Sunday, January 30, 2011

If We Followed a Sensible Process, We Wouldn't Be in Such a Mess

A couple of things happened at last Monday's council meeting that are good illustrations of how our uncoordinated way of doing things and our inconsistent processes cause us problems. One was the motion from one councillor to bring back to the table the decision made at a previous council meeting about the new licensing bylaw. As you may recall, at a previous meeting the bylaw, which had been prepared by Bylaw Enforcement, after consulting with the SPCA, was abruptly amended by the mayor, who didn't consult with council, or with anyone else. The amendment removed the licensing differential between fixed and unneutered animals, contrary to the advice from the SPCA, and the examples from other licensing bylaws from across the country. Unfortunately, most members of council were fine with this, and voted accordingly. And because it was third reading that night, the bylaw passed.

The reaction was immediate. The SPCA representatives let it be known how disappointed they were, and the comments on various news web-sites were strongly against the amendments made to the bylaw. I think that it was the feedback from the public that caused some members of council to wonder if we needed to rethink the last minute change. And so now we will have the opportunity to review the decision that was made, and possibly change it to something that will accomplish the original purpose of the bylaw, which was to both raise funds for the SPCA through additional licensing, and also to encourage people to get their pets fixed, in order to reduce the number of unwanted animals that tend to end up at the SPCA.

I don't disagree with the need to bring the bylaw back. I just think that it's unfortunate that most members of council don't appear to be aware that we have options when faced with a last minute idea. The first, and most obvious, was to vote down the amendment. Unless we were presented with some brand new information from a reputable source, that would have been the wisest action. Another option would have been to send the bylaw back, asking for further discussion between Bylaw Enforcement and the SPCA, and asking them to investigate the proposed change to the bylaw.

That being said, I hope that when the proposed bylaw comes back for a vote, members of council remember to think through the consequences of their vote before they raise their hands. And I commend any member of council who comes to the realization that thinking for yourself, and listening to the input of the public, is part of doing the job right, and is willing to get up and say that we need to rethink a decision.

While thinking of the SPCA, the animal rescue site is running another contest, through which the SPCA could get money. Just go to to cast your vote.

The other instance of poor coordination occurred when a councillor proposed that we not provide taxpayers' dollars to any organization which doesn't provide a financial report to us on how they spend your money. To me, and some other members of council, this is a no-brainer. But instead of getting agreement that this should be a first step to any request for funding, whether through a grant or an ongoing funding arrangement, we got excuses that this wouldn't be fair to the organizations and agencies (no concern about the fairness to the taxpayer), and a statement from a member of administration that we had no legal way of demanding that information. That excuse just doesn't make sense. If they want to use taxpayers' money, then we have the right, through the budgeting process, to expect an accounting of how they have used the money in the past, before granting further funding. This is particularly key for facilities such as the Rawlinson Centre, which has asked for ever-increasing funds, but hasn't given us the financial report for 2009 yet. Perhaps they legally don't have to give us a financial report - fine. We don't have to give them money. It doesn't seem complicated to me. Our budgeting process should be clear and coordinated between council and administration, and our expectations for all agencies should be consistent. As an example, we expect (and receive) a financial report from the library each year before approving their funding in the budget - we look uncoordinated and inconsistent to have different rules for other agencies.

No Executive Committee this week - SUMA is going on in Saskatoon, so the mayor and a couple of councillors are there. I took a pass on SUMA this year - I didn't see anything on the agenda that was particularly compelling.

It's not a completely meeting-free week though. We are having another strategic planning session on Friday. This will be about the budget, so really should be open to the public, but labeling it as strategic planning allows it to be kept in camera. I don't agree with the secrecy, but I'm glad that, for the first time in four years, we're spending more than just a couple of days on the budget process.

"Openness brings accountability to government, promotes honesty in official dealings, and above all, assists citizens in making the informed decisions that are necessary to democracy." - Lamar S. Smith

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Why We Should Talk About the Transportation Planning Study

In 2006, the Prince Albert Area Transportation Study was commissioned by the provincial highways department, in cooperation with the City of Prince Albert, and the RMs of Buckland and Prince Albert. You may have heard it referred to informally as the Bridge Study, because part of its focus was a second bridge. The study was completed in October 2008 - more than two years ago. It has never been discussed by city council as a whole.

