Sunday, December 18, 2011

My Reasons for Blogging

Next month will mark my fourth anniversary of blogging. Four years is not a terribly long time, except in the blogosphere. I read somewhere that the average blogger only lasts about three entries, so my 150+ over the last four years isn't too shabby.

This past year, I was approached by both of the local electronic media sites, PA Today and PANow, asking for permission to put access to the blog on their web-sites. PA Today has put in a direct link to the blog; PANow uploads each blog entry to their site, rather than linking. In both cases I agreed, because one of the main reasons why I started blogging was to improve communication about what goes on at city council, from my perspective. The more people that have this available as one of their reading options, the better.

My very first blog entry in January 2008 was titled "Why Blog - Why Now?", which set out my reasons for making this effort. Since there are some newer readers who may not have gone back into the archives, I thought that I'd repeat some of that now, as well as some of the things that I've learned about participating in this particular form of communication.

As I said, my main reason for starting this blog was to improve communication about what goes on at city council. The local media does what it can, but a typical council agenda is hundreds of pages long, and reporters can only fit so much into a few columns of type or a sound bite. Not everyone can watch council meetings on cable, particularly now that meetings start at 5 p.m., when most people are getting home from work or starting supper. I figure that voters deserve to get as much information as they can about the issues that affect them directly.

Now, obviously, I'm not going to go through each agenda item and the resulting discussion verbatim, (it's bad enough to have to live through some of these meetings) but I thought that it might be worthwhile to highlight a topic or two, and present my viewpoint on it, particularly when my viewpoint differs from the majority. And since I'm often seen to be voting against the majority, I think that it's useful to explain to people why I vote the way that I do, to give them a better understanding of the various perspectives on issues. Council is made up of nine individuals, and it's ludicrous to think that we all share the same opinions or values on any issue.

I don't claim to have the only "correct" viewpoint - what goes in this space are my opinions, my viewpoints, and my values. When you vote for someone for city council, you can't expect to agree with that individual on every vote, but I think that you should be able to expect an explanation for why they voted the way that they did.

The blog has turned out to be a good conversation starter - people often come up to me with a comment on something that I've written. Sometimes I've brought something up that has struck a chord with the public. When I wrote that one place we could save costs was to stop providing a meal to councillors and city staff at council meetings, I was surprised to find out that many people didn't realize that this was happening, and they were offended by the idea that they were footing the bill. The result - we no longer get fed at most meetings, which is good. Unfortunately, the same entry suggested that we stop producing custom-made Christmas cards for members of council - that still goes on, although I still don't take these cards when offered.

I think that the blog has also provided a way for people who have never met me in person, to get to know me a little better. Personal stuff does get in here - I sometimes think that it's these personal details about people that help you to realize that we have more in common than might originally be thought.

The main disadvantage to being part of the new electronic media, in my opinion, is the way commenters sometimes take advantage of their anonymity to post comments that are much ruder than they would be to your face, or in public, I hope. People are also free to post things that aren't true, or they may use the opportunity to raise past grudges that have nothing to do with the topic presented. On my own blog, I have some control; on the other sites, less so. I will say that some commenters do try to raise the bar, providing thoughtful debate, but sadly, these are in the minority.

Still, the advantage of providing people with additional information outweighs the minor inconvenience of being a target for somewhat unimaginative name-calling or inaccurate revisionist history. I see part of my responsibility of being on city council as keeping the lines of communication open. Having the blog is just one of many ways of keeping in touch. Agree or disagree, read or ignore - that part is up to you.

I understand that PANow has offered to all members of council the opportunity to provide a column of their views and opinions. I'll be interested to see how many take advantage of this - it would be good to hear the rationale behind some of the decisions of my colleagues. And it's an election year - a good time to put ideas and opinions out for public consumption.

"There's more than one way to look at a problem, and they all may be right." - Norman Schwarzkopf

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Are Our Facilities Making Us House-Poor?

As a city, we've invested in some pretty nice facilities. And we continue to do so, at continually increasing costs.

Our rationale goes something like this - these facilities make Prince Albert a better, more attractive place to live, and thus help attract new residents. New residents equals population growth, which should mean an increased tax base, which should mean that we have more revenue to help pay for these facilities.

There's another line of reasoning that says that we need to have these facilities so that our children will have a place to play a sport, or perform, or learn a craft - you probably remember the refrain of "It's for the children" that was repeatedly chorused during the fund-raising for the Rawlinson Centre, and I certainly remember the horde of youthful soccer players that came to a City Council meeting to bolster the case for our investment in a new indoor soccer facility.

And there are others who will promote the development of new facilities with the idea that such facilities will pay for their own upkeep, because the demand to use such wonderful buildings will be such that the tax-payer won't have to pay anything for keeping the doors open.

I agree that having such facilities is one of the things that makes Prince Albert a good place to live. I agree that the city has to subsidize these facilities to a certain level, to ensure that they remain accessible to all residents. I'm sure that everyone has their own favourite facility which they would favour over others, if cuts were being proposed. A golfer would likely argue for funding to improve the golf course; a voracious reader might protest reduced hours at the library; a pottery person would want continued access to the kilns at the Arts Centre.

None of these individuals is right or wrong - each of these city facilities supports certain valid interests, as do the Art Hauser Centre, the soccer centre, the Rawlinson Centre, the Frank Dunn swimming pool, Little Red River park, and the Rotary Trail. Some city facilities are more accessible to a wider range of the population - all you need is proof of address to get a library card, and you don't need any special equipment to walk along the Rotary Trail. Others are pricier - an evening at the Rawlinson can cost more than $100 for a pair of tickets, and a golf membership is a major financial outlay.

Having such a wealth of facilities has proven to be costly for the city. The Rawlinson Centre, which was promoted as "not going to cost the taxpayer a cent", has actually taken a larger and larger chunk of the budget every year since it was built, and its costs have increased at a rate much higher than inflation. The Art Hauser Centre, although it's been around longer, also requires more and more money each year.

In a sense, we're house-poor when it comes to these facilities. We've underestimated the costs of running, maintaining and repairing them, and the result has been that other, more basic city services, such as road maintenance, have been falling further and further behind. These basic services affect all residents, and are a big factor when assessing the attractiveness of a community.

I think that City Council needs to follow a few standard principles when we're dealing with these facilities. We need to have complete financial reports submitted before we approve a budget item for any facility - we shouldn't bend (or ignore) the rules for anyone. We need to be able to see that the facility is being run as economically as possible, and that basic rules around expenditures are being followed. User fees should be set at levels that reflect the service being provided, and there should also be a fee differentiation between city and non-city residents, because the city resident is already paying for the facility through their taxes.

And the next time that someone comes to us with an idea for a new facility, let's ask a few tough questions before jumping on board. For instance, is the facility a need or a want? Is it just a Cadillac version of what is already available? The Rawlinson Centre is a great facility, but the fact is that it wasn't needed - dance recitals and play performances were going on in other buildings not owned by the city. In fact, the cost of rental has put it out of reach for local theatre groups, who still use school gyms for their performances. Granted, there are more entertainment options available now, but these are not necessities, and the building is dark more evenings than not, so its operational costs aren't being covered. Another question that should be asked - will this facility be accessible to a wide range of residents, or will the cost of getting in make it only available to a fraction of our citizens? We shouldn't be in the business of subsidizing the recreational options of those who can afford to cover the costs themselves.

Like any home buyer, we have to look at the full costs of ownership before we buy what may be more house than we can afford. We make decisions that affect all city residents, and it's not fair to them to keep going back for more and more money, just because we decided that we deserved to have the best of everything, right now.

"A moderate addiction to money may not always be hurtful, but when taken to excess it is nearly always bad for the health." - Clarence Day

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Some Thoughts on a New Pineview Terrace

I attended the meeting on Wednesday evening with the Health Board, and heard the updated financial requirements for a new Pineview Terrace. Not surprisingly, the projected construction costs have increased over the last year, and the Health Board is now proposing that the city's share will be $3 million.

When the new facility was discussed last year, the city's share, not counting the $1.3 million that's supposed to come from the Holy Family Trust Fund, was going to be $1 million, and that's what we committed to. Unfortunately, we didn't put it in our budget, so there is no money set aside at this point.

I suggested last year that we add a specific levy for this purpose to tax bills. Money raised could be kept in reserve until needed. After all, we've had a levy for the soccer centre for the last three years, and that levy will be appearing on your tax bill for the next several years, until 2015, I believe. I think that most taxpayers understand the need (as opposed to a want), of having adequate care facilities for seniors who can no longer live in their own homes. And, as with most things, the sooner that you start saving, the lower the individual payment amounts will be. It's like starting to save for retirement in your twenties rather than in your fifties - it's going to be a much less painful process to come up with the same amount of money.

However, others on council believed that the project wouldn't go ahead quickly, and we wouldn't need to come up with the money until some time in the future. However, the Health Board wants to go ahead now, knowing that costs will only increase in the future, and the need exists now.

