Monday, March 31, 2008

The Budget - The Problems Aren't Just With the Numbers

Many of the problems that are related to the budget don’t have to do specifically with content – much of our difficulty stems from a faulty process and poor communications.

For one thing, this year’s process has been far too rushed. I’ve had several people comment to me that the four days allowed for public review of the budget documents was not nearly enough time. Then we allot only one evening for public input. Then we set two days for council to review the documents, but really only intend to use one of those days, for no good reason that I can tell.

Friday’s budget review session was long and grueling. It started at 9 in the morning – I left at 6:30 in the evening, since I was long past my capacity for reviewing things seriously. I don’t know why we didn’t just use the two days scheduled, and break at a decent hour, rather than plowing through things until people stop caring about the content, they just want to get home. I did accomplish one thing – the money for the soccer centre will no longer be identified as a debt elimination levy on your tax bill. You will be able to see how many of your tax dollars are going to build that facility.

And now, today, there is a special council meeting to approve the budget. The most important action we take all year, and we’re rushing to get it done, rather than working to get it right. Perhaps some members of council will brag about how we’ve finished the process earlier than past councils, which I’m sure will be a great comfort to residents who face a higher tax bill than they would if we took the time to seriously review proposed expenditures and eliminate the non-essentials.

Another problem that I have is with the budget format. It's confusing, to say the least, and items can show up in places that one wouldn't expect. All of the expenditures related to a specific facility are not in the same place. Items that start out not recommended by administration can still be put into the final budget, if enough council members agree.

I received one email which said that it wasn’t fair to compare the proposed police budget with the fire department budget, since the police budget included capital expenditures that the fire budget dealt with elsewhere. The police budget is in a completely different format, and includes projected revenues, which makes it difficult to review and compare with the rest of the budget documents. Members of council who are also on the police commission didn’t bother to explain their budget, even though they’re the ones who have already reviewed and approved it. If those of us who spend some time working with budget documents get confused, how can we expect the public to digest all this, in even less time than council is given.

The process also lacks focus, much like many of council’s decisions lately. All the talk about doing better hasn’t helped us to figure out if we want a budget that will spur growth, or one that will focus on maintaining infrastructure, or one that is prepared for a flattening of revenues, and so focuses on cutting costs and saving for emergencies. We have a budget that doesn’t talk about growth at all, that has no real strategy for dealing with a crumbling infrastructure, but wants to buy more flowerpots, and that has eliminated saving for emergencies in favour of a recreational development that will, once built, take still more city resources to maintain, just as the Art Hauser Centre (losing $600,000 annually) and the EA Rawlinson Centre (now up to $300,000 in city support annually) do.

In any case, the budget review is complete, although I won’t know the final result until I get to the meeting. Then I’ll be expected to review a document and vote on it without having had time to review it properly. I hate being forced into doing a second-rate job on what should be a top priority.

"What's terrible is to pretend that second-rate is first-rate." - Doris Lessing

Thursday, March 27, 2008

We Welcome Public Input, But Only If You Agree With Us

Last night was the opportunity for the public to make presentations to council with regard to the proposed city budget. This was the only opportunity groups or individuals had to make presentations, and to do so they had only between March 14 (when the budget was made available), and March 18 at 4:45 p.m. to apply to do so. Those days included a weekend. As I said in a previous posting, those who managed to do so deserve nothing but council’s thanks and respect.

Sadly, the response by council to the presentation by the Chamber of Commerce lacked both of those elements. Some members of council appear to think that input should only be made up of paeans of praise, and that any public input that might put a negative light on council should be publicly debated by council members, perhaps in hopes of discouraging further criticism and input. They forget that any citizen of Prince Albert, whether speaking as an individual or representing a group, has the right to comment on how their tax dollars are being spent – council has been elected by the citizens, and is accountable to the citizens, not only at election time, but continuously during the term of office. Any citizen should be able to ask any question about taxation or expenditures, at any time, and get an answer, not an argument. That is being open and accountable – a catchphrase that some members of council were trumpeting awhile back, but apparently without understanding its real meaning.

