Some solutions for Sima

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.

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. 

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Yukon Employees’ Union says a lack of staff training and high turnover at the Whitehorse Emergency Shelter is creating a dangerous situation for underpaid workers. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Yukon Employees’ Union says lack of training at emergency shelter leading to unsafe situations

Health and Social Services Minister Pauline Frost said the staffing policy “is evolving”

Justice Karen Wenckebach will begin serving as resident judge on the Yukon Supreme Court early next year. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
All-female justice roster ‘a good step’ for diversity in Yukon Supreme Court

Karen Wenckebach is the third woman appointed to the Yukon Supreme Court in history

The Liberal government blocked a motion by Yukon Party MLA Brad Cathers that would have asked the federal government to provide the territories with more than a per capita amount of COVID-19 vaccine doses during initial distribution. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Yukon Party says a per capita distribution of vaccines would leave Yukon short

The opposition is also asking the government to release their plan for vaccine distribution

asdf
WYATT’S WORLD

Wyatt’s World for Dec. 4, 2020

Dawson City’s BHB Storage facility experienced a break-and-enter last month, according to Yukon RCMP. (File photo)
Storage lockers damaged, items stolen in Dawson City

BHB Storage facility victim to second Dawson City break-and-enter last month

A sign outside the Yukon Inn Convention Centre indicates Yukoners can get a flu vaccine inside. As of Dec. 4, the vaccinations won’t be available at the convention centre. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Whitehorse Convention Centre ends flu vaccination service early

Flu vaccinations won’t be available at the Whitehorse Convention Centre after Dec.… Continue reading

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

Nominations continue to be open for Northern Tutchone members of the White River First Nation to run for councillors in the 2021 election. (Maura Forrest/Yukon News File)
White River First Nation to elect new chief and council

Nominations continue to be open for Northern Tutchone members of the White… Continue reading

The Town of Watson Lake has elected John Devries as a new councillor in a byelection held Dec. 3. (Wikimedia Commons)
Watson Lake elects new councillor

The Town of Watson Lake has elected John Devries as a new… Continue reading

The new Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation council elected Dec. 1. (Submitted)
Little Salmon Carmacks elects new chief, council

Nicole Tom elected chief of Little Salmon Carcmacks First Nation

Submitted/Yukon News file
Yukon RCMP’s Historical Case Unit is seeking information related to the unsolved homicide of Allan Donald Waugh, 69, who was found deceased in his house on May 30, 2014.
Yukon RCMP investigating unsolved Allan Waugh homicide

Yukon RCMP’s Historical Case Unit is seeking information related to an unsolved… Continue reading

A jogger runs along Millenium Trail as the sun rises over the trees around 11 a.m. in Whitehorse on Dec. 12, 2018. The City of Whitehorse could soon have a new trail plan in place to serve as a guide in managing the more than 233 kilometres of trails the city manages. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
2020 trail plan comes forward

Policies and bylaws would look at e-mobility devices

Snow-making machines are pushed and pulled uphill at Mount Sima in 2015. The ski hill will be converting snow-making to electric power with more than $5 million in funding from the territorial and federal governments. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Mount Sima funded to cut diesel reliance

Mount Sima ski hill is converting its snowmaking to electric power with… Continue reading

Most Read