Sunday, June 28, 2009

Walking the Talk

A small crowd showed up a last week's council meeting, to protest the proposed rezoning of an area on the west hill to allow for Northern Spruce Housing to build duplexes on privately owned land that used to be a school yard.

While I'm all for more people coming to council meetings to see what goes on there, I'm not particularly fond of people who pack the audience area in the hopes that mere numbers will persuade members of council to vote according to their wishes. Some may find it intimidating to speak against the majority opinion, and it is - it's hard to go up against a crowd.

But as members of council, we need to think of the needs of the whole city, not individual neighbourhoods. And we need to speak up for the principles that we, as a council, have agreed to.

Ostensibly, the argument is that this will remove "green space" from the area. Two points on that - it isn't considered green space by the city, because it's privately owned land. It may be a convenient place for people in the area to walk their dogs, but it isn't a city park. I'm surprised that those who were advocating to maintain this area as part of their green space didn't protest when the city turned over park area near St. Anne's school - green space - to the school board to pave over for additional parking for the school. But we heard nothing from residents about that loss of green space. The second point is that the west hill area has more green space than many other areas of the city - more than 6 hectares per thousand residents. The only area of the city with more is Carlton Park, with almost 8 hectares per thousand residents. The area with the least - Midtown, with less than 1 hectare per thousand residents.

It is an issue, particularly in older neighbourhoods - how to ensure an ongoing supply of green space? We need long-term planning for this, not a policy of allowing its removal sometimes, but protesting other times.

From the various comments made by presenters, it appears that the real issue is that they would rather not see rental housing built in their neighbourhood. I understand the concerns, but I'm more concerned about what encouraging such segregation says about us as a city. The assumption is that those who rent rather than own their homes need to be kept out of certain areas. We have a housing shortage in this city - there is not enough decent, affordable housing for singles or families. We need to be building more good housing, and ensuring that it is well-managed, not restricting where these homes can go.

In my last term on council, I proposed that we require landlords to have to meet certain standards for their properties, and if those standards are not met, then the landlord would not be able to rent out substandard properties. Right now, I'm appalled at the living situations that some people are forced into, because they have no other choice. When Andrea and I first lived in Prince Albert, we rented a house from a non-resident landlord, which was in such poor shape that in the winter, ice formed on the inside walls. Doing repairs around the house to improve things was strongly discouraged. That house, thirty years later, is only now under a demolition order. Perhaps if that landlord had been forced to meet certain standards in order to rent, that house would still be habitable. In any case, this current council has shown no interest in following up on this idea.

Council speaks a great deal about the need to improve housing in the city, as a solution to many of our social problems. In fact, we are signatories to the UNESCO Coalition of Municipalities Against Racism and Discrimination. One of the actions that we have signed on to in this document is to "support measures to...promote diversity and equal opportunity in housing". At the Canadian Housing Renewal Association conference in Toronto that I attended earlier this year, I posed the question to one of the speakers about setting aside areas in communities where rental housing wasn't allowed. That, he said, was exactly what not to do if you truly support integrated, diverse communities.

As a council, we need to recognize that it's not enough to sign proclamations - we have to then take the actions that will allow the spirit of the proclamations to become reality. If we're not willing to do that, then perhaps we need to consider the implications when we sign onto something, if we aren't willing to stand up and be counted when we are faced with a room full of people who aren't interested in change, at least, not in their neighbourhood.

On a different topic, a blog reader asked what the city pays to support the Rawlinson Centre and the Art Hauser Centre each year. First, financial statements from either operation are extremely difficult to come by - I've asked several times, and the most recent ones that we've seen are for a couple of years ago. Last year's subsidy for the Rawlinson Centre was $300,000. For the Art Hauser Centre, the annual loss varies between $400,000 and $600,000 each year.

I wasn't here when the Comuniplex (now the Art Hauser Centre) was built, but I do remember the grandiose plans for the Rawlinson Centre, one of which was that schools could have their Christmas assemblies there. However, the cost of renting the Rawlinson makes that impractical for schools, and even the local theatre companies don't use it except for special events like this year's provincial drama festival. So we have a wonderful facility that is dark most nights of the year, unable to pay its own way. That's part of the reason that I've been so persistent in trying to find out what the operating costs will be for the soccer centre - because we'll likely end up picking up a big part of the tab for that facility as well.

