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 (lcatkinson@sasktel.net), and I'll be happy to raise them.

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

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