Sunday, December 19, 2010

Making It Up as We Go Along

Imagine how it must feel to work at the SPCA - you spend a great deal of time working with Bylaw Enforcement and the city, having input into a new animal licensing bylaw which should both increase revenues to the SPCA, and include measures to reduce the source of their biggest problem, the uncontrolled reproduction of kittens and puppies, which usually results in unwanted animals being dumped at their doorstep to deal with. Progress has been good, and the bylaw has had its first two readings.

And then, the mayor makes a unilateral decision to remove the differentiation in licensing costs between neutered and unneutered animals (a differentiation that was in the current dog licensing bylaw), removing any financial incentive for pet owners to do the right and responsible thing. Taking a step backwards, making us the only major city in Saskatchewan to not recognize the importance of spaying and neutering. And he chooses to bring this forward, not at Executive Committee the week before, when we could have discussed the pros and cons of doing this, and other options for finding solutions, but when the bylaw is introduced for its third reading. One has to assume that this brilliant thought occurred to him on the spot, because he didn't even have his proposed changes in writing.

Some SPCA representatives were in the audience at the council meeting last Monday evening, and I saw the disappointment and disillusionment in their faces when the changes were proposed, and then passed. Their advice and input, not to mention the time and expense of the report prepared by Bylaw Enforcement, had been cast aside without so much as an apology.

The mayor's changes were apparently made because he heard that some people, who already own unneutered animals, feel that neutering their animal is an expense they can't afford. I would be one of the heartless individuals who suggest that if you can't afford to be a responsible pet owner, then you shouldn't have a pet. If you can't afford the surgery, how can you afford the other basic costs of pet ownership, including regular vet check-ups and vaccinations? And presumably, since the current dog licensing requirements had a cost reduction if your dog was neutered, you haven't been licensing your animal anyway.

Concern for those who feel that they can't afford the extra cost of neutering, was why part of the SPCA proposal was to set up a subsidized neutering program. For the SPCA, the biggest problem isn't funding, it's getting control of the animal population, which in turn would reduce both their costs, and the inevitable stresses that they have to deal with when they have to turn away strays because they're full, and the even worse stress of having to euthanize perfectly healthy animals.

I'm a realist, and I know that for someone who already has an animal, they may have a problem. But that doesn't mean making changes on the fly to a bylaw that had been prepared with considerable thought and consultation. A more sensible approach would have been to request that third reading be delayed until we had a chance to consult with the SPCA and Bylaw Enforcement, and perhaps develop some alternative solutions for those who already have an animal, but are worried that they won't qualify for any subsidized program.

Another alternative would have been to defeat the proposed amendments to the bylaw. Council always has that option, in fact, that's why the third reading process is in place, to allow for changing your vote should circumstances or information change. But this is a council where most members, for reasons that remain beyond me, fear that standing in opposition will result in some horrific punishment from above. And that's sad, because we all were elected to voice our own opinion, not just vote in concert.

"Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of someone else." - Judy Garland

Sunday, December 12, 2010

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Budget Time

As you're probably aware, the way the current council prepares its budget is a constant concern for me. As a council, we don't meet to discuss what direction to give administration in their preparation of the budget, our review of it is perfunctory and rushed, with no time for questions, and last year, we weren't even allowed to see the details of one-third of proposed expenditures, that of the police portion of the budget.

What is probably most concerning to me about this is that, for most members of council, this is okay. Their job of representing the citizens of Prince Albert apparently doesn't extend to doing any detailed research into their obligations, or to asking questions that might make other members of council uncomfortable or angry. And the city as a whole is the loser in this equation, as expenditures go unchallenged and savings are depleted.

It is a reflection of our poor planning, and willingness to buy now, pay later. A good example is the request at last week's meeting for an additional $80,000 for irrigation of the outdoor soccer pitches at the soccer centre - why wasn't this considered when the decision was made to have those soccer pitches? And then, the viewpoint was aired that this wouldn't add to tax rates. Instead, your involuntary donation on your tax bill, already extended once to 2015 because of the project was already a half million dollars over budget, will be extended further. But because the mill rate won't go up to pay specifically for this, some can delude themselves that it isn't a tax increase. I disagree - money that could be used for other purposes will be directed for this. The money that will be needed for other purposes will probably require a tax increase. Your taxes were higher last year because the previous council decided, in an election year, that a zero per cent increase would look good. There was no discussion as to what was needed to run the city properly.

We were supposed to get the budget documents before the end of the year, but now apparently, it won't be in time for tomorrow night's meeting, the last council meeting scheduled before the end of the year. We did, however, have a forewarning that the police budget won't be included. At last week's Committee of the Whole (in camera) meeting, the police chief gave us a one page budget summary, which included no detail, but which we had to return at the end of the meeting. You may recall that last year, we were told that, unlike the other cities in the province, we weren't allowed to see the detailed police budget because criminals might use that information to figure out police crime-busting strategies. Considering how council is being treated again this year, perhaps we're suspected of having criminal leanings.

And, of course, we've already spent money that will come out of next year's budget - it's so much easier to put things on a credit card than it is to figure out how to live within your means. Those iPads, for example, will be paid for out of next year's budget. And in the meantime, we're told that there's no money for proper snow removal left in this year's budget. There was, however, money for each member of council to get full colour Christmas cards, twenty-five each. At least this year's cards don't contain a total fabrication about Prince Albert being known as Canada's Christmas city, and I hope that, unlike in one past year, any copyright concerns were dealt with ahead of time. Because dealing with potential court actions is also a drain on your tax dollars.

"Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound ought and six, result misery." - Charles Dickens

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Fewer Meetings, Fatter Agendas

We didn't have an executive meeting last week, even though it was two weeks since the last one. Or a council meeting. No reason was given.

In theory, we're supposed to have council meetings every other week, with an executive meeting the week in between. Our last council meeting was November 22, which means that last week should have been an executive meeting, but there was nothing.

I found this odd, so I checked the 2010 meeting schedule, or at least the latest revision, which we received August 26. While it would be a logical assumption that there should be 26 council meetings a year, one every two weeks, this council will meet only 20 times in 2010. Two meetings in January, March, April, May, June, September, October, and November, but only one meeting in the months of February, July, August and December. I don't recall previous councils skipping meetings with that frequency - the work of running the city doesn't take a holiday, and neither should council. About the only times that I can recall meetings being rescheduled would be if the scheduled meeting was set to fall during either SUMA or FCM, when most of council is away at those meetings, but there was none of this going weeks between meetings for no apparent reason.

A cynic might suggest that someone is arranging meetings to fit with a holiday or other planned absence schedule, so that one could take breaks but still have a perfect attendance record.

So why is this a problem? One reason that it poses a problem is that agendas then become very lengthy. For tomorrow's executive and committee of the whole meetings, we have more than 1,000 pages of material to review. This is material that we received late Thursday, then more documents came by email on Friday. This is a lot of pages to go through, think about, and mark for questions and comments, over a few days. And the matters in the committee of the whole agenda tend to be subjects that haven't been raised before, so we're usually starting from ground zero for those.

I'm not sure how long tomorrow's meeting will last - our last executive and committee of the whole meetings, on November 15th, went from 4 p.m. until almost 8 p.m., which posed a bit of a logistics problem for those of us who had tickets to Ron James at 8 that evening. It can be a real temptation just to let things slide as the evening wears on, and thought processes do get more difficult.

Another reason that it's a problem is that fewer meetings means fewer opportunities for the public to keep track of what's going on. I know that the meeting schedule is posted on the city web-site - it may come as a shock to some of the electronically addicted out there, but not everybody goes on a computer to get their information. And I know that it's also in the paper, but if Saturday's paper is any indication, it can't be counted on, since it indicates that tomorrow's meeting is scheduled for next Monday, where it will run smack into the next council meeting.

We've already become more inaccessable, after moving council meetings to 5 p.m. from 7 p.m., and shifting committee of the whole (our in-camera session) to follow executive committee, rather than the previous practice of having it immediately before the council meeting. Add to that the habit that some members of council have adopted of moving the acceptance of all matters considered at committee of the whole in a block, at a special council meeting that is set immediately after committee of the whole. That's right, the same evening. Remember, these are matters that are usually brand new to council, and they're being passed in a block the same day that they're discussed, so are never put on the agenda that is available to the public before regular council meetings, or openly discussed or voted upon at a regular council meeting. Further adding to the obscurity - council meeting is the only place that a recorded vote can be requested, so for these matters that are passed in a block it gets even harder for members of the public to follow what decisions are being made, and why.

At our last strategic planning session, I proposed that we go back to having council meetings weekly, and getting rid of executive committee altogether, since I don't think that having that committee has improved our performance as a council at all. If we're going to be meeting weekly, why not have the most open meeting that we can? You can imagine the lack of support that my suggestion received.

I hate to sound like a broken record, but if we really mean to be open and accountable, then our actions have to match our words. And, while I'm not afraid of reviewing a reasonable amount of material before a meeting, I think that everybody's work load would become more manageable if we had less to focus on each time, but focused more often.

