Sunday, October 26, 2008

Some Comments on the Proposed Parking Meter Software

At my first meeting after my holiday last Monday (an executive meeting), we received a proposal from administration that we approve an expenditure for next year's budget to invest $50,000 in new software that will allow us to better track unpaid parking tickets. The software would allow us to link the outstanding ticket to the provincial database of licence numbers. For example, if a vehicle with outstanding tickets is sold, the outstanding tickets would be shown as a lien against the vehicle. A vehicle with outstanding tickets could be seized. Right now, our current system doesn't allow us to take advantage of new provincial legislation enabling these additional powers. This could be beneficial for the city, but, as usual, I have some questions and concerns.

I have three problems with this proposal. The first is that we are being asked to approve an expenditure for next year's budget before considering the budget as a whole. This isn't a good way to approach budgeting - we should be able to consider all proposed expenditures at the same time, to set priorities equitably. We started doing this pre-approval of individual expenditures for last year's budget, preapproving such things as an additional travel budget of $35,000 for the mayor, and it only confused and limited decision-making for the final budget process. The report does indicate that $114,000 has been approved in principle for software and handheld devices for next year's budget - I don't know when or by what process that happened. I'm not sure why the urgency of approving this single expenditure now - presumably the software will still be available next year.

My second problem is that there's no indication of how big the problem of outstanding tickets is. The brief report says that the system should pay for itself within three years, but admits that they're not sure. And I'm not sure if the software is the only expenditure required, or if other equipment, at additional cost, would also be necessary. More information as to the size of the problem, and the total cost of the proposed solution, would be helpful.

Finally, I think that it's time that council rethought the whole matter of parking meters. They do discourage people from going downtown, which in turn adversely affects the viability of businesses in the downtown area. Already two banks have moved out to where the parking is free, and admitted that part of the reason was for free parking for customers - if we're serious about encouraging downtown development we need to level the playing field wherever we can. To those who worry that downtown spaces will be filled with all day parking - we can still ticket those who park for more than a designated time - say, two hours. Chalking tires is a low-tech method that works - ask people who work in the Macintosh Mall, but try to park in the bottom level, which is reserved for Co-op customers. Another comment was that parking meter revenues are needed to pay for plowing the streets. Parking meter fees are not supposed to offset snow-plowing costs. We plow streets without parking meters, often before we plow the downtown, and we maintain and plow the parking lot at the Art Hauser Centre, but don't charge for parking there (although that would be another source of revenue that we could consider).

So - I don't think that we should consider budget decisions in a piecemeal basis, I need more information before making a decision, and I think that we should take opportunities when they arise to think about how we could do things differently to meet overall city objectives. It's good to be back at work.

"Trust your own instincts. Your mistakes might as well be your own, instead of someone else's." - Billy Wilder

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Tales from the Road

The past three weeks I've been away. Andrea and I took our annual trip back to Ontario to remind our relatives what we look like, catch up with old friends, enjoy the fall colours, and do a bit of sight-seeing. I've noticed that, since I've been on council, I look at the places we visit slightly differently. I see things that work in other communities, and wonder if the same initiatives might help to solve some of Prince Albert's problems.

We spent a couple of days in Stratford, enjoying three plays and just walking around one of the prettiest cities I've ever been in, with lots of old trees, beautiful gardens, and big old houses. More than fifty years ago this city, which had relied on manufacturing and being a centre for rail transport for its livelihood, was starting to die. Visionaries, including its city council, thought of starting a Shakespearean festival. Sensibly, they started small, with just two plays, over a six week season, in a large tent. They were able to build on a series of small successes, to a point where the season now runs from May to November, during which four theatres present about a dozen plays of various types, from Shakespeare through musicals through experimental. And the festival and its theatres do not rely on taxpayer support. The hospitality industry essential for the festival - restaurants, hotels, bed and breakfasts, an amazing variety of stores - also thrives. It's a very clean city, I think partly because residents are very aware of the importance of keeping streets attractive to keep tourists coming back, and partly because it's easy to find a spot for your garbage - the downtown has many attractive garbage receptacles that have a similar design to the many benches and bicycle racks. We felt very safe there - we picked our B&B so that we could walk to the theatres, and even returning late at night from the downtown, we had no concerns. It's a great example of how a city can reinvent itself and become a major tourist destination for people all across North America.

