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City takes on new social spending
Homeless employment, street outreach service, community safety officer, new firefighters among big additions to 2017 budget

Shane Magee
Northern News Services
Wednesday, December 14, 2016

City council approved an $80.6 million operations and capital budget on Monday with new spending on social services to address homelessness and addictions issues.

It includes $50,000 for a homelessness employment program, a mobile street outreach service with a city contribution of $100,000, $300,000 for a community safety officer as well adding four firefighters.

The additions came after a series of cuts or reductions to other budget items, freeing up funds for the programs along with a tax rate increase of 1.234 per cent.

The programs link with GNWT plans to open a sobering centre, an extension of the Safe Harbour Day Shelter hours and other efforts to address what's been called a homelessness crisis.

Mayor Mark Heyck had led a committee this summer that had recommended a number of the city's new initiatives.

The decisions represent a larger foray into social spending after starting to place people in apartments through its Housing First program this year and annual contributions to the day shelter. The city is also working on a 10-year plan to deal with homelessness.

Mayor Mark Heyck said the spending reflects the priorities of council and responds to resident concerns about homelessness, safety and the state of downtown.

"Some of the investments that council will be making through this budget, I expect to see some significant improvements in the issues around homelessness, mental health and addictions," Heyck said in an interview after the budget passed Monday.

"We're not going to solve any of these problems overnight."

Heyck called it a first step that allows the city to go to the GNWT, federal government and non-governmental organizations and say they need to work with the city to make a difference.

The mayor said he expects some of the programs to be implemented within months, though effects may take longer to become noticeable.

Many of the details of how the programs will work are still to be decided.

The employment program, advanced by Coun. Adrian Bell, would hire people for things like cleaning litter and snow removal.

The mobile outreach service would have a team of people use a vehicle during set hours to assist people who are highly intoxicated and need help, but don't require police or an ambulance. The mayor pushed the proposal as calls for city ambulances climbed.

The service, in part funded by the federal government, could transport a person to a location like a shelter, the hospital or sobering centre when in place.

Bell's proposal for a community safety officer was described as a mix of law enforcement and social worker similar to a program in Thompson, Man., with the ability to detain someone and act in an enforcement capacity. It requires a legislative change by the GNWT and the motion called for matching funds from the territorial government.

Three councillors voiced opposition, with Shauna Morgan saying what's needed is more of a social worker role.

Coun. Rebecca Alty also voiced opposition.

"I think there's a lot of programs going on and if we just add another, I don't think it's going to work as directed," she said.

Alty, Morgan and Coun. Niels Konge voted against the proposal, which council ultimately passed.

The issue of homelessness and addictions weighed on other decisions such as the unanimous vote to cut $1.9 million of spending for 50 Street revitalization. Bell said residents are more concerned about safety than beautification at this point.

The mayor later successfully advocated to have the city spend $75,000 to further study what to do with the city-owned lot at the corner of 50 Avenue and 50 Street. The "multi-purpose building study" will examine the idea of what could be built there, whether purely a private development or some other use that could include public space such as a new library.

City firefighters decked in red Yellowknife International Association of Fire Fighters Local 2890 shirts applauded as council unanimously voted in favour of a motion by Morgan to hire four more firefighters in July at a cost of about $222,000.

"We're extremely happy," said Chris Bittrolff, president of the union local.

The move follows a report examining the fire department that pointed to high turnover and burnout due to growing call volumes among full-time members. The report recommended increasing full-time members from 24 to 32.

Two more emergency dispatchers will also be hired, though a motion by Bell was approved calling on the city to explore privatization of the service. A motion whether to increase a fee the city charges the GNWT for transporting medevac patients wasn't raised again. Morgan said council will likely consider the issue in the new year.

Other projects added to the budget include $265,000 for improvements to a triangular shaped parking lot at the corner of School Draw Avenue and Franklin Avenue and $160,000 to partner with the Yellowknife Climbing Club to move the climbing wall into the Fieldhouse.

A request for $500,000 to help fund an expansion of the Ecole Allain St-Cyr gym heard last week wasn't discussed by council.

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