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