Sunday, January 25, 2009

0% - Is It Possible?

Like most citizens, I was surprised by the Mayor's announcement during his State of the City speech on Thursday that he has a target of a zero per cent tax increase for this year. This hasn't been discussed by council, and considering the city manager's direction to departments to keep their increases to 1% (to which the submitted budget from the police department didn't even come close), probably not discussed with city administration either.

I'm all for setting goals for the city, and for setting our sights high, otherwise we can never make any progress. And I agree that one of our goals should be to minimize tax increases - that should be our target every year, not just, as some of the more cynical have already pointed out, in an election year. And considering that in the past two years this council has delivered budgets with increases of greater than 5% for tax rates each year, not to mention ongoing increases in water rates for residential users, and increases in sanition surcharges, aiming for no increase is overdue.

The mayor said that he intends to achieve this by getting money from the provincial and federal governments. Since Premier Wall announced the possibility of funding cities through a proportion of sales tax revenue, rather than a grant that varies from year to year, it looks promising that provincial funding will at least become more predictable, but I don't think that we can expect numbers to be greatly increased from previous funding levels, particularly considering the recent lowering of revenue estimates. We don't know yet how the money will be allocated - whether it will be on a per capita basis, or by region, or some other way. And of course, this amount will vary from year to year - if people in Saskatchewan cut back on their spending because of economic concerns, then the amount brought in through sales taxes will also decrease.

The previews from the federal government have stated that a fund of $1 billion will be available to help communities hard hit by problems in agriculture and forestry - we don't have any details on what the requirements for getting this money will be, or what the limitations will be on its use, and there are a lot of communities out there in worse straits than Prince Albert. These types of one-time only funding aren't sustainable, and are best used to help with individual projects - infrastructure developments, for example - otherwise future budgeting exercises will take an extra hit when this money is no longer available.

Planning to balance your budget using as-yet to be quantified funds from other levels of government is like planning to finance your retirement by winning the lottery - nice if it happens, but you should still be paying off your debts and doing your own planning, budgeting and investing, just to be sure.

It would have helped if we would have set our budget goal early, as a council, with advice from city administration, and considering all the factors that come into play. We have recently signed agreements with our various unions - none of them include a 0% pay increase. We have a major construction project underway which already has cost more than was budgeted, and we still don't know what the basic operating costs for this facility will be. Other facilities, such as the Art Hauser Centre and the E.A. Rawlinson Centre, ask for more and more money each year. And new requests that may come from council, such as new stop lights, a new bridge, or taking action on lead water connections, haven't been built into the equation. And we've already either spent money or approved expenditures ahead of the whole budgeting process, which limits any flexibility that may remain.

Another problem we have is that, when I ask, no one seems to know exactly how many employees we have. This is the single biggest expense in the budget, and we don't have a handle on how many employees we have, let alone if they're all essential, or if there are places where we could cut back.

No question, I will be delighted if, as a council, we can come up with a 0% tax increase. But I would suggest that such a result is more likely if, in addition to wishing and hoping for money to be doled out by higher levels of government, we take a good look at where we're currently spending our money, and trim wherever possible, large and small. Otherwise, even if federal or provincial funds come our way, we may not be able to reach this goal.

On another note, I'd like to thank the individual who pointed out an error that I made in my last post about the police budget - the police pick up about 2,000 drunks each year, not 200. Even so, I still find it hard to justify 50 extra positions in the police department to deal with an average of 6 intoxicated persons per day.

"A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?" - Robert Browning

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Start of Budget Discussions

Last week's council meeting featured our first review of the police department budget. This marks the formal start to overall city budget discussions, although already some specific budget expenditures (such as the new ticket tracking system) have been approved.

Unlike other parts of the city budget, the police budget can only be approved or denied as a whole. Council cannot tinker with parts of it. The tinkering and eventual adjustments are the responsibility of the Police Commission. So, for example, council cannot remove the $20,000 request for a remote control helicopter device to help with surveillance. We can ask questions about the budget, but that's it.

I asked questions - no surprise there, since I believe that is a critical part of a councillor's job. It's the only way to get a better understanding of what is behind some of the requests, and it's a good way of differentiating between which requests are nice-to-haves, and which are essential. I may not be able to be part of the internal budget discussions at Police Commission meetings (these meetings are not open to other members of council), but perhaps some discussion will be initiated because of my questions.

I asked about staffing levels, as compared to Moose Jaw, which has a police service of 85. Ours is approximately 120. These numbers, in both cases, include both sworn staff and civilian support staff. That's quite a difference proportionally - almost half again as many. Part of the explanation given was that our police pick up way more intoxicated people than they do in Moose Jaw - our police pick about about 2000 drunks as year - in Moose Jaw it's less than 10. Another part of the explanation was that many of the calls that come in have to do with people who don't actually live in Prince Albert - our high transient population. I'm not sure that those fully explain the differences, but it is interesting to see how the demographic differences between the two cities have such an impact on city costs.