When it was initially received, comments on it were made by two members of the then-council (one of whom is no longer on council), and administration. So the consultant revamped it somewhat, to include a second option for the location of a new bridge - at the base of 6th Avenue East. The other option was to have a new corridor around the eastern perimeter of the city, with the bridge located closer to the airport.

The idea that a highway should pass through a city is old-fashioned, to say the least. The idea seems to be that if you force people to go through the centre of the city, then they will stop to buy locally, rather than carrying on to their destination. Of course, by doing this, traffic is slowed considerably, and the danger of accidents is increased. And if you think about what is located along Sixth Avenue, there's more than a few homes along there, as well as two schools and a church - this is not an area suitable for a high-speed road.

Rather than trying to route high-speed traffic through the city, we should be more concerned about the long-term economic benefits that we could access if we had a fast, efficient way of getting industrial vehicles where they need to go (anyone want to mention the long-awaited diamond possibilities?) - and consider that industry, and the services that they need to access, aren't going to be in the centre of town.

The smaller towns between Prince Albert and Saskatoon are being passed by in the construction of the four-lane highway - speed and safety trump the concern that someone might pass through a small town without purchasing a cup of coffee.

Most people who are heading north will have already purchased their groceries and other supplies. If they haven't, they will stop in for whatever they need. We have to recognize that we are not a shopping mecca for people coming from larger communities to the south - we are the shopping destination for people coming from smaller communities in the north. The destination. As in, they are coming here to do their shopping, not pausing here on their way to somewhere else.

The report is now public, but it hasn't been discussed by council at all. At our last council meeting I made a motion that the report be brought before council because I think that discussing the recommendations is crucial when we formulate our plans for the future. For example, it was mentioned this week that engineering is going to look at coordinating signal lights to improve traffic flow. This is a good step, but we should be looking at future traffic flows as well, thinking ahead to determine what possible problems might be, and trying to avoid them.

We've also had some preliminary talks about annexation. Before we make any decisions there, we should have some idea of what highway corridors might demarcate the outside perimeter of the city, and zone accordingly.

However, as is often the case, the advice from adminstration for this report, two years in the making, and on the shelf for more than two years since originally received, is that we receive and file. In other words, that we not talk about it in council as a whole, possibly because one of the recommendations, the one preferred by the province, isn't one that some members of council want to hear. We should just carry on in our usual way, complaining that we only have one bridge, spending money on other things, and wondering why we can't take advantage of opportunities to share funding with other levels of government by proposing a solution that meets the best interests of all, not just a few.

But in the meantime, instead of focusing on discussing the results of a report that cost us a fair amount of money, we'll continue to spend time and money coming up with a new slogan that might make you forget your impending tax increase, just like "Proud to be PA" did, or "You can't spell paradise without PA". Or maybe it won't, because people realize that a slogan won't build more affordable housing or a second bridge, or reduce the crime rate, or reopen the pulp mill. It will take more than a slogan to solve our budget problems or plan for the future. It takes hard work, and difficult decisions on the part of council, not pretending that our problems can be wished away.

"Every day, in every way, I'm getting better and better." - Emile Coue, a French pharmacist, proposed this positive thinking mantra at the turn of the last century

Sunday, January 16, 2011

More Budget Fun

This week has been about as exciting as council gets, with things happening that I'm sure no member of council could have predicted, but the result is one that I'm sure most members of council feel good about.

As I mentioned last week, Monday evening was the only opportunity for people to comment directly to council on the proposed budget, although several people had taken the time to send emails or call me about their specific concerns. We had well-thought out presentations from the SPCA, the library, and the Community Service Centre on behalf of Senior's Transportation, all providing their reasons for requesting budget increases. Interestingly, we had no presentation from the Arts Board on behalf of the Rawlinson Centre, despite their requesting an additional $122,000 for this year, to add to the additional $50,000 that they asked for last year, which was supposed to be conditional on the submission of their financials for the previous year. We haven't yet seen their financials for 2009, but who knows if they got that $50,000 or not - we haven't seen their 2010 financials either. And yes, we are supposed to receive financial reports from any agency that we give money to, before we give them more money. This is the responsible way to run a business, particularly when you're spending taxpayers' money.

