Sunday, June 17, 2012

My Bridge Inquiry

At the end of last week's Council Meeting, I made an inquiry that has set off a bit of a firestorm of public reaction.  I asked administration for the traffic volume that crosses the Diefenbaker Bridge every day, and, if there was a toll, what sort of revenues might be generated.

I made the inquiry mainly because this is an idea that occasionally gets mentioned as being a possible solution for our ongoing infrastructure funding woes, and I believe that if we're going to start bringing up ideas, then we need to do so as publicly as possible, so that the public has the chance to let us know their opinions.  As a council that has repeatedly said that it is open and accountable, that's what we need to do.  And the place to start is with some numbers, to assess the feasibility of the concept.

While the general public response has not been favourable to such an idea (the adjective bone-headed is one of the kinder descriptions that I've heard, for both the idea and me), tolls are used in other places.  In Halifax last June, when we were there for the Federation of Canadian Municipalities annual meeting, I was quite surprised when the cab stopped to pay a toll on the bridge between Dartmouth and Halifax.  When I asked the cab driver about it, he explained that there was a one dollar toll on both bridges between the two cities, but it was only a loonie, and the money went directly to pay for bridge maintenance.  Bridge and expressway tolls are quite common when travelling through the States, as well.  And in Toronto, one way of avoiding the congestion of Highway 401, as you bypass Toronto, is to travel the toll route of Highway 407, a privately built and maintained expressway that collects its fees by electronically recording your licence plate as you enter and exit, then sending you a bill.  We have found that the fees can be avoided with a Saskatchewan licence plate, but not with a rental car.  So the idea has been implemented successfully elsewhere.

We have to face the fact that Prince Albert has an ever-increasing infrastructure repair and maintenance deficit, and our budgets haven't been successful at addressing the issue - we've instead avoided talking about it, probably because such discussions aren't much fun.  The reality is that a city council has only two options within its control for raising money - taxes and user fees.  This particular council is limited by past decisions that have followed our desires for big city amenities without admitting that we don't have the big city industrial and residential tax base to pay for such facilities.  For many of these facilities, the user fees aren't sufficient to cover the ongoing costs, with the result that we raise taxes to make up the difference.  And to avoid having high tax increases, we have delayed maintenance and repair of the less glamorous, but still vital, infrastructure requirements like roads and water mains.  We can also appeal to higher levels of government for funding assistance, but this is usually limited to certain types of programs, for which they set the criteria.  And sadly, it's much easier to get, for example, $2 million from the province to help fund the construction of the soccer centre, than to get assistance with basic infrastructure maintenance.

And it's only going to get worse.  About the same time as we were having bridge problems last year, council and the province agreed to our participation in the Urban Connector Program.  In this program, highway sections that are within city limits which have been maintained by the provincial Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure, will become the responsibility of the city, after Highways and Infrastructure has brought these sections up to necessary standards.  So, at some point in the not too distant future, the city will have to fund maintenance and repair of the highway out to the pulp mill, and the Shellbrook overpass.  Our costs are going up, not down.  And money has to come from somewhere.

Despite the negative tone of much of the public feedback, I'm glad that people are interested enough to comment, and I've had several good discussions with city residents since last Monday, which is how it should be.  I'm also glad to see that many people are coming to the realization that we have to look at many options,  including how we're currently spending money, to see where we could cut back on unnecessary expenditures, and that perhaps raising user fees at city facilities, and charging non-city residents a higher fee for accessing these facilities, are ideas that should be considered.

One last thought - people have to remember that, if you want an open and accountable council, the open discussion of ideas has to be encouraged, not jumped upon.  There are far too many people on council who are reluctant to talk about things openly, because of the fear of negative public feedback.  The result of that is backroom discussions and decisions - not the open, democratic process that would likely produce better results for everyone.

"No idea is so outlandish that it should not be considered with a searching but at the same time a steady eye." - Winston Churchill

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Trying to Plug the Leaks

As well as Executive Meeting last Tuesday (delayed from Monday because of the wrap-up of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities conference in Saskatoon), we had a Special Council Meeting for the third reading to pass the new water rates.

As I've mentioned before, I voted against the new rates for several reasons, one of which is that I've seen no attempt by administration to deal with increasing water costs by doing anything except raise water rates.  In this case, the increase is greater for residential users than for commercial users, another reason why I couldn't support this increase.

One of the more disturbing pieces of information to come from administration is that, since 2006, the amount of water not accounted for, and thus not paid for, has increased by 80% - from 42 million cubic feet to 76 million cubic feet.  In the same time, residential use has decreased, probably because people are trying to keep their water bills manageable by reducing their usage.  So while those who are paying are trying to conserve, the amount of water that isn't being paid for is increasing, and this increasing waste is being paid for by city residents - no wonder the average residential water bill has increased by 50% over the same time period.

So where does this unaccounted water go?  Some of it is in leaks, some is through water main breaks, some is lost through fighting fires, some is due to incorrect water meter readings, and some is used in city-run facilities that don't pay for their water use, like City Hall, the golf course, the soccer centre, the Rawlinson Centre, and the City Yards.

It's time that we took a look at this, to stop pouring money down the drain.  To me, it makes sense to reduce the volume of unaccounted and unpaid for water.  I made a motion at Tuesday's meeting, asking administration to provide us with the volume of water that is used, but not paid for, at city facilities.  Although I was told last year that there were no water meters at these facilities, I've since found out, from a more reliable information source, that not only are there meters at, for example, the golf course, the soccer centre, and the Rawlinson Centre, but they are read on a regular basis.

To me, it only makes sense that these facilities account and pay for their water usage.  While there will be those who think that, because they are city facilities, we would only be moving money from one city pocket to another, we should be including these costs when we're calculating user fees, so that the user fees truly reflect the operating costs of the facility.  After all, if the library and the Girl Guide Hall can pay for the water they use, why shouldn't golfers?

For facilities like City Hall, where we don't charge user fees, we should be aware of what volume of water we use, and encourage staff to be thoughtful in their use.  Greater awareness of how much is being used could lead to reductions, for example, by not watering the grass around City Hall the day after it rains.  Or perhaps each department should be paying for their water use, as part of the budgeting process - the taxpayer would still be footing the bill, but through their taxes, not through their water bills.

We should also develop a plan to address the areas where water is lost.  For example, we should track water main breaks, and put those streets with high frequency of water main breaks on a priority list for water main replacement.  We should be tracking where leaks occur, and fix them. What is being done to improve the accuracy of meter readings?  Just like fixing a leaky tap or a running toilet in your home can lower your water bill, the city should be trying to lower its bills, not just pass the increased costs on to residents.

I'm looking forward to the report from administration, and I hope that council will then take meaningful steps to make payment for water use more equitable.

"When the well's dry, we know the worth of water." - Ben Franklin