Don Atchison Needs His Pink Slip
September 1st, 2016 | D. Stone
saskatoon election

Don Atchison is a man of big ideas and huge ambitions. He's an entrepreneur and a successful business owner who has served Saskatoon well for 13 years. He once suggested building a giant glass dome to enclose a part of downtown and he required anyone visiting his city hall to be properly dressed – two ideas that were lampooned by the media. Despite the criticisms, Atchison pressed on and turned Saskatoon into Saskatchewan's main economic hub. Unfortunately, the lag and complacency that usually come with long-term incumbency have started to catch him. This inevitable incumbent's lag catches everyone who serves in public office for too long and Don Atchison is no exception. With the lag comes a clouded view of reality.

Atchison has often been the target of social justice warriors, like Saskatoon councillor, Zack Jefferies, who pretended to be offended by Atchison's reaction to the Orlando nightclub shooting. In June, Atchison's office released a statement that said, “Everyone should be safe in our communities, regardless of their lifestyle choices, religion, or ethnicity.” Somehow, this triggered Jefferies to reply with an indignant attack claiming that Atchison's comments were insensitive because he used the phrase “lifestyle choices”. Being the gentleman that he is, Atchison later apologized for the statement, even though the outrage was entirely manufactured.

One of the reasons for Atchison's weakening popularity might have to do with his constant back-pedalling and catering to social justice warriors. Unlike the Don Atchison from 2003, the Don Atchison of 2016 seems more concerned with appeasing the electorate than standing up against every inkling of phony outrage the media throws at him.

Atchison's detachment from reality became most evident this year, when Saskatoon's most insufferable councillor, Ann Iwanchuk, proposed one of the most ludicrous laws to ever be proposed in Saskatoon's history. In March, she proposed a new bullying bylaw that would have outlawed gossip and “rumour-mongering”. Rather than oppose the bylaw outright, Atchison said, “We need to move on something like the bylaw.” By the sounds of it, had it not been for the outrage and constant ridicule brought by the absurd bylaw, Atchison might have supported it. In the end, the bylaw never made it into law, but Atchison's support for “something like it” tells us a lot.

In all of his 13 years, Don Atchison has never seemed so out of touch and eager to keep his job as he has in 2016. The Don Atchison of 2003, who brought Saskatoon into the forefront of prosperity, is no longer with us. In fact, that Don Atchison might have left us years ago.

In 2015, Saskatoon's operating budget made history. For the first time, the budget was radically outpacing the city's growth and costing Saskatoon taxpayers $439 million. This was up from $224 million in 2006. Since 2006, Saskatoon's tax revenue has increased 95%, with at least 60% of that increase resulting from perpetual tax hikes. The scariest part of this is the radical increase in Saskatoon's debt that has happened under Atchison and the current city council. Between 2006 and 2014, Saskatoon's debt has more than quadrupled by 477% from $41 million to $238 million.

Saskatoon has successfully outpaced Regina in prosperity with its vibrant downtown core and bustling shops, but that prosperity has come with a new sense of entitlement. Under Don Atchison's leadership, Saskatoon has ballooned into a provincial success story, but with one major problem: the spending and debt haven't stopped. By 2010, Saskatoon was exploding economically and culturally, which should have allowed the city's council and mayor to slow debt growth and flat-line tax rates. Instead, under Atchison and the current council, Saskatoon's operating budget has significantly outpaced the city's growth and taxes have continued to rise.

Under Don Atchison and the current city council, government growth is out of control. Saskatoon's dynamic growth and prosperity have been squandered and the city's enormous debt threatens to undo a decade of progress.
At a time when Saskatoon's growth could have paid for itself, Don Atchison and his council decided to stifle any future growth and prosperity with an enormous and growing municipal debt. At its current rate of growth, by Saskatoon's next election, the city's debt will have surpassed $400 million. With Saskatchewan's oil patch suffering from low oil prices and a possible federal carbon tax, the last thing Saskatoon needs is a massive debt burden.
Saskatoon's current debt burden ensures a higher tax burden for property owners and businesses, which will unquestionably dampen the prospects of future investment and growth. The opportunities that presented themselves to Saskatoon in 2010 were squandered – in part – by Don Atchison. Rather than freeze taxes and slow budget growth while the going was good, Atchison and his council continued expanding the size of Saskatoon's government at the expense of its taxpayers. Today, with an economic cloud hanging over Saskatchewan, the only way to pay down the city's massive debt is with more taxation. As the city's growth slows and its taxes rise, Saskatoon won't have a future as bright as it did in 2003 when Atchison was first elected.

As a business owner, Don Atchison should have clued-in early on. Unfortunately, his time in public office (where salaries come from an endless supply of tax revenue) has made him forget the importance of low debt, low taxes and hard work. If we count his time as a city councillor, Don Atchison has been relying on a publicly funded salary for almost 20 years. In that time, he seems to have forgotten the lessons he learned in the private sector, where debt and high taxes only act to stifle free enterprise and investment.

With Don Atchison now being past his best-before date, who does Saskatoon have to choose from? Unlike Regina's moribund mayoral race, Saskatoon's race has at least two viable contenders capable of taking on the city's debt and taxes.

Kelley Moore

Moore is the newest contender and the municipal election's only outsider. She isn't a councillor, but she has experience in urban planning, runs her own business and has the freshness city hall needs. Unlike Charlie Clark, who has been a defender of Saskatoon's status quo on council since 2006, Moore hasn't served on council and has more experience than Clark in the private sector. Unlike Clark, Moore hasn't spent the last decade being a part of Saskatoon's problem. Unlike Clark, Moore is an entrepreneur who co-owns Prairie Wild Consulting.

When she announced her mayoral run, Moore mentioned her unique blend of government and business experience, as well as the fact that she is not a politician. These are two important traits that Saskatoon needs in city hall now more than ever.

Charlie Clark

Clark is the councillor for Ward 6 and has done nothing in his decade-long tenure to curb Saskatoon's debt and high taxes. Besides Don Atchison, Clark is the other candidate who has pushed the damaging status quo that's driving Saskatoon down the wrong road. If Saskatoon voters think that Charlie Clark is offering change, they're mistaken.

Clark sat on the board of Saskatoon's expensive $110 million art gallery, he helped hike this year's property taxes by 3% and he advocated for most of the city's massive budget increases. Clark is just as out of touch as Don Atchison, but he has virtually no real background or experience in the private sector.

Henry Dayday

Dayday was mayor of Saskatoon once before...and he wasn't really that bad. The focus of Dayday's campaign will be the city's growing debt, as he outlined in his press conference to announce his run. During his tenure as mayor, for 12 years between 1988 and 2000, Saskatoon's debt was a fraction of what it is now and Saskatoon was still outpacing Regina in growth.

After being booted out of city hall in 2000, Dayday entered the private sector and has served on the board of directors for the Saskatoon Airport Authority. Now, at the age of 77, Dayday wants to take back city hall and erase the city's massive debt and out-of-control spending. Whether Saskatoon voters will want to give him another chance is yet to be seen, but up against a fresh new face like Kelley Moore, his chances might be dismal.

Five consecutive terms in the mayor's office are rare in Saskatoon, so Don Atchison's time might be reaching its end. The real question then becomes: who should replace him? Saskatoon voters will decide who their next mayor will be on October 26.