Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Job Worth Doing Is Worth Doing Well - Or Maybe Not

The pattern of the previous council of treating the budget process as a sprint, rather than a well-thought through marathon, has sadly continued with the current council. I can see so many opportunities for improvement in the process, that would likely result in an improved product that better served the tax payers of Prince Albert, but there doesn't seem to be much appetite for improvement around the council table, or with city administration.

To begin before the beginning, council as a whole was not asked for input before city staff began developing the budget - no questions about priorities, goals, or objectives. It could be compared to going to a travel agent to plan a vacation, and they develop a complete plan without asking you where you want to go, what sights you're interested in, or how much money you have to spend. The opportunity to do this could have happened in November, at our so-called strategic planning session, but it didn't.

As well, the assumption is made that whatever is currently being spent will continue that way. The option of zero-based budgeting, in which every current expenditure is looked at, evaluated, and justified, might show some areas for cost-savings - are there some city positions that are currently vacant, that perhaps don't need to be filled, for example. If we increased our vehicle maintenance budget, could we perhaps extend their life, and save money in the long run, would be another example. But apparently it's not worth the effort of thorough examination. Expectations that city facilities such as the Rawlinson Centre submit financial reports before the budgeting process are ignored by administration, who instead suggest increases to organizations which don't even bother to report on how they're spending tax payers' dollars.

And some areas of the budget are not provided in any detail. This year, the budget contained no detail about what is included in the mayor's office budget, for example, or in the budget for the city manager's office. And, most egregiously, and for the first time (although the director of finance tried to tell me that we never receive details on this) the police budget was a single line, with no detail about how they propose to spend more than 11 million dollars, more than 30% of the total city budget. And when I asked to see last year's police budget for a comparison, administration refused to provide it to me.

As I have often pointed out, we rush through our review in a ludicrous amount of time. Council members received budget documents last Friday, March 19. The public didn't have access until Monday, and the public meeting about the budget was on Wednesday - less than two days to review almost a thousand pages of numbers - I've been reviewing city budgets for ten years, and it's never been an easy process, since there's always cross-referencing and moving between the capital and the operating budgets, to find out where items are. No wonder there were only three submissions from the public, and the meeting was over in nineteen minutes.

Then council is supposed to meet on the Friday and Saturday to review the budget, which we've had for less than a week. I'm lucky - I don't have a job outside of council. Other councillors with full-time jobs, or who are taking courses, have to work their way through the documents in less time than I have.

Although we set aside two days to review the budget line by line, this is the fourth year that we've only used half that time, and believe me, the documents haven't gotten any thinner. Items are numbered, and the expectation of the chair seems to be that we can review items in blocks of more than 100 or more - it's hard to keep up, to comment on or ask questions about those items that I've highlighted in my review, and comments and questions are not encouraged.

We started the review at 9 a.m.. We broke for lunch at 12:30, went back at 1:30, then carried on until 6 p.m. Any suggestion that we break for the evening, then reconvene in the morning, wasn't brought forward, since the mood of some in the room was getting a bit testy. Taking a break, then meeting again in the morning, as was already scheduled, would have given us a chance to review what we had done, and ask any questions that might have gotten lost in the blur of speeding through the pages.

The next council meeting will be April 12, at which time we will vote to pass or reject the budget. For council, that's less than a month to review, discuss, and approve a document that in essence sets out our priorities, and decides what is done for the city for the next twelve months. Somehow, I feel that we should put more time and effort into the process - as with most things, the result would probably be something that everyone would feel better about.

"Fast is fine, but accuracy is everything." - Wyatt Earp

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Another Landfill Debate

At Executive Committee this week we had our annual discussion on free weeks at the landfill. With previous councils, free landfill week was in the spring, to fit with most people's time for cleaning up the yard. With this council, we've had four, and last year, five, weeks when people could drop off waste free of charge, to encourage a cleaner city.