I’m amazed and embarrassed at this council’s inability to accept criticism for what it is – suggestions of ways that we can and should do better. When my children were younger, I spent part of each March attending the Prince Albert Music Festival, listening to their performances, and to the thoughtful criticism that each adjudicator provided, telling them how they could do better. Every child there, no matter how polished their performance (or otherwise), learned two things from the criticism. The first was where they could improve, the second (and more lasting life lesson), was how to accept being told that you weren’t perfect, in public, no less. If seven year olds can accept criticism gracefully, I don’t understand how elected officials can feel that the best response is to argue with and try to intimidate an organization that shares our goal of having a healthy, economically viable community, an organization that had followed our process, a long-standing, well-respected organization that represents the business community of the city.

The carefully scripted and rehearsed performances by a couple of council members, complete with props, gestures, and typed and highlighted notes, missed the entire point of the Chamber’s presentation – no matter how many planning documents we may have on our shelves, the city’s strategic plan for growth does not address many critical issues, and we are missing out on opportunities for growth that other communities in the province are preparing for.

How unfortunate that the time and effort some council members spent rehearsing their performances wasn’t spent on trying to work with the Chamber on how we can improve our strategic planning. But then, with this council, it doesn’t seem to be about what gets done - it's all about image.

"One person can make a difference, and every person must try." - John F. Kennedy

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

More Budget Thoughts

The budget is a big topic. It seemed that as soon as I posted on Saturday, I thought of more things that needed to be said. Then I (and the rest of council) received a thoughtful and well-articulated letter from former councillor Barb Gustafson, raising even more concerns, some of which I'll share here.

That's the beauty of blogging - there's opportunity to say more, and spread the news.

I didn't even mention the proposed 10% increase in the police budget. This piece of the budget comes to us already approved by the Police Commission. Our only choice is to approve it as it comes to us, or send it back to be rethought as a whole. Council can't tinker with individual bits, although we do see the various components. How the Commission can justify this massive increase, when the Fire Department is seeking an increase of less than 1%, requires considerable explanation. One area that stood out for me was the Police Commission expenses, which are projected to almost double. That item alone should be able to be reduced, since I wouldn't identify those as being essential services.

Barb also raises concerns about the addition of items that aren't part of our core services - our recent forays into areas of social justice that are actually provincial and federal responsibilities. These are areas of concern for everyone, but when our roads and water mains are in disrepair, we should focus on these first, rather than on areas that are not within our scope. I had mentioned some of the dollars that are going into these areas; Barb points out that we should do more direct investing in low-income housing, for example, rather than holding rallies or going to conferences about homelessness.

I do approve of proposed expenditures that will lead to alternative sources of revenue to the city, such as the development of a columbarium at the cemetery for cremated remains. Although this isn't scheduled to be undertaken this year, it was discussed by council in 2005 as a way of increasing potential use of the cemetery, recognizing the increasing popularity of cremation, and also increasing revenues. Council and administration need to be more creative in finding these options, rather than always turning to the taxpayer to foot the bill.

Last week the Chamber of Commerce issued a media release, criticizing city council for not having an effective planning process or growth strategy, leading to lost development opportunities. I commend the Chamber for their courage and straightforwardness - this is not a council that accepts questions or criticism gracefully. My response would be to thank them for their valid comments, and then get together with them to figure out how we can start to plan effectively for our community's growth in this time of incredible opportunity.

As an example, a few weeks ago I was asked by someone what the city was doing to plan for the potential opportunities that diamond mining in the Fort a la Corne might bring. My response to that was that I'm not aware of anything that we're doing. We mention the diamond mines as something that's coming, but we're not doing anything to get ready for it. Other communities such as Nipawin and Melfort are researching what support this industry will need, and are encouraging development in those areas. Look for them to be ready for the boom when it hits, and for Prince Albert to be watching and wondering why we aren't netting the benefits that we could.

On the agenda for this evening's council meeting - the proposal for free access to the landfill for everyone for five weeks, even if they don't live in the city, (costing $10,000 per week) discussed at last week's Executive Meeting, a proposal from the Art Hauser Board that they hire another marketing manager for $70,000 (since the last one worked out so well, I guess), and another condo conversion proposal on River Street.