We also had a presentation from the Chamber of Commerce, pointing out some deficiencies in the budget - there should be a debt reduction plan (makes sense to me), agencies asking for city funding should be required to submit financial reports before getting funding (another no-brainer), we need a report on revenue and expenses for all city facilities (excellent suggestion). They also said that the suggested tax increase levels could be problematic. As is often the case, the mayor argued with the Chamber representative, suggesting that increased tax levels were necessary to prevent another Walkerton. The reality is that improvements to the water treatment plant are being paid for through your ever-increasing water rates, which is totally separate from this budget discussion.

Following the public meeting, we moved in camera for our "strategic planning" session. Once again, no actual strategic planning was done, but it means that the discussions that happened there are considered confidential.

On Tuesday, the mayor started calling and emailing members of council, asking each of us what percentage of increase would be acceptable. I refused to give him a number, because to me, setting the number is the last thing that you do. First, you cut discretionary spending as much as possible, then you set your spending priorities based on what needs to be done, then you figure out what tax increase is necessary. But until you've looked at your previous spending levels and identified superfluous spending (purchasing bottled water for city staff, creating and mailing custom-made Christmas cards for members of council, for example), figured out ways to improve efficiency by focusing efforts on needs rather than wants (let's use city crews for doing road maintenance rather than shifting cement planters around Memorial Square), and figured out where we can cut costs by reducing services (if not enough people are using the soccer centre during the day to pay for staff being there, why not only open it in the evenings and on weekends; does the lawn in front of city hall have to be cut more than once a week?) - after this work is done, then you can set a budget that will not waste people's tax dollars. Yes, there will likely be a tax increase, but if this work is done, it will be the lowest possible, without neglecting work that has to be done. So I didn't give him a number.

On Wednesday, the mayor called other members of council to tell us that he had decided that, rather than discussing the whole budget on Friday and Saturday, as had been planned, we would be meeting on Friday to only deal with the capital side of the budget. This involves things like equipment and project funding. The other side of the budget, operating expenditures, would be looked at the following Wednesday, January 19.

I had some problems with this. While there are two pieces to the budget, they are interconnected in many ways, and need to be discussed together. As well, we weren't being provided with any additional information, and without more detail, including details of the police budget, I can't approve a proposed budget.

So first thing Friday morning, when the mayor asked if any member of council had any comments, I decided to speak. I thanked the staff for the hard work that had been done, but said that sadly, I still had far more questions than answers. Council has gotten itself into this situation, by not providing input to staff before the budget was prepared. And we shouldn't be going as individual members of council to suggest budget directions and strategy - we should be making our decisions collectively. Therefore, I made a motion to delay both part of the budget, both capital and operations, until March. This would give staff time to provide more information, and would give council and the public time to review what I hope will be a budget with considerably more detail about discretionary spending reductions, opportunities for improved efficiencies in service delivery, and an examination of current staffing levels. I want to see a report (I've been asking for this for seven years) on the 48 buildings that the city owns. Each of these buildings costs us money - maintenance, utility costs, major repairs - some return revenues, others do not. We need to decide which should be handed over to their user groups, which are no longer feasible to operate at all, and which we should retain responsibility for. I later amended my motion to leave the setting of our budget meeting up to council as a whole to decide. My initial suggestion of March was based on the need to give staff time to put together this information and make budget revisions, and on the fact that some members of council have February holidays planned. But if late February is a possible target date, that would be fine with me.

After more than an hour and a half of quite lively discussion on my motion, with a few members of council making half-hearted excuses as to why we should continue as planned, the motion passed, almost unanimously. We then moved in camera to discuss some of the confidential items in the budget. This one section of the budget took the rest of the day to discuss, with additional information being provided by staff at this time. This is the first time in four years that council has had this kind of in-depth discussions with staff, which means that for seven members of council, it's their first time ever in a true city budget discussion. As far as I could tell, for most members of council, it was a day well spent. Sadly, it's the kind of discussion that should happen at the beginning of the budget process, not the end, and it should happen every year.