"Hard work never killed anybody, but why take a chance?" - Charlie McCarthy

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Changing the Rules as We Go

I've written in this blog before (July 3, 2008) about how members of council don't always seem to understand the processes that we're supposed to follow, or even the actual responsibilities that each member of council has. To compound the problem, some members of council appear to be quite satisfied with their ignorance, with making up rules to suit the whims of others, and with ignoring basic democratic principles. And some members of council seem to be quite all right with giving away their rights and responsibilities.

A couple of years ago I suggested that it might be beneficial if all of council were to have someone from the outside come in and give a presentation on how council is supposed to work, and on the parliamentary procedures that we're supposed to follow. Not surprisingly, considering it was my suggestion, other council members at the time felt that it was too late in our term to try to improve (the phrase "better late than never" being something that they obviously don't believe); others declined because they didn't want to bring in the individual that I was suggesting (which I found odd, because I hadn't suggested anyone). And the new council has shown no indication of being interested in learning about rules and procedures if they're going to slow down the process, and possibly prevent some individuals getting their way.

I was reminded of this recently when some inconsistencies occurred when I tried to recover my expenses for attending one of the committees that I've been placed on. This current council has given away their opportunity to have input to membership on city committees, instead ceding that authority totally to the mayor. In his wisdom, he has placed me on three committees that meet out of town - the North Central Saskatchewan Transportation Committee, which meets in locations ranging between here and the Alberta border, the Saskatoon Airport Authority, which meets in Saskatoon, and the North Saskatchewan River Basin Committee, which meets in North Battleford. I'm not sure how particularly useful it is for the city to have representatives on these committees, but we've been invited, and I do my best to get to these meetings and provide the city's perspective on matters being discussed. For these types of committee meetings, the practice in my ten years on council has been that a councillor who has to travel out of town to attend a committee meeting is reimbursed for vehicle mileage. This was not considered as part of the individual's travel budget, which is used to attend conferences.

Until now. Maybe. I've been told a couple of different stories. It started when I attended a meeting of the North Saskatchewan River Basin Committee in August, and I submitted my expense claim to the city manager's office. The former practice (and no doubt the practice followed still by other members of council) is to submit expenses directly to the mayor's office. I haven't done that for a couple of years, after an incident which occurred while I was in the process of submitting an expense claim to one of the administrative assistants, when the mayor came out of his office and told the assistant not to bother helping me, since I "didn't matter". I don't know about you, but when I get treated with gratuitous rudeness, I won't go out of my way again to deal with that sort of behaviour. So I spoke with the city manager, and my procedure since then has been to submit expense forms to his office, which had been working without incident until now.

When I didn't get reimbursed for that August meeting for several weeks, I called the city manager's office. He told me that I wouldn't be getting reimbursed, as I had now exceeded my travel allowance. I explained to him that the travel allowance was for conferences, that I had been to only two (SUMA and FCM) and didn't believe that those two conferences had put me over budget, and that this travel had been for a committee meeting, a committee that I hadn't asked to be put on. He didn't have any good answers, so I raised it at my first council meeting after returning from holidays.

Well, it seemed that the reason had now changed; I hadn't been reimbursed because apparently there was an error in the form that I submitted. And I received a cheque, although not for mileage, which is the usual practice, but for an amount considered to be equivalent to rental of a vehicle.

But the confusion over my travel budget persists, at least with some. At this past week's council meeting council approved a new travel policy. At least the matter of committee meeting travel has been clarified, and travel expenses for committee meetings will not be taken out of an individual council member's travel budget, which is $3,600 annually. At this meeting, the mayor said that I was the only council member who had exceeded their travel budget, which I find hard to believe, since the conferences that I went to were attended by most other members of council, so why wouldn't those who went to both SUMA (five of eight councillors) and FCM (all members of council) also be cited for being over their travel budget? Administration has not provided me with any documentation on my alleged over-budget status, either.

Also in the new policy are a couple of interesting items - the mayor and the city manager are now allowed to use the city credit card to entertain (I'm not sure where we have budgeted for that sort of expenditure), and the mayor now has the authority to approve any in-province travel, even if you're within your travel budget.

So council has decided to let the mayor decide if you can go to a conference within the province, even if you have travel budget funds remaining - previous mayors seemed to recognize that a councillor could track their own use of their budget, and left the discretion with the individual councillor. And I don't recall there ever being an issue with councillors abusing this discretion. The mayor has already taken over what used to be a council responsibility - approving out-of-province travel, although when he tried to prevent me from attending a housing conference in Toronto a couple of years ago, I brought it to council, which resulted in him changing his mind before a vote could be taken.

With this new council, there seems to be the misconception that the mayor is the boss of council, and councillors should just do as they're told. Well, a read of The Cities Act would probably be a worthwhile effort for several members of council - nowhere is it indicated that all votes must be unanimous, or that one member of council has more authority than another when it comes to decision-making. And when council members give away their authority, either because it's the easy thing to do, or because they want to avoid conflict or being treated badly, or for whatever reason they can come up with, they're not doing their job.

"I have never been able to conceive how any rational being could propose happiness to himself from the exercise of power over others." - Thomas Jefferson

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Cat Came Back (Maybe)

You may recall that about a year ago, at the very first meeting of this new council, I proposed that we investigate the feasibility of licensing cats, as a way of providing increased revenue for the SPCA, and possibly making it easier to find the owners of abandoned cats, rather than having to have so many of them euthanized.

I wasn't proposing specifics, just that we look into the matter. Nonetheless, at the next council meeting, the motion received limited support and was defeated, with some councillors suggesting that they wouldn't be willing to support such a move unless there was a report first, which I found rather confusing since that was what I was proposing.

In late June, we received a report from the SPCA proposing a subsidized spay program for low income families. We referred this report to administration, and asked specifically that administration look into whether other cities have a subsidized spay program for low income families, and whether other cities require the licensing of cats. Better late than never, I suppose.

The preparation of the report included consultation with both the SPCA and the bylaw manager, so it's good to know that those most directly involved with the problem support the idea of a "Responsible Pet Owner Bylaw". Ideas put forward include the recommendation of licensing cats as well as dogs, as currently happens in both Regina and Saskatoon, eventually moving the location of licensing to the SPCA, giving all licensing revenues to the SPCA, and having a fairly hefty fine for having unlicensed pets. There is also a proposal for a subsidized program for low income families specifically geared towards spaying cats, and a "Get Out of Pound Free" program, which would apply to licensed animals which are picked up and taken to the pound. In essence, the first time that your pet was taken to the pound, you would be allowed to retrieve it for free, and not be charged the usual impoundment fee. This is an excellent incentive for licensing.

I support all of these ideas, and would encourage the SPCA to look into allowing pet owners to purchase additional escape insurance, so to speak, allowing more than one impoundment free of charges, if you pay an insurance fee beforehand. Our cats are mostly indoor cats, but when we had a dog, she was an amazing escape artist. She was never picked up by bylaw enforcement, but more than once I was called to Riverside School, as she had slipped out of her collar and headed down there to play with the kids at recess. So I realize how easily animals can escape, even when you think that they're secure.

I also think that the licence fee for unneutered or unspayed animals should be much higher than the basic fee - the proposal right now is a fee of $15 for a spayed or neutered cat, $30 for an unneutered or unspayed cat, and $20 for a spayed or neutered dog, $60 for an unneutered or unspayed dog. We should at least have the fees parallel, with the fee for an unneutered or unspayed animal three times the fee for having a fixed animal.

Public education would be a huge part of making this successful. In Saskatoon, bylaw enforcement goes door-to-door to ensure that animals are licensed - this adds to the cost, but also to the revenue. Unfortunately, it also would make us look a bit heavy handed. I would try the education and incentive method first, then get tougher if the level of compliance isn't where we need it to be. That's the problem with new bylaws - you have to be able to enforce them when they aren't followed, otherwise you might as well not bother. But you want to give people a chance to comply voluntarily first.

I'm glad that council has looked into this, even if I couldn't get their support on the matter last fall. I understand that the SPCA has had to stop taking in cats at this time because of lack of room - that's the clearest indication that we need to start making people more aware of the responsibilities of pet ownership, and let them know how they can be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

"If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. That is the difference between dog and man." - Mark Twain

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Complications of Annexation

It was good to be back at council last week, after a month away. I found that coming back reminded me of why I like this job - the opportunity to ask questions, and force others around the table to think, rather than just vote mechanically, is my favourite part of council meetings.

Most of the media coverage from that meeting has been on the proposed annexation of land south of town, to provide more land for industrial development. This land, currently zoned as agricultural and part of the RM of Prince Albert, would be rezoned as industrial. The problem, of course, for residents of the area next to the proposed annexation, is that they aren't interested in living next to industrial development. You would think that, after the ongoing conflicts raised by the residents who live next to the Belly-Up Bar, a situation in which the area had been zoned commercial for quite some time, this council would be wary of getting into what seems to be a fairly obvious area for potential conflict.

