[Sudbury] City must ease reliance on government job – by Brian MacLeod (Sudbury Star – February 11, 2012)

The Sudbury Star is the City of Greater Sudbury’s daily newspaper.

Greater Sudbury’s relatively slow but consistent growth over the last 10 years shows we’ve been successful in easing the boom and bust cycle, but there are ominous signs in the numbers.

The 2011 census shows the city grew by 1.5%, to 160,077 people from 2006, when the population stood at 158,258.

We’ve done well next to northeastern Ontario’s nine other major municipalities. Kenora grew by 1.1%, Sault Ste. Marie grew by 0.3%, North Bay’s population declined by 0.6% and Timmins grew by 0.4%.

Still, only about 5,500 more people live in Greater Sudbury now than 10 years ago, despite two boom periods in that time. The year 2001 was a signature period for Sudbury. It ended five years of steep decline in which the city lost 10,000 people. From there, mining began to recover, the mining services sector grew and more government jobs moved into the community. That helped Sudbury maintain a reasonable unemployment rate of 6.4% in January, versus a national rate of 7.6% and a provincial rate of 8.1%

But those government jobs are now looking shaky.

Figures on the city’s website from November 2010 show eight of the top 10 employers were government operations, or agencies dependent on government work, including Health Sciences North, Sudbury Tax Services Offices, the City of Greater Sudbury, Laurentian University, Cambrian College and local school boards. Only Vale and Xstrata entered the list of top 10 private entities.

Given the likelihood of major cutbacks in federal and provincial services and funding over the next few years to eliminate deficits, Sudbury’s employment situation will be fragile. Growth in mining investment will help balance that, but the city is now susceptible to what has become Ontario’s boom and bust cycle. Hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs have been lost. With the province in its own bust phase, funding to municipalities will drop. Jobs may well be eliminated at both senior levels of government, either through layoffs or attrition. And, if Premier Dalton McGuinty’s persistent warnings are correct, growth in salaries will be slowed or eliminated.

In the past, city worked hard to find ways to diversify. It may well be time to go through a similar exercise to tackle what looks to be a long-term contraction of the government services sector.

The city must take the lead on this. Without a focused approach to growth and diversification, Greater Sudbury may again face a period of stagnation.