I hope that staff takes this direction from council to come up with a budget that contains enough information to allow us to have good budget deliberations, whenever that happens. If staff feel that further direction is needed, then we all need to sit down together again, until we all understand and agree on the direction that we need to go to set the city on the right financial path.

This is how we need to operate, to be seen as open and accountable.

"I like a little rebellion now and then. It's like a storm in the atmosphere." - Thomas Jefferson

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Some Really Good Budget Questions

All members of council got a good email from a city resident this week, posing some excellent and thoughtful questions about the draft budget. This individual had spent considerable time going through the document more thoroughly than some members of council, I’d be willing to bet, and I appreciate his taking the time to do so, then taking the time to send us an email and share his thoughts.

Here are some of his questions, paraphrased (my comments in italics):

  • The proposed costs for computer replacement - $60,000, or $1,500 each. Is that a reasonable amount to pay for a bulk purchase? Have we tendered out these purchases, to ensure best price?
  • Costs for a 2-man preventative maintenance team - $131,990. This is to maintain 48 city-owned facilities. Could some of these be sold to private operators? I’ve been asking for an inventory of city-owned facilities for some time. For instance, we own the Girl Guide Hall. Not that I have anything against Girl Guides, being married to someone who was both a Brownie and a Girl Guide, but why are we providing them with a building, and not other organizations that are just as worthy?
  • Revenues for the soccer centre are projected to be $214,530 in 2011. Even if these revenues are generated, this facility will be operating in the red this year. Are there contingency plans for further shortfalls? Or are there plans for reducing costs this year (by operating for fewer hours each day, for example)?
  • $130,960 to maintain the Social Development department, even though funding for this department from both the federal and provincial governments has been withdrawn. Why is the city trying to maintain this department? Should the city not get rid of it altogether? I’ve always questioned the need for this department, which was created when the current mayor took office. Its mandate is outside city responsibilities, and duplicates work done by both the federal and provincial governments. Funding that was provided by these levels of government was through grants for specific projects, which are now complete.
  • The road repair backlog is estimated to be $50 million dollars. $3.5 million is allocated in the budget for this year. This is the minimum that should be invested each year, so that the backlog doesn’t increase. This is one item that we probably should have paid more attention to before investing in new capital expenditures. This is analogous to fixing the leaky roof before you buy the big screen TV - good thinking for the future.
  • Increase to the PA Arts Board of $122,730 (a 65.5% increase). Perhaps this group should look at some fund-raising projects to raise their own funds. I’ve often wondered why we expect the SPCA to do major fund-raising, but have continued to increase funding to the Arts Board under the current mayor, without, at a minimum, getting the required financial statements that would show us where the money is being spent.

These are good questions, and they deserve good answers. They are excellent examples of the sorts of issues that should be raised in budget discussions – here are some areas where costs could be saved, here are some areas that should be made priorities, here are some mistakes that we should try to avoid in the future.

Since all members of council, as well as the city manager, received this email, I’m hopeful that we will have good discussion of these questions, and perhaps his questions will generate more from council. However, history would dictate that answers, or further discussion that might slow the process, will be discouraged.

Tomorrow we’re having another “strategic planning session” to further discuss the budget (read – meet behind closed doors about how we plan to spend your money). This will be after the council meeting, but presumably before the public budget meeting. And then, next Friday, we’ll be having our final budget committee meeting – open to the public, but no input allowed. As has been the case for the past few years, we’ve set aside two days, but have forewarned people that we usually rush the review through in one day. If we really wanted to show respect for questions such as those outlined above, we would be giving the whole budget process a lot more time for discussion, questions, and answers.

“He who establishes his argument by noise and command shows that his reason is weak” – Michel de Montaigne

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

New Year, Same Old Games

My apologies for my quietness on the blog front - I've been having a few computer issues. Hopefully this entry won't disappear into the ether.