And the residents have taken the opportunity to let their concerns be known - first, at the council meeting on Monday, and then again, at a meeting in the neighbourhood, at which, despite being held at an inconvenient time (5:30 p.m.) on an inconvenient evening (the night before a statutory holiday), more than 100 residents showed up to ask questions and express their opinions.

There are several steps to annexation - it basically means taking land from the rural municipality, adding it to city land, then rezoning. This doesn't happen for free - the RM has to be compensated for loss of taxes, for example. In this case, apparently discussions with the RM have already set the price - the same that Saskatoon paid to the RM of Corman Park for a recent annexation. That land, of course, already has industrial development and some servicing, so for Prince Albert to agree to pay the same level of compensation for land without industrial development or servicing, seems to be a bit naive.

Land within the area that is privately owned may also have to be purchased, should the owners not be interested in living within an area zoned for industrial development, so that will be an additional cost. Finally, the provincial government has to approve the annexation.

As is often the case, council members have only been provided with partial information. I was quite surprised, at the Wednesday evening meeting, to see maps and reports that hadn't been provided to council. I'm always amazed that there are people who think that information should only be doled out to us in dribs and drabs, and who don't recognize that we can't do our jobs properly without being provided with all relevant information. It's interesting that as soon as problems were identified, out came the information.

Do we even need to annex this land? That should be the first question. I'm not aware of any situations where we've turned away potential industrial development because we had insufficient land. Are there other options? How about the much-bragged about green industrial park, which as far as I know, is still tenantless. Or there's an area west of the current landfill, which was identified for potential industrial development during the site selection process for the green industrial park - I think that it would have been a better site, since it wouldn't have been limited by the airport. That land is still there. And of course, there's industrial land along the highway to the pulp mill which is also available. What we should try to avoid is putting an industrial boundary about the city, which will cause problems when residential areas try to expand. An example would be the relocation of Barzeele and Burkowsky, which took several years of discussion, when their historic location started to conflict with commercial development and the associated traffic patterns with the Cornerstone development.

The city manager was fairly insistent that this has to be done, but didn't provide any reasons that I found particularly compelling. For example, he stated several times that we can't afford to develop anywhere else, ignoring the fact that developing this land will have a cost. It's also somewhat ironic that the previous council managed to find $12 million dollars to service potential residential land in the west hill - this is land owned by private developers, who now have serviced lots to sell, but even having that incentive has not caused a wave of residential development in the area. When we want to, we seem to find the money.

A number of residents have pointed out that this potential development is not included in the city plan released to great fanfare not that long ago. Of course, the soccer centre wasn't included in the west hill development plan of a few years back either. This is not a council that worries much about plans that have been developed, which makes one wonder why we go to the effort and expense of preparing plans, and asking for public input on them, if we're only going to ignore these plans once complete.

The maps showed the proposed area divided into three phases. An attempt was made to placate residents by saying that only the first phase was likely to be serviced - phases two and three would be too expensive to service. This brings two questions to mind - why, then, annex it all, and, is this council going to continue the pattern of the previous council, and rezone with abandon, whenever the spirit strikes? If so, don't count on these comforting words to hold much weight down the line.

Council postponed its decision on Monday, to wait until after the public hearing, which is part of the process when applying to the province for annexation. Wednesday evening's meeting was actually supposed to be that public hearing, but the unexpected level of opposition changed that plan.

Another factor that will be key in the equation is the location of the new bridge (the report on which has yet to be presented to council). A new bridge, and any supporting highway, will undoubtedly have an impact on land uses at the edge of the city.

Once again, we're approaching things in a piecemeal, uncoordinated fashion. We've had the west hill residential development, the green industrial park, and now this new proposed industrial annexation, all brought before council as separate, unrelated developments, without an overarching plan that sets priorities and funding requirements. Until this happens, we'll continue to lurch about, making decisions that in the long run, will cost the taxpayers far more money than if we did our homework and looked at the big picture.

I commend the citizens who took the time to come to either the council meeting or the public meeting, and who presented their concerns respectfully and coherently. Despite whatever reassurances some members of council or administration may have tried to provide, the truth is that no one has a crystal ball - we can't promise what will or won't happen on this land in the future. And, as has been demonstrated once again, the voices of private citizens get the attention of some members of council in a way that their colleagues don't seem to be able to.

"The most important political office is that of the private citizen." - Louis Brandeis

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Acting on Impulse

When making decisions, this council seems to follow one of two paths - topics are either discussed to death, with decisions being delayed and deferred for what can seem like forever, or else a suggestion is leaped upon as though it is a limited time offer that will solve multiple problems, and acted on immediately, without being thought through as to all of the possible consequences, or even evaluated as to whether the solution is appropriate to the issue. The first method is frustrating, because it can seem as though some members of council are afraid of making a decision in case it upsets somebody, so they would rather wobble on the fence indefinitely, asking for more reports and opinions. The second is probably more expensive, as the action taken usually has a cost, and can have impacts down the line that also have costs that could have been avoided if we had better discussion up front. Short cuts can be great, but they can also get you into trouble.

An example of the second kind of decision-making is the current thinking around moving to electronic, rather than paper, copies of meeting agendas and reports. Actually, it won't be moving from one to another, it will be doing both.

The initial impetus for this discussion came from concern about the amount of time it takes city staff to make and distribute multiple copies of the material required for each Council and Executive Meeting. Along with that, for some people, is the desire to reduce the amount of paper used. When it comes to staff time, I would point out that this is only an issue if it requires overtime - otherwise, they're being paid for doing this work, even if it is boring, and unless we plan on reducing staff levels, it shouldn't be an issue. As for the concern about using paper, my forester wife often reminds me that paper is a renewable resource, and messages such as "Save a tree - think before printing out this email" are misguided and not really helpful to the forest industry. And there would still be the need to produce paper copies of agendas and information for the many city committees that exist.

However, the concern was raised, and a few months ago someone in administration suggested that Kindles (electronic readers) should be provided to council, rather than the binders of material that we receive weekly. At the time I pointed out that the local public school board has been using laptops for this purpose for a few years now, and that a laptop would be more practical and have multiple uses, rather than a single use gadget such as a Kindle. Before our recent vacation, someone suggested to Andrea that she should get a Kindle, so that she could load up several books on one book-sized object, rather than bringing along a dozen or more books. She responded that if she dropped a book, she could always find her place again, but if she dropped a Kindle, she would be out both the books, the gadget, and the purchase price. However, she did try a demonstration model in a Chapters in Peterborough, and found it quite frustrating - it took longer to load a page of the book than it did for her to read the page. And when we both finished books on our vacation, we left them behind in hotel rooms or on the train, for others to enjoy - no such opportunity to share with a Kindle.

Nothing further happened with the Kindle idea for council, but now it has resurfaced in a slightly different form. The suggestion now is that each member of council, plus several senior staff members, should get I-pads - 22 in total. Agendas and attachments could be sent out electronically, rather than being delivered to each councillor every Thursday, as is the current practice.

I have several concerns about this - one is that this is a fairly new gadget, and I don't believe in buying the first version of any new electronic gadget. There are just too many operational issues that aren't usually resolved until subsequent iterations, and the price also goes down. I was reminded of my first term on council, when the then-city clerk purchased a new gadget (for $70,000) that was supposed to help the office run more efficiently - it was never even taken out of the box, because it turned out not to be suitable for the purpose in mind.

Anyway, I checked on some web-sites about problems that have been occurring with I-pads, and apparently there have been a number of complaints about users being unable to download sent information, and difficulty in making connections to wireless networks - these problems would be directly applicable to the purposes for which these I-pads are being proposed.

Another concern that I have is that this expenditure has not been budgeted for (not a surprise with this council and administration, but still not a good way to operate), and the proposed solution from administration is that for the eight councillors, we could pay for them using our communications allowance for the next two years. This is the allowance ($500 annually) that we can use for our home office expenses - computers, newsletters, fax paper, that sort of thing, but not cell phones. The mayor, of course, doesn't have to pay for his office expenses, nor is administration proposing that he pay for his I-pad. And of course, the dozen or so that they are proposing be purchased for city adminstration would be paid for out of the city budget.

I resent the assumption by administration that they can redirect the allowance that I get for my home office expenses. I also resent that this hasn't been discussed by council - not how serious the issue is, or whether this is the appropriate solution. Once again, it's as though some members of council (and administration) want to get their hands on the latest toy out there, whether it's what we need to do our job well.

The final irony to this proposed solution? Paper copies of everything will still be on our desks for every meeting. The only savings will be in not having the material delivered by hand once a week.

"There are no shortcuts to any place worth going." - Beverly Sills

Sunday, October 31, 2010

More Transportation Thoughts

First blog entry in a month - as you may have guessed, I was on holidays. Then I was at a Citizens' Advisory Committee to the Penitentiary regional meeting in Calgary, then I was at a transportation conference in Saskatoon for three days. Finally made it back to my own bed this past Wednesday, four weeks after leaving it.

