Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Another Day Older and Deeper in Debt

That line from the old song seems to describe the way things are going for the city. In these uncertain financial times, when financial advisors are suggesting to people that the most prudent course of action is to reduce spending and pay off debt, council gave first two readings to a bylaw that will allow us to increase our debt load.

It’s like we’ve maxed out our credit cards, and instead of cutting up the cards and taking a look at where we could cut costs, we’re applying for another one.

If an individual did this, most people would think that they deserved a smack on the back of the head, accompanied by the direction to smarten up. But when council does it, it’s apparently okay, because, to quote some members of council, "we have to, in order to pay for all the things that we’ve planned for". What we need to be more mindful of, in all our decisions, is that it’s not our money that we’re spending – it’s the hard-earned money of the taxpayers, who deserve better than yearly tax increases that are higher than inflation.

I’m sure many taxpayers are shaking their heads, wondering why we didn’t consider the costs before we committed to all these expenditures. And maybe wondering why we don’t set priorities – essentials first, then the fun stuff. Metaphorically, we’ve maxed out on the plasma television and fancy cars, and now realized that we can’t afford to fix the plumbing, so we’d better borrow more money.

I realize that many of the spending decisions of the past two years that were certainly not for essential services can’t be undone. The new furniture and carpet, the banners, the paint for half-painted light standards - that's all done, and the money is gone. But it’s not too late to put the brakes on discretionary spending, both large and small, in an effort to minimize next year’s tax hike. Let’s not pin our hopes on the remote possibility of extra money from either the federal or provincial governments (who are both warning of the possibility of deficit budgets). Instead, let’s go over next year’s budget seriously, trimming wherever possible, cutting out those frills that individually seem small, but that together could really have an impact on the bottom line.

Here’s a couple of small expenditures that I could manage without. We don’t need to produce Christmas cards for members of council to send out. I was quite surprised to receive a package of twenty-five cards in my council bundle a few weeks back – lovely cards, with a picture of the riverbank in winter and inside, an inaccurate tale of the original Prince Albert, imprinted with the names of all the members of council and greetings from "Canada's Christmas City" - a total waste of money. I don’t send out cards as a councillor; like most people, we send Christmas cards as a family, and I don’t expect to be subsidized by the taxpayer to do so. I don't even recall the purchase of these cards being discussed by council. I’d also be willing to forgo the meals that we get at council meetings. Not too many workplaces feed their employees at no cost. There’s two – I’m sure with a bit of creative brainstorming, council and administration could come up with more.

That’s what sensible people do, when they have more expenditures than income – they look for ways to cut back on their spending. I think that it’s too easy for council to find the solution in increasing income – that means increasing taxes. It’s about time we as a council started behaving sensibly.

I see no indication that we all understand how serious the situation is. I’m quite sure that this bylaw will pass tomorrow, at a special meeting less than 48 hours after the regular council meeting. A bylaw requires three readings to pass in one meeting; in order to get those three meetings, unanimous consent is required. If it’s a routine matter, I have no problems with three readings in one night, but for something with the potential impact of this bylaw, I think that it’s only right to give the public the opportunity to comment on our decision before it’s made final. So I voted against three readings, as did Councillor Williams.

In the past, the third reading would have happened at the next council meeting. This council, though, likes to call special meetings to deal with things as quickly as possible. I’m not sure what the motivation for such speed is – I am concerned that in moving with such haste, we appear to be disrespectful to the people of Prince Albert, as we put them deeper and deeper into debt that will hang on far beyond this council's mandate, a debt they certainly didn’t vote for.

"Debt - an ingenious substitute for the chain and whip of the slave driver." - Ambrose Bierce

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Some Thoughts on Waste Management

We finally have a blue bin in our back alley, after seven years of paying the extra charge on our water bill. While I wouldn't have been surprised if our block was the last in the city to get a blue bin, half-expecting that there would have been some sort of last spike ceremony, I know of at least two blocks in the city that are still without a blue bin - there could be more.

So it's a bit premature for the city to send out a press release a couple of weeks ago announcing that the program was now complete, and is working well. As long as there are homes without convenient access to a blue bin (and I'm sorry, but being able to haul your cardboard, paper and milk jugs to a bin behind Galaxy Cinema is not the same access as having a bin behind your house), the program isn't complete.

And it is not working as well as some might suggest. People still are putting garbage, not recyclable materials in the blue bins, and this is happening in more than one area of the city. If a load reaches the recycling facility and is found to have garbage in it, the entire load is rejected and taken to the landfill. In some locations, the problem is so pervasive that the drivers don't even bother taking the bins to the recycling facility - the blue bin is just dumped in with the rest of the garbage.

I don't think that we do anyone any favours by not being truthful about any situation. Our credibility as a council and a city administration depends on being honest about everything, not in trying to paint a picture rosier than it is.

The whole reason for recycling and waste management is to lessen the amount of garbage going into the landfill, to save space. Having a recycling program in place is a large part of that, and we have to find ways of making the program work.

Other provinces rely heavily on using blue boxes at each residence. Our relatives in Ontario all have such blue boxes, which come with rules, including different types of products being accepted in different weeks. If you put the wrong product in, the blue box is left, complete with contents, and a note about what didn't belong. Perhaps this higher level of personal accountability is what is needed.

We might think that we have loads of room to expand the landfill, and don't need to worry about diverting materials. We certainly aren't in the desperate situation that the City of Toronto is in, but we should be taking action now to ensure that we never are. I've written before about how Toronto is now charging all residents for garbage pick-up, with a choice of whether one pays for a small, medium or large bin. Next year, all grocery stores in Toronto will start charging five cents for each plastic bag used by a customer - not a play for more revenues by the grocery stores, but the result of a bylaw passed by the city to try to reduce the number of plastic bags which eventually end up in the garbage. Although all grocery stores have reusable alternatives - either bags or boxes - only about one in thirty customers brings a reusable bag or box with them. If people don't voluntarity start reducing waste, eventually such actions have to be legislated.

My time on the North Central Waste Management Corporation, seven of my eight years on council, has made me much more aware of the problem, and the difficulty in finding solutions. It's discouraging when people are thoughtless about the ramifications of misusing a recycling bin, and council isn't helping to solve the problem by denying that it exists.

Perhaps we should make the recycling program voluntary. If you and your family want to participate, sign up for a blue bin. Since you would be helping to divert material from the landfill, volunteers should then get a reduction in the sanitation surcharge. All the bins are numbered, so if it turned out that you only signed up to get the reduction, but were still dumping garbage in the blue bin, the bin and your reduction would be taken away. I'm sure some will say that this will just add extra administration costs, but right now the city is paying for someone to check loads as they come in, to identify where the problem loads are coming from - it's not clear what the follow-up to this checking will be, if any. And it isn't doing anything to solve the problem.

Until we acknowledge the problem, we aren't going to make any headway at resolving it. And sending out press releases suggesting that all is working well when we know that it isn't - well, that suggests more of an ostrich approach than a lets fix this mess attitude.

Me, I'm trying to do what I can. We compost, use cloth grocery bags, recycle (even when it wasn't convenient), use travel mugs. It all helps. If you have any ideas on how to make recycling in the city work better, give me a call.

"What is the use of a house if you haven't got a tolerable planet to put it on?" - Henry David Thoreau