Town taking hard look at soft services

Duane Hicks

While it’s too early in the budget to know how much of a levy increase Fort Frances taxpayers will be facing in 2009, town council is looking to find savings wherever they can.
As such, one area that came up again at Monday’s budget meeting was reductions in staffing hours in the Community Services divisions, including the Fort Frances Museum.
The discussion came up as mayor and council talked about tax thresholds and how much of a residential tax increase they’d be willing to accept, with most agreeing that between three and 4.75 percent would be realistic at this point.
But several councillors stressed they seriously need to look at finding savings in order to avoid passing too much tax burden on to residents.
Coun. Ken Perry said he recently read Atikokan was reducing its library hours to 25 a week.
“We don’t want to do that to our library, but we’ve got a museum that’s seldom used, in the wintertime particularly,” he noted. “Two people on staff at the museum and it’s open all the time.
“This has to be said—we should cut back the hours at the museum and save some dollars.
“I hate to say that because that could mean getting rid of a person, and I am not the kind of guy to want to lay anybody off,” Coun. Perry stressed. “But maybe that person could be better used somewhere else.”
Mayor Roy Avis agreed, noting that unlike the Memorial Sports Centre, where the town has sold annual memberships to the public on the basis that it would be open according to a certain schedule, a facility like the museum, that “is not creating any revenue whatsoever” and traditionally has a slow season, closing its doors for six months of the year is something council should consider.
“I do not want to see us go back to the taxpayers with a 4.5 percent increase,” noted the mayor, adding the town has to look not only at the museum but all of the town’s “Cadillac operations” to find efficiencies.
Coun Andrew Hallikas said that prior to any cutting, he would to like to hear what sort of impact that might have.
“[The museum] does provide a lot to this community as far as tourism, education, and so forth,” he remarked. “It’s not as simple as cutting. We have to look at the cost of cutting it to our community.”
He added community services often are looked at for cuts in tough times, but they are “the heart and the soul of our community.”
“People count on those things. Yes, there is financial cost to them, but in tough times even more, those things can become more and more important,” Coun. Hallikas stressed. “Let’s not be hasty in looking at community services and cut.”
Mayor Avis countered that tough times are ahead and “everything should be on the table.”
“We can’t protect certain areas. We have to sit down and look at the broad picture of this whole organization, and make it affordable to people and operate a good service as well,” he said.
“We have to start someplace.”
Coun. Sharon Tibbs said the museum has educational and community components that should not be overlooked, but if savings are possible, it should at least be looked at further.
“The museum is important to us all. Yes, it’s educational and it’s historical, but we have to make some cuts here,” Coun. Perry countered, noting community services like fire protection and policing are essential, “but when the chips come down,” a museum or a library are not.
Coun. John Albanese said the town works hard to attract professionals here and shouldn’t be so quick to get rid of them.
“I’d like to see the reason behind it, some stats [telling us] why we have to cut the museum staff down,” he remarked, adding the fact council is even discussing the matter can’t be good for museum staff morale.
“I don’t have the data in front of me to make an educated decision tonight,” said Coun. Rick Wiedenhoeft. “I think we need to know usage, the number of people there in the wintertime, the impact on the downtown, the effect on personnel—there’s a lot of answers I’d have to see before making my decision.”
Coun. Paul Ryan said he didn’t feel council was at the point when services would need to be cut.
At the Jan. 19 budget meeting, council deferred possible reductions in summer hours for recreation facilities and at the Sorting Gap Marina, sending the matter back to the Community Services executive committee for review.
But on Monday, Bell said the executive community has discussed it and will be making a recommendation back to council that the Sorting Gap morning hours be reduced Monday through Thursday while the Memorial Sports Centre summer hours remain as they are—open weekdays and weekends until June 21, and thereafter just open weekdays and for four hours Sunday afternoons in July and August.
In other news, councillors also deferred the possibility of eliminating remuneration for the board members and secretary of the Police Services Board first raised at the Jan. 19 meeting, referring it to the Community Services executive committee for its recommendation.
Cutting the remuneration would save the town $7,000, but on Monday, Coun. Paul Ryan said he felt strongly the remuneration for that board should remain.
Given the high level of legal responsibility and sensitivity of information its members have to deal with, he noted paying a per diem to them ensures the PSB has an equity in its appointed members.