Sunday, October 1, 2017

You Pave Paradise, Put Up a Parking Lot

Once again, a long break from blogging, for the same reasons: not much happening at council, and busy with house renovations.
But council made a good decision last week, and this doesn't happen very often, so I thought that it was worthy of comment.
I'm speaking of course, of the decision not to raid the reserves set aside for street maintenance in favour of paving the parking lot at the Art Hauser Centre.  This project first was brought forward with a previous mayor; the cost then was $500,000, so I'm sure the cost has gone up since then.  It's also become a favourite cause of the current mayor, largely because of the baseball championships coming next year.
Once again, it's putting image ahead of needs.  In this case, paving a parking lot to impress people from out of town, while using tax payers' money, already ear-marked for their needs, which have been identified as a priority after several years of neglect under previous councils.  This is not right, but is so often where council goes.  I don't know about you, but rarely do people mention the status of the parking lot as what they enjoyed most about an event.  And considering that the baseball tournament will happen in the summer, common parking lot issues like icy spots and poor drainage are unlikely to occur.
When the matter of funding came to council, five members of council voted against it.  I don't know the motivation of those who voted for it, although one council member has said that he likes to go along with the mayor so that he can get stuff for his ward.  Not exactly thinking about the good of the city overall, that's for sure.
What made it interesting was the mayor's reaction to the defeat of the motion.  He tried to bring it back, saying that a certain council member had voted incorrectly.  Fortunately, said council member had the fortitude to disagree.
Of course, trying to influence another member's vote is against the law, as well as the basic principles of democracy.  But I guess all that pales compared to getting your own way.  Although one would hope that an elected official would show more maturity about the matter.  I often think that there should be a term used for when a mayor forgets that  he's not the boss of the other members of council, since that seems to afflict so many of our mayors.
One hopes that this issue won't come back to council, although intentions to do just that were expressed.  And if it does, one hopes that the result will be the same.
If nothing else, I hope that all councillors learned from this that they don't have to just blindly follow what the mayor wants.  They have equal responsibility to think of what's best for the city, and each of their votes counts, just as much as his.

"It's never wrong to do the right thing." Mark Twain

Sunday, August 13, 2017

On Being Bullied

More than a month since the last blog, but I've been busy, and council goings-on are quieter in the summer.

What I've been busy with mostly is, as usual for me in summer, house renovations.  In this case, the side porch on the west side of the house turned out, when I started what appeared to be minor renovations, to need total reconstruction.  Floor, walls and other parts of the structure were rotting, due to less than adequate renovations of more than thirty years ago, which meant tearing down the whole structure, right down to the brick pillars.  But I'm now down to the painting of the interior, which means that the end is in sight.

Renovations tend to be messy.  But I was quite surprised to get a visit from Bylaw Enforcement a couple of weeks ago, citing me for having an unsightly property.  No details.  But considering that a six-foot fence surrounds most of the yard, and a hedge the rest, I was rather surprised, since you actually have to come into the yard to see the messiness.

Now, I make no secret about the fact that yard work is not something that I enjoy.  That was Andrea's area of expertise, and now, of course, she doesn't have the energy for it, plus she is not supposed to be digging in dirt due to the risk of infection.  So she was rather upset by the visit from Bylaw.  As I've said before, your family is more likely to be upset by the actions and insults of others - I always put it down as one of the costs of being in public life.

Then, a week later, another visit from Bylaw, although they didn't even bother to come in the yard this time.

Prince Albert is just a big small town, and it didn't take much to find out who the complainants were - not individuals who live in the neighbourhood, but elected officials who don't live anywhere close, using their authority to try to make my life miserable.  Sorry, guys, but you're rank amateurs in that department if you think that something like a baseless complaint to Bylaw is going to be the worst thing that's happened to our family in the past year.  And I find it rather pathetic that rather than attending to your actual jobs, you make this a priority.  I mean, just look around the neighbourhood and you'll find plenty of properties more unsightly than mine.

But that's what bullies are like - they don't think about all the ramifications of their actions, they're just trying to make people feel bad, as if in some way that makes them look better.

But, as always, the actions of friends more than made up for the actions of a couple of bullies.  I was able to borrow a truck from a friend to take the renovation materials to the dump.  And last Friday, my invaluable media consultant, who is also a close friend, spent most of the day here, helping me to pull weeds and clear out other garden debris.  These kind of actions speak volumes, and I don't know how to adequately thank these people.