I think that the city should commit to a number, and go about the process of raising that money, whether through a levy, or by dedicating the flat tax that was introduced last year to this purpose. There's currently $600,000 from the flat tax that has been set aside for unspecified infrastructure needs - I think that this would qualify as an infrastructure need. If we added that $600,000 to the $1.3 million in the Holy Family Trust Fund, we would only need to find another $1 million. Once we've made and met that commitment, I don't think that it would be fair for the Health Board to keep coming back with higher and higher numbers.

Good facilities for those who can no longer live on their own are essential in every community. At some point, most families face the difficult decision of finding a good home for their parents or grandparents, and City Council needs to remember that these facilities, and their residents, are as much a part of an attractive, healthy community as are athletic and entertainment facilities and their user groups. The difference is that having a good residential facility is a need, not a want, and one needed by those who have already made a lifetime of contributions to a community.

"We put more effort into helping folks reach old age than into helping them enjoy it." - Frank Howard Clark

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Free Access to the Landfill - Is There a Better Option?

For several years, we have had a policy of having a week when residents can take stuff to the landfill for free. This week was in the spring, and the free access was intended to encourage residents to clean up their yards of the material that tends to build up over the winter.

Five years ago, it was decided to provide this free access during five weeks of the year, rather than one. And it started to be sold as a favour that we were giving residents, saving them money. What was never mentioned was that this meant that revenues from the landfill would be reduced. We don't know by how much - foregone revenue was never tracked, but considering the line-ups that could be expected during those weeks, it was probably considerable.

And, for the first three years of this free service, there was no restriction on who could access the landfill, so non-residents were able to use a city-operated facility for free. For the last two years you were supposed to produce a driver's licence to prove residency, but I have my doubts, based on anecdotal evidence, on how strictly that requirement is enforced.

I have certainly taken advantage of the free access, and had the opportunity to wait in line many times. So I thought, what if we provided the free access, but on a basis that might be more convenient for residents, as well as limiting the free access to those who are already paying for the landfill through city sanitation charges? My thought was that, if we provided a number of passes to city residents, then they could use the pass when they needed it - perhaps if a summer windstorm blew down branches in your yard, after you've built a new fence, or in the fall when you're cleaning out your garden. That way, we would avoid the congestion that occurs during the designated weeks, limit the number of times that free access could be taken advantage of (because right now, there's no limit on the number of times that you can drop things off during the free weeks), and ensure that only city residents could take advantage of the opportunity.

With a pass system, we would know exactly how much this opportunity is used by residents, and figure out what it actually costs the city in lost revenue. We could even colour code the passes according to each ward, so we could see in which areas the access is under-utilized, where perhaps a different incentive for yard clean-up would have to be developed.

When I first suggested a pass system a few years ago, city administration was full of reasons why this wouldn't work, and how much it would cost to put such a system into place. I'm not sure why it would cost an arm and a leg to put free passes in with the water bills, since free advertising for the Raiders had been done that way, but this was what we were told.

However, last year, council voted to try out this new system. Imagine our surprise when this spring, free landfill weeks were announced once again, contrary to council's decision. When I asked why, I was given the rather questionable excuse that "they hadn't had time". So the subject came up again at last week's Executive Committee meeting, and is again being discussed.

Of course, any time you provide a free service, it's not really free. In the case of free access, we're reducing the revenue that we get from landfill fees. The hoped-for benefit to the city is the improved appearance of residential areas, encouraged by providing this free access. It's also encouraging residents to do work that otherwise will be done by city staff, when we have to send out extra trucks to pick up the debris in back alleys that is left because it's too big for the bins or dumpsters.

Obviously, I would like to give the pass system a try. I think that it will result in increased revenues from the landfill, since there would no longer be unlimited access during five weeks of the year, and non-residents would no longer be able to take advantage of a loosely enforced check system. And I think that the flexibility for residents of being able to use their pass when it works for them, would be appreciated.

It's unfortunate that we don't know what the level of use has been during the free weeks - then we could make a good comparison on foregone revenues. But I think that we do need to track the usage better, and I think that using a pass system will do that.

" There's no such thing as a free lunch." - Milton Friedman

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Budget Talks Before the Budget - What a Great Idea

On Thursday, council members spent the afternoon with city staff for some early talks about the budget. This is the first time in several years that we've talked about what some city services actually cost, and it was good to see more detailed numbers than we've had in the past. I appreciate the effort that staff put into developing this year's budget binders - it's good to have the additional information, and I know that some of the details were eye-opening for some of the newer members of council.

Having this information available led to the most open budget discussion that I can recall with the current council, and as I've said in the past, the more ideas that are put on the table, the better direction we are able to give city staff, and the better decisions we'll be able to make.

For some services, we were given costs going back a few years, for others, it was just last year's cost, with the projected cost for this year. Having costs going back a few years shows, for example, that our spending on floral decorations has more than doubled, to $38,000, over the last five years. If that kind of detail had been available for last year's budget talks, perhaps we could have identified that we would rather have put the money towards another, less optional, service.

Interestingly, costs for some of the more basic services, such as paving, haven't increased over the past few years. The result is that the gap between what needs to be done and what is actually done is increasing - and roads don't improve with age. This is what has put us into an infrastructure deficit.

And despite all the new construction, both residential and commercial, that has been happening, it was surprising to find out that our tax revenues haven't increased, because assessment decisions have been reversed through appeals processes.

City staff have projected that to maintain the current level of services, a tax increase of 5.5% would be required. This increase takes into account projected increases in staff costs, but doesn't include likely increases for capital and other expenses, such as fuel and utility costs. And as we all know, those costs go up, not down. And remember, the current level of some services is not enough to keep up with the work that should be done; it's just putting us further behind in keeping things functional. I'm sure we all remember what an unpleasant surprise resulted from deferring bridge maintenance work.

I was glad to hear from staff that they have been considering other ways of funding city operations besides tax revenues, such as looking at increasing costs to those who actually use the facilities. For example, those who use the soccer centre should have to pay for maintaining its parking lot. This is a good direction to go in, and I would go further, such as requiring that non-city residents pay higher user fees.

I think that we should also look at the total cost of running city buildings. Did you know that the only city building that pays for its water use is the library? Other buildings - City Hall, the Rawlinson Centre, the golf course, the soccer centre - don't even have water meters. This means that you, as a city resident, subsidize the water used in these buildings. Wouldn't it be a more fair approach if those who use those buildings had to pay for their share of the water? It also might lead to better water conservation initiatives. Perhaps the new water meters that we've decided to pay $86,000 for could be put into existing city buildings, so we can start to get a handle on the real costs.

As I said, this was the most open and informative budget-related meeting that we've had in several years. It revealed some problems, certainly, but only by getting a fuller picture of the actual situation can we develop solutions to these problems.

The meeting was also open to the media, which was a positive thing. I would have taken it further, and made it open to the public, since budget discussions affect the public most directly. It also would have been better if we had been given details on some significant areas of spending - we were given no details on police, fire, sanitation or water costs.

But it was certainly an improvement, and for those members of council who spent the whole afternoon there, it was well worth the time.

"A budget tells us what we can't afford, but it doesn't keep us from buying it." - William Feather

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Communication - It Needs to be a Two-Way Street

One of the topics brought forward at last week's Executive Committee meeting was a request to approve in principle a new communication strategy. I'm not sure where the impetus for this came from - the need for a new strategy has not been discussed or requested by council. Two of the proposed elements particularly caught my eye - the professed need for a new city logo, and the suggestion that we purchase a flat screen TV, to be mounted outside the city clerk's office, where various updates could be shown.

I find that somewhat ironic - I've often described this council's approach to budgeting as being similar to someone who buys a flat screen TV before fixing the holes in the roof, and now city administration is proposing that we do exactly that.

Now. don't get me wrong - I think that more communication from city council is a good thing. That's one of the reasons that I started this blog - to let city residents, particularly those in Ward Three, know my thoughts on various decisions and dilemmas facing the city. But a lot of what I communicate about is based on questions and comments that I've heard from residents, what is important to them.

That's the essence of communication - it's the act of conveying meaningful information. It requires both a sender and a recipient, and there should be some effort made by the sender to provide information that the recipient wants. I find that what is considered communication by some members of council is more like advertising, which is a form of communication, true, but a form that is used to persuade an audience - in other words, we tend to tell you what we want you to hear, but we may avoid telling you what you're actually interested in. It's like the flyers that come with the newspaper - those that we look at are those for stores we actually shop in, the rest go directly to recycling.

I haven't heard anyone ask for a new city logo. I haven't heard anyone say that they're interested in going up to the second floor of City Hall to look at a new flat screen TV (bought with their tax dollars) to see the latest council meeting schedule.

What I have heard repeatedly are questions like where are the Rawlinson Centre financial reports, or what are the actual operating costs for the soccer centre, or what are the options and costs for repairing the bridge, or what can be done about all the needles on the streets.

Instead of answering these questions, we seem to think that if we only tell people how wonderful Prince Albert is, they won't care about the ongoing problems that are a part of living in any city. If we tell people often enough that Prince Albert is beautiful, maybe they'll ignore unpaved streets, lead water service connections, or boarded up buildings.

