Sunday, 14 October 2012

The Regina Municipal Election: A flood of candidates is one sign that residents are fed up

Act Up in Saskatchewan

The Regina municipal election will take place on October 24. In contrast to the election three years ago, there has been a remarkable increase in the number of candidates running for seats on City Council. Furthermore, there are nine candidates running for the position of Mayor. We may see a much higher turnout of voters this time and perhaps a different city administration.

Regina used to be a solid NDP town. But in the last municipal election the turnout of voters fell to 25%, which always benefits those with higher incomes. As a result, the political right re-elected Mayor Pat  Fiacco, a known Stephen Harper and Brad Wall supporter. Judging by their voting record on key issues, it quickly became apparent that the political right also swept City Council. However, a revolt against the incumbents began in 2011 when the Mayor and his business friends produced a plan to build a new football stadium.

The fallout from Regina’s boom economy
Over the past five years Regina has experienced a major boom, a reflection of the fact that people  have flooded into the province to work at the major expansions being undertaken by the existing potash mines and the new Bakken oil play. This has resulted in a serious housing shortage. The market price of existing single family dwellings has doubled over this time period. New houses are being build in new subdivisions, but almost all of them are in the range of $500,000, which is unaffordable for the majority of families and individuals.

Furthermore, rental alternatives are virtually non-existent, with the city having the lowest vacancy rate (0.6%) in the country. With virtually no direction from city planners, builders have constructed very few apartments over the past 20 years. Many existing apartments have been converted to condominiums. As a result, rental rates have skyrocketed, and it is now virtually impossible to find a one-bedroom apartment for less that $850 per month.

On top of this, the number of social housing units available has been declining for a number of years, as both the provincial and city housing authorities have been selling them off. There is now a desperate need for social and affordable housing. But this crisis situation has not led the Mayor and his passive supporters on City Council to take any serious action.
The media has named the stadium design "The Toilet Bowl."

We Need a New Football Stadium!
On the other hand, the Saskatchewan Roughriders want a new football stadium. Mayor Pat Fiacco needs a legacy project as he is not seeking re-election. The builders and developers want more land on which to build houses. Realtors want more houses to sell.

On April 19, 2011 Mayor Fiacco surprised everyone, including planners at City Hall, by announcing his own project, the Regina Revitalization Initiative. This was to include a replacement for Mosaic Stadium, expected to have a retractable roof. It would be built on the CP Rail lands on Dewdney Avenue, with links to the downtown area. Mosaic Stadium would be torn down, and the private sector would begin to build market housing on the Mosaic land sometime within the next fifteen years.

There had been no serious planning done for this project, and it soon floundered. There was not enough space on the CP Rail land. Regina, a relatively small market area, could not really afford and support a domed stadium. Stephen Harper’s government said there was no federal money available for sporting facilities used to host private profit making businesses. The provincial government said it would only contribute $80 million or up to 30% of project costs.

However, for the Mayor and the City Council, building a new football stadium was the top priority, and plans were quickly modified. Now there is to be a new open air stadium, to be built on city-owned land at Evraz Place, the agribition grounds, on Elphinstone St., right across from the Lawson Aquatic Centre.

Many of those who support the concept of a new stadium do not like the proposal. It will not have a retractable roof, although the current plan calls a stadium where a roof can be added in the future. It would seat 33,000 people, only slightly more than Mosaic Stadium. But the most serious problem is the lack of parking. Those responsible for this plan seem unaware of the fact that a great many people drive to Regina to go to the football games, cannot find anywhere to park, and end up parking on city streets and making a long trek to the stadium. A few years ago there was a proposal to build a new stadium near IPSCO north of Regina, but the city fathers  rejected this option. The builders, developers and realtors want more land on which to build market housing.
Candidate for Mayor Michael Fougere badly wants a stadium.

Can Regina afford a new stadium?

The public has been concerned about the rush to build a new stadium. The city is already carrying a debt of almost $100 million. The defined pension plan the city has with its employees is underfunded by $293 million. There is a desperate need for a new waste water treatment plant, projected to cost $150 million. Everyone complains about the decaying state of the roads.

The obvious alternative would be to upgrade the existing Mosaic Stadium. In 2007 the City contracted with Santec Architecture to do a detailed examination of the condition of the stadium. They reported that it was in relatively good condition, and with a capital outlay of only $3.4 million it would last for at least another 10 years. This report was not released to the public.

The Saskatchewan Roughriders are currently investing $14 million in the Legacy Project to upgrade Mosaic Stadium. The project will increase the seating capacity to 50,000 to meet requirements to host the 2013 Grey Cup. This upgrade has almost been completed.

A slightly more extensive upgrade has been ruled out by Regina’s political and business establishment. Voices in the city are demanding a referendum on the issue, but the Mayor and the City Council are adamantly opposed. A referendum petition is being circulated. A campaign against a referendum is being sponsored by the Regina and District Chamber of Commerce, the Regina and Region Home Builders Association, and the Association of Regina Realtors.

How would Regina pay for a new stadium?
The new stadium is projected to cost $278 million. This does not include cost overruns, which are always present in such construction projects. For example, Winnipeg’s new football stadium was originally estimated to cost $115 million but will actually cost $195 million. Regina has agreed to absorb all cost overruns. It has also agreed to absorb all maintenance costs.

A Memorandum of Agreement to build the new stadium was approved by the Mayor and the City Council on July 19, 2012. It projects that over a 30 year period of building and paying for the stadium, the total cost will be $675 million. Here is the City’s plan:

Initial financing of the new stadium:
Provincial grant                                $80 million
Provincial loan to the City                $100 million
Roughriders contribution                  $25 million
City’s beginning contribution           $70 million
City land contribution                       $3 million
Total estimate                                    $278 million

Total cost of the new stadium over 30 years:
Provincial loan principal                   $100 million
     Interest on loan                             $74 million
City debt principal                             $70 million
     Interest on debt                             $51 million
Maintenance and Rehabilitation        $230 million
City interim financing                       $150 million
Total estimated cost                           $675 million

Paying back the debt over 30 years:
Roughriders facility fees                  $100 million
SaskSport agreement                        $75 million
Mosaic Stadium grounds                  $24 million
Hotel Tax (new)                                $80 million
Interest earned                                   $81 million
Sponsorship revenue                         $15 million
Property tax increases                       $300 million
Total estimate                                   $675 million       

Of course the big surprise is that $300 million would come from Regina property taxes. Mayor Fiacco says this is a very minor issue. So does the Leader Post. Bruce Johnstone, financial editor for the Leader Post, states that “the average taxpayer will pay $5 in year one, $10 in year two, $15 in year three to $50 in year 10.” But this appears to be way off the mark. If all the revenue were to come from households, the average amount would be $3500 over 30 years.

This is not an outrageous increase in property taxes. The main question, of course, is this the best use of our tax money? According to the survey of Regina public opinion done by Praxis Analytics for the City in February 2012, 30.4% of those surveyed argued that the most important public issue facing the city was the housing crisis. Only 3.2% of those surveyed put the stadium at the top. That is why so many people are calling for a new Mayor and City Council. The current officials are out of touch with the voters. They are also arrogant and dismissive when hearing dissent from Regina’s citizens.

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