While it owes its existence to the election campaign of Mayor Marianne Matichuk – at least in part -- members of the Greater Sudbury Taxpayers Association bristle at suggestions it’s currently linked to the mayor.
The group, which has taken high-profile positions opposing many city council policies, has 135 members and is run by a nine-member board, which collectively determines its positions. It formed following the 2010 municipal election when some of the people who worked on Matichuk’s campaign – including Paul Demers and Dan Melanson – realized that electing a new mayor was no guarantee reform at city hall was going to happen.
Three members of the GSTA – Melanson, who is president, Demers, who is vice-president, and Brent Edwards – visited Northern Life’s Elgin Street office recently to talk about a host of issues. In particular, the group is promoting its proposal to issue municipal bonds to fund at least part of the more than $700 million infrastructure deficit that is limiting growth in Greater Sudbury. But the discussion expanded to include its positions on a number of topics, including the exact nature of its relationship with the mayor.
On issuing bonds to help finance infrastructure repairs.
A recent report detailed a $700 million deficit between what the city spends repairing its infrastructure and what needs to be spent. Only about $40 million is spent on roads projects annually, meaning the deficit grows larger each year and the city is falling further behind.
“You’re never, ever going to catch up,” said Edwards. “You’re barely treading water … How do you deal with a problem like that? Do you slash your operating budget? Very difficult. Do you get federal or provincial funding? Even harder to do right now.
“The thing that came to mind was the concept of a municipal bond.”
Considering the billions of dollars the city has in assets and the fact Greater Sudbury is almost debt-free, Edwards says bond traders would give the city an excellent interest rate.
“When you go out into the financial community to try and float bond like this, they’ll be falling all over themselves to participate,” he said. “Because of the low debt-to-equity ratio, you’re going to have a stellar credit rating.
“We have a need, we have a very favourable financial climate, and we’re entering a period of what most people believe will be a period of unprecedented growth in our community.”
Municipal bonds would deal with both issues – need for new growth and the massive infrastructure deficit. And local companies they’ve talked to say they could easily do $100 million a year in infrastructure work, and increase of about $60 million compared to what’s currently being spent.
“We’re not advocating that they borrow $700 million and go crazy and build 82 arenas,” said Melanson. “We’re saying deal with the infrastructure deficit – water, sewer, roads, bridges ... That’s the core services municipal government is there to provide.”
“And that utilizes resources in the city,” said Edwards. “A lot more people are going to work. You’ll see more sales at restaurants and hotels.
“We just want to get them to start thinking about this. We want to give them enough reason to have a discussion about this.”
On what the GSTA is exactly.
“The GSTA is a duly incorporated, not-for-profit entity with a board of directors and memberships,” said Melanson. “The GSTA is not Paul Demers, Dan Melanson, Brent Edwards or any other individual. It’s run by a board of directors that meets every month to give direction on where we’re going and what we’re doing.
“Let’s be very, very clear: if the GSTA takes a position, it’s not because somebody else outside of the GSTA asks us to or expects us to. It’s because the board of directors – all nine of them – has said that’s what we’re going to do.”
On the GSTA’s relationship with Mayor Marianne Matichuk.
“Comments that the GSTA is pulling someone’s strings, or is pulling the GSTA’s strings, is completely and utterly false and totally baseless,” said Melanson. “I’m getting tired every time I read something, it’s ‘Paul Demers and Dan Melanson, who formerly worked on Marianne’s campaign …’ Well, Paul has worked on a number of campaigns.
“As a matter of fact, (Ward 11 Coun.) Terry Kett used to be my history teacher in Grade 9. Maybe you want to bring that up.”
“If the mayor came out and took an opposing stand to something we support, we wouldn’t hesitate to criticize her,” he added.
“If the mayor thinks she’s going to spend $6 million on Market Square, we will be against the mayor,” Demers said, describing himself as “a hired gun” who helps run election campaigns.