Most people aren't stupid. They know that Prince Albert, while a good place to live, is not Utopia. The people that I talk to would rather have the whole picture, including the problems, and then they would really like to hear what our plans are for solving the problems. They know that money is tight, and the vast majority of them would prefer that we spend their tax dollars solving the real problems, rather on new signs, or banners, or weekly infomercials on the local radio station, where the same artificial sunshine is pumped out over and over.

I say let's start improving our communication by answering the questions that are being asked.

"Any problem, big or small...always seems to start with bad communication. Someone isn't listening." - Emma Thompson

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Remote Water Meters - Our Latest New Thing

At the Council meeting this week, council voted that the city purchase 250 new water meters, at a cost of $86,000. This was done, despite this cost being $20,000 more than was in the budget, and despite there being several unanswered questions as to the need for this purchase at this time.

These meters will be able to be read remotely, from a vehicle passing by, and thus the reasoning given was that labour costs will be reduced.

So now, the city will have three types of water meters. There's the old-fashioned kind, where the reading has to be made at the meter, written down, and submitted. There's a newer kind, which has the option of being read manually, but it can also be wired to the outside of the house to a pin pad, and thus be read by touching the reading device to the pin, so that access to the inside of the house or business is not required. Less than 50% of the meters currently in the city have this capability. And now there's this newest acquisition.

Now, it doesn't take any stretch of logical thought to figure out that 250 meters isn't very many in a city of this size. Upon being questioned, city administration admitted that these meters will be used in new houses. In other words, we're buying these meters to sit on the shelf for a while.

To me, if the reason was really that we want to reduce labour costs, then we should look at what we currently have, and see if there's a way of reducing the costs of reading those meters. For example, was any thought given to wiring all of the second type of meter so that it could be read from outside the house? I'm thinking that you could hire a summer student to do this for a lot less than $86,000, and the result would be that way more than 250 water meters could then be read more easily. Not as exciting as being read remotely, but remember, those meters aren't going to be read for awhile anyway, and I can't believe that the eventual savings from reading 250 meters will be noticeable at budget time.

I'm also surprised that more of the details of our metering system aren't readily available. For example, when I asked how many residences or businesses had the second type of meter, the best that administration could give me was the "less than 50%" number. I find it hard to believe that we set out to solve problems without having as much information as possible available.

I'm also disappointed, once again, in other members of council who seem to feel that if administration proposes something, then we need to agree to it, without asking questions. Unfortunately, administration hasn't been elected to represent the needs of the residents of the city, members of council have. For instance, I've asked why it isn't possible for water billing to be done monthly, as is done for other utilities, as many residents have mentioned that this would make their financial lives easier. The response is usually a vague questioning look, without a good response.

Council needs to collectively give itself a shake, remember why we're there (and no, acting as an automatic rubber stamp was nowhere in our oath of office), and start asking the tough questions, especially before approving expenditures that aren't necessary, and are outside the approved budget.

"He who joyfully marches in rank and file has ... been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would suffice." - Albert Einstein

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Communication (or Lack of Same)

Once again, I've had to neglect the blog for personal reasons. Andrea had to have major surgery in Saskatoon in September, which has disrupted our lives somewhat, and kept me busier than usual. She's home now, and starting to feel more like herself, although she still has a ways to go.

In the meantime, certainly the status of the bridge is the question that I'm still asked most often. There's no question that the slowing of traffic, and the weight limits, have caused problems both for city residents and those just trying to get through.

And of course, it's renewed discussion about the need for a second bridge. It's unfortunate that, throughout this whole process, going back to the initial report more than three years ago, most of us on council are still being kept in the dark on the details of the situation. I don't understand why those who receive the information feel that it should be released in dribs and drabs, and often to the general public before council.

That original report, of course, had been shared with RM councils well before we got to have a look at it, and that was only after making repeated requests. Just think of where we might have been in the construction of a new bridge if it had been brought to council for discussion and endorsement when it was first released. We might actually be on the priority list for the province, rather than now working just to quantify why we should be on the list.

And then came the fortunate observance by a canoeist who alerted both the city and the province to the state of the current bridge. Again, aside from being invited to a press conference on August 30, we weren't kept informed.

For example, there was a meeting with Highways set for September 22. At the council meeting that week, we weren't even informed that this meeting would be happening. One councillor heard the mayor talking about it on the radio the day after the council meeting, and asked when and where it was, since that councillor thought it would be worth attending. The response was that only the mayor and the city manager were invited to the meeting. Then, when it was found out that RM councillors would be attending, we were then told (the day before the meeting) that we could attend. So I attended, as did two other councillors, where Highways officials told us of the rationale that would be needed to justify a second bridge. Big secret, right? And while this is important in the context of the second bridge discussions, it didn't provide any further clarification on what could be done to alleviate the current situation.

When I raised the issue of not being kept informed, one councillor commented that he felt quite informed, since he had heard stuff on the radio. I'm sorry, but I think that members of council should not have to rely on the media to know what's going on at City Hall - that is, if we're trying to make decisions based on the best possible information, not on a twenty second sound bite.

Council has also delegated the authority for decision-making on the bridge repairs to the city manager, saying that in such an emergency situation, decisions shouldn't be slowed by the democratic process. I don't agree with this. While the situation is serious, so far there has been no indication that waiting the 24 hours required to call a council meeting to ratify a decision would have slowed anything down. I find it somewhat ironic that members of council who love to micromanage such things as banner design, street naming and where city crews should be working are quite happy to hand over million dollar decisions to someone who hasn't been elected. Of course, this isn't the first time that we've delegated such authority - we did it for the construction of the field house a couple of years ago.

In any case, when concerns were voiced about this delegation, the city manager promised weekly updates, which have been happening. The second week of October we were sent a copy of the Emergency Repair Agreement with Highways, which limits the province's share of costs to $1 million (although there is the possibility of revisiting this number once detailed cost estimates are available), as well as a report on the work that needs to be done to repair the crack in the girder. This past Friday we received another update on the work.

I appreciate these regular updates, but so far, we haven't been informed of what the costs are likely to be. I'd be happy with a ballpark figure for now, but aside from the two reports and the contract, that's all that I've been given.

Again, if communications were more open and transparent, we could make better decisions, councillors would feel less frustration and we'd be able to respond better to questions from the public. After all, whether it's money coming from the city or the province, we're just taking it from different pockets on the same pair of pants.

"What we've got here is a failure to communicate." - Cool Hand Luke

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Bridge Debacle

Thank goodness for sharp-eyed canoeists. If a local resident hadn't been canoeing under the Diefenbaker Bridge last weekend, and looked up to see a crack in the girder, who knows when it might have been discovered. The bridge is not inspected annually, and I understand that Highways and Infrastructure is behind in their schedule of bridge inspections. Since the bridge is within city limits, it is likely to be considered a city responsibility, even though many of its users, especially on a long weekend like this one, aren't city residents.

Predictably, the most common cry that has come out is the need for a second bridge. While I'm not denying that need, we also need to take care of the current bridge, otherwise the same scenario will play out again, even after a second bridge is built.

Six or seven years ago, when the bridge was resurfaced, it was identified that the steel structure under the bridge needed to be maintained regularly. The recommendation was that the supporting structure should be sandblasted, inspected, and painted, with an estimated price tag of $2 million. Part of the reason for the high cost is that tarps would have to be put up underneath the bridge, to prevent materials from falling into the river.

This work hasn't been done. It's been identified in city budgets, but both the last council, and the current council, have deferred this work. Other bridges in the city, such as the Central Avenue and Sixth Avenue viaducts, also require maintenance work that has been postponed. When we put our priorities on other projects, both large and small (and I'll leave you to pick out your favourite example of non-essential spending by city council), it shouldn't be a surprise when basic structures start to show serious signs of damage.

We also could have sustained the city's fiscal stabilization fund, which would be able to provide the money to take care of this sort of emergency action. Six years ago there was $2 million in this fund; it has since been depleted for various projects, although this year's budget, for the first time in five years, put $200,000 back. Not much, when we start talking about unscheduled bridge repairs.

However, this has definitely put the bridge report back on to council's radar. Completed in 2008, it was reviewed at that time by the mayor and one councillor, one city staff member, and RM councils, as well as the Ministry of Highways. No report was made to council at that time. Apparently, the original report just showed a bridge outside city limits; the report was then modified to show an option of having a bridge inside the city.

In 2010, a public meeting was held at City Hall, at which the route options were presented. The report itself didn't come to council until this year, when I made a motion in January to bring the report to council for discussion. I thought that, with the twinning of Highway 11, as well as various discussions about annexation of lands south of the city, we should endorse a route option, and we could then consider this route option as part of a coordinated planning approach. When the report was brought forward, it was set aside as a topic for a strategic planning meeting of council, but no bridge discussions have happened yet.

But effectively closing half the bridge has apparently proved to be the incentive to starting serious discussions with Highways about a new bridge. I was rather amused to read in the media that the city now supports a bridge outside city limits (although it's never been discussed at council), which means that the province will pick up the tab. To me that's been the sensible option all along, and we could have made that decision three years ago, when the report was first issued, instead of not talking about it at all.