Christmas was the usual relaxing time for us. Since most of our family is in Ontario, and we've chosen never to travel east at this hectic time of year, our celebrations are quiet, with just the four of us, although we did get a surprise visit from Santa on Christmas morning. Ingrid was able to be home with us from the day before Christmas Eve until yesterday - she also brought her three cats with her, but surprisingly there were few cat skirmishes. They establish their territories, and pretty much leave each other alone. Guthrie also had a four day break over Christmas, and fit in a one day road trip to Edmonton the day before New Year's Eve to see a concert. Andrea managed to take off most of the two weeks that she'd booked off, although she did go in for a couple of meetings, as well as to feed her office fish and water her plants.

So it was a good rest, with lazy days filled with relaxing, reading, watching old movies, enjoying the usual Christmas treats and traditions, and quiet evenings visiting with friends. We find it a great way to end off the year.

Of course, council also had a couple of weeks of no meetings. We did get the draft budget after our last meeting, and I've fielded a few phone calls and questions about my thoughts on it.

As is often the case, I have difficulties with the whole budget process. With previous mayors, council as a whole would give city administration direction before the budgeting process began, to set priorities and establish some basic principles. That no longer happens. I'm sure that administration gets direction, but it doesn't come from council as a whole. And for the first time in memory, we've been given three alternatives, much like the porridge in Goldilocks and the Three Bears - high, medium, and low, although even the low figure is well above inflation. One can rest assured that the high number won't be the final one - but you'll be expected to feel grateful, because, see, it could have been worse.

One of the faults of the way we've been budgeting lately is that there seems to be an assumption that we will just start with what we spent last year, and add to it, without reviewing to see if there are areas for improvement with our current spending practices. If you were preparing your own household budget, and your costs had risen faster than your income, your first step would be to look at what you were spending, and see if there were discretionary areas where you could reduce your costs, to help to bring things into balance. Perhaps you would decrease your cable package, or stop eating out as often, or buy generic brands rather than name brands at the grocery store. Similarly, administration and council could look at things such as staffing levels - are there positions that could be left vacant when someone leaves or retires, or are there projects that are complete, where positions could be abolished, or are there positions (such as the individual whose job it is to track the contributions to the soccer centre) that could probably be handled by someone else as part of their regular duties? Are there buildings that we pay costs for, either completely, or partially, where we should be making those who use those buildings pay for things such as utilities? Are there city facilities, such as the soccer centre, that could reduce their hours to save a few taxpayers' dollars? These are areas that we should look at, before we assume that we can just ding the taxpayer more and more each year, without showing any overall improvement in services - in fact, while falling behind on things like infrastructure maintenance.

The budget is in a new format - I'm not sure why. We actually had a special "strategic planning meeting" (no strategy, no planning, but some members of council tend to label meetings that they want to keep private with that name) after today's Executive Committee and Committee of the Whole meetings, where the new format was supposed to be explained to us. It lasted maybe twenty minutes, and I'm no more enlightened than I was before.

New format or not, I can see that we have been provided much less detail than in budgets of previous years. We're continuing down the slippery slope that was started last year when the Police Commission decided that council as a whole couldn't be trusted with seeing the police budget, even though some members of the Commission aren't elected (one doesn't even live in Prince Albert), and the police budget makes up one-third of the total budget, an amount that taxpayers certainly deserve to be able to review in detail. Last year's excuse was first, that they didn't want criminals to be able to figure out crime-fighting strategies from the budget, then it was that the Police Act prohibits the release of a the budget in detail, which is not true. Why they would even try such a lame excuse, when other cities (and Prince Albert, until last year), make their police budgets openly available, is beyond me.

In any case, the draft budget provides little detail about how your money will be spent, or what our priorities are. And yet, there are some on council who continue to insist that we operate in an open and accountable manner. To keep saying that, while doing the exact opposite, makes all of our actions questionable. It's the same as claims that all of council is involved in the final decisions about the budget, when the practice has been to rush through the process, discourage questions from both the public and members of council, and treat any disagreements as though they were evidence of high treason. And it's unfortunate, because it also makes claims that the good of the city is the foundation of all our discussions appear to be just another soundbite. Taxpayers deserve more substance than image, and most would welcome it, I'm sure.
"I not only use all the brains that I have, but all that I can borrow." - Woodrow Wilson