"How far would Moses have gone if he had taken a poll in Egypt?" - Harry S Truman

Thursday, June 25, 2009

A Budget Only Works if You Follow It

We received two pieces of disturbing financial news at last week’s executive meeting.

The first was that the construction of the soccer centre is over budget. Those who suggested last summer that funds donated over the initial target amount should be kept in reserve for such an eventuality now have "I told you so" rights over those who decided that it was far better to add more features to this facility. And, of course, we don’t know yet how much it will cost to run the place. The result of this – an additional two years of tax payers’ contributions just to pay for construction, until 2015 rather than the original 2013 end date.

Another interesting question about the soccer centre levy: I had a look at my tax notice to see what my donation to the centre will be this year. It went up, I assumed because of reassessment, but then I noticed that the mill rate for that part of my taxes was higher than it was last year; the other mill rates for Municipal Residential and Public School Residential went down. I asked administration why this was, and was told that they decided to round it off – I’m not sure why, or why they rounded it up, rather than down. It’s another example of how this council seems to want to do things secretly, rather than letting people know up front what is happening.

The second piece of bad news, which is potentially more serious, is that last year’s operating costs were more than $400,000 over budget, and administration didn’t bring this to our attention until now. This occurred after a 6% tax increase. This year we have a 0% increase and are now, because of this, effectively in the hole already. Who knows where we’ll be if we continue to spend according to past patterns, including unnecessary items such as gifts for the mayor to give visitors to his office (most recent addition to the gift selection – golf shirts with a $26.95 price tag).

In my opinion, when following a budget, whether for a large entity, such as the city, or a small entity, such as your household, you need to constantly track where the money is going, and when expenditures start to exceed the budget, some adjustment of priorities and reduction of spending needs to happen. If you’re hit with a big increase in your power bill, you’ll likely reduce the money you spend on eating out, for example.

If council had known about this during the year, might we have cut back on everything from new banners to meals for council and committee meetings? If we had known about this shortfall during the budgeting process, would we have given $48,000 to the Golf and Curling Club for their 100th Anniversary? You may remember that, during the final budget meeting, I suggested that we were rushing the process too much, and I was criticized by other members of council for holding things up unnecessarily. In fact, one council member even said that for him, budgeting happened 365 days a year. I’m not sure what goes on in his year-round budgeting, because he appeared to be as surprised as the rest of us.

Instead of taking preventative action, we will deal with this shortfall from last year by depleting our stabilization reserves (after making a first token effort in this year’s budget to replace a small portion of what this council has taken out of these reserves during its term), and we will borrow from an employees’ vested sick leave fund. I have seen no plans for how we will pay that money back, but that will certainly add to future tax burdens.

I’m often asked if I’ve heard of any new contenders for council, and my response is usually "Who would want to take on the job?" Managing a city which has blithely mortgaged a hefty chunk of its future, while increasing its obligations to pay for various facilities that require ever-increasing subsidies, means that whoever ends up on the next city council has inherited one ugly financial mess. To fix that, sadly, will take a lot more than a catchy slogan.

"Let us all be happy and live within our means, even if we have to borrow the money to do it with." – Charles Farrar Browne

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Coming Soon to a Radio Near You - A Council Infomercial

Last week's council featured more debate than usual, a refreshing change probably because no one present felt the need to call for the vote before discussion was finished. The topic that took up the most time was the new proposed communications plan, and the part of that which brought up the greatest difference of opinion was the $42,000 to buy time on the local radio chain, for regular interviews with the mayor, city manager, or a designate.

The proposed plan didn't say why paying for something that we currently get for free would be an improvement, since the radio now interviews the mayor after every council meeting, every other Tuesday morning. But the opinion of some members of council was that this would be better, because we could "control the message".

So the plan isn't to provide more information about city council, it's to provide a controlled message about how great we're doing. This, by any definition, would be called propaganda, and shouldn't be something that we spend taxpayers' dollars on.

I'm all for keeping the public informed about what we're doing, preferably before we do it, so that there's the opportunity for input and ideas before final decisions are made. But my repeated suggestions that the city page, which we already are paying for, include information about upcoming committee meetings, as well as council and executive meetings (which the Saskatoon city council does on their page of advertising), have been ignored. Somehow, I don't think that in our controlled message there will be mention made of all the maintenance activities that were left out of the most recent budget, or the reduction of the fiscal stabilization fund from $1.9 million at the end of 2005 to $239,804 at the end of March, 2009 - yes, this current council depleted the fund by more than $1.5 million before it decided to put a small fraction back in this year's budget. But letting people know about that wouldn't be the kind of message that this council wants people to hear.

