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Mayor Don Atchison

Atchison's personal pothole

With slightly more than a year to go before he has to face the voters, Mayor Don Atchison will have to spend the next couple of weeks reconciling reality to the fictitious world of politics.

By most accounts, Atchison's tenure in the mayor's office has been a success. Part of that success stems from the relatively low expectations people had when he took office. That cynicism wasn't a reflection of Atchison so much as it was a general sense of malaise, evidenced by the turfing of longtime mayor Henry Dayday in the 2000 election and the dissatisfaction that caused Dayday's successor, Jim Maddin, to rank fourth in a field of six in 2003.

And in the days immediately after being sworn in, Atchison hit the national stage with a short-lived policy to require formal dress for anyone wanting to visit the mayor's office. It was a political blunder that caused him to be voted Canada's craziest mayor -- a nickname that sticks to him to this day.

A couple of weeks ago, when the Globe and Mail reported on Saskatoon being one of the few cities able to maintain Standard & Poor's Corp.'s highest credit rating, Atchison's status as the country's craziest mayor led off the story.

This is patently unfair to a mayor who has brought more decorum to council meetings (although it took a while before he would use the gavel to control rowdy gallery observers) and who has clearly taken a lead in getting things moving in Saskatoon.

But the troubles Atchison will face during the next few weeks as council goes over this year's operating budget are of his own making.

When he was vying for the job, Atchison stooped to the basest of politics. He challenged Maddin's control over public spending and accused the former mayor of allowing Saskatoon to become a contender as crime capital in Canada by changing the police service, opening ineffective store-front detachments and giving civilians too much control over the police commission.

Atchison also pulled out that most cynical of political tools, promising a tax freeze in his first year as mayor.

It is one thing for an outsider who has never been through the budget process to predict he will freeze taxes, but Atchison began his career on council in the wake of an ugly, 10½-week strike precipitated by the previous council's determination to freeze taxes without allowing the civic administration to cut any of the nearly 200 programs it was running.

The only way to keep taxes from increasing was to reduce employees' take-home pay every year, forcing them to absorb the cost of inflation that was hitting the city.

The first priority for council in 1995, Atchison's first year as a councillor, was to repair the damage done to labour relations. Since then city hall has maintained peace by allowing at least a cost-of-living increase for its workers (something that was built into last-year's budget -- the one Atchison promised to freeze -- and was manifest as recently as last week when council agreed to an average 2.17% annual increase in wages for transit staff).

Last year's budget increase for the city portion of our property tax averaged between 3% and 4%. This year things look just as grim. My colleague Rod Nickel (who is pretty good at making these predictions) has calculated that property taxes would have to go up 7.3% if councillors receive all of their desired program expansions.

When the civic administration tables its proposed budget later this week, that number will already be whittled down a couple of points or more, but it will still be far above the unrealistic promise of a tax freeze.

This is not to say I expect this council to be spendthrift. Its options are limited. The 2.17% hikes in wages are built into contracts extending until the end of next year. Last year councillors opted to shave pennies off the budget by, for example, cutting back on money in the snow removal and ice management reserve, based on an erroneous believe that Saskatoon's drought could go on forever.

This year, on top of the realization that the reserve required hundreds of thousands more than was shaved off, the city is facing one of the worst pothole situations in a generation. Those potholes are the result of excess moisture and the freeze-thaw-freeze cycles Saskatoon has gone through this winter.

There is no cheap remedy and Saskatoon residents will be much more interested in the immediate future in addressing the impact of that freeze cycle on their roads than having one on their taxes.

But that won't let Atchison off the hook. There will be those who remember the cheap tax-freeze promise when he has to go to the polls next year. They will remind him that the police service continues to be poisoned from within and that the city is still neck-and-neck as crime capital.

The mayor should be able to deflect these criticisms by pointing out that he was in charge when something finally began to happen downtown. There may even be a cinema complex going up on the notorious Block 146.

He can say the River Landing development is naturally aligned along the river, bridging Saskatoon's east-west divide.

But Maddin had all but secured federal funding for Block 146, had come up with alternatives to ever increasing property tax and had instituted changes within the police service that at least recognized the force's troubles, and he got derailed by the specious promise of a tax freeze.

The difference is that Atchison himself has placed the land mines that he must now avoid during the next year.