Our traditional holiday trip back to Ontario took a different format this year. Usually, we would drive (three days) - this time we tried the train. Andrea had taken the train to Toronto last year for a reunion with her sisters, and had loved it, claiming this to be the first time that she had come back from a trip to Ontario feeling rested. So I agreed that it might be worth trying. Our plan was that we would take the train from Saskatoon to Toronto, then to Guelph, which is close to where my family lives, and then rent a car for our travels about Ontario.

It didn't start well. The train was more than three hours late getting into Saskatoon, so not only did we not get breakfast on the train, but we got to know the Saskatoon train station (which is several miles out of town) really well. Once the train arrived things went better, although the hoped-for making up time never happened, and by the afternoon of day two, train staff had conceded that connections to be made in Toronto would be missed. Then, we found out that there had been a freight train derailment between Parry Sound and Sudbury, which meant that we had to take buses from Capreol (west of Sudbury) to Toronto, which certainly wasn't part of our plan. Once we got to Toronto there was some confusion, but eventually we found the appropriate line to stand in to get our new tickets to Guelph, as well as compensation and food vouchers to use while we waited several hours for the next train.

The rest of our vacation went much more smoothly - a few days visiting my family, a few days in Stratford, Thanksgiving weekend in Millbrook with Andrea's youngest sister and her family, the next week with another sister's family in Toronto, where we went to the Royal Ontario Museum to see the special exhibition of the Terra Cotta Army of the First Emperor of China, a weekend in Deerhurst (where the G8 summit was held last June) for a reunion with most of Andrea's sisters and their families, then back to the Guelph-Fergus area for a couple of days before catching the train to come back. Fortunately this train trip was mostly on schedule, and I'm thinking that train travel is not such a bad thing. The meals are great, it is restful just to read, nap and watch the country go by, and you meet interesting people from all over the world - in our case, people from England, the Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland, as well as from several places in the US. Unlike on a plane, socialization is encouraged, and people aren't in a rush.

We were able to see most of our Ontario-based relatives, and touch base with a few friends as well. There's never enough time to catch up with people, as well as spend time alone, but it was a good few weeks, and we're so lucky to have family and friends who provide us with beds, morning coffee, delicious meals, and the occasional bonus (like Nick Lowe concert tickets from Andrea's brother, who had to head to Ottawa for a conference - not something that we would have thought of doing on our own, but it was a fun night out with Andrea's sister and brother-in-law).

Now that we're back, we're enjoying the company of my nephew Steven, who is finishing a month-long practicum in Occupational Therapy here. Coincidentally, after my last post on encouraging the use of public transit, Steven has been using the bus to get to the hospital every day, and has pointed out that using public transit in this town isn't easy. To start with, he couldn't buy tickets at City Hall - its hours coincided with his time at the hospital. And there are only three other places to buy tickets - SIAST, Gray's Chemists, and a convenience store on the west flat - none of these places is within walking distance of our house. Andrea went to City Hall to buy him tickets last Monday, and was quite amused to find that the sign on the door saying that bus tickets were available had an outdated price list - it claimed that you could get 10 tickets for $18, rather than the actual current price of $20.25. Now, if we really wanted to encourage people to take the bus, tickets should be available all over the city - places like grocery stores, high schools, the malls, the soccer centre - it's a city-owned facility that's open 18 hours a day, unlike City Hall. And other cities have an information number that you can call to find out which bus you should take to get from here to there, and have route information posted at bus stops - we don't have these refinements to our system.

I'm getting caught up on council goings-on in my absence, although in these days of email and texting, I wasn't kept completely out of the loop. When I've caught up with meeting minutes, I'll be posting my thoughts on some of the decisions made in my absence. I was rather intrigued when a gentleman at Sarcan spoke to me on Friday, questioning some of the "bone-headed" things that had happened while I was away. That's the problem with taking vacations in the off-season - life goes on in your absence, and there aren't enough members of council who are willing to ask the questions that should be asked, or who support the brave individuals that try to ask these questions.

The good thing about holidays is that you come back rested and refreshed, ready to start back at it again. And I will.

"The use of travelling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are." - Samuel Johnson

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Changing our Transportation Habits

A number of people this past week have commented on the picture of me and my bicycle that was on the front page of last Saturday's paper. Considering that the article was about Car-Free Day, which was this past Wednesday (September 22), it was somewhat ironic that the picture was taken in front of another councillor's gas-guzzling truck, which he regularly uses to go the five blocks from his workplace to city hall.

How I ended up in the paper was a result of the reporter calling me to ask if I would be riding the bus to city hall on Wednesday, which was something that had been proposed by the Saskatchewan Environmental Society. They had sent all members of council a free bus pass for that day, suggesting that we could all ride together to city hall for a photo op. I told the reporter that it was closer for me to walk to city hall than to walk to the nearest bus stop, and that I didn't see the point of pretending to ride the bus to get there. I suggested that improving conditions for other options, such as walking or biking, would be a more effective way of discouraging car use - the reporter asked if I would mind riding my bike down to the Herald office for a picture, and what you saw in the paper was the result. I don't want to give the impression that I ride my bike to meetings at city hall - council meetings require business attire, and suits and biking don't mix. But I do walk if the weather is good, or if I'm not coming to the meeting from somewhere else.

For the actual event on Car-Free Day, three of the four members of council who did take this opportunity drove their vehicles to city hall, then walked up to the $600,000 bus transfer station on 14th Street and Central that's still under construction, then rode the bus four blocks back to city hall. Councillor Miller was the only one who actually took the bus from her home in Ward 1, thus achieving the original intent of the idea. For the others, it was more of an illusion.

I do agree with the intent behind such days as Car-Free Day - these are opportunities to look at what we can do to encourage people to reduce their environmental impact by finding greener ways of doing things. That's one of the reasons that Andrea and I have chosen to live in the mid-town area - she has always been able to walk to work, and does. We can also easily walk to the library, to our church, and to the Co-op for groceries, and it's comforting to know that should we be left without a vehicle for whatever reason, we won't be stranded.

But I don't think that city council is doing a very good job of trying to encourage people to find alternative ways of getting around town. Instead of encouraging bicycle use by providing bicycle lanes, we try to figure out what signage and penalties will stop people from riding on sidewalks downtown. We're very good about providing lots of car parking for our city hall employees, but the bicycle rack at city hall only has space for three or four bikes, and it's not very secure. I know that the couple of people who bike to work take their bikes inside the building to ensure that they're still there at the end of the day. Contrast that with the Forest Centre just across the street - it has a large bike rack out front for visitors, in full view of the security guard, but it also has a locked bicycle storage area in its basement parkade for the use of employees who bike to work, and showers and change rooms as well, so that you can change out of your biking clothes. The Forest Centre also has preferential parking spots for people who car pool or drive high efficiency vehicles - check the signage at city hall to see who gets preferential parking, and trust me, neither of those people is part of a car pool.

As far as encouraging use of public transit, we haven't offered city hall employees any incentives to use the bus. A slight subsidy of bus pass costs might convince some to take the bus to work, then perhaps they might look at remaining downtown over the lunch hour as well - if we put back the benches that used to be around the fountain in front of city hall, that might encourage people to have their lunches outside, making that area appear to be more than just a place to walk through quickly.

I'm hopeful that the slight extension in bus hours will encourage more SIAST students to take the bus, but we probably could have done more. For example, I'm not aware of any overtures that were made to the people at SIAST to see if there was the possibility for a bus pass partnership, such has been done with the students at the U of S - Saskatoon Transit saw their ridership increase significantly after a bus pass was included in the registration cost for U of S students - a win for the transit system, and a win for the university, which saw a reduction in its parking problems.

And we haven't done a very good job of encouraging people to live close enough to downtown that car use isn't required. We invest a great deal of money in developing areas that are far from the downtown, but don't spend much on maintaining the infrastructure or the services in the area surrounding the downtown core. And while it's a predictable refrain that we need to do "something" about the downtown, to make it more attractive so that people will want to be there, we don't do much beyond pots of petunias set out in regimented lines in front of city hall.

We need to realize that it takes a great deal of thought and effort, looking at a variety of options and possibilities, to change people's habits. And our job as members of council goes far beyond posing for pictures which suggest that we're doing the right thing - it means figuring out what we can do that will actually influence change, and taking concrete steps to do so.

"Integrity is doing the right thing, even if nobody is watching." - Jim Stovall

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Why I Disagree with a Flat Tax

Once again, the idea that Prince Albert should have a flat base tax has been raised in council chambers. In my ten years on council, I think that this is the fourth time that it's been raised, always by a councillor from a ward on the hill, saying that it isn't fair that residents of their ward pay more than their perceived fair share of taxes.

City administration will give us another report that will not tell us anything that we don't already know.

Resdential taxes are set as a percentage of the assessed value of a property. On average, properties in the hill areas of Prince Albert have higher assessed values, and thus pay higher taxes. Properties in the flats have lower assessed rates, and thus pay lower taxes. The assumption is that, if you can afford to live in a more expensive house, you can afford to pay higher taxes. To some (those paying the higher taxes) this somehow is not fair. They may point out that everyone should pay the same proportion of costs for fire and police, and they may even imply that those in the lower taxed area of town use these services more, and are thus being subsidized by those who pay higher taxes.