Every free week results in $10,000 of lost revenue to the city. These weeks are also subject to abuse, as residents from outside the city take advantage of the opportunity to drop their waste off without charge. And when you take advantage of these weeks, particularly on the Friday and Saturday, the line-ups are long.

Every year for the last three years I have asked if there is a different way of providing Prince Albert residents with the same benefit, while not providing the same benefit to non-taxpayers. I have suggested that each resident get a tag, or tags, if we're going to offer this benefit for multiple weeks. That way, you could use your free week when it met your needs, line-ups would be shorter, and we would remove the opportunity for abuse from non-residents. Tags could be included with water bills - if we can include free advertising for a Raiders fund-raising effort, as was done with the last water bill, surely we could include a tag, or perhaps a punch card, to allow free access to the dump.

And every year, the response from some members of council is predictable - we don't need to change, this would be too complicated. At least this year they have recognized the abuse of the current system from non-residents, so a solution has been suggested. This year, your driver's licence will be checked, to ensure that you are a Prince Albert resident. That will help with the line-ups, I'm sure.

I'm not sure why there is so much resistance to trying to improve the system, while still encouraging residents to clean up their yards. And if the real problem that we're trying to solve is the unrelenting garbage that is one of the least attractive characteristics of this city, more free landfill weeks isn't doing anything to change that. I'm at the point now of thinking that, because of the costs in these tight budget times, we should be reducing the free services that we offer to residents, not continuing to offer them just because they're popular. Sometimes our responsibility is to do the right thing, not the popular thing.

This week is budget week. I'm currently forging my way through two extremely thick budget binders that were delivered on Friday afternoon. The public meeting on the budget is Wednesday - apparently the budget is not yet available on the city web-site, which means that expecting the public to be able to comment in any kind of depth on the budget is unfair, to say the least. Then council will have its budget meetings on Friday and Saturday, although last year's budget meeting lasted only half a day - a ridiculously short time to devote to the most important action that council takes all year. As I say every year at this time, I'm not sure why the rush - it's not like prizes are given for finishing first.

"Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future." - John F. Kennedy

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Signs, Signs, Everywhere a Sign

Well, maybe not. A proposal came to council from a local company, asking approval to set up an electronic sign at the Tourism Centre, with the possibility of putting up other signs along other corridors through the city. These signs could be used for advertising, both for companies, but also for community events. Being electronic, they could be updated rapidly. And they had the full support of the people at Tourism, who welcomed the opportunity for a new way of getting the news out about what Prince Albert has to offer.

Interestingly, the initial recommendation, without even discussing possible pros and cons, was to reject the proposal. As always, the reasons cited were interesting, with the phrase "We don't want to be opening up a Pandora's box here" coming from one councillor. You would think from that rather cliched phrase, that this is some kind of new, unproven, possibly dangerous idea, that other communities have rejected. Or that by agreeing to one sign we would be giving blanket approval for these signs to be everywhere. It ignores the fact that these signs are already here, even located at city-owned facilities. For example - there's one at the casino. There's one at SIAST. There's one at Carlton. These signs advertise functions at those facilities. And there's one at the Art Hauser Centre, on city-owned property, although the advertising revenues from that one go to the Raiders, not the city. And the concern raised about third parties being able to advertise on the proposed signs ignores the fact that third parties advertise on the Art Hauser Centre sign, so far without causing any sort of disaster that I'm aware of.

I supported this idea for a number of reasons. An agreement with the sign company would have set out the revenue-sharing options - perhaps some could have gone to the sign company, some to the city, some to Tourism, and some to various city-owned facilities that can't support themselves, like the Rawlinson Centre. This would not be money from the taxpayer, but money from an outside source. I thought that such signs would also be a good opportunity to advertise and perhaps increase usage of city facilities - for example, coming into town you could see what was on at the Rawlinson Centre, and perhaps even if there were seats available for whatever event was on that evening. And such signs I think would be a vast improvement over those ugly portable jobs with flourescent lettering that currently blight Second Avenue West, advertising everything from insurance brokers to fast food to Arts Centre activities to upcoming events at the Rawlinson.