And perhaps this demonstration of why it's important to spend money preventatively will help in future budget discussions. I know that there aren't nearly the photo ops attached with doing regular maintenance as with opening new facilities, but just as with your car, regular maintenance can save money, and structures, in the long run. Not to mention insanely long line-ups on a long weekend.

"For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail." - old nursery rhyme, supposedly based on Richard III's loss in Bosworth Field)

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Failing to Plan is Planning to Fail

As has become the pattern for the last few years, summer time is an extremely quiet time for Prince Albert City Council. Only two scheduled council meetings, and two executive meetings, one in July, one in August, although there was a special council meeting last Monday, for no apparently urgent reason.

While the reason for this slowdown has never been discussed (neither has the meeting schedule, which is set in December for the following year), I'm sure it's because some people like having the summer off. Doesn't work for me, particularly, since we prefer to take holidays in the fall, but for those who own cottages, I suppose that it makes sense.

However, if you look about, other city councils use this time to actually plan for the future. Yes, they hold scheduled, public meetings, that aren't regular council meetings, but are used to discuss how their upcoming budgets should be developed.

You may have noticed that Saskatoon City Council has had several meetings over the summer, reviewing in detail how they spend their money, and where current spending could be trimmed. They've talked about everything from reducing the number of times that garbage has been picked up, to how much they spend on putting up Christmas decorations.

Of course, to do this, they have to have a detailed city budget. Rather than dismissing this as more detail than they want to be bothered with (something some of my fellow councillors have professed), they see having the details as being an invaluable tool in decision-making. While so far they have found little to trim, they are looking, and the public can see, and comment, on some of the potential cuts. And they're doing it far in advance of the actual budget development, so that administration can take direction from their decisions.

That seems to me to be far preferable to being handed a document without much detail, then spending a single day going through said document without time for discussion or comment. In our city's budget process, it's more of an all or nothing decision - either we approve the entire budget, or we vote against it - we have neither the time, nor the detail, to make detailed decisions.

When I was in Ontario in July, the same sort of thing was going on in Toronto's City Hall. While I don't agree with much of what Toronto Mayor Rob Ford says, I do have to give him a great deal of credit for looking to make drastic spending cuts before raising taxes, and for making decisions in the open, even having one meeting where members of the public could make presentations. So many people wanted to speak that the meeting went on until the early hours of the morning. Now there's a council that takes being open and accountable seriously.

That's what I don't get about how this council operates - we don't seem to be willing to spend the time reviewing how we do things, or thinking about whether we're spending money wisely, or looking at ways of spending less, whether through reducing services or just working smarter. Being on council shouldn't be about cutting ribbons, or making speeches at various public functions - it should be about thinking about what we want for our city, having open and civil discussions about all the options, and then putting the structures in place to allow the future that we want to happen. When we don't do that, when we leave the detailed discussion up to administration, we're not doing our jobs, and we're leaving the future of the city to people who haven't been elected to do that job.

"If you don't know where you're going, you'll probably end up somewhere else." - Yogi Berra

Sunday, August 14, 2011

What Happens When Council Says No

First, an explanation for my absence from this blog for the past few weeks. In June, my mother was diagnosed with stomach cancer. The prognosis wasn't good, and in early July, we were told that she had only four to six weeks left. I left for southwestern Ontario after the July council meeting, and was able to spend a bit of time with her before she slipped into a coma, and then, a few days later, passed away, several weeks earlier than predicted. Not an easy time for any of us, and I appreciate the many calls and cards of support and condolence that I've received.

I returned in time for last week's council meeting, at which council said no to administration's proposed increase to water rates - a proposed increase that would be on top of the seven-year compounding increase that was put onto residential water users only a few years ago, which was supposed to take care of funding water-related infrastructure. We weren't provided with any explanation from administration as to why the current increases aren't enough, only that the tax payer is expected to pay, once again.

And according to an article in Friday's Daily Herald, some staff just aren't sure how they should proceed at this point, although they do seem to have grasped the concept that perhaps cutting expenditures is a good place to start. Unfortunately, it appears that they can only think of cutting essentials, and they haven't stepped outside their usual box to see if there are other places that revenues could be realized.

There is the potential for something positive to come out of this, of course. If administration realizes that this sort of thinking should happen before the budget is prepared, not halfway through the year, perhaps the next budget process will be better. If they realize that starting from status quo, and just adding whatever increases are needed or wanted, is the lazy way of budgeting, rather than examining how we spend tax payers' money at every step of the process, that would certainly be an improvement. And perhaps they'll put a little more effort into providing a budget with details that members of council can actually examine, and decide what are unnecessary frills (say, putting in a sprinkler system at the soccer centre that wasn't part of the budget), so that the money is there when needed to, as was quoted, "replace the shingles on the roof", because the money hasn't been frittered away on a metaphorical big screen TV.

And I'll even give them some places that they could start to find money in the existing budget, and a couple of places that they could go besides tax payers' pockets to find more money, just to help kick-start their thinking.

Let's start with unnecessary expenditures - let's cut the $35,000 that goes to floral decorations. Personally, I don't think that those pots of petunias in Memorial Square are particularly aesthetic, nor do I think that they attract anyone downtown. In fact, the downtown merchants who have chosen to have flowers outside their businesses are going about it the right way - those arrangements fit better with the environment, are well-maintained, and don't cost the tax payer a cent. The beds at City Hall? How about asking the Horticultural Society to take them on, and provide them with access to water connections? In Andrea's home town of North Bay, that's exactly how the city handles the extensive flower beds along the waterfront that was reclaimed from old rail yards over the last twenty-five years. Andrea's mother used to be one of the volunteer gardeners, who were divided into small groups of six, each group responsible for a bed. And the truly neat thing about using these gardeners was that they populated the flower beds with cuttings and transplants from their own gardens, so there was very little outlay required for plants. I'm sure that you can still see Andrea's mother's rudbeckia blooming away every summer.

Other unnecessary costs? Let's see if the mayor and city manager can get by with sharing one administrative assistant, as previous mayors and city managers did, rather than each of them having two. Let's have a serious look at city staffing, and before any vacant position is filled, make sure that the work can't be handled by someone already there.

Let's look at better coordinating the work that is done, so that we no longer have roads dug up, then filled in because the pipes that were supposed to be put in weren't available. That's just poor planning, and there's really no excuse for that kind of sloppiness.

Let's eliminate Christmas cards for council members, and get rid of the idea that there should be a stash of gifts in the mayor's office for him to hand out to visitors. These sorts of frills can't be justified in any way. Let's stop having bottled water available for staff - city drinking water is safe, and if staff want bottled water, let them buy it themselves.

There's a few ideas for cost-cutting - what about bringing in more revenues from new sources? Well, that compounding increase from a few years back was only put on residential users. How about we apply that increase to commercial users? Not only am I pretty sure that a car wash uses more water than a fixed income senior trying to stay in their own home, I'm also sure that the car wash can pass on any increased cost to their customers.

And what about city facilities that get to use water freely, like the golf course or soccer centre. How about we figure out what their share of the cost is for maintaining the water infrastructure, and start charging the users of those facilities the true cost of having green grass.

And proposed improvements like paving the Art Hauser parking lot? How about putting a small surcharge on each ticket, putting that surcharge into an improvements fund, and then using that fund for such projects. To me it makes more sense to make the users of facilities pay for their improvements, rather than all tax payers.

So, there's a few ideas for administration to look at. I hope that whatever report we get from them shows that they're trying to look at things differently. Unfortunately, I fear that what will happen is that we will get the same thing back, similar to what happened when we asked for improvements to the budget. But a new vote will be called for, and a few of the more flexible members of council will have changed their minds, and their votes. And once again, the tax payer will be footing the bill for the collective laziness at City Hall.

"Thrift comes too late when you find it at the bottom of your purse." - Seneca

Sunday, July 10, 2011

A Few Questions About the Proposed New Water Rates

If there's one thing this council and its immediate predecessor know how to do, it's raising your water rates. It seems to be an almost annual exercise - four times in the last five years. The last time was about a year ago, maybe less, and apparently the calculations at that time were out of whack, so we're back to hit up city residents again.

A few questions that I'll be asking at council tomorrow afternoon:

Why do city residents have to pay more for 100 cubic feet of water than someone who lives outside the city? A city resident will be paying $2.89 for every 100 cubic feet, someone outside the city will pay $2.62 for the same volume of water. A city resident's increase is $0.47 for that volume, the rural resident's increase is $0.34. The rationale in the report is that the rural resident shouldn't have to pay for some operating costs - valve maintenance, fire hydrant maintenance, water crane, meter reading, meter maintenance and water service connection maintenance. To me, we are providing a service to rural residents that would be much costlier to them if they had to operate their own system - having them pay the same rate as city residents would recognize that they're saving money by not having to develop their own system. In that way, the city rate would be lower, the non-resident rate would be higher, but both rates would be lower than the current proposed city rate.

Last year's bylaw set capital fixed service charges for three years. Since the truly costly issues happen on the capital side of things, why can these rates be set for three years, but not the consumption rates?

