Belleville. Man, you folks are on a roll. Most weeks, The Times keeps its focus trained on County government and Shire Hall—but the spectacular antics coming out of your City Hall lately demand special attention—in the way badly behaving children sometimes do.
First the casino. Wow, did you folks ever need that. Few jurisdictions in the province face worse social problems than does your community. Low education rates, high poverty rates, substance abuse, high teenage pregnancy. And the cycle repeats. It is only a few years since Belleville gained national notoriety as the break and enter crime capital of Canada (Maclean’s October 2010). But yes, of course—let’s add a casino to the mix.
Though perched along the Bay of Quinte and the potentially attractive Moira River side, Belleville’s fathers instead pushed commercial development northward to Bell Boulevard—a vast wasteland of box stores and asphalt, and now a casino—leaving behind a hollowed out, derelict, and, at times, frightening downtown.
Academia churns out volumes of fresh research and long-term studies describing in precise detail how the introduction of gambling to a community brings with it a plague of social ills. Yet your council—so eager to share in the toxic sweepstakes— chose not to bog itself down with such negativity and instead rolled the dice. Good luck with that.
(It was yet another embarrassing public relations moment in Robert Quaiff’s tenure as mayor of Prince Edward County when he declared how “gratifying” it was to see so many familiar County faces at the casino’s opening, in an Intelligencer story pointing to the many social problems associated with casinos and gambling.)
Then there is the deal to bring an AHL team to Belleville. Another spectacularly bad deal. The urban landscape is littered with communities that have been ravaged by greedy and unscrupulous team owners— but Belleville, it seems, is seeking to set a new benchmark for gullibility. So far, what we know is that Belleville has committed $20.5 million to renovate the team’s new rink. It has granted the team’s owner free rent for three years. (The team, however, is only committed to staying in Belleville for five years). It is also handing over to the team all the revenue from advertising in the rink. Plus an $8.5 million loan (half bearing no interest at all, half at 1.5 per cent).
The Senators owner is worth about $1.2 billion—so it is difficult to fathom why Belleville taxpayers are loaning him money. It’s by making deals like this, however, that has likely gained him such wealth.
Meanwhile, if the team sticks around long enough, the City might get a few crumbs. It will never, ever, not it if stays for 50 years, ever pay back the investment the City has made. Ever. Wasn’t there anything else your community could have done with $30 million? Really?
At the very least, shouldn’t you have made sure that any kid who wants to play hockey in your community got that opportunity?
But it’s fun, though, to hear hockey broadcaster and councillor Jack Miller talk about economic multiples and sputter nonsensical justification for this deal. Like buying trombones from the Music Man, right here in River City.
Miller cites the team’s employment of staff as a driver of the local economy. It’s the dig-a-hole-and-fill-it-back-in-again theory of economics. According to this primitive notion, the city might better hire 25 people directly, to get the same effect at a lower cost. If it were so simple to stimulate economic activity, why pour so many taxpayer dollars into the team owner’s pocket?
Miller is also banking on Belleville gaining “recognition” as part of City Hall’s return on investment. I expect his city will be recognized, but not in the way Miller is anticipating. It is more likely Belleville will become a case study on why the province ought to put hard constraints on how local councils spend taxpayers’ money.
The cherry on top of this governance dungheap is surely Mayor Taso Christopher’s recent troubles. Last week, he was found to be in a breach of conflict of interest rules. As a member of a municipal council, he is barred from voting or participating in a discussion of a matter in which has a financial interest. This is basic stuff. Don’t preside over decision-making in which you stand to gain, or lose, money. It’s so basic that it is disappointing that it needs to be written down, enforced and penalties applied. Yet, here we are.
It is not as though he heard this rule once and then forgot it. At the beginning of each meeting, council is asked directly if they have pecuniary (financial) interest in any of the items on the agenda. When they do, and it happens, elected officials typically declare the interest, excuse themselves from the discussion of the issue and sometimes, leave the room.
But Christopher didn’t do any of this when Belleville council approved the expansion of a road project that included acquiring land in which he had a financial stake. Not once, but at least three times.
A judge ruled last week that Christopher had made an “error in judgement” in failing to disclose his conflict of interest. The judge concluded, however, the offence was not so grievous as to require Christopher to give up the Mayor’s chair.
The Belleville mayor, channelling his inner Donald Trump, declared the guilty verdict a victory.
“The ruling was in my favour,” Christopher declared with a straight face. “I’m excited.”
Sadly, we live in an era in which we expect very little from our politicians. Yet they continue to surprise us with how low they are willing to sink.