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