"If you don't know where you're going, you'll probably end up somewhere else." - Yogi Berra

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Needs First, Wants Later (if we can afford them)

To me, a basic rule of budgeting is to identify needs first, then, if there is surplus money available, allocate any surplus to wants. To use an analogy that most people understand, first you pay your rent or mortgage, power, groceries, and that sort of thing, then, if you have money left over, you buy the big screen TV.

The city budget should be done like that - the basics that we need (infrastructure, legal requirements) are identified first. Then, if there is surplus available, we worry about the non-essentials. I realize that many of these things may make the city more attractive, but a tax rate increase of 5.4% doesn't.

Even the needs can probably be pared down. If your power bill is too high, there are steps that can be taken to lower the bill. I think that when city departments submit a budget that includes increases that are higher than the rate of inflation, they should be asked to pare away until that target is reached.

Many of the wants in the budget are relatively small monetarily, but they add up. I'll identify a few items that I think are definitely in the want category.

I'll start with the operating budget.

First, the debt elimination levy, which is identified on everyone's tax bills. Over the five years of the project, it will total $4,386,000 of tax payers' money. Let's be clear about this - for the next five years (until the end of 2012), this money will be used to fund construction of the soccer centre. It will not be a debt elimination levy, which is money to be set aside to pay for future expenses. It will be money ostensibly identified for saving, which is already being spent. I've had a number of people tell me that the soccer centre will not require any tax dollars to be built - that's not the case. It's just not being identified as that. We won't be saving for future expenditures for that time period. And we're not even talking about how much it will cost to run the centre once it's built, or the additional half-time time staff person required to track donations over the four years, at a cost of $25,000 per year.

The riverbank grass-cutting increase - $8,580. We reduced this service a couple of years ago (it's on the side of the Rotary Trail closest to the river), and it hasn't affected use of the trail at all. In fact, areas left to grow provide more habitat for birds and small mammals, enhancing the trail experience.

Funds for Memorial Square events - $3,500. Why this is needed now, when we've had events in Memorial Square for years, is not clear.

Additional corporate advertising - $12,100. One of the advantages of the internet is the increase in people accessing web-pages rather than newspapers for information. We should be doing more on the city website, and less in newspapers, not more.

Various social "initiatives" - $25,000. I'm not doubting the need for action in these areas, but the information provided as to what we will be getting for our money is sketchy, at best. I'm wondering why these have such a heavy cost attached when we have a social development manager - presumably some of these responsibilities should be included in her salary.

Putting electrical outlets in the museum parking lot - $6,750. The museum is open for four months of the year. They have had two successful galas on the riverbank without additional outlets. I agree that they would be useful for events like that, and for other downtown activities, but I don't think that they're necessary at this time.

Additional golf course advertising - $2,520. When times are tight, advertising is one of the first items to go. Times are tight.

A request from the Arts Board to increase the grant to the Rawlinson Centre by $50,000, to $98,000. A grant from the Elks Club has run its course, and rather than look for an alternative, they have come to the city asking us to make up the difference. This is my concern for many of these entities that are started with great fanfare and volunteer contributions - building turns out to be the least of the costs. Operating a large facility costs money, no matter how many volunteers you have, and the city is expected to pick up the tab, sooner or later.

Not counting the soccer centre/debt elimination dollars, that's $133,450 right there that I think could use a serious second look. That's more than 1 mill on your tax notice.

Under capital expenditures, most expenditures are of the replacing or maintaining sort. Once again, I'm not sure how many of the replacements are essential at this time. Nothing lasts forever, and we need to be sure that city facilities are safe for staff and the public. However, not all identified expenditures are essential for safety reasons, and I think that the list should be looked at closely to eliminate anything that is not needed this year.

Improvements to the golf course at a total cost of $47,000. I don't golf, having enough frustration in my life, but I'm amazed at the amount of money that the city puts into a facility that is used by a small fraction of city residents.

$25,000 for computer hardware and software for a homelessness program. This seems to be a lot of money that could perhaps be used in more direct ways to benefit the homeless. It does come from federal funding, but money poorly spent is poorly spent, no matter the source.

And, of course, the soccer centre money should be in here, rather than identified as an operating expenditure and called a debt elimination levy.

