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