The police budget as requested will require an increase of almost 7% operational, and an increase of 11% for capital expenditures, including a new building that they have purchased which will cost us about $50,000 annually for the next 20 years - that's already happened. I suggested that they should be building reserves into their budget every year to fund some of these capital expenditures when they know that equipment is going to require replacement - be it vehicles or bullet-proof vests. It's like saving up to replace your own vehicle - way cheaper if you set aside a small amount every year, rather than having to get a large loan when your vehicle dies.

Another interesting budget item was the cost for the police commission (not the police themselves). Those costs have more than doubled over the past few years, with no clear reason why. I asked last year why these costs were rising so fast, and received no answer.

Police budgets everywhere are growing at an alarming rate. Some cities set a proportional limit for their police departments - Moose Jaw has theirs capped at 27% of their overall budget. If the city grows, and their budget grows, then the police budget will increase, but it won't take up a larger and larger portion of the overall city budget. Right now, in Prince Albert, the police budget is 30% of the city budget.

At an earlier council meeting, the city manager indicated that all departments were going to be held to a 1% increase this year. I asked specifically if this included the police department, and was told yes. Apparently this hasn't happened, which means that the police portion of the budget will creep ever higher. This is not sustainable, and means that other city needs either go unanswered, or taxes are increased.

On another note, I finally received the minutes for the soccer centre committee meetings, which I had asked for in April or May. Committee meetings, and the minutes, are supposed to be open to and available to the public, and a delay of this long is inexplicable. And the package only included minutes from 2008. I'm interested in the 2007 minutes, and have requested these, with the request that I receive them within 10 days. This is the largest capital project that the city has undertaken in some time, funded mostly by taxpayers' money, and I've had numerous questions from city residents about how decisions were made about the location, and whether soil testing was done before the location was selected, considering the cost over-run this past summer. To date, we still don't know what the operating costs will be, which will have direct impact on the city budget, and taxpayers, in future years. We have made decisions which future councils and residents will have to figure out how to manage.

If council is going to make good decisions, we need to have accurate information. Last year, we made decisions about the Art Hauser Centre and the Rawlinson Centre without them producing financial statements (which is supposed to be required). I'm hoping that this year, information is provided before we're expected to make the final decision about the budget.

As I've said before, setting the budget is probably the single most important activity that council and administration undertake - I hope that this year, all departments and committees take their responsibility to provide us with accurate, well-thought out budgets that recognize that further tax increases are an unfair burden to put on our residents.

"There is no such thing as a good tax." - Winston Churchill

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Getting the Lead Out

Water - it's a basic need of life. One of our major obligations as a city is to provide all citizens with clean, safe drinking water. Until we are doing that, I don't think that we can brag too much about our accomplishments.

At the last meeting of council in December, I raised again the issue of lead pipe water connections in the city. It was an issue I first raised a couple of years ago, but the only action taken since that time is to have a few homes tested, and to produce a brochure that mostly talks about how safe Prince Albert water is because of the water treatment plant (a point that I don't argue with, but which has nothing to do with lead pipe water service connections), and gives the contact information for a couple of places if you want to have your water tested. We have taken no action to inform the vast majority of the slightly more than 1,000 homes which have these connections of the risks involved and the actions that they can take, and we have not taken steps to develop a plan to, over time, replace these service connections.

These homes are, of course, in the older areas of town. Generally speaking, if your home was built before 1950, it could have lead service connections. There is also risk from lead solder on pipes inside the home, but logic tells me that water picks up more lead from sitting and then running through a one inch lead pipe than touching solder occasionally at a pipe joint.

My home is one of these homes, and I have not received any direct communication from the city telling me this, or suggesting what I can do. I know that it is a lead service connection, because I've seen it - the pipe coming out of the basement floor is greyish, about one inch in diameter. Newer connections would be copper, or possibly plastic - fairly easy to identify.

The brochure suggests running water for five minutes if it has been standing for more than 6 hours (presumably first thing in the morning, possibly also in the evening if your family is away from home all day). Tests done on homes with lead service connections in Saskatoon indicated that 10 minutes of tap running may be required to meet acceptable levels. That's a lot of water running down the drain.

Lead in water is a serious health concern, particularly for children and pregnant women or nursing mothers. Its effects are cumulative, and it can result in forgetfulness, tiredness, headaches, muscle weakness, impaired neurological development, high blood pressure, anemia...all the way to greater risk of cancer, according to information available from Health Canada. It's an invisible risk - the water doesn't look or taste bad, so there's nothing that would naturally discourage you from using it.

