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