Whether it was regarding possible cuts to services, higher user fees, or ideas on how the town got into its current financial deficit, there was no shortage of feedback at a public meeting Monday night at the Civic Centre.
< *c>Fire, Rescue Services
An ongoing comprehensive review of Fire and Rescue Services in the Town of Fort Frances for purposes of possibly making cuts was just one area that evoked strong feelings from the packed Civic Centre.
Full-time firefighter Frank Sheppard, on behalf of the Fort Frances Professional Firefighters Association, said he had heard rumours the firefighters were under review for some time.
“But it wasn’t until I saw it on the screen tonight that I’d actually seen there is an ongoing review into the potential service reduction to our fire and rescue services,” he said to Mayor Dan Onichuk and Couns. Tannis Drysdale, Roy Avis, Neil Kabel, and Rick Wiedenhoeft.
“A couple emotions arose from that—one of them’s anger and the other one’s a little bit of disappointment,” added Sheppard, noting he’d previously spoken to councillors on an individual basis to inform them that he’d appreciate being able to speak to them if a reduction in services was ever a possibility.
“I would’ve hoped if there was a possibility of reducing services, you would’ve gotten in touch with us,” said the 18-year veteran with the department. “There are opportunities to create efficiencies.”
Sheppard warned insurance costs could rise for the town if it has a smaller complement of firefighters than it does now, and that council should consider that in any service reduction decisions.
He also stressed that as of this year, some 80,000 tanker cars come across the Ranier Bridge every year carrying hazardous materials, and that the responsibility of firefighters these days goes far beyond just house fires.
“I’m not suggesting to you there aren’t savings opportunities,” said Sheppard.
“I’m just asking that possibly you would have the consideration to speak to the people who will offer you an honest and forthright opinion, and whose interest is in the welfare of the community,” he remarked.
Local teachers Sharon Preston and Andrew Hallikas also voiced their support of maintaining fire services—as well police services—at their current level.
Preston noted council should remember the fire department offers “capable, professional service” and “quick service,” and not only attends house fires but grass fires and industrial accident scenes, too.
Hallikas said the fire department also responds to medical emergencies and motor vehicle accidents, and is trained to use the “Jaws of Life” and deliver emergency first-aid if firefighters arrive on the scene before paramedics.
They also promote fire prevention and teach safety in schools.
Hallikas added it also is essential the OPP maintain its level of service here as they not only enforce the law, but bring educational programs to schools and promote safety in general to the public.
“We owe these hard-working men and women a real debt of gratitude. We must never take them for granted,” he stressed, referring to both the fire and police departments.
He added the level of essential services in the town “should not fluctuate with the economy” and that council should not assume the “excellent level of service would continue if cuts are made.”
Several other residents also spoke up and agreed maintaining fire services as they are is crucial.
< *c>Child care
Equally impassioned was Linda Wall of the Fort Frances Children’s Complex Advisory Committee, who requested council not reduce any local child care services nor raise rates.
The town currently is conducting a review of the contract for the provision of day care provider services with the local District Social Services Administration Board.
Wall noted that while the Children’s Complex is pursuing more money through the DSSAB, and lobbying the province to provide funding that reflects actual operating costs and employee wages, that no reduction in funds from the town’s end of things would be acceptable.
She noted affordable child care is crucial to the town as the majority of the population does not make “mill worker wages,” and many parents have to work more than one job to make ends meet.
Wall said it’s a proven fact that early childhood development services, such as detecting learning disabilities or identifying hearing impairments, save a lot of money in the long run.
And she warned any decline in services, or hike in child care costs, would force people to leave town to seek work and more affordable child care.
Wall also said it doesn’t matter how modern a new library or museum may look, or if the town has a “gateway” to welcome tourists, if there is a decline in the number of residents providing a stable tax base.
“The Fort Frances Children’s Complex and the services it provides is one of the best investments you can make,” she argued.
< *c>User fees
Donald Taylor, with the local Cyclone Swim Club, made a plea for the town not to raise user fees at the Memorial Sports Centre after it, along with other user groups of the arena and pool, received a letter from Community Services manager George Bell.
In that letter, Bell said “the proposed fee increase ranges from 10 percent to 100 percent depending on your current rates compared to provincial averages and other similar charges to comparable groups.”
The letter added the overall objective is to generate user fee revenue covering 70 percent of the cost of operating the Memorial Sports Centre.
“Our current revenue expenditure ration has dropped below 60 percent. The dramatic increase in fee, along with some cost-cutting strategies, should accomplish this objective,” Bell wrote.
Taylor said higher user fees would mean less practice time for swimmers in the Cyclone Swim Club, as well as affect youth involved in hockey, skating, or any other sport at the Memorial Sports Centre.
“There have to be other options,” remarked Taylor. “These are kids we would rather have at the Memorial Sports [Centre] than on the streets.
“Essentially, don’t do it. Please.”
< *c>Other opinions
In a written submission to council, local resident Brian Kahler offered several suggestions to council, including:
•pressing senior levels of government for a “new deal”;
•thinking twice before raising property taxes;
•considering trimming the number of councillors down from six;
•consider whether or not town facilities would be better managed by the private sector; and
•make better use of the Sorting Gap Marina as a premier attraction and source of revenue.
While not on the agenda to speak, others on hand Monday night were eager to voice their opinions.
Don Mayhew said the town’s project shortfall of $2.7 million in 2004, plus its long-term debt of $3,967,310, added up as “the darkest financial chapter in our history,” and suggested the town’s name be changed to “Bankrupt City.”
“Could this debt have been avoided? Yes,” he remarked.
Mayhew said the cause was a “serious democratic deficit” in that the town failed to hold referendums on any significant past building projects, such as the arena expansion, La Verendrye Parkway, and River Walk Condominiums—projects which he felt the populace would not have approved if they’d been given a choice.
He noted a rumoured residential tax increase of 20 percent would “have people leave this town,” and that any such decisions should be determined by the citizens of Fort Frances in a vote.
Coun. Drysdale stressed the town is not “bankrupt,” but has some short-term debt” that needs to be addressed.
“The point is we’re at this point, and we’re trying to find the best possible route. We’re working on it,” said Coun. Wiedenhoeft, stressing no tax increases have been set at this time and the budget remains an ongoing process.
Local businessman Steve Lundon also said he’d heard a 20 percent tax increase was in the works, and stressed to council that such an increase would be too much for many residents—particularly seniors on a fixed income.
He charged the mill property is not properly assessed and thus Abitibi-Consolidated is not paying its share of taxes to the town.
And he cited the 17 percent increase in the cost of retaining the OPP here. “You should stand up and say no,” Lundon remarked.
Mayor Onichuk noted the town still has two more years in its contract with the OPP and negotiations would have to wait until that contract expires.
Former police officer Ted Davis stood up and said there are too many police in the area. When he was an officer in the 1960s, he recounted, there was only nine on the force, including the chief, and they actually walked a beat instead of driving everywhere.
“Who’s paying for all that gas?” he wondered.
Resident George Bartlett suggested the town should demand audits from groups asking for financial “hand-outs,” such as the Fort Frances Canadian Bass Championship.
Darryl Allan, the town’s manager of Information Technology, noted the Civic Centre already asks for audits from groups seeking $5,000 or more.
And former resident Julian Morelli suggested the town look beyond “simply balancing the budget” and invest in ways to develop revenue and draw more people to the town.
Mayor Onichuk thanked all those who came out to the meeting and noted the budget process was not over. He said council and management now would take the public’s input offered Monday night into consideration as they continue to discuss the budget.
Those who still want to tell the town what they think can do so by contacting council via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by fax at 274-8479.