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Opinion, Dave Dale: Mayors should have to disclose financials, investments

The percentage of levy vs total spend is a number I like to keep an eye on because it indicates the direct burden on property owners and their tenants. In 1972, the tax levy was 64 percent of the overall spend and in 2022 we’re looking at something near 69 percent.
merle dickerson 1965 mayoral win-page 2

A confluence of circumstances brought my life full circle again and it’s helping me forget for moments at a time the pandemic challenges we are facing.

Upon arriving in this city in the spring of 1986, I knew it would be important to get a lay of the land. It’s always good to know the community’s roots so I spent the summer sifting through the Nugget archives using the North Bay Public Library microfiche reader. Most of my attention focussed on life here before and after the Second World War, giving me a fairly good idea about the roots of the community and surrounding area.

It was time invested well with most of the ensuing 35 years employed as a storyteller in the area with 18 years as a Nugget staff reporter creating more archives for the next scribbler to make this place their home.

For the past couple of weeks and likely many hours to follow, I’ve found myself at the library again. This time around I’m looking at Nuggets published in 1965 (the year I was born, coincidentally) through 1972 when my family lived in Sudbury. The work is actually research for a client looking for specific stories but it’s impossible not to get lost on unrelated tangents.

It’s fun, for example, to see what was happening municipally and read about people before they became legendary, like Bobby Orr playing against the North Bay Trappers.

The front page of the Dec. 14, 1965, Nugget caught my eye. It had a two-deck banner headline announcing Merle Dickerson’s mayoral election victory, as well as the results of an interesting plebiscite: “Dickerson recaptures mayoralty; liquor lounges ‘in’ by big margin”

The colourful politician and ex-mayor garnered 4,421 votes after a five-year absence from the council chambers to beat incumbent Cecil H. Hewitt’s 2,015 and former deputy mayor James Kelly’s 943 total.

“I campaigned on the slogan of putting North Bay back on the map and putting some action back into city council and I feel I can safely say the citizens of North Bay wanted precisely that,” Dickerson was quoted as saying.

Topping the council race that year was Richard F. Donnelly, with 3,895 votes, followed by Mrs. Nell Mallory at 3,219. The other eight in order: Willard Richardson, 2,871; Dr. Frank Chirico, 2,853; William Kowalchuk, 2,351; Don Grassi, 2,310, Archie MacLean, 2,258, David J. Morland, Jr., 2,066; Clarence Rennick, 2,043 and Norman Grant, 2003.

Another thing I found interesting was the plebiscite that asked voters if they wanted dining rooms and lounges to be eligible for liquor licences. The Nugget had written an editorial before the vote recommending the move, noting that tourism dollars were being lost to businesses outside the city that didn’t restrict booze as tightly.

North Bay should make better use of options for plebiscites and referendums these days.

The April 25, 1972 headline was in all capital letters screaming the ‘CITY BUDGET HITS $12.5 MILLION’ with a subhead noting that the tax levy portion was more than $8M. This was a fairly big milestone because it came several years after North Bay amalgamated with Widdifield and West Ferris.

To put that into perspective, 50 years later the city is projecting to spend about $145M in 2022 with the tax levy hitting $101M.

Of course, we can’t really extrapolate a lot out of the raw numbers because so much has changed as far as the breadth of municipal responsibilities. There were different boards and agencies taking care of various public services with the federal and provincial governments downloading responsibilities as political winds changed.

Cost escalation also distracts most people from the factors that count more when making comparisons.

But the percentage of levy vs total spend is a number I like to keep an eye on because it indicates the direct burden on property owners and their tenants. In 1972, the tax levy was 64 percent of the overall spend and in 2022 we’re looking at about 69 percent.

Other issues never really go away, such as the pay for elected officials. There was a story recently that compared the mayoral pay totals for communities like North Bay, Sudbury, Timmins and Sault Ste. Marie. And in April 1966, there was quite the dust up between Dickerson and Alderman Willard Richardson over what the mayor actually gets put in his pocket. The story was written by Nugget legend Betty Alcorn and she described how Dickerson gave up his mayoral seat to speak as a councillor on personal privilege, leaving Donnelly to chair as Richardson tried to put the mayor on virtual trial. It was actually sparked over one extra night of accommodation spent in Toronto that Dickerson didn’t have prior approval for remittance.

Richardson seemed a bit more miffed that Dickerson had complained in a meeting he only received a salary of $33.65 a week and there was no way he could improve economic development on that pittance. Richardson argued he received substantially more, between $5,000 and $6,000 a year, and Dickerson bristled at the conflict in numbers and wanted him to apologize for the inaccuracy.

The treasurer J. E. Stockdale was then put on the carpet to detail expenditures, saying the mayor receives $1,750 in annual salary and $1,750 for out of pocket expenses, plus $300 as Hydro Commissioner and about $600 as police commissioner, as well as a possible addition of $1,200 or $1,500 when approved by council.

In 2020, North Bay Mayor Al McDonald received a total of $80,964.61 in pay ($69,974.40) and fringe benefits ($10,069.80). Compared to the other cities, when broken down by dollars per resident, it actually doesn’t compare too badly. And there’s some debate whether or not that’s too low considering the work and responsibilities involved.

But when you compare it to the city’s budget, Dickerson’s $6,000 hit was 0.00048 percent of the 1972 spend while McDonald (using the 2020 salary and ballpark $140M total spend) was about 0.00058 per cent. It doesn’t really say anything definitive but it goes to show you that the top elected position in the city has always been a source of contention. The question remains: Does paying the mayor attract a higher number of potential candidates?

And does the pay level force that level of candidate to consider what else they can make on the side while serving the community?

Personally, I think the mayor’s job in North Bay should pay quite a bit more – with the caveat that all candidates if they win, should have to divulge their financials and investments as public information.

Wasn’t that better than reading another column about vaccine marathons, viral variants and the city’s Cassellholme conundrum?

Dave Dale is a veteran journalist and columnist who has covered the North Bay area for more than 30 years. Reader responses meant as Letters to the Editor can be sent to editor@baytoday.ca. To contact the writer directly, email: davedale@backinthebay.ca or check out his website www.smalltowntimes.ca