Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Now There's a Thought - Let's Look at Our Spending

The blog has been quiet for a few weeks.  Andrea and I took advantage of a Via Rail seat sale which nicely coincided with her return to good health, to go to Ontario for a couple of weeks to visit family and friends.

On the agenda for my first council meeting back, there was a report on various tax tools that we could use to get more money out of tax-payers' pockets.  I saw this as an opportunity to suggest that, instead of thinking that our only solution to financial problems is to hit up the taxpayer, we could instead examine how we currently spend money, and see if there are efficiencies to be found there.

I suggest this every year as we're going through the budget process.  Every year this suggestion has been ignored by most members of council.  The assumption has been that we will continue to spend money as we've always spent it, even though, when times are tough, we might not need to spend $40,000 each year on floral decorations, for example.  But we don't even discuss the necessity of such expenditures, or even if we could spend less, or if there are alternatives to having barrels of petunias set out on Memorial Square.

Imagine my surprise, when other members of council thought that this might be a valuable exercise (although a couple were of the opinion that this is already happening), and we have agreed to ask the city manager to prepare a report on how we could do this, and what processes other municipalities have used in such reviews.  Coincidentally, this was also the topic of a panel discussion at the pre-Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) meeting that many senior staff attended in Saskatoon this week, so they should already have picked up some valuable ideas that they can use.

I think that for maximum value, we want more than a service review, such as the one that Saskatoon went through this past year.  That was more of an evaluation of what areas of expenditure are most valued by residents.  I would like to see a review that combined that sort of evaluation with an examination of how expenditures could be made more efficiently.

For example, there's no question that police need to buy new vehicles periodically.  However, an examination of how such an expenditure is made could  show that other municipalities replace their police vehicles less frequently, or find that less expensive vehicles are adequate for police work - that's where real savings could occur.

Are staff being used most efficiently?  Previous mayors managed to share one secretary with the city manager.  Now, the mayor has two secretaries, the city manager has one (plus other staff with vague job titles).  Are all these support staff really necessary?

I think that all areas of expenditures should be looked at - staffing, capital, operational.  For this to really work, there should be no sacred cows.

Along with most members of council, I'll be attending FCM in Saskatoon this weekend.  I'll be looking to talk with representatives from other cities to find out, not just how they've done such reviews, but how they've been able to put their findings into practice.

"If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it." - Abraham Lincoln

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Second Bridge Campaign

No question, Prince Albert needs a second bridge.  I've lived here more than thirty years, and people have been talking about the need for at least that long, and no doubt longer than that.  Last year's bridge repairs certainly underlined the importance of the bridge for both businesses and the general public, and kicked it to the forefront of discussion once again.

Having said that, I'm not sure of the usefulness of the current Build a Second Bridge campaign.  The purpose of this campaign is to encourage surrounding municipalities, businesses, and residents to send a letter to the mayor's office, indicating support for a second bridge.  These letters will be collected and presented to the Premier and Cabinet. A budget of almost $12,000 has been identified for what is really just a high-priced petitioning exercise - an exercise that the provincial government has already indicated won't loosen up any more money.

Now, I'm sure there are those that will say that perhaps the powers-that-be in Regina might be swayed by a massive volume of letters dumped onto someone's desk.  Even if I believed that, I don't think that we need to spend thousands of tax-payers dollars to do this.

The budget proposes spending $500 on paper and printing, $3,500 on developing the web-site, $1,700 for postage, $1,000 for stickers, and $5,000 on media advertising.  I'm a little surprised that city staff couldn't develop the web-site (and it should have been proof-read a little more closely).  In this age of email, postage and paper costs shouldn't be necessary - certainly not close to $2,200 worth.  If we really want to overwhelm Regina with numbers, why not have petitions available for signing at city hall, and at supporting businesses - people are far more likely to sign a petition than go to the trouble of writing a letter on their own.

The bulk of the money ($4,000 so far) is going to pay for TV and radio advertising to support this effort, and in this day of cable, I doubt that it will be all that effective.

How much more effective it would have been if the province's bridge report had been made available both to all members of council as well as the public, when it was completed in 2008.  We could have started discussions with the province on how to make a new bridge a reality, not just an ongoing topic of conversation.  Instead, a few individuals chose to ask for changes to the report, apparently because it didn't include a recommendation that a new bridge be within city limits.

More than four years later, the only action that we're taking is to spend money to tell the provincial government something that they're already aware of, to make it look as if we're doing something.  And we're spending your money, already in tight supply, to do this.

"The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits." - Albert Einstein