Sunday, February 26, 2012

None of Us is as Smart as All of Us

One of the oddities of a democracy is that there is no entrance exam, no educational prerequisites, no relevant experience that a candidate is required to have before getting nominated for election. To run for Prince Albert City Council, all you need is the specified number of eligible signatures on a nomination form and a financial deposit, and your name goes on the ballot. For city councillors, you have to live within the city boundaries, but not within the ward that you plan on representing.

One hopes that the electors take a variety of factors into consideration before casting a vote for their preferred candidate, but that's another one of the oddities of democracy. An elector is free to vote for whomever they wish, for whatever reasons that they consider important. No testing of what the issues are, or awareness of who the candidates are, just prove that you are who you say you are, and you're given a ballot to mark. And you have no legal obligation to vote, which is part of the reason why voter turnout tends to decrease every year.

But this oddity is also one of the beauties of democracy. People are elected to carry forward the views of those whom they represent, and then, collectively, to develop solutions to solve the problems of the community. The democratic system does not assume that the people who are elected have all the answers; it assumes that the collective thinking of a group of representatives of a community will come up with the best solutions that will work because they will have included a wide range of information and input.

But even this group of nine, in the case of city council, doesn't have all the answers. We have experts in various fields as part of city administration, with the expectation that they will provide us with the best possible advice before we have to make the decisions that, ultimately, we are held responsible for. And we understand that our experts don't have all the answers either - they need to ask others for advice and information when circumstances require it. A good example of this is the current water situation - city staff are working with Environment employees, not just on developing a solution for making our drinking water safe, but they're also getting assistance and advice on how best to keep the public informed, because Environment employees have much more experience on how to do this during an emergency.

Members of city council also have an obligation to ask questions to find the best possible solutions. That's the main reason why we attend conferences - to find out how other cities deal with similar problems, then bring back what we've heard and share it with others, both other council members and city staff. And we should also use our informal networks - the people that we know who have training or experience in specific areas. For example, if I have a question about boulevard trees, I'll go first to Andrea, because that's what both her education and career have been focused on for more than thirty years, and there's no one who works for the city who has that kind of background. But if I have a question about tree insects, she will direct me to her colleague who specializes in that particular area - he can provide better advice in that area than she can.

So that's how democracy can work to come up with the best solutions. Where things fail is if anyone in the chain of information gathering thinks that they know it all, and thus don't need to ask questions or seek advice, or accept advice when it's offered. Things can also fail if those we expect to provide us with the best information don't give us all of the relevant information, for whatever reason. And it really fails when those of us who are going to be responsible for the final decision don't ask enough questions, or accept answers that seem odd, or criticize those who are trying to find more information, because we're in a rush to get things done, or would rather that certain information doesn't come to light.

As is often the case, it comes down to basic communication. We need to pay attention, and listen, to those who know more than we do. And once we've listened, we need to take into account all of the information that we have, and use it to make a decision. Not everybody will agree with every decision that we make, but if we truly followed this process, our decisions would be defensible, and more likely to be supported by those who elected us to represent them.

"To listen is an effort; just to hear has no merit. A duck hears also." - Igor Stravinsky

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Some More Thoughts on the Budget

We had our first vote on this year's budget at last week's council meeting. The final vote won't happen until mid-March, as no council meetings are scheduled until then.

I voted against this budget, because I can't support many parts of it. It's unfortunate, because early in the process we were given valuable information about expenditures and projected building maintenance costs, but we didn't really follow through with any of this information in our budget discussions.

We're still not being given the police budget in any serious detail. This actually is the third format for the police budget in as many years, and it's still not laid out as clearly as, for example, the Saskatoon police budget. At least we aren't being told that it's illegal for us to see the details, which we were told three years ago. But changing formats, while not providing much detail, doesn't help in the interpretation.

The format for the capital budget was changed this year as well. It makes it difficult to compare year over year changes, as well as to track where certain expenditures are. Working through a budget of several hundred pages is difficult enough without such changes. I wish that the energy used in coming up with new formats instead went to figuring out where money could be saved.

These are process and presentation problems, but the more serious problems that I have are with the inadequacy of what is being proposed, as far as making a realistic attempt at developing a budget that will allow the city to take care of its current obligations, while setting something aside for emergencies and planning for future needs.

I'll give a few examples.

The budget assumes that expenditures for certain items will remain the same, even though we know that these same items will increase in cost. We know that the cost for snow removal will likely increase because of increased costs for staff, equipment maintenance, fuel, sand and salt; we know that we ran out of snow removal money in November; we know that this winter, luckily for us, was extremely easy as far as snow removal goes; but the budgeted amount for snow removal is the same as last year - $490,490. That's as short-sighted as assuming that fuel costs for your car will remain the same, even as you can see the price at the gas station increasing.