They will, of course, avoid arguments about these lower taxed properties having to deal with older infrastructure, resulting in issues such as frequent water main breaks, lead service water connections and unpaved streets. They will avoid arguments about lower proportions of green space in these areas, green spaces which are paid for out of the same pool of taxes that also pay for those police and fire services. They will stick to the police and fire arguments, claiming that those other things which make an area more pleasant to live in are too hard to quantify, and should just be left out of the discussion.

Of course, how do you factor in the police claim that 40% of crime is caused by non-residents? How do you make that fair? How about the taxation costs that are assessed against all residents for the soccer centre, whether or not you or any of the people in your house play soccer? Is that fair?

In fact, many of the beneficiaries of your city taxes are the residents of the surrounding rural municipalities. Do we have higher user fees for non-residents for such city-supported facilities as the soccer centre, the golf course, the Art Hauser Centre, or the Rawlinson Centre? We even pay a higher proportion of the regional library costs than the smaller communities that benefit from access to the regional library system.

In my opinion, the fairest tax is the sales tax. You buy more, you pay more. And you usually (although not always) have a choice in how much of this tax you want to pay. If you want to buy the more expensive option, you will pay more sales tax. Buy the cheapest possible option, or forgo the purchase altogether, and you will pay less.

I'm quite certain this report will show that a base tax will result in a tax reduction of a few hundred dollars to high value homes. It will show a similar tax increase for homes in the mid- and lower ranges. Proportionally, the decrease to the high value home will be smaller than the increase to the low value home. If you're currently paying a $4,000 tax bill, a decrease of $400 is 10%. If you're currently paying a $2000 tax bill, an increase of $400 is a 20% increase. And I would suggest that if you're a senior on a fixed income, just trying to stay in your own home for as long as possible, that additional expense might be enough to push you out of your home. I would also suggest that the $400 break that the more highly assessed family might receive would not be as life-changing.

Most of the residents of Ward Three would be negatively affected by a flat tax. As their representative, I will continue to argue against the imposition of such a tax. If we're so concerned about our tax revenues, let's look at ways of decreasing our expenses. Let's truly review the entire budget this time, instead of rushing it through and not even looking at the largest piece of it - the police budget. Let's look at ways of ensuring that all users of city facilities pay a fair rate for their use, instead of facing constantly increasing deficit financial reports from the Rawlinson and Art Hauser Centres (and the expected deficit from the soccer centre). But let's not put a heavier tax burden on those who live in the lower income parts of the city, who are also the least likely to speak up and complain about it. And for goodness sake, let's not be telling the public that this will make little or no difference to people - if it made no difference, it wouldn't have been proposed.

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

Sunday, September 12, 2010

An Evening of Fine Local Food

Last evening, Andrea and I had the good fortune to attend the dining event at the Forest Centre, coordinated by the PA tourism group. Not surprisingly, it was sold out, and it turned out to be a great celebration of local foods, prepared and presented by local chefs. Everything from the appetizers to the dessert, including the wine (several varieties made from rhubarb, strawberries, raspberries, and cherries) and beer, was made from Saskatchewan products, and were excellent examples of the creativity that local culinary artists are eager to share with consumers. People often talk about the creative arts community that we have in Prince Albert - last night is the first time that I can remember that we've enjoyed a similar celebration of food.

The location, in the atrium of the Forest Centre, was also great. I go there often, since Andrea is fortunate enough to work there, but several people mentioned to us that this was their first time there, and they were amazed by its architectural beauty. It's one of the buildings in Prince Albert that I think would fit very well with an Open Doors Day - one where buildings are open to the public, which gives them a chance to see the inside of buildings that otherwise, they would have no reason to visit. This concept has worked well in other cities, and I think it could work here too, perhaps in conjunction with the Street Fair. And add me to the list of people who think that more than one street fair a year is a good idea - if we could think of different themes, such as this day which was focused on food, that might provide enough variety so that people would want to keep coming back.

After dinner, we went across the street for the third annual outdoor cinema. The crowd was smaller than in the last two years, perhaps because the evenings are chilly now, but it was a perfect night for watching a movie if you were prepared for the cold - clear, no wind, no rain, and it got dark early enough so that the movie was over before ten. And as veterans of this, we were prepared, with lawn chairs, sleeping bags, and hats. This year's movie was Alice in Wonderland, and although Andrea complained at length afterwards because it didn't resemble the book much, it certainly seemed to engross those who were there.

I enjoy these events where the focus is on the downtown. I wish that more of our civic leaders, and the businesses which are located downtown, would actively participate. There's always lots of talk about needing to revitalize our downtown - we need more people who do more than talk, but who actually show up and help with the celebrations. In this case, those who weren't there missed a great meal, and a good movie experience afterward.

"If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world." - JRR Tolkien

Monday, September 6, 2010

2009 Financial Report

Our special council meeting last week was to review the 2009 Financial Report, which has to be submitted to the province by September. For the first time in a financial report, the first half of the report was filled with pictures and bragging about what a good job we're doing. In my opinion, spending city dollars on something that verges on electioneering is a waste of money, putting it in full colour is an unnecessary expense, and including pictures of the current council, when the 2009 budget and spending was the responsibility of the previous council, is somewhat misleading. But it was good to finally see the actual numbers.

And the result showed that we ended 2009 with a debt load of close to $26 million dollars. While we still would have incurred some debt, it would have been less if the previous council had not decided to have a 0% tax increase that same year (an election year, by strange coincidence). The supposed words of comfort from administration that we don't need to be concerned because our debt limit is $40 million, so we're well within that, ignore the fact that we voted to increase our debt limit in order to remain within it. It's sort of like feeling richer after your credit card company increases the limit on your Visa - you're no richer, but you've been given permission to spend more money - at a cost of course. The cost of servicing this $26 million of debt? That will be $5.1 million, not an insignificant amount of money.

The other attempt at misdirection, the statement that most of this debt will not be borne by the taxpayer, is ludicrous. Just because the only debt that shows up on your residential tax bill is your share of the $6.73 million dollars to pay for the soccer centre, that statement ignores the fact that the people who pay water bills, which are now significantly higher to pay this debt and will continue to increase every year, are also tax payers. Just because it shows up on a different bill, doesn't mean that it isn't being paid by the same group of people - different pockets, same pair of pants.

In fact, the rural water users, who get their water from the city, are not paying the considerable increases that have been added to water bills through the sewer rate and the infrastructure rate, although they will benefit from the upgrades done to the water treatment plant.

I wish that we would be more upfront about the choices that we make on behalf of the taxpayers. For example, if we had said when the budget was set at a 0% increase in early 2009 that this would result in a higher debt load at the end of the year, with the resultant higher cost in the long run, people would have been able to see the true cost of the 0% increase. But it's more politically expedient to brag about the 0% increase, knowing that the financial report showing more of the story won't be made public for more than a year after the decision, and relying on people's short memories to prevent them from connecting the two.

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

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Positive Side of Being Negative

Occasionally I'll hear, usually second-hand, that I'm considered a negative person.

I admit, I don't have the happiest face - I'm just not a smiley-face person. Fortunately, in the smile department, both kids took after their mother - they all have great smiles. I don't, and I suppose I do look grumpy a lot of the time, which is not necessarily reflective of my actual mood at the moment. My sister gave me a coffee mug for Christmas once that was labeled My Many Moods, which was covered with identical pictures of a grumpy cat, each one of which was supposed to indicate a different mood - confused, grumpy, content, happy, sad - the expression never varied. My family got the joke at once - I couldn't figure out why she'd given me a mug with cat pictures all over it, or why everybody was laughing. Then I got it.

And my kids' friends were often intimidated by me when they were younger, solely because I looked angry all the time (according to the kids). After helping my daughter move in Saskatoon once, one of her friends told her that he no longer was afraid of me, after we spent some time driving around, trying to figure out how to dispose of a wrecked couch, and coming up with all sorts of ludicrous alternatives before finally taking it to the landfill.

So if you're one of the people who thinks that I'm constantly miserable, just because of the expression on my face, stop to chat, and you might be pleasantly surprised.

And some people think that my tendency to question ideas that come to council, rather than just adding my voice to a chorus of praise, is being negative. Technically, I guess, sometimes they're right. Voting no is coming down on the negative side of a decision, something that many members of council appear to be reluctant to do, even though they might not agree with the decision in question. But if questions aren't asked, if nobody points out areas where improvements could be made, or highlights the potential downside of new initiatives, then how can we expect things to get better? Think of the problems that could have been avoided if enough members of council had asked the right questions at the right time, and voted accordingly.

I will admit that, with the current council, there don't appear to be many councillors who are willing to voice their concerns, and that does tend to make those of us who do so stand out from the rest. To be painted as being negative for doing so is unfortunate, but I'm comforted by being told by many residents that they think that I'm doing a good job, and they wish that more members of council would ask questions and demand believable answers, rather than just going along with the majority every time.