Administratively, why can't water be billed monthly, like power and energy rates? It would make budgeting much easier for most people, especially now that rates are leaping at 7% each year for residential users (this change was set two years ago, and will continue for another 5 years, although it's hard to keep track, since the changes to the system appear to be continual). I'm half expecting administration to tell me that to do this would cost $85,000 - that seems to be their standard estimate for making any kind of administrative change that might help make citizens' lives easier, like providing passes for free access to the dump, instead of having free weeks.

And finally, what genius suggested that a good spin to put on this would be to tell residents that we're helping them save money by doing this? It's insulting to people - we're suggesting that they all have wasteful water habits, and we're ignoring the fact that water is a necessity of life, and we are increasing its cost. If we were really concerned about reducing consumption, we would provide rebates to people for purchasing water saving shower heads, or low or dual flush toilets. But we're not interested in that, we're interested in getting more money from tax-payers, but in a way that doesn't have to be labeled as a tax increase. We ignore that we're just picking a different pocket on the same pair of pants.

Wouldn't it be nice if, instead of just going back to the same well (sorry for the water-related pun), we tried different ways of raising money instead. This council doesn't give much thought to generating revenues, whether it's through charging adequate direct user fees for city facilities, or doing things like selling advertising on city buses. Our approach is unimaginative and unsustainable, and the people of Prince Albert deserve better.

"In an ocean or in a glass, cool water is such a gas." - The Beach Boys

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Demonstrating Respect - or the Lack of It

You may have caught the story in Monday's Daily Herald about the annual Gay Pride Parade, which was on the previous Saturday. Unfortunately, the focus on the story was that, despite having been invited, nobody from City Council was present to deliver greetings on behalf of the city, and the security staff that had been promised weren't there, so the flag could not be raised.

I got a call from the Herald on Sunday afternoon, asking how this happened. I'm not sure why I was called; perhaps it was because at the previous three parades, I had been asked to represent the city, since the mayor wasn't available, nor was whoever the deputy mayor was at the time. With this mayor, all requests for a member of council to attend an event are funneled through the mayor's office, and he decides who will represent the city. The rest of us usually aren't even informed as to what events are happening. But this year, I didn't receive an email, or phone call, or anything. In fact, it was only the day before that Andrea told me that she had seen a public service announcement that the parade was the next day, but she wasn't sure what time, and she wondered who from the city would be there, since I hadn't been asked, and it hasn't been the sort of event that other members of council rush to be at.

It was bad enough that nobody representing the city bothered to show up, or sent their regrets, but the security that had been promised and paid for wasn't there either.

In my mind, this is totally disrespectful. It's easy to sign a proclamation declaring Gay Pride Week, but a proclamation means nothing if the only public event celebrating this is not supported, and worse if commitments were made and not kept. And, of course, the final disrespectful action was to not apologize for the non-appearance - it wasn't even mentioned at Monday's council meeting.

I realize that the whole gay issue is a sensitive one for some people, but as members of council, we have to remember that we are elected to represent all of our constituents, not just the ones that we feel match our values. And as council, we set an example for the rest of the city. This was the fourth annual Gay Pride Parade - none of the others had caused any problems. It's just a relatively small group of people who believe that gays and lesbians need to be supported in their ongoing attempts to overcome long-standing discriminatory actions from society - a brief parade, a few speeches, the raising of a flag - that's it. But I know that for the participants, it's an important and meaningful ceremony, one which indicates that the city, among others, supports their efforts to be free to be as they are, without fear of recrimination, discrimination, and worse.

I'm not going to say that I know gay people and they're all fabulous. Like any group, they are widely divergent in their interests, their activities, their personalities. But they do tend to be a group that some people feel are an acceptable target for discrimination.

At the first Parade, I spoke about how, a few centuries back, left-handed people were considered dangerous, working on the side of evil, and we still have the adjectives sinister and gauche as hangovers of that now out-moded discrimination. And lefties still have a harder time of it - our son is left-handed, and Andrea still remembers his joy when she got him a pair of lefty scissors when he was about three - finally, he could cut paper. So he is part of a minority - thank goodness, nobody ever suggested that he could be trained out of it, or that this was some sort of choice that he made. And I look forward to the day when being gay is considered the same sort of thing - something that is just as much a part of an individual as their hair colour, or handed-ness, or height, but not something that is considered an acceptable reason to make fun of someone, or beat them up, or that they should be ashamed of.

And I'm afraid that not showing up for the flag-raising ceremony demonstrates that for some members of council, the gay community is less deserving of respect than other groups. It isn't. In one way or another, each of us is part of a minority - whether it be age, race, gender, handicapped - the list is endless. When we allow others to be discriminated against, we increase the likelihood that at some point, we will suffer as well.

"Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me." - Martin Niemoller

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Take Aways from FCM

The first weekend in June, plus the days on either side, was the annual meeting of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities - a good chance to meet a wide range of city councillors and mayors from across the country and find out how they deal with issues that are common to all of us. There are also educational sessions that provide more in-depth opportunities to find out how other communities operate, and see some innovative solutions.

This year's FCM was in Halifax. A number of tours of various features of the city are also part of the conference package, and it was interesting to see how Halifax takes advantage of its natural features, and is dealing with some of the devastation that events like Hurricane Juan have caused.

So, what did I take away from Halifax? It's a city blessed with many natural features, and it has focused on ensuring that these features are accessible, clean, and safe for everyone to use. Along the harbour there is a new, well-maintained boardwalk which extends from the naval yards to past Pier 21, the museum dedicated to the history of immigrants who landed there. Along the boardwalk are numerous informational signs, which discuss the various points of interest, as well as various vendors, restaurants, and buskers. In the downtown area there is the large Public Gardens, and at the far end of the harbour, Pleasant Point Park, with lots of walking trails. All of these areas are well-used by the people of Halifax, of all ages, whether jogging along the boardwalk, playing Frisbee, or just sitting in the sun. It wasn't uncommon to see women walking, jogging, or just sitting, alone. And each area featured clean, accessible public washrooms.I couldn't help but be struck by the comparison with our riverbank - yes, we have the Rotary Trail, but it isn't lighted, we have no public washroom facilities to make it more user-friendly, and I think that a significant portion of city residents would consider it not safe to walk on alone, at any time of day.

Halifax also has an extremely efficient and well-utilized public transit system. In fact, the waitress at one restaurant said that she knew many people who had given up their cars, because it was so easy just to use public transit, including a passenger ferry that runs between Halifax and Dartmouth, which are now both part of the Regional Municipality of Halifax. One interesting fact - they have found it more cost-effective to lease their bus tires, rather than purchasing them.

I found Halifax to be very clean, with lots of well-designed garbage receptacles - in some cases, bolted a few feet off the ground to light standards, with a plastic internal bin that would be light enough to empty easily, but a bit too high for easy vandalism. Other garbage receptacles, particularly along the harbour, had different sections so that recyclable material, including compostable items, could be separated - a good way of saving space in a landfill.

We did notice far more pan-handlers than in other cities that we've visited, and much of the downtown features empty storefronts and vacant lots, but it struck me as a city that has done a great job in maintaining its considerable historic heritage, while adapting to modern requirements like increased traffic levels, by such things as a network of one way streets to speed traffic flow.

As we have done in the past, Andrea and I took the opportunity to stay on in Halifax for a few days after the conference, and did a bit of touring around Nova Scotia. We had last visited there in 1993, when Andrea had a conference in Halifax, and we found that some things had changed. In 1993, there was one winery in Lunenburg, featuring wines made from blueberries. Now there are seventeen grape wineries all over the province- we visited one of the newer ones - and a whole new area of tourism is developing. We also visited the Joggins fossil cliffs - a UNESCO world heritage site on the Bay of Fundy - where we were free to wander the rocky beach, and saw lots of petrified wood and other plant fossils.

The week after FCM provided a good lesson for all civic politicians, and I'm sorry that it didn't happen until after the other members of council had left. An auditor's report was released on something known as "Cash for Concerts", which was a report investigating a series of concerts that had been held in a public park near the Citadel a few years earlier. Apparently, in the interest of ensuring that these major concerts took place, the mayor of Halifax authorized cash advances to the promoter of these events, without informing the rest of council or following city policies. The result was that more than $300,000 of this money was not repaid by the promoter, leaving the citizens of Halifax on the hook. Apparently, the glory of hosting concerts featuring performers such as Paul McCartney and The Black-Eyed Peas was enough to convince a few people in control that short cuts were justified.

This item topped local news reports for the entire week, and, not surprisingly, both citizens and the other members of council were outraged and looking for answers. Those responsible wanted to focus on "moving forward", promising that it wouldn't happen again. To me, the most telling line in the auditor's report was the one that said "policies to prevent this were in place. They just weren't followed." All members of our city council should take this to heart - we have policies for a reason, and whenever we waive them for expediency, or glory, or bragging rights about first-class facilities, we're not doing our job, and the result can be costly.

"Vanity asks the question - is it popular? Conscience asks the question - is it right?" - Martin Luther King Jr.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Deciding How to Spend Northern Lights Money

For the past few years, the Northern Lights Development Corporation has given $250,000 to the city. A portion of this money, $50,000, is set aside to cover expenses for the annual pow-wow and a golf tournament; the remainder is spent on various things by council.