This is, of course, an election year. What this will do is provide free pre-election coverage for some members of council. It's interesting that councillors get $500 each year as a communications allowance - this is frozen six months before the election, because it wouldn't be right for taxpayers to pay even slightly for a councillor's election expenses. But $42,000 to pay for infomercials is considered okay.

The communications plan (to use the word lightly), doesn't even set any targets, or evaluation criteria. The reasoning behind putting more money into radio spots was that "young people don't read newspapers". I have news for some members of the administration - they don't listen to the radio either. They're on the internet, on Facebook or You Tube. They download what they want to listen to onto their Ipods, and I'll bet listening to someone on council talk about how great this year's banners look won't be something that they would even think about downloading. And we have no idea how to measure the success of this change - unless, of course, it helps some people get re-elected - then they'll no doubt point to major success.

Provide people with unbiased information, before decisions are made, and let them make up their own minds about whether council is doing a good job - don't be trying to control the message, because that sort of tactic tends to backfire.

"We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark: the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light." - Plato

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Pros and Cons of Conferences

Last Thursday's local paper had an opinion piece from the Vancouver Sun, criticizing the annual meeting of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), currently going on in Whistler, BC. Although it wasn't mentioned related to the piece, 6 members of city council are there right now, at a cost of about $3,500 each. The piece suggested that such meetings are a waste of time and money, largely because the agenda items were outside of civic areas of responsibility, dealing with such things as global warming and international relations. The social aspects of the conference, particularly the main banquet, were also roundly criticized as being a waste of taxpayers' money.

I've been to FCM meetings in the past - what I've found most useful are the smaller sessions, where topics directly related to my work as a councillor have been discussed - water treatment, raising awareness of local tourism opportunities, improving council efficiencies - learning how other communities deal with these issues is very helpful. I've also found touring the host community, both as part of the conference and on my own, to be a source of new information and ideas for things that we could try here. If another community has a solution that works, we don't need to try to reinvent the wheel. Conferences for any profession, including members of council, should first and foremost be seen as an educational opportunity directly related to our work.

I chose not to go to Whistler - I didn't see much on the agenda that I thought would be directly useful to me, and Whistler is a community drastically different from Prince Albert - I didn't think that there would be much to be gained from exploring a relatively new, recreationally focused community to help with Prince Albert's issues of old infrastructure, improving race relations, and dealing with inadequate housing.

This doesn't mean that I haven't been to conferences this year. I went to two, each focusing on an area of priority for my council work. In April I attended the annual meeting of the Canadian Housing Renewal Association in Toronto, as I chair the Housing Committee. This conference provided plenty of opportunity to discuss housing problems and how other communities have tried to solve them, with the bonus of having supper with several of Andrea's siblings and their families, one of whom is a social worker in Toronto. She was able to tell me of her experiences with some of the programs that were discussed at the conference, so I could compare theory to reality.

Then the last week of May I attended the annual meeting of the Canadian Library Association in Montreal. As chair of the local library board, I've been to a few of these conferences over the years, and have found that there's always something to learn, whether budgeting, programming, or dealing with staffing issues. And, being in Montreal, I had the opportunity to explore another city that deals with aging infrastructure (much road construction underway) and has housing issues like any other community.

Neither of these conferences was as large, or featured the extensive social opportunities that FCM does. They were also much cheaper to attend. I believe in staying within the travel budget that is alloted to each member of council - councillors are allotted $3,600 each year, the mayor's travel budget is twice that. I'm not sure where the money will come from for the councillors that are at FCM, since they all also went to SUMA (I didn't, this year), which cost $2,500. Now, apparently, the travel budget does not include conference registration - $800 for FCM. I'm not sure what part of the budget is set aside for that. I will be asking that question - once again, what is the point of setting out a budget for travel, if it doesn't include all related costs.

So, is FCM worth it? I guess that you'd have to ask those who attended, and not just whether it was worth it, but what did they learn? What ideas did they pick up that they will use in their work as a councillor? And, if the answers are disappointing, perhaps council needs to rethink its policy which sends everyone who wants to go to a national conference that is maybe not focused on the issues that should matter to city council. But conferences are a good opportunity to learn from others in the same situation, how they tackle their issues, how successful they've been, and how your community could take advantage of their experience. And learning is always a good thing.

"It is only the ignorant who despise education." - Publilius Syrus