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