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

Sunday, June 6, 2010

FCM in Toronto

This year's annual meeting of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities was held in Toronto the last week in May. Everyone from the current council attended this, which rarely happens, but perhaps the lure of Canada's biggest city, with all its attractions, was an opportunity too good to be missed. Of course, while it was cold and rainy in Prince Albert, it was extremely hot and humid in Toronto - not my favourite weather, but I shouldn't complain.

About 1,500 delegates, plus civic administrators, plus a fair number of spouses, makes for a huge conference. There are several days of educational sessions, as well as tours of various city facilities and initiatives - a full range of topics from cultural through housing, green initiatives, waste management - it's a long list, and the hardest thing is selecting which sessions and tours will be most beneficial. And of course, there are also social gatherings, which provide the opportunity to network, catch up with old friends, and meet new ones.

I enjoy FCM because it's the chance to learn how other municipalities are trying to deal with their issues. While we may be much smaller, we can still learn from what other cities try, and adapt their initiatives to our own community. For instance, affordable housing is a concern everywhere, and in Toronto, it's quite common to see people living on the street, sleeping near warm air vents, and spending the day moving about with shopping carts full of their possessions. So Toronto spends quite a bit of effort trying to find housing solutions - one example that we were shown was an old hotel that had been converted to men's housing - people are allowed to live there for up to four years, recognizing that for some social problems, there are no quick fixes. But to help them, services are available right on site - things like employment services, addiction counselling and social workers. These services are available to others in the community, not just the residents, but they are closest to those who might have the hardest time accessing them otherwise.

New housing initiatives, such as new developments along the waterfront, are required to include a mixture of housing types, from high-end condo developments through affordable housing, including some Habitat for Humanity homes. Toronto has recognized that all of its residents deserve to have decent, safe places to live, and is doing what it can to make that happen. And it makes a conscious effort to put services and amenities close to where people live, so that they are accessible to the maximum number of users.

Toronto is, of course, of a size that's hard to imagine when you live in Prince Albert. It's population is more than 3 times that of Saskatchewan, but crammed into a relatively small space. Last Sunday, the Toronto Star (yes, the newspaper is out seven days a week), interviewed ten delegates, three of whom were from Saskatchewan, to find out what the best and worst things were about Toronto. Uniformly, people liked the variety of things that you can do there; they also found the number of people and buildings the worst thing.

But despite its size, it's very easy to get around there - it has a first class public transportation system - subways, streetcars and buses, all interlinked. And, because there are so many people around, in the downtown area, day and night, I never feel in danger. That's not to say that there aren't incidents - Councillor Miller and I were sitting on a bench at Nathan Phillips Square after attending a reception at Toronto's City Hall (where, incidentally, her husband Dave got his picture taken with another David Miller, that one the mayor of Toronto), when there was a bit of a scuffle in a group near us. Tour bus drivers who were parked nearby came to help, and then police on bicycles were there very quickly. We're still not sure what happened, but help, and the police, were very close at hand.

For me, a bonus was seeing family that I don't get to see that often due to geography. My sister Laurie and her husband Don drove in from Fergus one evening, and we had supper and a good visit. I had breakfast with Andrea's sister Rhondda one morning (she's a nurse at St. Michael's Hospital, which is right downtown, but lives near Peterborough, about an hour's drive east of the city), and the next day had lunch and some time with her husband Nathan, (who was at a conference at the same hotel as I was staying), and their daughter, my niece Gillian, who was thrilled to tour the FCM trade show with me, and pick up all kinds of goodies. And I had supper one evening with Andrea's sister Fiona, her husband Stu, and Andrea's brother Len, who all live in Toronto. It was good to catch up on family news, and share the usual family jokes.

Although I certainly enjoyed my time in Toronto, it's good to be back. Now we have to figure out how to put whatever we learned there to work.

"Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city." - George Burns