Those are just a few of the items that I'll be questioning - I'll probably find more. Budget documents are long, complicated, and difficult to understand. The expectation that citizens would have sufficient time to access these documents and prepare comments for the public consultation process within four days was unreasonable. Anyone who managed that feat deserves congratulations, and our thanks.

"Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not." Dr. Seuss

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Yesterday's Executive Meeting - One Hour of My Life that I Won't Get Back

I'm starting to seriously question the value of Executive Meetings. Yesterday's lasted less than an hour, most of the items raised were just referred to next week's council meeting, we found out that the Art Hauser Centre wants us to hire another marketing manager, and we had a discussion on free access to the landfill that I found particularly frustrating.

To elaborate on that last point, last year there were four weeks where there was free access to the landfill, under the "Neat and Clean" banner, of course. Previously, two weeks per year were offered. These weeks were noted for extremely long line-ups, especially on the Saturdays, and there was no way to differentiate between city residents dumping yard waste or old furniture, or someone from outside the city taking advantage of the free opportunity. I had asked city administration in August if there was a way of accomplishing the same goal (encouraging residents to clean up their yards), and also tracking how this opportunity was being used - perhaps by issuing each residence a number of free landfill tags that could be used at any time. This would cut down on the line-ups and resulting frustration, and also could track which parts of the city are using the benefit (by colour-coding the tags according to ward, for example), and would eliminate non-residential use. If we found out that some areas of the city are not taking full advantage of the opportunity, then alternative measures to help those areas clean up their yards could be considered. So when the topic came up on the agenda, I asked the engineering department what had happened to my enquiry of last summer. They said that they forgot it, but thought that it was a good idea, and that it could be implemented this year.

Other members of council felt that there wasn't time to explore this for this year, and the recommendation to council will be that we have the same number of free weeks at the landfill, with the same problems. These four free weeks are lost revenue from the landfill, a minimum revenue loss of $44,580 for the four weeks, according to the report from engineering. The increase in sanitation fees that you will be paying will help to subsidize free use of the landfill for non-residents.

Had my original enquiry been followed through properly, or had the rest of council heeded engineering's advice, the system could have been changed this year, resulting in more convenient access, a cleaner city, and better fiscal accountability.

This is symptomatic of so many of council's decisions - we don't look for ways of saving money, either big or small, and any suggestion of improvement is easily squashed. And that's why the citizens of Prince Albert are facing a 5.9% tax increase, on top of last year's 6% increase, on top of increased sanitation charges, on top of an 8% water rate increase annually for the next five years.

In my previous two terms on council, we never had two consecutive years of such large increases, and we worked very hard with administration to pare down budgets to essentials. If you've managed to get through the budget documents, I'm sure that you can see many proposed expenditures that are totally discretionary - improvements, yes, but not essential at this time. Taken individually they might seem small, but collectively, they could make a significant difference in the total.

The annual budget is arguably the single most important action that a council takes each year. I'm disappointed that all of council does not take the time and effort to produce a budget that is thoughtful, reasonable, and takes the best interests of the city as a whole to heart.

In my next blog entry I'll be identifying various proposed budget expenditures that I find questionable or unnecessary. If you have any budget questions that you would like me to raise, give me a call (922-5313) or an email (, and I'll be happy to raise them.

"The man with a new idea is a crank until the new idea succeeds." - Mark Twain

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Budget is Coming, the Budget is Coming!

As I mentioned in my last post, council meeting this week was postponed until Wednesday, so that the mayor could go to Ottawa. As we found out late last week, he was making a presentation on forestry to a standing committee of the federal government. If you're interested in reading the mayor's presentation, it's posted on the city web site ( I notice that the site has also been updated for contact information about council members. I had asked the city clerk a few weeks ago if my blog address could be added to my contact information, then my wife pointed out that councillors' phone numbers were not listed - just email information. So I suggested that these be added too, and they have. So now you should be able to reach any member of council without too much difficulty.

On Friday I spent the morning with the new city manager, Robert Cotterill. After discussing some general matters relating to council and administration, we were able to drive around Ward Three so that he could see for himself how it differs from some of the other wards. I think that it was a good meeting for both of us.