Somehow, I doubt that the bullies have that sort of support from friends.  Sucks to be them.

"Courage is fire, and bullying is smoke." - Benjamin Disraeli

Sunday, July 9, 2017

On Being Truthful and Practising Good Grammar

The last week of June Andrea and I headed to City Hall to make the final payment on this year's taxes.  I know, I know, there are some people who think that paying taxes is optional, but like most responsible citizens, we recognize that taxes need to be paid so that the city can function.

Along with the tax notice, of course, came a page of bumph about how hard Council worked to keep taxes at the same rate as originally set in the budget.  Of course, with some of the decisions made by the province in their budgetary exercise, that didn't happen, hence the additional payment.

I understand the impulse to put a positive spin on what Council is doing.  However, I think that putting in some honesty never hurts, and helps to earn respect, although I'm sure that most people don't bother to read these included messages - they know that it's just politics inserting itself.

The first statement that made Andrea laugh out loud was in the very first paragraph.  If City Administration has been looking hard at expenses, why do they keep creating new positions?  One of the most effective ways of cutting costs is to freeze hiring, and to not take on new, expensive projects if they're not essential - I would put the new GIS system in that category, a nice to have, but not essential.  More on hiring later.

The second statement that elicited laughter was in the third paragraph, where the talk is that the decision was made to not let the mistakes of the provincial government be shouldered by the taxpayers of Prince Albert.  Well, taxes went up, plus they decided to duplicate how the province got into this mess by raiding reserves to cover operating expenses.  That's like dipping into your RRSP, which is meant to be saved for the future, to buy your groceries - not smart planning.  Reserves are meant to be saved for specific purposes, like big ticket items.

Then, of course, there is more verbiage about how hard Council is working to do more with less.  While I don't argue with the importance of infrastructure maintenance, it was a priority for the last council too, and as for back lane reconstruction, that's been a headache for years that won't be solved simply by buying another piece of equipment.

Back to hiring.  The city now has not one but two communications officers, and yet inappropriate capitalization - the Oil Spill Water Crisis - really? It had a name? made its way in.  Then, instead of using the subjective form of the first person singular (that would be I) to refer to himself, the mayor uses the word myself, which is wrong.  And on the second page, buses is pluralized incorrectly.  Two communications people, and they didn't catch these.  My resident grammar goddess, whose degree is not in English, was not impressed.

So what, you say? Grammar doesn't matter?  If you have communications people who can't make sure that a communication from council is as good as it should be, someone isn't doing their job, for which your taxes are paying.  Big or small, it all matters.  And yes, some people will notice, and it matters to them.

"Good English, well spoken and well written, will open more doors than a college degree.  Bad English will slam doors you didn't even know existed."  William Raspberry

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Been There, Done That

I see via local news media that a public meeting for Ward 3 residents was held last week, to discuss how the new Neighbourhood Watch group that is being set up in the area could help reduce crime rates in the area.  While I had no prior notice of the meeting, it did take me back in time.

You see, Andrea and I have lived in our current home since 1984, and back in the mid-eighties we had a Neighbourhood Watch group.  I agree that people watching out in the neighbourhood is a good idea, but it can only go so far - police action has to be taken promptly.  But you don't need a club to authorize you to call the police - that's something anyone can do, anytime they see anything suspicious going on.

The problem can be with police response.  I called once, several years ago, to report someone breaking into one of the apartments in a building behind us.  The response from the operator was that perhaps they were friends of the person living there, though why they would choose to go through a window rather than knocking on the door makes no sense to me.  Later, after the people breaking in removed a television, it was too late for the police to catch them.

On another occasion, when a young person broke into someone's vehicle, the advice from police to the resident was to just leave the situation alone, in case the young person decided to take some form of revenge.  They didn't even haul the kid in to give him a scare - a lost opportunity, if you ask me.

And I know of several attempts to get drug houses acted on, based on neighbour's complaints of needles and frequent, short visits by questionable characters.  The response is usually that yes, the police are aware of the problem, but no further action results.  I even contacted SCAN (Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods) a couple of years ago, and had a representative from Saskatoon (no SCAN in Prince Albert) sit on my deck for a couple of days, watching an apartment that had significant activity.  While he agreed that there was suspicious activity, and it was a location well-known to police, it wasn't enough to get the place shut down.

