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Kirwan: Councillors must be ready to spend political capital to protect vulnerable citizens

Municipalities have a responsibility to ensure the health and safety of senior citizens, and taxpayers must be prepared to pay for it
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Ward 5 Coun. Robert Kirwan. (Supplied)

As we begin a new decade on Jan. 1, one of the biggest challenges facing the City of Greater Sudbury will be to help people who are living near or below the poverty line to meet their basic needs, while providing opportunities for as many of them as possible to gain meaningful employment that may help them get out of the poverty cycle they find themselves in.

However, there are almost 30,000 people 65 years of age and older already living in Greater Sudbury, and another 24,000 people between the ages of 55 and 64 who will be entering the senior age category over the next 10 years. This means that more and more people who really have no chance of finding new sources of revenue to keep pace with the cost of living will be living at or below the poverty line. They will simply be unable to enter the job market because of age and deteriorating health.

Therefore, we are going to have to come up with a general seniors’ strategy that provides as many of those necessary services as possible to our older adults at a reduced cost. The question we must answer is simple: What are some of the things we can do to help older adults enjoy the best quality of life possible in light of the fiscal realities facing our municipality? The answer is not so simple.

The City of Greater Sudbury can only help people living near or below the poverty line through the things over which we have control. Those include the cost for public transit; the cost for affordable and suitable housing; the cost for utilities; the cost for municipal taxes; the cost for recreational and cultural activities; the cost for general maintenance and upkeep while older adults are living in their own homes; the cost for some health and wellness services. 

After that it becomes difficult to find other things we have control over as a municipality.

Our biggest challenge is that providing some of the enhanced services along with the cost reductions mentioned above requires the rest of the residential and commercial property owners to pay more for municipal taxes and user fees to cover the expenses incurred to provide those reductions to older adults and people living in poverty. That means we must find a balance between generating the new revenue needed for these costs from existing property owners, and from new property owners, hopefully with a greater percentage coming from the latter over the next decade.

My primary goal moving forward for as long as I am councillor for Ward 5 is to work with the rest of council and staff to find ways of effectively implementing growth initiatives and strategies that will generate new revenue to help pay for many of these expenses rather than relying entirely upon the property owners who live here now. 

This is going to be an enormous challenge, especially when, as councillors, we face the risk of paying a personal political price as a result of public criticism about the decisions we must make on behalf of our residents who are most in need of the services we provide.
 
Many of our critics would rather us refrain from raising taxes by choosing instead measures such as cutting services, cutting staff who provide those services, and from avoiding investment in new infrastructure. This criticism is coming at a time when everyone knows that we need to increase our service levels, we need more staff to provide those services, and we need more investment in infrastructure which will generate future growth.

Since no one wants to see their taxes increased, city councillors are faced with a conundrum: We can ensure re-election by keeping taxes low and cutting costly services from those most in need. Or we can stand up and have the courage to do what is right for the people who need our services the most and by making strategic investments to generate future growth to pay for these services.

I am encouraged by the decisions city council made to invest in our future during the Budget 2020 process just completed. We made a lot of choices that will place us in a good position heading into the next decade, especially with the commitment to a 1.5-per-cent special capital levy to address our asset renewal and replacement priorities. 

In order to address those priorities, we were forced to ask all existing property owners to pay an increase of 4.8 per cent in their municipal taxes to absorb most of the immediate costs of moving forward. We now must find the courage to continue along this path so that some of the costs needed in the next few budgets to provide the services to those most in need will be shared by new growth revenue. And we must hope that all of our residents understand the choices we need to make and remain confident in our ability to represent their interests.

The opposition may be loud and fierce, but I am confident that the current city council knows what we must do. I am convinced that we will do the right thing, regardless of the political price that we may end up paying. We can't quit now. The future is in our hands and we must accept the responsibility we assumed from our constituents when they elected us to act in their best interests and in the best interests of our municipality. 

We are beginning the most important decade in the history of the City of Greater Sudbury. I am excited about the prospect of being in a position where I can personally have a significant influence on the future of the city that I have called home my entire life. I welcome the opportunity and I pray for the wisdom to meet the challenges that lay ahead.

Robert Kirwan is the city councillor for Ward 5.




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