Few and far between: population density in northern Ontario
No matter how much you sharpen your pencil, no matter how many pages of the budget you go through line-by-line, some key factors in northeastern Ontario make annual budgeting a challenge.
One of the biggest factors is the lack of city planning that led to sprawling, sparsely populated communities that don't have the population density to maintain infrastructure.
Sault Ste. Marie has the highest population density of the four big cities in northeastern Ontario. It's also the smallest geographically. The Sault is 221.99 square kilometres, giving it a population density averaging 324.6 people per square kilometre. That compares with 13.9 in Timmins, 52.1 in Greater Sudbury and 166.9 in North Bay.
Toronto? It has a population density of 4,427.8. That means there are more than 4,400 taxpayers per kilometre to pay for services in Toronto, while that burden is shared among 14 people per square km in Timmins.
That disparity is one of the biggest challenges northern communities face when it comes to maintaining infrastructure. Lower population densities mean there are far fewer taxpayers to maintain and replace the roads, underground pipes, arenas and many other municipal assets.
Making matters worse, the province has a history of downloading costs when their budgets get tight. At different points in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, provincial governments cut their own budgets by downloading responsibilities to municipalities without the corresponding funding to pay for them – especially roads.
"It wasn't a gift," quipped Mike Jakubo, who is retiring from Sudbury city council this year after two terms.
ROADS, ROADS, ROADS
Jakubo said the state of the roads has consistently been the top priority among voters. However, the geography of the city makes getting on top of the issue difficult. He cites a well-known photo at city hall in Sudbury that shows how 15 southern Ontario municipalities all fit into the geography of Greater Sudbury.
"So we're talking Toronto, Brampton Vaughn, right? Mississauga," Jakubo said.
"These massive centres all just basically flow into each other in the GTA and Golden Horseshoe and we're responsible for all of those types of services across that vast expanse."
Christian Provenzano, the two-term mayor of Sault Ste. Marie, said unlike those southern Ontario cities, revenues in northern cities don't change much year-to-year.
"Whereas it would significantly change in cities like Mississauga that are growing quickly," said Provenzano, who is not running for re-election.
"But our expenses do change year-to-year. So our revenue doesn't grow at the same rate as large, growing city centres. (But) you know, no matter where you are, the cost of a firefighter is the cost of a firefighter; the cost of police officers are the cost of police officers and you have to incur those costs."
He said there are other services – such as arenas – cities don't have to provide, but do because that's what people expect.
"You don't have to, by law, have pools, but our communities expect us to have pools," Provenzano said.
"So we have to provide those services."
"When you have a much smaller population, it's the same price but it's much more difficult to pay that cost," added Danny Whalen, president of the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities.
"And it's not just population, it's also you know, the commercial tax base is a lot smaller."
LACK OF PLANNING AFTER SECOND WORLD WAR
Whalen said FONOM has been lobbying the province for years to give northern municipalities a share of the taxation they take from mining companies. One challenge is that many of the mines are located in unorganized townships, he said.
In addition to a much smaller population, planning policies were largely absent in the decades following the Second World War, only really coming into focus in the 1980s. That meant decades of haphazard development with little consideration for sustainability.
In northeastern Ontario, communities often coalesced around industry, particularly mining in Timmins and Greater Sudbury. This unregulated development contributed to low population density.
The long-term solution is what's known as intensification or infilling – building more homes and other developments in areas with existing infrastructure to handle it. More people using the same services makes it cheaper for everyone.
The problem? People in the north like wide open spaces. Often, that makes building new apartments or housing developments controversial. Residents often attend planning meetings, organize petitions and pressure their ward councillor to find a way to kill the development.
If local councillors choose to support the development, they alienate people in their ward – who are suddenly very motivated to replace them in the next election.
If the councillor rejects the development, it harms the long-term viability of the city and makes property tax increases more severe. What often happens is that the ward councillor will voice opposition, but the committee – and council – as a whole approves it.
"You've seen a lot of 4-1 votes, right?" said Jakubo, referring to votes by the five-person planning committee.
While NIMBY protests happen, Jakubo said those heated meetings are an opportunity for residents to learn that just not wanting new development in the neighbourhood isn't enough to kill the project.
While some meetings are acrimonious, he pointed to the most recent planning meeting in the city where compromises were struck over a development on Estelle Street.
He said it was a good example of where all planning policies were followed, but residents had legitimate concerns.
"You could work with the residents and work with the developer and try to come up with some kind of middle ground that still allowed the development to go forward, but still aligned with kind of the existing types of structures that were in the neighborhood," he said.
Al McDonald, outgoing mayor of North Bay, said planning meetings can often bring out contradictions among voters.
"What I've really noticed is everybody wants homes … as long as it's not near them," McDonald said. "So everybody is OK (with new development) as long as it's somewhere else."
In that light-hearted vein, he said opponents can be classified as NIMBY (not in my back yard), CAVE (citizens against virtually everything), NOPE (not on planet Earth) and BANANA (build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything).
"So the mayor and councillors have a very difficult job to do," McDonald said.
'GO SELL ICE CREAM'
"You're not in it for the money. You're just there to, you know, try to move your community forward. I would think that the vast majority of citizens understand that, but like anything else, it's always that percentage that can be very vocal and loud. And now with internet and social media, there's so much misinformation out there. It's hard to counteract it."
Former Timmins city councillor Kevin Vincent said making those sorts of decisions is an essential part of being a councillor. Finding ways of doing what’s best for the community and the neighbourhood is the key.
"I think there's a famous quote from Steve Jobs -- if you think that, you know, your job is to make everyone happy, go sell ice cream," said Vincent.
"At the end of the day, it's balancing what's in the best interests of the community (with concerns from residents). And, yeah, there are compromises left, right and centre all the time."
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