Another suggestion to the group is to get to know your neighbours.  Many of the people in this neighbourhood, particularly seniors, have lived here a long time.  They know their neighbours.  The difficulty is that for rental properties, the longevity of residency, and the commitment to the neighbourhood, just isn't there.  One property within view of my house has had at least three different residents in the last few months.  And one never is sure who is a resident, and who is just crashing, particularly in the apartment buildings right behind my house.

It would have been interesting to hear from the police what the current crime rates are in the area compared to past years.  As a long time resident, I think that it's getting worse, which is unfortunate, of course.  But I'm frustrated, and was during my time on council, that police don't try new approaches.  For example, rather than driving down the avenue, try patrolling down the back alleys - those are more secluded, and thus more likely to be sheltering those who may be up to no good, or at least looking for opportunities.  And since they're in the area anyway, why not try a change in tactics?

And we need to recognize that socially, things have changed.  Most people are away from their homes all day, and there just isn't the social structure in neighbourhoods that there used to be.  It would be nice to go back a few decades, but that isn't going to happen.  And the sad truth is that in most cities, neighbourhoods near downtowns are declining along with the downtown area.  I think that there is an opportunity for the city to take an interest in maintaining those neighbourhoods, to encourage more long-term residents, through things like building incentives on vacant lots, but there's been little interest in investing in older areas compared to newer areas.

As I said, I'm all for reducing crime rates, and call the police probably as much as anyone when I see something suspicious.  And I would encourage everyone to spend more time out on their decks and porches, just being visible, and do call the police if you see something suspicious.  But don't feel that you have to join a club to do so - just use your common sense, and hope that the police response is timely.  After all, individuals can only do so much.

"You can't start the next chapter of your life if you keep re-reading the last one." - Anonymous

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Is It an Advantage to be a Business Person on Council?

One of the mass generalizations that is often made is that council needs more business people.  As with most generalizations, it isn't true.  In fact, during a conversation over coffee with my invaluable media consultant, her opinion was that the way a business operates is different from how a government operates, and that what is needed is either more people with government experience, or more people who understand that the rules for each are different, and when on council, one should operate by the appropriate set of rules.

One of the differences is that people who are used to how businesses run is that they're used to making decisions on their own, not as part of a group.  This isn't how council operates - most decisions are supposed to be made by council as a whole, not by one individual.  And there is no place for backroom deals on council; every decision should be transparent.

That's because council is responsible for its decisions to city residents, not to shareholders of a business.  Plus there is legislation that is supposed to be followed - that can be difficult when most members of council don't bother to familiarize themselves with the Cities Act, but that should be part of the learning process.

There's also a tendency of some of these individuals to hog the credit - to not inform all members of council about public events, for example, so that they can be the only one there for the photo op, or to talk about how they alone have solved problems.  This doesn't make for good team dynamics, to say the least.

I'm not saying that business people shouldn't be on council - they bring a valuable perspective that comes only with experience in having to cover expenses through revenues, one that those who think that just raising taxes is okay don't have. (I'm thinking of administration, most of whom have spent their entire careers in government.)  So raising concerns about efficiency and economy is something that should be valued and encouraged during council discussions.

My personal opinion is that it isn't the previous (or current) profession that matters for council members; it's more to do with their basic character.  I would much rather work as a member of council with people who are willing to work hard, speak up, do the research, and behave with integrity.  For instance, someone who has made questionable financial decisions, such as not paying their taxes, then fighting the city in court over the result of that decision, should probably not be allowed to vote on new tax rates - to me it's coming perilously close to conflict of interest, and they should, at the very least, remove themselves from the discussion and the vote.

I think that's what most people expect from council members - that they follow the rules and act in the best interests of the city as a whole.  After all, members of council are supposed to set a good example, not be a horrible warning.

"To give real service you must add something which cannot be bought or measured with money, and that is sincerity and integrity." - Douglas Adams

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Hey, Council, Remember the Alcohol Strategy?

A few years back, a committee to look at how to better manage alcohol use and the resultant problems in Prince Albert was established to develop an alcohol strategy.  It's no question that this city has an alcohol problem - most of the police calls are alcohol -related, and various initiatives, such as the detox centre, have been started to try to address the problem.  And yet the problem continues - last week, at a little past noon, Andrea and I drove by a drinking party going on in the City Hall parking lot.