We spent a few days in and around Toronto, and had the chance to read the papers there to find out what the issues are in the mega-city. One that hit home for me was the current initiative in Toronto to help solve their garbage situation - a serious problem for a city of almost three million people without any empty space close by. They are starting to charge residents for garbage disposal, but have a three-level system. Residents select what size of garbage container they think they will need - small, medium or large - and are charged accordingly. They are also given a couple of extra tags to use during the year, for occasions when they may have more garbage than usual. Anything that is put out that doesn't fit in the bin or doesn't have a special tag - the resident is charged extra. Of course, Toronto also has blue bins, which take a great deal of what we would consider as just general garbage - not just paper, cardboard, bottles and pop cans, but also tin cans, glass jars, egg cartons, and similar materials, which would greatly minimize what had to be put in the garbage, especially if you compost. The other thing that I found interesting was that the city realized that they were going to be short of bins, and were careful to explain that nobody would have to pay for a bin before they received one, and that they would be given additional tags so that they wouldn't be charged extra. They expected to have enough bins within a couple of months - I sure wish that Prince Albert could have found their supplier.

One of the things about travel is that, wonderful as it is to see different places and have different experiences, it also makes you appreciate your own home. I don't miss the traffic, or the noise, or the crowds, of southern Ontario. I appreciate being only a five minute walk from City Hall, unlike the much longer and more frustrating commutes of most of our relatives. And I like being greeted by friends when I go downtown, to the library, or grocery shopping. Prince Albert is a good place to live; we need to work together to make it even better.

"There's no place like home; there's no place like home." - Dorothy Gale (The Wizard of Oz)

Monday, October 6, 2008

Why I Love the Library Book Sale

The last weekend in September was the annual library book sale. More than books, of course - magazines, records, videotapes, sewing patterns - anything surplus to the library's needs. Some of the items for sale have been donated, but most are old library stock, being cleared out to make room for new acquisitions. Before the library started having this sale, in the early 1980s, surplus materials were just taken to the landfill - hard to believe when I see how popular this event has become.

Having a couple of voracious readers in the family, we usually make at least one, and often more, trips to the sale. We pick up history books, biographies, how-to books, mysteries, science fiction, old magazines, music books, and the occasional collectible (a few years back, Andrea found a first edition Anne's House of Dreams - one of the Anne of Green Gables books that was first published in 1913). Rarely are we looking for anything specific, but there's always something worth picking up.

Not only does the sale save landfill space while making room in the library for more current materials, it's an opportunity for people to donate directly to the library, and it's amazing how generous people are. Since we moved from a fixed price per item to a donation basis a few years ago, revenues from the sale have increased. The people who come to the book sale obviously put a high value on what the library means to the community, and welcome the chance to show their support. It also brings people into the library that might not have been there before, to see the wide range of services that are offered.

Putting the sale together takes a great deal of work by both library staff and volunteers - books have to be sorted, set out on tables, shelves, and auditorium seats; magazines are sorted, bundled, and stacked on the stage. That's a lot of carrying, unpacking, and stacking. And through the two days of the sale, more books are unpacked and set out. Volunteers take donations, bag up purchases, or offer boxes for people to put their discoveries into.

The sale is full of cheerful people - purchasers, staff, and volunteers, all of whom love books. At the end of it all, my family, and many others, have new books to read, while looking forward to next year's sale, which will provide more opportunities for discovery.

"A room without books is like a body without a soul." - Cicero