'The era of the Lighthouse is coming to an end': Rob Norris pitches decentralization, social impact bonds instead

As part of our ongoing coverage of the 2020 Saskatoon municipal election, CTV News at Five anchor Jeremy Dodge is sitting down with each of the city's six mayoral candidates to discuss why they are running for office and what they plan to do if elected. Here is Jeremy's conversation with Rob Norris. You can also watch their conversation using the player above.

Your website has three big words, right on the front page: affordability, prosperity and safety. Let’s start at the top. Is Saskatoon a tough place to afford to be?

You know, after months of campaigning, after hearing from working families, from seniors, students, business owners, the answer is, for a lot of people, it is. What we’re seeing is that 3.7, 3.9 per cent property tax increases got us locked in this fiscal straitjacket. We need to stop this. We need to go back to annual budgets. And I’m proposing one per cent property tax increases. We need to find some savings and we need to make sure those are passed on to working families across Saskatoon. Too many families find Saskatoon to be too expensive.

One per cent sounds great to people who pay it - but at the same time it means a lot less revenue to work with for the city.

I’ve looked at the numbers very closely and there are a couple of areas where we can find some savings. First is the Bus Rapid Transit. We know how important busing is in Saskatoon. We also know that with COVID, well, ridership declined by up to 80 per cent. And it fluctuates up and down, but there’s been a dramatic decrease in ridership. So rather than moving ahead, plowing ahead as planned with the BRT, it’s over $100 million minimum, let’s actually press pause and let's take some of those savings and make sure those are passed back to working families and seniors, business owners.

The other piece I’ve said is, let’s actually press pause on hiring at City Hall. Let’s make sure, especially as we’re working our way through COVID, that that complement is correct. So a hiring freeze, pausing the BRT, there’s more than enough money - savings - to pass on to working families in Saskatoon.

Safety, crime are huge concerns right now. Gangs, drugs, violence have been going up. What are your thoughts on that?

I’m deeply concerned. Some people would say this is about the downtown. This is about the entire city. You know, east College Park, one night 90 tires are slashed. I got to Saskatoon Greystone, my former riding, people who have traditionally felt very safe in their neighbourhood. Now suddenly feeling, frankly, uneasy because of the rising rates of crime. Last year, record murder rates here in Saskatoon, this year record arson. And sadly, well, we’re back on pace for murders as well.

The plan, quite frankly, starts with the tone at the top. For reasons I don’t understand, Charlie Clark opted not to chair the Board of Police Commissioners here in Saskatoon. I’m going to seek, if I have the privilege of being mayor, to chair the Board of Police Commissioners. I think the tone at the top matters. I also then want to expand the membership of the board. I want to make sure there’s just a greater diversity of voices. Then, most importantly, I’m going to be standing shoulder to shoulder with the Saskatoon Police Service. We know the fundamental, important work - almost impossible work - that they’re doing sometimes.

And we’re looking at Police and Crisis Teams, that’s just a way of saying where we can, as we can, let’s make sure we get some additional dollars from the province to make sure more social workers are working more closely with ou police officers … making sure there’s maybe a broader range of service available for some of those calls.

On a partially related note, the Lighthouse has to be part of those discussions. What’s your view on the future of that facility?

The status quo is not working. It’s not working for those who are among the most vulnerable in need. It’s certainly not working for others. And so the era of the Lighthouse is coming to an end. What I’ve said is, a blue-ribbon panel of experts. They’re going to be struck … with a 90-day window, and offer a report.

I’ve offered a couple suggestions and solutions. I’m looking for a decentralized model. So here in Saskatoon we’ve got a model for Canada’s first social impact bond. And it was led by (former Sask. Party MLA) June Draude. It includes EGADZ, it’s got a 90 per cent success rate, so we’ve got an initiative right here in Saskatoon that we can look to, and others like it across the country.

The era of the Lighthouse is over, we need to move quickly, we need to move smart, we need to make sure those who are most vulnerable are taken care of.

Let’s move on to the library. $134 million, you think that’s too much. But it’s already been approved by council, it’s moving ahead. You think it’s not too late to want to take back some of that money.

This marks a conversation that’s a lot less about the importance of libraries. We all understand the importance of libraries. It really highlights Charlie Clark’s penchant for overspending. City Council has essentially put $67.5 million of debt financing back onto the shoulders of working families and others in Saskatoon. I’ve said “Stop, shelve the program.”

What we’re going to do is actually take that money back to square one and let’s see what we actually need. The answer is, people across Saskatoon, by two-thirds, are really aligned with what I’m talking about and what I’ve been talking about consistently. We know the importance of libraries. We don’t need a gold-plated, stand-alone downtown library.

What about other large, capital projects? A new arena is being discussed, a new convention centre as well. There are a lot of big-ticket items on the horizon.

They’re on the horizon. We’ve got a lot of trees in Saskatoon, I just haven’t ever found a money tree. The key question for the arena - of course we’d like a new arena. Is it affordable? One of the lessons learned from the library is, we can’t go it alone. The library is a city-funded project, a taxpayer-funded project. Any discussions about an arena have to include other funding partners. The provincial government, federal government, public and private sector partners including First Nations and Metis partners. The answer right now is, can the citizens of Saskatoon afford it? And what I’m hearing clearly is, “Rob, now is the time for prudence.”

Why should people put a checkmark next to your name on Nov. 9?

My 10 years of serving with Premier Brad Wall in the Saskatchewan Legislature, as I was the MLA for Saskatoon-Greystone, have given me keen insights about how this city actually works. For the better part of a decade, almost no money flowed here that I didn’t know about and sometimes helped to control.

What we’ve seen, frankly from both Charlie Clark and Don Atchison is, well, it’s almost like they’re cousins. This is about their track record of tax and spend. Under Don Atchison, the debt increased by 400 per cent. And under Charlie Clark, since he’s been a member of council and mayor, taxes have gone up by 70 per cent.

It’s time for fiscal prudence. It’s time to make sure that we’re minding the shop and making sure that taxpayers, hard working families, actually come first.