Perhaps of more of us did that, if it became the normal way of doing business, asking questions would no longer be considered being negative, but would be seen as what it is - a necessary step in a good, functional, decision-making process.

"A grouch escapes so many little annoyances that it almost pays to be one." Kin Hubbard

Sunday, August 22, 2010

More Special than Regular Meetings

I've mentioned before that for some reason, not discussed in council, there were only two regular council meetings this summer - one in July, one the first week in August. This assumes that nothing much happens in the summer, and also gives those who take summer holidays the chance to take those holidays without affecting their attendance record.

But this August we will have not one, but two special meetings, one tomorrow, the other the following Monday. You probably won't be aware of these; they weren't mentioned on the city page in yesterday's newspaper, even though the next meetings in September were. And that's my big problem with these so-called special meetings - they are very poorly publicized (notice on the city web page and on a bulletin board on the second floor of City Hall allows us to meet legal requirements, but not the ethical requirements of openness). They also aren't emergencies - often they're set to have the third vote on a issue that didn't receive unanimous approval for a third vote in a single meeting, often caused by me exercising my rights as a councillor for the opportunity for sober second thought before finally making a decision. Can these decisions wait until the next regular meeting, and be included in the agenda then? Of course, but this way, members of council are inconvenienced, and it looks like it's my fault for holding out for democracy.

This week's special meeting is to have third vote on changing the time of regular council meetings, from 7 p.m. to 5 p.m. I disagree with this move for a few reasons. My main one is that this makes meetings even less visible to the public. At 5 p.m. most people are leaving work, heading home, starting supper preparations. It's not usually a good time for sitting down and watching a council meeting on television, and you'd be surprised at the number of people who make a point of watching our goings-on regularly. And while we don't have a lot of members of the public who attend our meetings in person, this will make it more difficult for those who do. I know that some members of council would be quite happy not to give the public the opportunity to voice their opinions in the council chambers during public forum - this will make an already restrictive process even more so.

The change will also make it more difficult for members of council, both now and in the future, to attend meetings without affecting their other, full-time job. Being on council is supposed to be a part-time job, reflected by the fact that it doesn't pay a full-time salary. Moving the meetings means that those whose jobs have regular-type hours needn't bother to apply - you will have to take time off work to attend meetings. And not just every two weeks - the Committee of the Whole, in camera meeting, which currently is held a couple of hours before council, will be moved to the other week, before Executive Committee meetings, that have always started at 5 p.m. And there's the additional time required to clean up and put on a suit, as "business attire" is required for council meetings. Not a problem if you're in an office job, more of a problem if your job isn't one that requires a suit. Taking this extra time might not be a problem if you're in a job with flexible hours, or if you're the boss, or if you're retired, but most people don't have that sort of freedom to leave the job a few hours early, every week.

So, what's the impetus behind this move? Well, some members of council find that going so late into the evening (meetings usually end around 8:30 p.m.) is tiring, so they would like to go home earlier. Apparently they missed the part of the job description that says that being on council isn't intended to be a full-time, and certainly not an overtime, commitment, and trying to live up to that expectation could prove to be tiring. Nobody is forced to be at City Hall at 7 a.m. every day, and nobody would have a problem with committee meetings set later in the day, particularly on council meeting days or the day after.

But it's way easier, I suppose, to set meeting times to fit one's personal preferences than respect the public's opportunity to watch and participate in those meetings. The only possible benefit to the earlier meeting time is that it should remove the need to provide meals, not only to council members, but also to staff who attend these meetings, at the tax payers' expense. But that's a small price to pay for making our decision-making processes less visible to those who have to pay for those decisions.

Next week's special meeting is to see the 2009 financial statements for the city. These have to be submitted to the province by the end of August. A more logical approach would have been to include these in an earlier, regular meeting, with sufficient time for council to review before forwarding them to the province. In fact, I'll be interested to find out why these are being reviewed so late in the year, and at a special meeting, to boot. It's not as if this is a new or sudden expectation of the province.

So why two special meetings, and not just one? Who knows. We're just told when, and what's on the agenda. And too bad if you planned your holidays based on the announced schedule of meetings.

I often think how much easier it would be if I could just accept the various actions that are proposed to council at face value - if I could believe, for example, that we were moving council meetings earlier to make it easier for people to attend meetings, which was the reason put forward to the press. But even the slightest consideration of the change shows far more negatives than positives, and it's part of my genetic make-up, I'm afraid, to point these inconsistencies out. And while my pointing things out rarely changes the votes or the minds of others at the council table, at least I'm doing my job in making sure that other points of view are put on the table for discussion - a basic tenet of the democratic ideals that should be driving everyone on council.

"All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility." - John Stuart Mill

Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Few Facts About Recycling Bins

Prince Albert's current residential recycling program isn't working. And, unfortunately, rather than admitting that it isn't working and trying to figure out how to make it work, some civic leaders are minimizing the problems, and suggesting that the problems are not as widespread as they actually are. I'm not sure why we think that the way to solve problems is by ignoring them, or by trying to mislead people about the scope of the problem.

The city has had a recycling program for about eight years, although the entire city wasn't provided with this service until the last year. The service is provided either through individual blue bins at each home, or large communal bins, the last to be provided, in the Midtown and East Hill areas.

These bins are meant for recyclable materials - paper, cardboard, milk jugs. The material goes to the material recycling facility which is on 40th Street, at the south edge of town. Once there, it is sorted, and sold to the markets that can be found for these materials.

From the beginning, with the individual bins, there have been problems with garbage being included with recyclables - to put it plainly, people were treating blue bins like garbage bins. In the worst situations, potentially dangerous materials, such as used needles, were tossed into bins. The garbage required extra sorting, and thus extra handling costs, at the recycling facility. The needles added a level of hazard that is unacceptable. The two areas noted for having a high level of contaminated blue bins are the West Flat and the West Hill, which have the individual bins at each residence. In some areas, the problem is so ubiquitous that the bins are taken directly to the landfill, without bothering to take them to the recycling centre for checking.

The problem has been brought to the city several times. The city's most recent solution has been to have someone inspect the bins before pick-up, and tag them if they are contaminated, and thus not suitable for recycling. It would appear, however, that this has merely been a make-work project. When one councillor followed the recycling truck on its route, the result was a bit of a surprise - even untagged bins which were presumably free of garbage were taken directly to the landfill.

The large communal bins are also subject to this sort of contamination, and face another problem as well. They are so poorly designed that water leaks through the hinge on the lid at the top, meaning that the material within gets wet with every rainfall. The bin contents are weighed at the recycling centre, and if they're too heavy, are sent to the landfill, since that means that the material within is either wet, and thus not recyclable, or someone has dumped heavy garbage in there. It's disappointing to me, after waiting for seven years to get a recycling service that I had been paying for from the start, and after noting that my neighbours appear to be extremely respectful of the recycling guidelines, since our bin contents seem limited to paper and cardboard, that one good rain every two weeks makes our good intentions pointless.

The whole point of residential recycling is to reduce the amount of material going to the landfill, to save the city money in having to develop a new landfill area. It's also the right thing to do, from an ecological perspective. But obviously these reasons haven't been enough to persuade some residents of the city to make the small effort of separating their garbage from their recyclables.

I think that the hard truth is that for most people there has to be some sort of financial incentive. For example, in Ontario, where there is residential recycling for a host of materials, including aluminum cans, we see pop cans all over the streets when we head there for a vacation. In Saskatchewan, where we pay a deposit on cans and bottles, which is then returned when you take your cans to the Sarcan depot, any can or bottle left on the street is picked up in short order, and the line-up at Sarcan is often quite overwhelming because the program is so popular.

So what sort of financial incentive could the city provide to get people to follow the fairly simple rules for recycling? How about, in order to get a recycling bin for your home, you have to sign up for one, and doing so gets you a reduction in your sanitation fee, or your property taxes. That way, only those who were interested would have bins. Then, if there were problems in a certain area, the inspection process could be used to identify the abusers, who would then lose their bin, and their lower tax rate or sanitation charge.

One of the reasons that we signed up for the Crown Shred and Recycling plastic recycling program, even though it costs a nominal amount, was the good feeling that comes from knowing that the materials that we put in our blue bin every two weeks are not adding to the problems at the landfill. But not many people are willing to pay for that sort of environmental service, and for those people who need extra incentives, we have to admit that our current residential recycling efforts haven't been successful, and find a way to make it financially attractive for people to do the right thing.

Finally, just a response to Thomas's comments on the last blog - sadly, Bylaw Enforcement isn't proactive, they are complaint driven. I agree, I think that when they notice a problem they should take action, even if there hasn't been a complaint. And regular inspection tours would be a way of identifying potential problems before things get out of control. And I've asked about the cameras as well, but as is often the case with my inquiries, I have yet to receive a response from city administration.