The report given to council stated that in the most recent testing, samples were collected from 17 homes, rather than the 30 originally identified for testing this year, and of these, 3 were identified as having excessive lead levels in the water. For these three, the city is providing tap filters to the homes. Three out of seventeen is a much higher proportion than 2 out of 50, which is the number tested after I originally raised the issue, and discussed in the brochure available on the city web-site. I think that we should be concerned.

I'm not a statistical person, so I don't know if testing 30 (or 17, or 50) of more than 1,000 potential problem sites is appropriate. I do think that the city has a couple of responsibilities here. The first is to inform people whose health may be at risk. The second is to develop a plan to replace lead service connections over time. I know that this is costly - the city manager advised that this replacement would come at a cost of $10 million. Since this is less money than we've recently chosen to invest in a recreational facility, and since it should be a program spread over several years, I think that it's quite reasonable to discuss how we can accomplish providing this basic right to our citizens during budget deliberations.

We could develop a program similar to the program developed to address flooding issues on the West Hill. In that program, the homeowner can opt to install a sump pump or backflap valve to reduce the risk of flooding to their basement. The city will give them up to $2,500 when the work is done. I think that it would be fair to provide a similar subsidy to homeowners to replace their lead service connection when planned road reconstruction is being done - this gives the city the opportunity to replace water lines and the problem connection. Building this into city maintenance and replacement plans only makes sense.

When I first raised the issue, it was suggested that I was fear-mongering. I think that there's a distinct difference between fear-mongering and informing people of potential health risks and the actions that they can take, and planning for a way to remove or reduce the risks. We talk a great deal about the importance of children to our future. Lead levels in water have the greatest affect on children. It's about time that we started to put money on improving the lives of all of our citizens, not just some.

"Not until the creation and maintenance of decent conditions of life for all people are recognized and accepted as a common obligation of all people and all countries - not until then shall we, with a certain degree of justification, be able to speak of humankind as civilized." - Albert Einstein

Sunday, January 4, 2009

A Couple of Points of Clarification

Last week the local paper ran a story about the legal costs that the city has incurred over the RRSP lawsuit that I joined in January of last year. While I have no argument with the article itself, although it's unfortunate that the paper had to resort to the Freedom of Information Act, rather than the information just being provided by the city, there is one point that wasn't mentioned in the article that I thought was worth mentioning, although I didn't think to do so when I was interviewed.

While I don't accept the independent report commissioned by the city, since its author didn't speak to me at all about the situation and thus prepared only a partial report, I think that people should know that the report states that I had every right to join that lawsuit, and that doing so did not mean that I broke my oath of office. This, of course, agrees with the legal advice that I received before joining the lawsuit, and with the opinions of several other legal types who have spoken to me about this over the past several months. The report does state that I was in conflict of interest because, according to the sources of the report, after I joined the lawsuit, I was present at meetings where legal strategies were discussed. Again, I decided to join the lawsuit in mid-January, at which point I made a public announcement that I was doing so, and after that, I removed myself from any council meeting where the lawsuit was on the agenda. Even before this, however, no legal strategies were discussed at any council meetings where I was present.

I know that I've said all this before, but I just wanted to provide the extra information to those who may be new to the situation, and don't want to read long-past blog entries.

The other point of clarification has to do with your 2009 pre-payment notice for city taxes. On this, you will see an amount for Debt Elimination. This, of course, is not going toward debt elimination, but towards the soccer centre, and on last year's tax notice was identified as Capital Projects - Field House and Wellness Centre. I'm hoping that this change was just an administrative oversight, and that on the final notice, which should be coming out in spring, after the new budget is approved, the amount will be identified correctly.

Like most of you, I hope, I'm at the end of a relaxing Christmas season. Because most of our family is in Ontario, Andrea and I (and Ingrid and Guthrie) have always had a relatively quiet Christmas season, with no travelling or housefuls of people to feed. This year was the same - friends over for dinner or wine during the season, but just the four of us on the big day, which was very nice. Ingrid (and her two cats) were here for almost two weeks, which was great; Guthrie worked throughout the holiday, but had both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day off, as well as New Year's Day.

Tomorrow will be the first Executive Committee Meeting of the year; next week will be the first regular Council Meeting. I'm not much for making resolutions, but I do hope that this final ten months of this particular council will go more smoothly, and that all members of council remember that their ultimate responsibility is to all citizens of Prince Albert, not to each other, and that we keep this in mind as we listen to each other, and consider thoughtfully every decision that we make.

"The interaction of many minds is usually more illuminating than the intuition of one." - Theodore C. Sorensen