“I was hired to a job,” he said, of his work on Matichuk’s election campaign. “It was a fun job to do, it was a great team. That’s how I met Dan.
“And I still believe in the cause, as an individual – that change is needed in our community.”
Demers said it wasn’t long after the election that the GSTA formed because it became clear the election wasn’t going to lead to the type of reforms they had hoped for.
“It wasn’t long after the election that we realized that there wasn’t going to be no change in our community,” he said. “And I believe that even if the campaign wasn’t successful and Marianne wasn’t elected, the GSTA would still be here.”
“They try to say that we’re just advocating on behalf of the mayor,” Melanson said. “We’re not. We’re advocating on behalf of the GSTA’s platform and the board of directors. Period.”
On the GSTA’s relationship with city council.
“They don’t like us,” Demers said. “Have we been critical? Absolutely. Have we created any issues? Absolutely not ... The issues we have been commenting on and critical of, have been created by council.”
On the Health Community Initiative funds, which allows councillors to spend $50,000 a year in their wards with few restrictions. Unspent money from previous years can be carried over.
Melanson said before the GSTA took a position on the HCI funds, they hired an ethics expert – Greg Levine -- to offer an opinion.
“That opinion formed the basis of our position,” he said. “If we take a position on something, it’s because the board has decided it’s something we want to take a position on, and because we have done our research and looked at it thoroughly.”
They asked Levine if the way HCI funds operate is a good way for councillors to be spending taxpayers’ money.
“He came back and said, categorically, no,” Melanson said.
Levine’s opinions mirrored those of Auditor General Brian Bigger, who was asked to do a review of the funds last summer. He recommended control of funds be returned to staff, something councillors rejected.
“This is about the mechanics of how they do it,” Melanson said. “This is about whether or not one person should have the authority to give you X number of dollars.”
“We find it offensive that our tax dollars are being spent without any debate,” said Demers. “That money is being spent to buy watches for a football team is offensive. I’ll continue to say that.”
One of the big problems is residents don’t know who has asked for money and been told no. While all expenditures from the funds are posted online, there’s no record of those who ask for money and are turned down.
“When you have one person who decides whether a cheque is going to get written, that’s also the only person who knows who has been turned down,” Melanson said.
“You could literally spend $200,000 in the three months before the election,” said Edwards. “In a ward where all you need is 2,000 or 3,000 thousand votes, that’s a lot of money ... That aspect of it did not pass the smell test.
“Our view is, turn it back to city staff. Let councillors put the projects forward, let the clear light of day shine on them, and have city staff allocate the funds. To have elected officials with their hands on the public purse, giving it out to the people who are electing them, that’s fundamentally wrong.”
“There’s no question that councillors are closest person in touch with the grassroots of the area that they represent,” said Melanson. “And they should be deeply involved in the expenditure of any discretionary funds in their wards. We have no problem with that.
“But for them to be the sole adjudicator of those funds lends itself to abuses and potential conflicts. It should not be like that.”
On ethics expert David Nitkin, whom the GSTA brought in to speak at a fundraiser, saying the HCI funds weren’t unethical.
“Bring Mr. Nitkin in and have him do an in-depth study of the policy and then offer an opinion,” said Melanson. “And then how about we all agree to abide by whatever he comes up with? … If they’re willing to do that, I’m willing to do that. I’ll never speak of HCI funds again.”
On whether the GSTA will be running candidates in the 2014 municipal election.
“We have begun to discuss that as a board,” said Melanson. “The initial discussions are that we are very interested in putting forth a slate of candidates. Exactly what that will encompass we have yet to define.
“But there will be a slate of candidates that we will endorse.”
“I would encourage more people to run,” said Demers. “And if there are like-minded individuals who support the goals of our organization … why would we not support that person?
“There will be people volunteering to help people with their campaigns. That’s called democracy. And we will be involved in that democratic process. Absolutely, 100 per cent.”