So I was a little surprised to hear that a rookie councillor, supported by two other rookies, was advocating that the city increase the opportunities to have alcohol at city facilities.  I'm not sure which facilities they were talking about, as alcohol is already served at the Art Hauser Centre (profits go to the Raiders) and the Golf and Curling Club (which also keeps the profits), or what the motivation would be.  And I think that they may have forgotten that part of council's job is to set the big-picture direction for the city.

The tendency is to assume that people like us don't have a problem with  alcohol - it's those other people.  But we all know that isn't the case - alcohol abuse affects everyone, in all social classes.  I'm fond of a glass of wine with dinner or having a beer on the deck, but I also have (and have had) family members with alcohol addiction problems, and I know that the answers aren't easy.

But you can't say that it's difficult to find alcohol in the city, so the city should make it easier for people to get a drink at activities going on in city facilities.  As I mentioned earlier, in some cases they already can, and I don't see any pressing need to increase those opportunities.

And it's rather ironic that this idea should come out just when SGI has released its new public service announcement about the effect of drunk driving on real families in Saskatchewan.  I was surprised to find that I knew one of the victims, and the family of one of the others.  I can only imagine the pain of losing a family member in that way, and I commend the families involved for being so public spirited as to agree to sharing these memories.  It's a harsh reminder that Saskatchewan as a whole has a problem with drinking and driving, and part of our leaders' responsibility is to stand up against the problem, not pretend that it doesn't exist, for whatever reason.

"I've never seen anyone drink themselves smart, successful or happy.  Most end up broke, bitter and alone." - Anonymous

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Hidden Costs of That Low Tax Increase

The mayor felt it important to point out to Prince Albert in a press release this week that the city set the lowest tax rate increase, 1.5%, in the province.  In doing so, he didn't count the whole cost, and he gave the impression that this was part of a plan of council.

To be clear, the tax rate increase was his election promise, not one that was developed by council before the election.  In my opinion, focusing on what the tax rate is should be the last step in budgeting, not a target to be met.  I'm sure that the public would be happiest with a 0% increase, but that is living in a fool's paradise.  Costs rarely go down, and trying to set a tax rate based upon what you think the public wants to hear, rather than on the work that needs to be done, is extreme short-term thinking.  And of course, with a mostly rookie council in place, two of whom didn't think that it was  important to be at the budget vote meeting, it passed with barely any discussion of what this would mean for the future.

What wasn't mentioned is how council is keeping the rate so low, despite rising costs and no efforts to trim spending in non-essential areas.  To start with, a goodly chunk of operating costs is being covered by dipping into reserves - reserves which are not meant to be spent on operating costs, but to be kept for emergency situations or large capital expenditures in the future.  And this decision was made before the provincial budget hits.  We're already having to go to the reserves to cover the $2.8 million owed to Domtar (that would be a legitimate use of reserves); now they're being used to cover shortfalls in revenue caused by poor budget decisions before the provincial budget, and then the province cutting back on the long-standing grant to municipalities that was meant to cover taxes that would be charged if they weren't a government.  Using reserves, of course, is following the premier's advice on how to deal with the problem - and we've seen his attitude, and the resulting mess, towards reserves.

So we have the money in reserves - what's wrong with using it this way, rather than increasing taxes?  Well, it's like draining your RRSP to pay your credit card bill.  At some point, you're going to need that RRSP money, and it won't be there - it will be in the big screen TV that you didn't really need (like paving the Art Hauser parking lot), but seemed really important at the time.  It's like our finances are being planned by a teenager who forgets that the costs of the car that he really, really wants need to include ongoing maintenance and fuel costs.  So watch out for larger than usual increases in subsequent budgets - once the reserves are empty, it's back to the taxpayer.

And the press release also doesn't include the fact that part of what should be covered in the tax increase is actually included in your utility bill, which rises at a rate of about 10% each year.  This helps to hide operating cost increases for things like garbage pick up in what you probably think is your water bill.  That helps to explain why any efforts to decrease water usage don't result in a comparable decrease to your water bill - there's other things stuck in there, plus the ongoing increase, that help to keep it going up and up.

So don't believe everything you read, especially if it's in a press release from the city.  That's not reporting; that's pushing a political agenda, and such things never tell the whole story, just the part the city wants you to hear.

"You can fool all of the people all of the time if the advertising is right and the budget is big enough." - Joseph Levine