"To cherish what remains of the Earth and to foster its renewal is our only legitimate hope of survival." - Wendell Berry

Sunday, August 8, 2010

A Few Midsummer Thoughts

Summertime is a time when City Council activities slow to a crawl. For reasons that I'm not sure of, we only have two real council meetings in summer - one in July, one in August, which will be tomorrow afternoon. It does allow those who take their holidays in summer an easier time to do so without missing meetings. And for those who have cottages, they don't have to bother coming in for meetings.

Andrea and I don't have a cottage, nor are we lake people. Which is odd, now that I think of it, when you consider that we met in the summer, when we worked for a canoe outfitting company in Algonquin Park, living right beside a lake. We prefer to take holidays in the fall - crowds are smaller, and since we usually go to Ontario to visit relatives, the weather is more tolerable and the fall colours are an added attraction. In summer, our favourite relaxation spot is our screened side porch - a great place to relax with a book and a beer, without all the work that goes into having a cottage.

And summer is now on the downward slide, with the usual signs. Days are getting noticeably shorter, and in the early morning there's that slight chill in the air. And the Exhibition is over for another year. Councillor Miller, Councillor Whitehead and I walked together in the parade this year, which was a pleasant way to spend the evening, greeting people and giving out candy. Fortunately it didn't rain, although it looked threatening earlier. Not only was it good exercise, but walking the route brings you closer to people than being in a vehicle, and you have a little more flexibility to pause and chat. It was warm, and we neglected to bring water with us, (add that to the list for next year) but fortunately we were able to replenish our fluid levels afterward, as we socialized in our backyard.

My major renovation project this summer was replacing our bedroom windows - the old, rattling single paned sash windows have been replaced with triple-paned units which I lucked into at the Recycle Store. With the major wind storms that we've had, we've noticed the decrease in rattling, and hopefully the winter time drafts will be a thing of the past as well. I've also ripped out the carpet in the living and dining rooms, and found that the original fir flooring is in not too bad shape. The fun of a century house - never an end to the projects.

Weather-wise, it has been an odd summer, not much heat, lots of rain. Those July wind storms have really done a number on city trees, which is a good reminder to Council that we need to have an ongoing plan for our urban forest, to remove aging trees before they become a threat, and also to replace them with long-lived species that perhaps won't rot out as quickly as a species such as Manitoba maple. And we will also need to look at replacing a number of the green ash which suffered winter kill and have dead and dying tops, particularly in the downtown.

But for these next few weeks, I'll try to concentrate on enjoying the last half of summer.

"Summertime, and the living is easy." - DuBose Hayward

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Discouraging the Misuse of Handicapped Parking Spaces

People who don't have to shouldn't be using handicapped parking spaces. That shouldn't have to be said. I'm not sure why people feel that it's all right to do so - perhaps they think that it does no harm to only use one for a few minutes, perhaps they feel that their right to convenience trumps all others, perhaps they're just thoughtless, perhaps they think that the signs refer to the mentally handicapped.

Andrea's theory is that if you use one of those spaces when you don't need to, you're tempting fate - that if you want to use handicapped parking spaces so badly, the fates will arrange it so that you can, legally.

For whatever reason, the spots that are set aside for those with mobility issues are often used by those who don't, and we're not very good at ticketing offenders when it does happen. And many of the spots that are misused, aren't under the city's control - they're on private property, such as a mall parking lot. With some of those property owners, such as the Co-op and the Forest Centre, we have a contract with them to do parking enforcement. But with others, such as Cornerstone, we don't. And we don't do a particularly good job of enforcing those which are under our control - you're far more likely to get a ticket for an expired meter than for parking in a handicapped zone.

But because we like to be seen as taking action, at council this past Monday we passed a bylaw which will give us the authority to take action on people who choose to park in these spots, even on private property. I don't disagree with the intention (but unlike one council member, I can't confess to having pent-up rage against these people - I tend to pity them instead), but we shouldn't be adding another bylaw that won't be enforceable because we don't have the staff. We can't enforce this on the spots that we're responsible for now, and we've just added several areas to the mix. We have a tendency to pass bylaws that we can't enforce, just to give the illusion that we're attacking the problem. When it comes to bylaws, our eyes are bigger than our stomachs.

Enforcement of this is supposed to be the responsibility of bylaw enforcement, but we haven't added any additional staff to a group which already has a difficult time keeping up with an ever-increasing workload. When I asked about this, I was told that enforcement would be done on a complaint basis. In other words, if you see someone parked in a handicapped zone at Walmart, you're supposed to call bylaw enforcement, and hope that they get there before the offending vehicle is gone. Good luck with that. I might have more faith in improving things if there was going to be a regular spot checking done, as happens with parking meters.

However, I was called by someone on Saturday morning, saying that five police (not bylaw enforcement) vehicles were at Walmart, ticketing vehicles in handicapped spots and fire lanes, and also passing out a couple of tickets to taxis who were picking people up, which I think is carrying things a bit too far. I'm also wondering how much it cost the city having five police vehicles handing out tickets, rather than doing what they're supposed to be doing.

But perhaps having an initial flurry of ticketing will get people's attention, and we'll see less abuse of these spaces. And if nothing else, I hope that the councillor who parked in a handicapped zone at St. Mary's School for the mayoral debate during last year's election campaign now realizes that he shouldn't have done that - educating ourselves is sometimes the most difficult part of change.

"I believe in looking reality straight in the eye and denying it." - Garrison Keillor

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Emergency? Not Really, but It Looks Like We're Doing Something

Last Thursday council had a special meeting, which the local newspaper the next day referred to as an emergency council meeting.

Unlike the last term of council, when special meetings were called almost as often as regular meetings, this term has not featured as many of these special occasions, for which I am grateful. Too often special meetings, which only have to have twenty-four hour public notice, have been used to rush through decisions in a forum which doesn't have as much public exposure as our regular meetings.

Not this one, though - all the media were there, for a meeting which lasted five minutes.

It really was a no-brainer decision - council agreed to apply for the emergency funding which has been announced by the provincial government as being available to help with the various storm-related problems that have plagued the province this spring and summer. Of course, Prince Albert has been relatively lucky compared to others - our worst storm was last Friday evening's rain and wind event, during which hundreds of trees and branches came down. But compared to massive flooding in Maple Creek and Yorkton, or the tornado near Raymore, we've gotten off easy - no homes destroyed or uninhabitable, and a week after the storm, most of the damage has been cleaned up. And the loss of trees, while lamentable, will not be eligible for funding from the province.

But I agree that it's worth the effort to apply. Benefits, if any, wouldn't be to help the city recover its costs in dealing with the storm aftermath - our losses weren't eligible. It would be to help individual homeowners deal with uninsurable damages that fit within the province's criteria.

But was agreeing to this funding such an emergency that we had to have a special meeting? No, that was merely for optics; the resolution could have waited until Monday's regular meeting. Calling a special meeting made us look like we weren't wasting any time, but any relief won't come any more quickly. The actual deadline for applying isn't for several months. I worry that residents might get the idea that by applying for this funding, that somehow the city will have quick access to money. We won't - the decision on whether we get funding will rest entirely with the province, according to the province's timetable.

In fact, this five-minute special meeting cost you money - because it was held at noon, it was felt necessary to bring in lunch. As though members of council couldn't survive a five minute meeting without being fed afterward. I did - I went home for lunch.

"What good is speed if the brain is oozed out on the way?" - St. Jerome

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Defining Success

Like many of you, I hope, I paid my municipal taxes this week - one day early, in fact. And when we retrieved our tax notice from our files, it was still in its envelope, and we still had the full-colour (which is more expensive than black and white) information sheet. Not only does it include good information on where our money is being spent, it also included some questionable propaganda, including the statement that the budget is a success.

I found the use of the word success to be a bit odd in relation to a budget that is still in its early days of implementation. Yes, council has approved a budget, most of which we weren't allowed to see in any detail - perhaps in the eyes of some, keeping council in the dark on how we plan to spend citizens' money is a success. But really, a budget is just a spending plan, in which we try to forecast how much we need to spend on various projects, as well as on regular maintenance work, salaries, and the other usual things that a city has to spend money on. In my mind, the budget can only be judged a success at the end of the year - were our projections on target? Did we manage to save money here and there? Were we able to avoid borrowing money?

I've used the analogy before of your household budget. You set out how much money you have each month, figure out what you have to spend on the various parts of your life, put aside money for emergencies and for major purchases, and that's your budget. If you're sensible, your various spending and saving targets fall within your monthly income. If they don't, you start trimming on the non-essentials, perhaps putting off major purchases for another year, or scaling down on your vacation plans. And then (and this is the hard part) you spend according to the plan that your budget has laid out. That's if you're sensible. If you're not, you make a slapdash attempt at budgeting, miss a few vital expenditures (oops, you forgot to include vet bills for the cat), and have a hard time resisting impulse spending. And your solution when you come up short is to dip into overdraft, the line of credit, or apply for another credit card.

So when the city prepares its budget, one would hope that we start with the basics, identify necessary projects, set aside something for emergencies, and then look to finding efficiencies, because nobody likes to go to the public for more tax dollars without being able to show that your current taxes are giving you good value for your money. One would hope that it would happen that way, but we haven't been preparing budgets following a process like that for the last few years, and this year, the assumption before we started (an assumption that wasn't approved by council, by the way), was that we would spend the way we did last year, plus more.