Last year, the entire $200,000 went for new garbage cans downtown, and a splash park in the east end. In previous years, money was spent on such things as maintenance at the water park, and a van for Family Futures.

The process? Well, it's not public - we don't invite applications from community groups. Instead, councillors are supposed to bring forward suggestions from groups within their wards - this has turned it essentially into a pork-barreling excercise that I'm sure some councillors will be quick to remind residents of in the next election campaign.

The guidelines? There are none, except that the money is not supposed to be used for salaries. We have no submission requirements - no business plans, no indication of what other funding sources are available, no indication if ongoing operating costs have been taken into account (for example, if we're providing funding for a van, how will ongoing licensing and maintenance costs be handled).

The decision-making process? The usual uneven approach - at Monday's meeting we quickly approved one funding decision ($50,000 to provide new skate changing facilities at Crescent Heights Park), then got into discussion about what we should be considering when we make these decisions, after 1/4 of this year's money had already been decided upon. And our consistency is also lacking - although vans have been approved in the past, all of a sudden we're asking questions, and deciding to only grant half the money requested for two vans.

I've made a few suggestions about how the process could work, but none of these has been acted upon.

To start with, I'd make it a public process, and ask community groups to apply to council as a whole for funding, with a business plan that indicates exactly what they would do with the money, and what programs it would support.

I would set up criteria for assessing these applications - perhaps we could require that other funding partners be involved, or that programs requesting money indicate that they are meeting a need for a disadvantaged sector of society, or improve park facilities in an area of the city that has fewer such amenities. We could reserve a portion of the money for projects that would benefit the whole city - the Rotary Trail is a good example of that. I would suggest that funding requests for matters that should rightly be part of the city maintenance budget - such as maintenance of the water slides - not be considered.

Having criteria would also make it easier to make defensible decisions - being able to say that this project earned 17 points over another project that earned only 10 points would make the whole process much more fair.

And finally, I would try to remove the pork-barreling aspect - if a project is going to benefit only a certain part of the city, such as a splash park, the councillor for that ward should remove themselves from the vote.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, none of these suggestions has made it to the final process.

We have been most fortunate that Northern Lights shares this money with us every year, but we should recognize that we have a responsibility to use this money wisely, and use it where it will have the most benefit.

"The test of our progess is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little." - Franklin Roosevelt

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Friends and Family

I haven't been around much lately. Our daughter Ingrid recently bought a house in Saskatoon, which required some work before moving in - redoing floors, replacing the bathtub, that sort of thing. Fortunately, she has a Handy-dad, so I headed down there the day after she got possession, and I've been there ever since.

Long and tiring days, but I have to say that I was totally impressed by her friends. We've always known that she had the good fortune to meet some really nice kids at the Pottery Club at PACI when she was in junior high. Those friendships have lasted and the group has expanded over the years, and these now young adults come together to help each other out whenever required. So every evening they would come by after work - first to help rip out things, then to learn how to put things back together. Between the Tuesday before the long weekend and the Tuesday after, we ripped out the rotting front porch and replaced it, took out a bathtub, the rotting wall behind it, and the wall and a closet between the bathroom and the main bedroom, replaced the bathtub, sink and toilet, put down new linoleum in the bathroom and new flooring in the kitchen and main bedroom, put up a new wall, and moved Ingrid's furniture and three cats from her townhouse to the new house.

I certainly couldn't have done it as quickly or as enjoyably without their help, but they seemed to think that I was doing them a favour, since they want to learn how to be handy around the house, and delighted in learning how to do things like use a table saw, or glue together plumbing pieces. Their parents have raised them well, and should be very proud of Sarri, Jaryn, Matt, Jen, Susan, Diana, Lana, Stephen and Christina. They would work hard, then take a beer or whatever break, then work hard again, all the while carrying on conversations about life, work and other things.

It was great to be part of a group that had a common goal, and was willing to work hard to reach that goal. No shortcuts with this gang - when one wondered one evening if we really had to make sure that all the details were taken care of, another reminded her that doing slip-shod work was what had caused these problems in the first place. It's great to see young adults in their late 20s and early 30s aware of the importance of doing the job right.

As most of you are probably aware, we have no family close by. Knowing that Ingrid has this group of friends that she can rely on alleviates some of the normal parental worry - these kids have her back.

We all should be so fortunate.

"Friends are God's apology for relations." - Hugh Kingsmill

Monday, May 16, 2011

Flinging Your Money with Wild Abandon, So That Things Will Look Lovely

At tonight's council meeting, not that it was any big surprise, council voted to spend more than $170,000 of taxpayers' money putting in an irrigation system for two new outdoor soccer fields at the soccer centre. Despite the fact that we just approved the budget for this year, this is a new and additional cost that will have to be paid for somehow. We don't know where the money is coming from, although it was claimed that some of it will come from an $80,000 surplus from last year - the first that I've heard of this surplus.

The statements supporting the motion illustrate the mind-set of most council members.

"We should do it now because it will cost more later" - just like costs for maintaining basic infrastructure will, but we have no problem putting those actions off.

"It's a first-rate facility, so we need to make everything around it first-rate" - let's ignore the various third-rate aspects of our city, like unpaved streets (which are still oiled to keep the dust down), lead service water connections, and ancient watermains that still break regularly.

"It's a beautiful facility, so the landscaping and surrounding fields should also be beautiful" - because, of course, the appearance of special use facilities matters far more than how well the city as a whole functions.

As usual, some council members feel that some projects need to be acted on immediately, rather than waiting until we have the money. Delayed gratification obviously isn't part of their operating philosophy.

When I questioned why this hadn't been included in the many-times-revised-upward soccer centre budget, I was first told that it was. This isn't true - if it had been part of the budget, we wouldn't have had to vote on it, because approval for this action would have been included in council's approval of the most recent facility budget. When I pointed out this discrepancy, I was then told that it wasn't part of the budget, because this is actually landscaping, which was odd, because we were also told that it was needed for two new outdoor soccer pitches, which to me sounds like part of what we're doing for soccer, rather than landscaping. Of course, with this additional action that will require considerable digging and placement of underground pipes, these fields won't be ready to play on real soon.

What I find particularly interesting about this single item is the number of complaints about the proposed funding that have arisen since the report was presented at Executive Committee last week. One citizen sent a email to all council members, suggesting that there are more pressing needs in the city, and considering the recent tax increase, this expenditure shouldn't be considered at this time, and that the vote on this should be recorded so that people could see where each member of council stood. I had a phone call from a resident of Ward Three, saying that the proposed expenditure made no sense at this time, and asking if there was any way of impeaching certain members of council. I had to tell him that I agreed with his take on the expenditure, but sadly, legislation provides no way of removing council members just for doing stupid things. Perhaps residents are starting to get tired of the continued lack of accountability in the way their money is spent.

Once again, image trumped common sense. For the record, we did have a recorded vote, and Councillor Miller, Councillor Cheryl Ring and I voted against it.

"You will find that truth is often unpopular and the contest between agreeable fantasy and disagreeable fact is unequal." - Adlai Stevenson

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Keeping the Faith

Not surprisingly, the budget passed third and final reading at a special council meeting on Monday, April 18, called in conjunction with the regularly scheduled Executive Meeting. We were given less than the required twenty-four hour notice of the meeting, but, as usual, that wasn't a problem for most of those in attendance. The job for many councillors appears to be to show up and vote without questioning anything.

A question that I often get from people is "How do you do it? How can you keep on beating your head against the wall?" I think that implicit in their questions is "when it appears that nothing is going to change, that most members of council are quite happy to keep collecting their salaries just for showing up and raising their hands when required".

My standard answer is "You do what you can." Perhaps at some point something so outrageous will be proposed that even those who regularly look to the front of the room before they vote will make an independent decision that actually considers the good of the taxpayers of Prince Albert. Or perhaps people represented by other members of council will let their councillor know that they aren't doing the job they are expected to do. Change will come - it is the way of the world. I keep hoping.

But in the meantime, I do it because that's what I was elected to do. The people who voted for me aren't around the council table, and they elected me to stand up for them. To not do so, to just vote with the majority of council because the conclusion is inevitable, and that way we'll give the illusion of being one big happy family, wouldn't be doing the job, as I understand it. I will continue to raise questions about proposed decisions, because that's how the best decisions are arrived at. And some questions I have to raise over and over, because I don't get answers.

Is it frustrating? You bet. Do I get tired of it? You bet. Am I going to change the way I approach the job? Not a chance. Too many people whose opinions I respect and value keep telling me to continue the fight, so I will.

"The only failure a man ought to fear is failure in sticking to the purpose he sees to be best." - George Eliot

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Limping to the End of the Budget Process

We had the first vote on the budget last week. Despite the initial information that was provided in December, indicating that 16% increase would be required to meet all of our delayed maintenance and other obligations, what has finally floated to the top is a $60 base tax and a 3.25% increase. How administration can line up these two widely disparate numbers is beyond me, particularly when the latest mantra is that the flat tax will go into a reserve fund - we'll see how long any reserve lasts with this council and its practice of spend first, budget later, most recently illustrated with the I-pad purchase.

