Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Soccer Centre - Still More Questions than Answers

The first council meeting after a month-long break had some interesting topics. The one with the greatest potential impact on Prince Albert taxpayers was the tabling of the proposed operating budget for the soccer centre. We actually received it at Executive Committee the week before, and the topic has now been postponed until the next council meeting, March 8, because some questions are being raised about the recommendations for moving staff (and programs) from the Margo Fournier Centre to the soccer centre, to save soccer centre operating costs.

I raised a number of questions at council about the proposed operating costs. As most people are well aware, I've had questions about this project from the start, and I've never received timely or complete answers. With the previous council, my repeated requests for soccer committee meeting agendas, supposed to be readily available to the public prior to meetings, were not provided for two years. I also asked for meeting minutes to be provided; even after a year, only incomplete minutes were made available. As recently as this week, I was sent notice of a meeting which said that the agenda and minutes of the previous meeting were attached, but there were no attachments. I don't see how members of council can be expected to make decisions on matters when insufficient information is provided - whether this lack of information is inadvertent or deliberate, I don't know. I see that today's Herald, on the city page, has a number of tenders out for the soccer centre - everything from audio-visual equipment to a synthetic turf groomer - another step in the process that council was not made aware of.

A big question is why has the operating cost number quadrupled since the election campaign? You may recall that this question was asked, then answered, in letters to the editor in the local paper. And when it was answered, the answer was that the number had been made public in June (which wasn't the case - it was in a report delivered at an in camera council meeting), and that the operating costs would be $225,000 annually. Now, four months later, after the centre has been operating for a few months, we have a new number - $1 million annually. That's more than a bit of a change, to say the least.

Of course, we've never received an answer to the question of why that particular location was chosen - land that had to be purchased and serviced, rather than using land already owned by the city, and not so swampy that the initial cost of pilings went seriously over budget. The partial answer given at the time- that the health region would be able to have office space and programs in the building, and thus contribute to operating costs through rental of this space - appears to have been wishful thinking, since there turns out not to be sufficient space for them. When did this become apparent, and why were we not informed?

This is a new council, and we haven't yet been given an update on the project - is it on, over, or under budget? Are donations coming in on schedule, or are there some who won't be able to meet their commitments? I'm thinking that, at the very least, the $50,000 pledged by VL Futures won't be forthcoming.

The utilities costs are projected to be about $100,000 per year. No explanation was included as to where these numbers came from. Considering that the utilities costs for the Rawlinson Centre are $120,000 annually, and that building isn't open from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week, which is the plan for the soccer centre, it seems far too optimistic to project lower utilities costs, particularly when the building was not built to green standards, since this was deemed to be too expensive.

Additional staff will be needed to run this centre. Exactly how many, and what the costs will be, is another factor that isn't clear. It seems safe to assume that a building open for eighteen hours a day, seven days a week (longer than the Margo Fournier Centre) will require staffing for all that time - it shouldn't be that difficult to come up with a believable staffing projection, and the expected costs.

Is moving staff and programs from the Margo Fournier Centre realistic? Were the users of these programs consulted? Were staff? Did anyone consider the impact of removing programs and services from the downtown area on the people who live in the area? This is not an area with a lot of recreational options, and the proposal suggests taking what few there are away.

Projected revenues seem to be overly optimistic. For example, expecting large revenues from the canteen doesn't seem realistic. With the exception of tournaments, I doubt that there will be large crowds of spectators. It will be parents watching their kids practice and play, not people going out for a night of entertainment, such as at the Art Hauser Centre, where people buy season's tickets to watch the Raiders.

I understand that people like to live in a city with nice services - I do get that. But I also think that, before we embark on suggestions that come from a single interest group, we insist on the same due diligence that we would before committing to any city project, including construction, maintenance, and operating costs. I've heard several people say that we can add the soccer centre to other grand facilities that were built with volunteer donations and high hopes, but the result is that the city ends up running them, at a considerable loss, because all the focus was on raising the money for putting up the building, without enough thought given to the long term costs.

In the case of the soccer centre, the city right now is the biggest donor to the project, and we'll be the ones paying the bulk of the costs in the future, to keep the doors open. I think that it's only reasonable to be told, honestly and up front, what these costs are going to be, so that we can see if there are ways to economize. For instance, if the centre was open only half the hours, how much would that reduce the cost? If we chose to charge for parking, would that help? But please, let's restore some semblance of openness to the discussions, and answer any and all questions. At least when we know the answers, we'll be able to come up with a plan to deal with the problems. Without a plan, the unforeseen problems will be biting us in the budget for years to come.

"People will forget how fast you did a job - but they remember how well you did it." - Howard Newton

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Some Thoughts from This Year's SUMA Convention

Sunday through Wednesday last week was the annual SUMA convention, this year held in Regina. I look on these conventions as opportunities for learning, both formal and informal. The sessions labeled education sessions are meant to be exactly that - presentations from experts on various aspects of municipal governance and management. This year's topics included climate change, waste management, budgeting, and bylaws. There's also a keynote speaker, a speech from the Premier, and the opportunity to meet with individual cabinet ministers, and with cabinet as a whole. There's a trade show, so that you can find out about new products that might benefit your community, and social events, both formal (a banquet) and informal (a reception on the first evening, a hospitality night on the second). The banquet and the opening night reception weren't included in the convention cost, so Andrea and I opted out of those, instead sampling a couple of restaurants that were within walking distance of our hotel.

Probably the most informative session that I attended was the one on bylaw development. I had a particular interest in how bylaws could help us deal with boarded up houses, a long-standing problem for which we seem to be having difficulty finding a solution, in fact, I have been told a couple of times that there is no solution. When I asked the question of the experts, I was relieved to find out that other communities have dealt with the problem through development of a nuisance bylaw - the trick, of course, is to enforce the bylaw once it's developed.

The news from the premier that the share of the sales tax will not be increased this year was not a surprise to most of us - it will make budgeting this year even more difficult, and I think that council needs to look at cutting costs, big and small, wherever we can. The news about civic terms being increased to four years after the next election was a bit more of a surprise, since the discussions about that were more than a year ago. Personally, I don't think that the longer commitment will dissuade people from running for council, since most members of council run for multiple terms anyway. My approach to the job is the same in the first year of the term as the last, so I don't buy the argument that the last third of the term is spent campaigning, although I suppose some might approach it that way. But I do agree that the cost savings to the community will be considerable, although our costs also include school board elections, which right now still have the three year term.

Like most things in life, SUMA is something that you can always learn from, if you avail yourself of the opportunity. I do think that it would be more useful if it were more focused on cities - my preference would be to have a separate conference for cities, and another one for towns and villages, since our problems tend to be quite different. But I did enjoy the opportunity to learn some things, to meet up with colleagues from other communities, and to have a couple of evenings out with some of my fellow councillors and their spouses, sharing perspectives, ideas and a great deal of laughter.

"Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning." - Albert Einstein