Another oddity - our budget for street-sweeping has actually decreased. When I asked for an explanation, administration didn't have one. As far as I know, we still have the same number of streets (and more, with new development), but somehow we think that this can be done for less money.

Speaking of being short-sighted, we are planning to make no contributions to the fiscal stabilization fund. This is a fund to which contributions should be made every year, so that when an emergency does occur, such as a blizzard, or a windstorm, or even a water treatment issue, we can access this money, rather than going into debt or telling the taxpayer that they're going to have to pay more. I'm sure that some will say that the water utility fees should handle the water treatment issue, but let's be honest here - it's all money coming from the taxpayer, and in an emergency situation, wouldn't it be nice to have money there to access?

Six years ago, we had more than $2 million in the fiscal stabilization fund. Last year was the first year since then that we directed any money back. That fund is now at about 10% of where it was six years ago, having been spent on such emergencies as Neat and Clean and new carpeting and furniture at City Hall. So, even when you have such a fund, council has to understand that it isn't to be used as a slush fund for nice-to-haves.

And finally, I feel that we are still spending far too much on non-essentials, and falling further behind in maintaining infrastructure, even after being informed of how badly we are underspending in these basic areas. Individually, some of these numbers may seem relatively insignificant in the total budget, but if we hadn't spent $40,000 each year on floral decorations over the past six years, we could have put almost a quarter of a million dollars towards road maintenance. The $50,000 that goes to advertising on local radio means $300,000 that could have been redirected to something more important to the tax payer than a once a week infomercial.

As a councillor, I cannot support a budget that has all these problems, particularly when none of them are unsolvable. It's unfortunate that no council or executive meetings are scheduled while the mayor is on his annual winter holiday. It's time wasted, time that could be spent as a council trying to find solutions and improve the budget, rather than just marking time until mid-March, when the sadly predictable final vote will happen, and council once again approves an inadequate budget that will allow money to be misspent and infrastructure to continue to deteriorate.

"A budget is telling your money where to go, rather than wondering where it went." - John C. Maxwell

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Troubled Waters

I've been part of city council for more than ten years, and the public outcry following the boil water order is the greatest I've seen in that time. Whether we've been shopping at the grocery store, having coffee at the Bison, or talking to friends at church, people have been stopping me to ask questions and let me know how angry they are.

They're angry because they are paying for an essential service that they are not getting.

They're angry because they are having to assume extra costs to ensure that they and their families, or if they run a business, their customers, don't get sick. It's more than inconvenient, it costs money, whether to buy bottled water, or in increased energy costs to boil water for cooking, drinking, and washing.

They're angry because they feel that this council has spent money wastefully, on nice-to-haves, while not taking care of the necessities.

They're angry because nobody from the city has said that they're sorry, or has shown much empathy for what residents are having to do to cope with the situation.

And they're angry because they're being told that their costs for this essential service that they're not currently receiving are going to go up (over and above the annual 7% increase that was put in place a few years back), because this council only looks at one way of solving a problem, and that way is to hit the taxpayer right in the wallet, rather than looking for alternative solutions.

I don't blame them. While some commenters on news media web-sites are quick to call people whiners, because in the olden days people had to haul water, or because in other countries there is no assurance of clean drinking water, they're ignoring the fact that, unlike in those situations, we pay our water bills based on the premise that we should be able to drink the water that comes out of the tap without worrying that we might get sick because of it.

At our house, our lives have been inconvenienced by this. We've bought bottled water, we've boiled water for the prescribed more than a minute, we've put water bottles in the bathroom for teeth brushing purposes, and we've started using the dishwasher rather than Andrea's preferred method of washing by hand. And I consider that we're lucky - we can afford to do all of these things, and we have no small children to consider. But for lower income families, families with infants and small children, seniors, or those who need to be extra cautious for health reasons, this goes beyond mere inconvenience.

And for businesses, who are faced with the double whammy of increased costs coupled with lower revenues after having to close temporarily, and then having fewer customers, the costs are very real.

At least the messages coming out of City Hall are getting clearer. The press conference on Friday was a big improvement over the one that I attended earlier in the week. Colin Innes presented a very clear picture on the steps that need to be followed before the boil water order can be lifted. Rather than trying to paraphrase what he said, because I think that providing this sort of information is best left to the experts, I would suggest that you go to the city's web-site to view the video of the press conference - you can find in in the Boil Water Update section.

That's one of the questions that people want an answer to - "What has to happen before I can drink the water?" The others are "How did this happen?" and "What is the city going to do to make sure that this doesn't happen again?" Beyond discussion of either a broken or a faulty valve causing the problem, complicated by the ongoing upgrades at the water plant, which have taken much of it off-line, I'm not sure that we've been given a clear answer. And I haven't heard anyone say what will be done differently to ensure that, even in this ongoing higher risk time while construction continues, we won't be put back into this situation.