I've blogged so much about this budget process that I'm tired of repeating myself, but I will say that I can't support this budget for several big reasons.

First, I can't support the flat tax. It puts a proportionally greater burden on low and fixed income residents. I know that $60 doesn't seem like much; I also know that now that the precedent has been set, it won't stay at $60.

Second, I can't support a budget that did not look at reducing spending - didn't even try. This council and administration follows the easy route of going to the tax payer rather than looking at spending first. This is lazy budgeting, and the citizens of Prince Albert deserve better.

Third, we are getting less and less information in the budget. Last year it was a one line police budget; this year, more and more detail of the other parts of the budget is getting summarized, which makes it difficult to figure out if we're spending too much in any area, or note areas where expenditures could be reduced.

Finally, the whole process is too secretive. We had too many meetings in which the budget was discussed, but which were labeled strategic planning so that the public wasn't allowed to watch. This is wrong.

Despite all of these problems, which are pretty basic as far as I'm concerned, most of council voted in favour of this pathetic excuse for a budget. Maybe they don't understand all of the implications, maybe they do, and just don't care, maybe, as one councillor told me after the meeting, they're just tired of the process and want to get it over with.

That's not why I was elected. Our job on council is to ask the hard questions, to look at all the alternatives, to think about what is best for all of the citizens of Prince Albert, and to think things through until we've come up with the best solution possible. A budget that has gone through that kind of thinking, I could support. Not this one.

"Life is tough. It's tougher if you're stupid." - John Wayne

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Ongoing Budget Confusion

Council continues to muddle through the budget process. Perhaps part of the strategy is for members of council to get so sick of the process that we just pass the thing at the next opportunity, so we can get back to talking about less stressful matters. But I would contend that setting the budget is the most important thing that a council does, far more important than any ribbon cutting or welcome speech giving, and it deserves all the time that we've given it, and much more thought and serious discussion.

I think that the flat tax (or base tax) concept is still not clearly understood by some members of council. At last week's executive meeting, it was suggested that the base residential rate be reduced from the proposed $100 to $60, and some members of council thought that sounded like an improvement. They may not have thought through all of the implications of even setting a base tax - once that is in place, our tax system will have fundamentally changed, and there will be nothing stopping future councils from increasing the base from beyond $60, or beyond $100, or whatever magical figure they pull out of the air - because, remember, there was no reasoning provided as to why $100 was a good rate (or $60).

Other members of council keep saying that people should pay their fair share. This seems to be based on the assumption that I mentioned in my last post - that everyone should pay an equal amount for fire and police services (as if that is all that your taxes go towards). One of the gaps here is that the police chief says repeatedly that a good portion of the people that the police deal with aren't from Prince Albert - how are they going to pay their fair share?

I wouldn't mind the fair share argument if we considered extending it to all of the services that all tax payers pay for. How about increasing user fees for such city-subsidized facilities as the golf course, the Art Hauser Centre, the Rawlinson Centre, the arts centre, or the field house? Not one of these services are used by a majority of the tax payers in the city, but they're all supported with everyone's tax dollars. People who use these facilities do not pay the full cost, which means that if your kids are in hockey or soccer or pottery classes at these facilities, the city helps to pay the freight, but if you have them enrolled in dance or piano lessons, you're paying the full amount for those activities to a small business owner. And many of the users of those city-owned facilities don't even live in the city, so they're not even paying the additional levy on your taxes that goes straight to the field house, rather than into a basic infrastructure maintenance fund. Perhaps we should have differential rates for non-residents as a start.

And, of course, we haven't seen any detail on the police budget, which will consume one-third of the budget. And for the remainder, there isn't sufficient detail to be able to compare, for example, how our snow-removal budget compares with other cities, so that we can determine if we're providing a reasonable level of service, or if other cities pay less per capita for such a basic service. I'm not talking about needing to know what is spent on pens and pencils in a year (although, mind you, if that number is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, we wouldn't have any way of learning that with the current budget), but of knowing where the money is going, and identifying where we could and should be spending less.

We should approach the budget from three directions - where could we spend less (reducing discretionary spending, reviewing where staff cuts could be made, handing over city-owned and maintained buildings that are for specialized groups), where could we recoup some of our costs (increasing user fees, having people pay for parking at city-owned facilities - those lots don't plow themselves, you know), and finally, and the last place we should be looking - increasing taxes based on the assessed values of properties, both residential and business.

This council assumes that we should keep on spending what we've been spending (and more), that staff levels should keep increasing, that more and more staff should be moved to management (and higher salaries), and that asking people who directly use city facilities to pay more for what they've always received for below market value might cause riots in the streets. Instead, council has been offered options for various tax increases, and each of these options will increase taxes at greater proportional rates for those residents on lower incomes. That's lazy and ineffective budgeting, and it just isn't good enough.

"If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to." - Dorothy Parker

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Three Big Reasons Why I Can't Support the Flat Tax Rate Proposal

As we come closer to the actual vote on the budget at tomorrow's council meeting, I thought that I would mention why I can't support the proposal that we received from city administration - and my reasons fall into three areas.

First, the proposal is unfair. Our previous tax system was based on the assessed value of a property. The reasoning behind that long-practised system is that people who own more expensive homes likely can afford to pay more taxes than people who own less expensive homes. It also indirectly recognizes that more expensive homes tend to be located in areas of the community which have a greater level of services - more parks and green space, for example, newer infrastructure, paved streets.

The new system will put in a flat tax of $100 on every residential property, then add on a percentage tax increase. One of the reporters for a local web-based news site has done some number-crunching that shows that applying this system will mean that a small home with an assessed market value of less than $100,000 will face a increase of about 10%, the owner of a mid-range property ($100,000 - $200,000) will face an increase of about 5.1%, and the owner of a high range property with a value of over $200,000 will face an increase of less than 3%.

There are some members of council who will say that the high-end property owner is still paying more tax, on a straight dollar to dollar comparison, than the lower or middle range property owner. I know that. The idea is that, similar to income tax, those who can afford to pay more should pay more. Presumably they have more disposable income, and, along with their more expensive home, can afford to pay more taxes. A 10% increase for a widowed senior living on a fixed income is going to cause far greater problems for her than a 3% increase to a double income family that has far more disposable income. And of course, the option for moving to a smaller house in a less prestigious part of town is always open to those who feel that the current system is unfair, but you don't see too many people doing it.

It's interesting that the proposed tax rate for commercial property owners is graduated, because it was seen as unfair to have the same flat rate for a small business owner as for a large business. Even so, the same projections show that a small business owner will have a tax increase of about 17%, the medium business an increase of about 6%, and the large business an increase of about 3%.

My second objection is that the proposal shows serious inconsistencies. The difference in approach between commercial and residential properties is one inconsistency. Another is the arbitrary difference between apartments and detached homes. A detached home will have a flat rate of $100. Apartment buildings will be assessed at $35 per apartment, even though an apartment will likely be home to the same number of people as a small house.

My final objection is the distinct lack of rationale for the setting of any of these rates. The only apparent objective was to raise $1 million through the flat tax alone, to be used in setting up a capital reserve fund (although this council has a bad habit of raiding its reserves for such initiatives as Neat and Clean). While setting up a reserve is certainly a sensible thing to do, and one that previous councils did through the debt reduction levy, which has now been directed solely toward the soccer centre until 2017, I wonder where the $1 million number came from. It doesn't appear to relate to the various numbers thrown out for future needs or for making up maintenance shortfalls from previous short-sighted budget decisions.

I wonder how we got to solving all our problems with a flat tax and a general increase of over 3%, when initial numbers suggested that a 16% increase would be required to meet all of our neglected maintenance needs. I would like to see proposals that clearly identify what money is needed, what money can be saved (and no, proceeding with status quo on discretionary expenditures is not acceptable to me), and then, options for finding the needed money, whether it be through increasing user fees, increasing the mill rate, reducing levels of service, or some combination.

What I find really disturbing throughout this whole discussion is the implication from some that those in lower-priced homes aren't "paying their fair share." In fact, in the anonymous comments sections of any of the articles on this topic, you're sure to find several comments along the lines of "people who live in those lower income areas are the ones calling the police and fire departments all the time, so they should pay more." What's most disturbing to me about this undercurrent is that somehow, people who live in the poorer areas of town deserve a lower level of service. The city would be better served if people realized that we need to get rid of this "us and them" thinking, and bring all levels of the city to a point where your address shouldn't matter.

I'm sure that both the police and fire get calls from all over the city. The only truly "fair" way of dealing with this would be to charge callers directly. And we could take this further - those with more children should have to pay more for education, and those who want to walk in Kinsmen Park should have to pay at the park entrance.

We don't, of course, because underlying the whole concept of municipal taxes is the idea that the city as a whole benefits from having a police force, whether we call them or not. Same with the fire department. We recognize that an educated population benefits society as a whole, and we are willing to pay for it. We recognize the value of green space, of parks, of community halls, of recreational and arts facilities. All of those amenities are supported by your tax dollars, as are streets, sidewalks, water mains, and other basic infrastructure.

