Sima to one day survive without public funds, but this is not a realistic expectation for this coming winter. It may never be: many community ski hills require subsidies to operate.
With that in mind, we think council should suck it up and pay the needed $200,000 for this year, rather than dither and run the risk of seeing the current volunteer drive collapse. Yes, that may require making a difficult decision about trade-offs. But that’s what municipal politicians are elected to do.
We don’t doubt that city council could use some help in making such a decision. Certain veteran councillors are awfully windy about their desire to cut needless waste when they’re on the campaign trail, yet come budget time, there’s never an intelligent alternative to the administration’s preference, which is to see property taxes inexorably rise. (Earlier this year, our columnist Keith Halliday calculated that his property taxes have grown 21 per cent above inflation over the past decade. Contrary to what the mayor humorously asserted this week, this is not the hallmark of a leanly run organization.)
So here’s a solution. Council could provide Friends of Sima with the money they need, with one condition. Once Sima’s operations stabilize, this same group of business-minded volunteers would review the city’s own operations with the same cost-cutting fervor they applied to Sima’s own business plan.
We realize there are major differences between providing municipal services and operating a ski hill – the city’s staff are unionized, to start. But we can’t help but think that Friends of Sima would at least generate some ideas about how to save money, which is more than can be said about the municipal councils we’ve watched in recent memory. Heck, the city’s last operational review actually managed to boost the number of managers on staff.
Council should also make it clear this contribution to Sima is a one-time deal. Both the ski hill and the Canada Games Centre are assets that benefit the whole territory, and it’s certainly plausible that their ongoing operations put an unreasonable burden on the municipal tax base. With that in mind, council should put together a reasoned case – not unlike the one that Friends of Sima made to them – that the territory should provide an operating grant for these facilities. If council could demonstrate they had worked to cut fat from the city bureaucracy, this would help bolster their case.
If the Yukon Party government isn’t moved by the merits of this argument, the mayor shouldn’t be afraid to employ a little rhetorical flourish. “I was under the impression the Yukon Party opposed tax increases. So why is the territory forcing Whitehorse homeowners to pay a tax hike? Why won’t the territory pay its fair share of assets that belong to the whole territory?” You get the idea.