This week's council meeting does give us an opportunity to demonstrate that we now understand the difference between wants and needs. We are scheduled to vote on next year's budget that includes increased spending on wants - floral decorations ($40,000), a new bylaw officer downtown ($30,000 - something that should be part of the police budget, in my opinion), an additional $150,000 to the Arts Board, which is used to run the Rawlinson Centre - their funding now goes to $447,270), and the more than $200,000 that was redirected at the last minute from city maintenance to a number of special interest projects, including the Historical Society, Tourism, the Rotary Trail, and skunk control). That's just a few off the top of my head.

Again, I'm not disputing that, in better times, these aren't worthy projects. My point is that they are not needs, but wants. And when you're short of money, you start by cutting back on the wants.

So at Monday's meeting, we could send the budget back for a serious reworking, instructing administration to look at everything, not just new expenditures. We could delay voting on the increase in water rates until we get a reworked budget that takes money from wants and puts it towards needs. We could delay decisions on other discretionary spending, and put a freeze on hiring and out-of-scope raises. We could stop behaving as though the taxpayers' pockets have infinite depth.

While we're at it, I think that we should stop including a sanitation charge on the water bill. That goes to the landfill and garbage pick-up, and should rightfully be put back into the general budget, where it was taken from a few years back to keep the tax increase down. Let's treat the water utility like a utility, and start billing monthly, but focus it on the provision of water.

I think that we should also look at city facilities that use water without cost. I believe that the rule of thumb used in setting user fees is that they should cover 40% of the total costs. If we don't include the costs of water for facilities such as the golf course or the soccer centre (remember how badly we needed those underground sprinklers?), then we're missing a large portion of the real costs when we calculate user fees, and letting the taxpayer subsidize the users even more.

I don't think that it's unreasonable to ask administration to think outside their usual box of increased tax solutions. It's time that council showed some leadership that demonstrates that we're actually aware of the concerns of the average citizen, and change our direction to help to address those concerns.

"Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink." - Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Sunday, February 5, 2012

It's a Budget Miracle!

One can't help but be amazed by the various miracles that have occurred throughout this year's budgeting process. I'm surprised that no one has leaped to their feet to shout Hallelujah - perhaps that will happen at the next council meeting, when we vote (to use the term loosely, since voting surprises are few and far between with this council) on the proposed budget.

You may recall that in late fall, we were given a much-welcomed financial overview by city administration, which indicated that, just to maintain our current level of spending, a tax increase of 5.5% would be required. This overview also showed that, in the critical area of street maintenance, our current level of expenditure was less than half of what is required. In other words, even with an increase of 5.5%, we would continue to fall behind in keeping our roads repaired.

To me, this very clear message meant that we should be looking at ways of decreasing current expenditures, and raising revenues through other ways, such as increasing user fees. Applying all three tactics - cut back on what you're currently spending, look at other revenue sources, and then figure out what tax increase is required, is the only sensible way to approach setting a budget.

I had, of course, not thought of the "relying on a miracle" solution.

Imagine my surprise when, even after we had been through the financial update with city staff, the mayor sent out an email to all the councillors, asking if we could live with a 3.9% residential tax increase. We did not discuss this as a group at all - the number just appeared.

And then, the budget that is brought forward contains this very same 3.9% increase, with no cuts to services, and only minimal increases to user fees. No credible explanation for the drop in what was required has been provided - in fact, we are now being told that we now have increased revenue from new developments, even though the financial overview that had just been presented indicated that the new developments were not providing any increase in revenue, due to assessment adjustments.

And the miracles continued. At the public meeting on the budget, several community groups came forward to ask for additional money. A concerned citizen came to the last council meeting, asking for more money for skunk control. And lo and behold, on the morning of the budget meeting, we found on our desks information that indicated that we had found exactly enough money to satisfy all of these requests! And where was this money found? Why, by taking it away from various maintenance projects (which weren't specified). Whether this is from building repairs, sidewalk repairs...who knows? Are they less essential than giving the museum more money to hire a full-time curator, or finishing the Rotary Trail? I would think not. But if you don't know what maintenance work has been postponed, you don't know what the costs and risks of postponement are, so you're being asked to make a decision without all of the salient information.

I did suggest that perhaps, if this money really isn't needed for that which it had been budgeted, it could be directed to where we know there is a shortfall - road maintenance. But no, most of council felt that it was better to give money to non-essential interest group projects. It is, after all, an election year (not that anybody said that out loud) - a time to spend money out of voters' pockets to show them how responsive council is.

I did find it rather ironic, at SUMA last week, to find that we consider infrastructure a priority, and expect the province to kick in more money to help. I'd feel better about such requests if we could demonstrate that, as a city, we're doing all that we can to spend your money wisely, before we go to another level of government, expecting them to cough up more of your money.

But that would be another miracle.

"The truth of the matter is that you always know the right thing to do. The hard part is doing it." - Norman Schwarzkopf