I wish that council would spend its time trying to figure out how to bring up the basic level of amenities, across the city, to an equitable level, rather than worrying about complaints from people who point fingers at others, claiming that they aren't "paying their fair share", and not being thankful for the level of service that they enjoy.

"Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking that they hit a triple." - Barry Switzer

Sunday, March 20, 2011

An Excellent Example of How Not to Prepare a Budget

If there's anything to be learned from how this council works, it's that we are an ongoing example of how not to do things. We're consistently inconsistent, we ignore the rules, we pick image over substance at every opportunity, and speed over thoroughness. We claim to be open and accountable, but make decisions based on backroom discussions, and refuse to provide the most basic information about what it costs to run the city.

And what should be most concerning to the taxpayers: it appears that most members of council are quite all right with this, and see no reason to change the way we do things.

The recent budget process was, once again, an excellent example of how to bungle our way to a result that is confusing and inconsistent.

We first received the budget documents in late December. In late January, instead of passing the budget in a one-day cram session as has been our practice in the past, most of council voted to send it back to administration, asking for more details, for a list of discretionary expenditures that could be reduced and a plan for staff reductions. In the intervening six weeks, a few staff members' jobs were abolished, but we saw no plan or reasoning behind those abolishments. We have not received any more budget details, including details about the police budget, which is one-third of the city's budget. We have received nothing on what the city's discretionary expenditures are, or how they could be reduced. We did receive a rather disappointing report on implementing a flat tax a few days before the final budget meeting. That's it.

What we haven't seen is a breakdown of the budget that shows where the money is being spent, or any initiatives to reduce costs - limiting our paid advertising, or cutting down on floral decorations in Memorial Square, or cutting out custom-made Christmas cards, as a few examples that I've mentioned before. It seems that we're not willing to look at our spending patterns, and see where we could cut back. There have also been no suggestions as to other ways of covering our costs, such as increasing user fees at facilities. We'd rather just keep on doing what we've been doing, and bill the taxpayer for any shortfalls.

As a way of hopefully kick-starting some people into actually thinking of ways to save money, I had given notice of motion to freeze salaries for out-of-scope staff. Not only would this save money, since traditionally these staff get the same increase that is negotiated with unionized staff, but it would also send a message that, as a council, we are trying to reduce costs across the board. This made for some lively discussion at Monday's council meeting, as well as the usual ill-informed comments from some other council members. On Monday, I had suggested that I would be willing to amend my motion to limit an increase to cost-of-living, whereupon another councillor wondered where such information would come from, as though I was suggesting pulling a number out of the air. I'm rather surprised to find out that he doesn't know that these numbers are published regularly - Saturday's Star-Phoenix indicated that in February, the annual consumer price index had increased by 2.2% - there's a number that hasn't been pulled out of the air, and that I would be quite comfortable in setting as a cap. At any rate, after some discussion, which included suggestions from several members of council that this topic should be left to our budget meetings set for Friday and Saturday, I withdrew the motion. The result? When I raised it on Friday, other members of council claimed that they had made no commitment to discuss this, so it didn't happen.

What has been brought in, without much open discussion, is a flat or base tax. This has been brought forward at least once in every council term that I've been part of. It's based on the idea that everyone should pay at least a basic amount in taxes that isn't related to the assessed value of their home. I have consistently opposed a flat tax, because every report on it that I've seen shows the same thing - it means a greater proportional tax increase for low and middle income residents, and it isn't based on the full spectrum of benefits that come from the city. The usual simplification focuses on police and fire services, but ignores things like paved streets, green spaces, sidewalks, or access to recreational facilities.

At a council meeting in January, I believe, it was brought forward that a flat tax be part of the budget discussion. I objected at the time, partly because this was focused on residential properties, with no mention made of how such an assessment would be applied on commercial properties, and partly because it hadn't been discussed in council previously, and appeared to be made in this way so that the flat tax would be brought in the back door, as a way of achieving the agenda of some members of council. However, most other members of council voted in favour of this.

We got a report from the city manager last week, with just a few days to review before the budget meeting, which outlined a few projects that could be removed for budget savings, but with its main focus being options for a flat tax. Unfortunately, it appears that the various options have been pulled out of nowhere - there is no reason for the various numbers proposed, such as a connection to level of service provided. The main target appears to be to result in an income level of $1 million. Some councillors have suggested that this money be set aside in reserves, but it isn't clear for what, or what a target should be. We do have a mechanism for establishing reserves - the capital reserves levy. Unfortunately, that levy has been earmarked for a single purpose, the soccer centre, until 2017 (the original date was 2013, but overruns and additional embellishments took care of that).

As in previous years, the actual budget meeting took less than a day - I was home before 5 p.m. on Friday. Much of the time was spent debating the difficulty of setting a flat tax for commercial users. Apparently other members of council were able to recognize the inequity of having the same tax for a large store in a big box development and a small business downtown - that wouldn't be fair, someone said. But they have no difficulty in doing exactly that to a senior citizen who lives in an 800 square foot war-time home in Midtown, as compared to a two-income family in a 3,500 square foot house in Crescent Heights - that inequity is okay.

Although the budget was passed by the budget committee, it hasn't been passed by council yet. That will happen at the next council meeting. There is still time to voice your opinion to any member of council. Since we have a history of approving the budget as fast as possible, through special meetings, I would recommend making your opinion known quickly and directly.

It's too bad, really. I'm sure that most people, before being elected to council, intend to do their best to speak up for their constituents and the rest of Prince Albert. I guess, that for some, when the going gets tough, it's not worth the effort.

"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." - Edmund Burke

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Preparing (again) for the Budget

We're back to a more regular meeting schedule now that February is over, with an executive meeting tomorrow, and council next Monday, four weeks since the last council meeting. After that will be our budget meetings - set for Friday and Saturday, March 18th and 19th.

In late January, when we delayed our budget deliberations because we had insufficient information, I had hoped that in the intervening time we would get more information from city administration, specifically in the areas of discretionary spending (where could we cut back on what we currently spend), staffing (what positions could be eliminated), and financial information about city facilities. Well, a few jobs have been cut, but we haven't received an overall review of all positions and potential reductions. And we've received nothing on potential savings in current spending, or financial reports from some city facilities.

At the last council meeting, I proposed that we take at least one step to save money - freeze the salaries of out-of-scope staff for the next year. I'm looking forward to our discussions on this at our next council meeting.

I proposed this for a few reasons. The main reason is that we are in serious financial difficulties as a city - the city manager has told council, and some members of the public, that the city is broke. When you're broke, you look to reduce costs wherever you can. Salaries are a large part of our costs, and any step that we can take to limit these costs is worth at least some discussion. Right now, raises for out-of-scope staff usually follow whatever raise that the unions negotiate, and the city is heading into these negotiations this year. Council does not participate in these negotiations, but we do approve the out-of-scope salaries, and I think that it would be prudent to decide ahead of time that we can't afford raises for everyone this year.

Another reason is that I've been disappointed with the initiative shown by administration in cutting costs. Their initial reports indicated that, to make up for past neglect in things like road maintenance (caused in part by a zero per cent increase a couple of years back), we should be raising taxes more than 16 per cent. This would be huge, and before we should even consider such a thing, we should be cutting anything and everything that we can, that wouldn't affect the basic operations of the city. I've mentioned before that expenses like pots of flowers on Memorial Square, meals for members of council, custom-made Christmas cards, gifts for the mayor to give visitors to his office are all things that could be cut from the budget without affecting how well the city runs. We could also look at reducing costs by having facilities like the soccer centre open fewer hours, or by handing over city-run facilities to the organizations that benefit directly from them. But we have yet to see a budget that cuts any of these nice-to-haves or suggests other changes (and the budget that we got this year had so little detail that we couldn't see how much such things cost). So I thought that I would make a suggestion that would make them sit up, take notice, and perhaps provide us with some cost-savings alternatives.

I'm sure that I didn't make any friends among city hall staff with my suggestion. That doesn't bother me - that's not why I was elected. And I'm also not surprised that the usual gang of on-line critics has taken a few irrelevant shots at me on various web-sites. I realize that many of them like to use the anonymity that these sites provide to vent their anger at me for a variety of my past decisions. I wish that the discussion would focus, not on me and my many failings, but on my suggestion, and what the pros and cons of the suggestion are - just leave the personal insults out of it. It's a bit like road rage - people say things on anonymous forums that they would never say to your face. I've learned that it goes with the territory, but those who unleash their anger at any elected official in this way should pause for a moment and wonder if perhaps that's one reason why it can be difficult to find people willing to run for council, where your ideas and opinions aren't anonymous. Just a thought.

In any case, in my ten years and a bit on council, this is the most difficult financial situation that the city has been in. Our budget discussions need to focus on how best we can solve our spending issues, without burdening both current and future tax-payers. To do this we have to look at everything that we spend money on and figure out if we can still afford to do so. We need to look at other options for increasing revenue, rather than just taxing residents (sharing water rate increases with commercial users, charging for parking for events at the Art Hauser Centre are just a couple of ideas). We need ideas from everyone, not just from a few. And we have to be prepared to make whatever changes we can, while keeping the city functioning.

"Desperate times call for desperate measures." - Anonymous