But we didn't even get the chance to discuss the options. No discussion, just fear of getting in too deep. Before we make such decisions, I think that it would be better if we looked at each opportunity as just that, perhaps learning from other cities what measures they have taken to take advantage of new technologies to help their communities, rather than reacting with fear over how trying new things might affect our old ways of doing business.

It's similar to our accepting at face value the recommendation from the Police Commission that we replace police vehicles every two years (which we've done ahead of the actual budgeting process, which will once again limit our options once we get there), before finding out that other Saskatchewan cities have a replacement time of three to five years, perhaps because they have found vehicles that last longer. But we don't take the time to do the research, and it seems that we often end up paying more, or missing out on opportunities, without any good reason for doing so.

"If we keep doing what we're doing, we're going to keep getting what we're getting." - Stephen Covey

Sunday, March 7, 2010

A Bit More Soccer Centre Information

After last week's blog entry about some of my ongoing questions about the soccer centre, imagine my surprise when we were told after Executive Committee that there would be a special meeting of council to update us on the soccer centre project. This meeting happened on Thursday afternoon, out at the centre. For me, it was my first time out there (I wasn't able to attend the tour of facilities given to new councillors at the beginning of the term) - it's bigger than I expected, and still under construction (and over budget - they figure that they're still about $150,000 short for construction costs, which will be met by keeping the levy on taxpayers until 2015 - the original budget of $11.1 million would have had the levy go only until 2011 - the new budget is close to $16.9 million.)

Unfortunately, the questions still outnumber the answers. At this stage of the game, for a project of this size, which is taking a direct hit on everybody's tax bill for its construction, and for which taxpayers will likely continue to for pay the operating costs, this is not being handled in ways that can be considered either open or accountable.

There is still no logical answer on why this location was selected. The entire contingency fund for the project was taken up with dealing with the excessive water on the site - one has to wonder why basic soil testing wasn't required before making the decision. I haven't yet seen the meeting minutes from when the decision was made, but on Thursday, it was suggested that part of the logic was the the First Nations University of Canada might consider building in the area - I have no idea whether any conversations about that had taken place, or whether this is just searching for possible justification after the deed is done. If we were looking for a location close to a post-secondary institution, why wasn't land close to SIAST considered for a site? The city actually owns some land there - perhaps that would have kept costs down a little. There are even two soccer pitches close by - they're having to build new outdoor soccer pitches by the new centre.

At various times we've been told that the Health Region would be able to use the building, that this was part of a partnership for healthier living. Well, we now know that the building as constructed won't accommodate the Health Region - we also now know that part of the recipe for healthier living is to offer at the canteen such healthy alternatives as hot dogs and slushes - the kind of options that school boards are in the process of removing from their cafeterias in the name of healthier eating.

Although it has been suggested that this will be a multi-use facility, the artificial turf being installed is only suitable for soccer. And no showers are being installed in the dressing rooms - apparently soccer players don't need such amenities, although it certainly might make it more attractive for other users (and for friends and families of sweaty soccer players). Exactly who these other users might be isn't clear - there is space on the second floor for weight and cardio rooms, but no budget to pay for equipment for these rooms.

As I've said, I understand that facilities such as these make Prince Albert a better place to live, although this one appears to have a fairly limited focus and potential use. The capital levy for this project (the part that taxpayers will ultimately pay for) has doubled from $4 million to $8 million - that's a hefty price tag to expect the taxpayer to cough up for, if most are unlikely to ever directly benefit. And details about the project continue to be kept as closely guarded secrets - not the right way to handle a project if we truly intend to be open and accountable.

"There is at least one thing more brutal than the truth, and that is the consequence of saying less than the truth." - Ti-Grace Atkinson