And that, apparently in the minds of some, is successful budgeting. It gets even more ironic when you consider that, at the last council meeting, we approved adding $20,000 to the budget for additional transit hours, with no plan as to where that money is to come from. One councillor did try to suggest that we take the money from the bridge maintenance budget, claiming that the report for that project that we had been given some time ago was inaccurate, but since we lacked a new report which showed this, his motion wasn't supported.

And then yesterday Andrea asked me why the city was going to borrow $12 million to meet current operating expenditures. She had gone to the city website to check out a press release on why the green ash in the city have large expanses of leafless branches, to see if the city's reason and prognosis for the trees matched hers (as a forester, she notices these things). Anyway, while on the website she wandered about, greatly amused by the press release announcing "Proud to be PA Day", which was apparently last Sunday (oh, did you miss it too? Just another sound bite creation out of city hall that council had nothing to do with), when her eye was caught by public notice of a borrowing bylaw that will be brought forward at the next council meeting on July 12.

The city does borrow money in the short term. Like all borrowed money, it needs to be paid back. And it is usually for individual projects, not for ongoing operating expenditures. That's like putting your groceries on your credit card because you don't have enough money in the bank to pay cash or by debit card. It will get you groceries, but at some point, you'll have to pay the money back, and interest charges will be involved.

I realize that, at this point in the year, not everybody will have paid their taxes. I realize that we need to do some borrowing to ensure that the cheques don't bounce. This $12 million is within the amount of money that we are allowed to borrow, based on the restrictions set out in The Cities Act. That total amount is based on our overall tax revenue, and currently is about $40 million, although we have $20 million in outstanding long term loans. So at least we're not going to completely max out the credit card.

But even though I realize that we are following proper procedures for doing this borrowing, I will be asking how this amount compares to amounts borrowed in years past, what the borrowing costs will be, and how long the projection is for repayment. I will also ask what the alternatives are to short term borrowing, to see if perhaps next year, we can avoid these extra costs.

But wouldn't it be great if our finances were in such good shape that we didn't have to borrow almost one quarter of our budget, and instead had spending reserves of our own that we could borrow from, and then replenish, as taxes come in. Oh, yeah, I forgot, we spent those already.

"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 27, 2010

Budget? We Don't Need No Stinkin' Budget

With apologies to the Treasure of the Sierra Madre, for revising the quote from the bandits who steal from Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston.

But really, what else can you say when some members of council seem to think that the whole budget process is just an unnecessary action that they go through (as quickly as possible), only because The Cities Act says that a city council has to set a budget every year. But they don't want to spend a whole lot of time or effort on it - they would rather just spend tax payers' money whenever they want, on whatever pops into their mind. Why use the budget process to plan and set priorities and limits?

Why am I on another budget rant, when the whole budget process was over months ago?

Because at last week's Executive Committee meeting, it was decided to add $20,000 to the budget, to allow for additional transit costs. It has been decided that the city bus service should start fifteen minutes earlier every day, and end fifteen minutes later. This will add $30,000 to its cost to the city. However, the idea is that, between the increased fare costs, and the increased usage that this extra fifteen minutes on either of end of the service will bring, revenues will go up $10,000, so the actual hit on the budget will be only $20,000. We can only hope that it's that low.

But isn't it a good idea to encourage more use of public transit? Of course it is, although council wasn't shown any studies or surveys that were done showing that there is a great demand for this additional service, any more than there were studies showing that the new transit mall being built on 14th Street behind the old OK Economy building (also currently over budget by a couple of hundred thousand dollars, for which we're hoping the federal government will cough up some more funds) would increase ridership on the buses.

My point is that, worthy cause or not, all proposed expenditures should be brought up as part of the budget process. If we followed the process, then all the various things that we could spend money on could be weighed, both their costs and potential benefits, and as a council we could set a spending plan for the year that wouldn't contain such surprises. There will always be emergencies, of course, and for those, part of the budget process should also set aside a contingency fund. And when you do things as part of the regular process, with the whole thing available to the public for comment and review, then as a council, you are being open and accountable.

Adding another item to the budget at this late date ignores the fact that the budget is the tool used to set the residential tax rate. That rate is set now; in fact, your taxes are due by this Wednesday. That's a big part of our operating money for this year. We can't increase our take from the good citizens of Prince Albert at this point, not this year, anyway.

This particular proposal isn't an emergency. And it isn't just a last minute thought, either. I had heard it mentioned a few times before the budget was prepared, but it wasn't in the budget, nor was it brought up during our mad rush through the approval process. Why it's being raised now I can only speculate on - perhaps it's because it's close to summer, and people won't be paying much attention; or perhaps the promoter of this particular idea doesn't think that he should have to follow the rules, because his ideas are just so darn good.

When it was pointed out that this wasn't in the budget, the response was predictable - "We'll just have to find the money somewhere." Well, if past years are any indication, we rarely underspend on anything - our contingency fund is usually scraped bare in adding to the budgets of various projects which go over-budget for a whole range of reasons. Unlike the days of Neat and Clean, there isn't a large slush fund to be accessed on a whim, either.

So at the end of the year, some projects already planned for will be delayed, others will silently die, and the fiscal reserve fund that at one point, under the leadership of other mayors, had $2.4 million in it, and this year has about $200,000, will be back down to zero, so we'd better pray for no real emergencies. And we will, once again, have failed to provide a good fiscal example to the tax payers, and some members of council will continue to think that this is how you lead a city.

"Unfortunately, you can fool too many of the people too much of the time." - James Thurber

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Information, Please

It should go without saying that the more information that you have, the better decisions you are able to make. One would also hope that this information would be as complete as possible, and be provided with enough time to be reviewed.

Too often, with this council, we're expected to make decisions quickly, without sufficient information. This means, sadly, often decisions that are then regretted later, when the full impact of those decisions is realized too late.

This year's budget discussions were an excellent example of this - insufficient information, which we then had to rush through, for no good reason. And now, we're living with the result. I had another member of council ask me why we spend money replanting ferns in the flower beds around City Hall - this expense might not be required, since ferns are a perennial that spread easily and enthusiastically. But this councillor didn't take the time, or ask questions, about that part of the budget, instead voting to support something without reviewing it thoroughly and asking questions to find out the details of how money is being spent, to note areas such as this where cost savings could have been realized. So when I pointed out that this is just one result of supporting the budget, and the rushed process, the response that I got was "but there wasn't time." Again, a misconception based on taking the information offered by some members of council and adminstration at face value - that the budget has to be passed as quickly as possible. If this councillor had done a bit of research, even just checking to see when other communities pass their budget, or looking over the past ten years to see when our budget bylaw has been passed, such research would have shown that some years, the budget hasn't been passed until late May, with sufficient time for questions and well-researched answers.

And at last week's council meeting we had a couple more examples of rushing to decisions without having all the information. In the first, discussion was raised around the previous week's Executive Committee meeting vote, in which council had approved the removal of a controlled crosswalk at Sixth Avenue West, because the electrical box controlling the crosswalk was blocking motorists sight-lines. In fact, one councillor declared himself giddy at this coming before council, claiming that it was something that he had been working towards for quite some time. However, this week, after realizing that removing the electrical box would mean removal of the cross-walk, we have decided to send this back to administration for another look. Perhaps if we hadn't tried to rush to the solution before reviewing all of the implications of that decision, we wouldn't look as though we were reversing ourselves.

Another example is with the ongoing battle for the parking lot at the Belly-Up Bar. When the requirements for the parking lot were provided by administration, the bar owner did some of his own research, and found out that the requirements were not those for the size of parking lot which is being proposed. As a result, what we thought was a way to move forward has been delayed once again, because incorrect information was provided, for reasons that haven't been explained. If we are going to have more stringent requirements in this case, we have to be sure that all similar situations are being treated in the same way; that's the only way to be seen as being fair. As well, this new information was not provided to us on the Monday morning of council, as the local paper reported, but at the start of the actual meeting, 7 p.m., so that there was absolutely no way of reviewing it before the meeting. As you may have figured out, this is frustrating when one is trying to move ahead with resolving issues.

Sometimes it seems as though accurate, timely information is getting harder and harder to obtain from City Hall. It shouldn't be that way. Everyone involved, from council through all levels of administration, should recognize the importance of getting information out quickly to anyone who is interested enough to ask questions. Those of us to do ask questions shouldn't be treated as though we are nosing about in areas that we have no right to ask about. In fact, it should be the other way around. Those who cheerfully vote on issues without asking any questions ahead of time, or take direction from other members of council without considering the long-term impact of making decisions that way, should be asked why they have given up their responsibility to carry out the job of member of council to the best of their ability.

Information - the more we have, and the more we use it, the better off the city will be.

"The older we grow the greater becomes our wonder at how much ignorance one can contain without bursting one's clothes." - Mark Twain