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