The budget is to be released at tomorrow's council meeting, and will be available on the city web site on Friday, March 14, or you can pick up a copy at Financial Services in City Hall. I would encourage you to review the budget, and ask questions at the public consultation meeting to be held Wednesday, March 26th, starting at 7 p.m. If you want to make a presentation at this meeting you'll have to move fast - you have to request this before 4:45 p.m., Tuesday, March 18th. To request permission you have to submit a letter as well as your five-minute speaking notes. The public consultation meeting will be followed by the General Fund Capital and Operating Budget Review meetings, set for Friday, March 28, and Saturday, March 29, running from 9 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon. However, you won't be allowed to make any presentations at these meetings, and often the review is completed on the first day. This is your chance to check out how the city plans to spend your money this year, and to speak up if you think that poor decisions are being made.

"The trouble with the future is that it usually arrives before we're ready for it" - Arnold H. Glasow

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Housing Matters

Housing has been a major interest of mine since becoming part of City Council. A person's home affects so many other aspects of their lives, and we have numerous studies indicating that safe, affordable housing for all income levels is an essential part of a healthy community.

I've been a supporter of the local Habitat for Humanity group for several years, helping out on their housing projects for this very reason - one house at a time, they are providing good, affordable housing to people in this community who otherwise would not be able to afford to own a decent home.

For those who are renters, for whatever reason, I believe that it's important that basic standards be required in all rental accommodations. We have too many horror stories of rental accommodations with broken windows, or without hot water, or where the water has been cut off. The work of the bylaw enforcement unit has helped to identify many of these problems, and close some buildings until problems are corrected, but people should never have to live in homes like these. In my previous term on council I had proposed a system of licensing landlords, to ensure that basic standards are met before problems have a chance to occur, but the current council has done nothing to move this forward.

Even though we know that it's important to have good affordable housing for everyone in the city, and we have studies that show that our population growth is going to be in lower and middle income families, why does our city focus most of its housing planning energy on new, higher income housing? We have willingly put all citizens into future debt ($29 million) through the Land Fund, which allows for infrastructure development and servicing lots on the east side and west hill of the city. If this was happening in Saskatoon, a bylaw would require that a proportion of these sites be reserved for lower income housing, ensuring that future neighbourhoods have a mix of income levels. We have no such requirement here.

I spent two days last week at a housing conference in Saskatoon, where some of these concerns were discussed. As always, it was interesting to see how other communities try to prevent problems, often with common sense solutions that would be easily adapted here, such as the above-mentioned bylaw, if only we had the collective initiative to do so. Saskatoon also sets aside a portion of its budget for affordable housing initiatives, allowing them to take advantage of partnership opportunities with higher levels of government. In our past two budgets, no money has been set aside for such initiatives.

At Executive Committee last night, we had some discussion on condo conversions, which is also a hot issue in Saskatoon. I read in this morning's Star-Phoenix that Saskatoon city council is considering putting a freeze on their condo conversions until they develop a better policy. We could benefit from developing a better policy to avoid some of the problems that Saskatoon has experienced. One thing that could be considered would be to have a requirement that condo conversions retain a proportion of rental units within the buildings being converted. Our administration seemed to think that this conversion wouldn't be a problem, since our stated rental vacancy rate from CMHC is 2%. When I asked them what this means, they couldn't tell me. I think that it probably means that for every 100 rental units on the market, two are vacant, but they couldn't tell me for sure. Even if that is what it means, I'm concerned, because a single working person with a good job will always be able to find an apartment that they can afford - not so the single mom with three kids on a limited income. Those two rental units might be well out of her reach. Before we go ahead with permanent changes to housing options for our citizens, I think that it would be a good thing to go beyond the easily obtained statistics, and figure out what it actually means for our city.

Next week's council meeting will be on Wednesday, March 12, rather than the usual Monday, March 10. Apparently the mayor will be in Ottawa on the Monday to discuss forestry issues with somebody, so the date was changed to accommodate him. One result of this date change is that a library board meeting set for that date (affecting four councillors and six citizen representatives) has been changed to the 19th. I find the logic a bit lop-sided.

"Creative thinking involves breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in different ways." Edward de Bono