“How much subsidization or taxpayer support is too much?” has been the question in the media over the past couple of weeks. It’s a good discussion for Prince Albert to be having, but as we talk about it, we need to sort out what we need and what we want.
The question on subsidization was picked up from the State of the City address regarding the idea of a new leisure centre. Before we talk about a new one, let’s have a discussion about the existing ones and, thanks to media attention, people probably know a lot more about what it costs taxpayers for the amenities we have, beyond the costs covered by user fees.
Then, a report on transit came to council, along with a petition from bus users, and the discussion continued: how much of the cost of public transit is being covered by the taxpayer, above the fares paid by users? It’s another good discussion, but it’s not directly comparable.
A Herald story last week showed our public transit total cost for 2012 was $664,805 after the contribution of users through paying fares. The story compared Moose Jaw’s system, which costs that city about $800,000 a year. On a percentage basis, that means Prince Albert taxpayers are covering about half of the cost, while Moose Jaw taxpayers are covering about two thirds of the cost. That would suggest Prince Albert’s current costs are not out of line and perhaps there is even some room to improve or extend services with a little extra money.
The reaction from city council, however, would suggest we are already paying way too much. The recommendations coming from the administration’s report were pushed aside, saying they can’t possibly be considered for this year’s budget, which is already under consideration. Most telling was the reaction from one councillor who said that in the year he has been on council, he has never had a phone call about bus service, suggesting that priorities should be set by call volume.
On the other side, I do know of councillors who have made the effort to go out and ride the bus. Kudos to them for seeing for themselves what the conditions are, how convenient (or not) the system is, and who rides the bus. What these councillors likely found was that the people on the bus are not the type of people who typically call city councillors to complain. Bus riders may not have the time to find out who their councillor is, or what his phone number is, or have the courage to call. These are people who are just trying to get to work or school -- just trying to get by.
It’s been some time since I rode the bus in Prince Albert because I, like a whole lot of people in the city, am fortunate enough to have a car to drive to work, to go shopping, and to generally get around. I have ridden the bus in our city, and in many larger cities, and it’s an interesting experience. It’s a great way to see the real life of a city versus the tidy tourist sites, and to see how working people get to their jobs, seniors get to their appointments, and young people get to school. It also gives you the experience of being a bus rider: dependent and a little vulnerable. You have to plan your route and have enough change for the fare. You need to watch for the right stop, be ready according to someone else’s schedule. You get bored, because the route is not designed for you; it’s shared for the benefit of the most people. You are not in control.
How do you find out what the bus users think about the bus service? You ride the bus, like some councillors have done. You go out to where the bus users are, as the writer of the report to council did. You gather names on a petition at bus stops and on the street, and then take it to council, as one advocate did. The requests for improved service have come from the users, are valid, and should be heard. Maybe Prince Albert can’t afford to do all the things that were asked for in the report from administration, or in the petition, or as discussed with councillors during bus rides; however, it is wrong to dismiss these concerns just because they didn’t come to council as a typical lobbying effort.
It’s also wrong to compare the subsidy to transit services directly against payments for other services by the taxpayer. Being Saskatchewan’s third-largest city means there are expectations: a variety of recreational options, venues for the arts, health services, education services, and many more. Not every expectation should rate the same, though. There are basics in life and there are nice things to have. Basics include getting to work, or to training so you will be able to work in the future, or to the grocery store. If you don’t have a vehicle or can’t drive, most often you need to use the bus to do these basic things.
As city council tries to balance out all the requests for money before them, here’s hoping they consider not only the dollars, but the facts behind the requests and go with the basics first. Setting priorities according to who makes the most noise is a poor way to govern -- and just sets the stage for a whole lot more noise.
Barb Gustafson is a lifelong resident of Prince Albert and a former managing editor and publisher of the Prince Albert Daily Herald. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org