Sunday, July 29, 2012

Trying a Carrot Rather Than a Stick

As a council, too often when we have a problem, we try solving it through punishment rather than through incentives.  I'm not sure why - perhaps because it's easier.  But it's only the first step that's easier - for example, passing a bylaw that will punish a certain behaviour.  In order for this to even start to have an impact, of course, a whole structure for implementation needs to be put into action, and that is often where the whole punishment idea falls flat.  That's why, for example, even though we may have an anti-spitting (and other disgusting habits) bylaw, people still spit on the streets.

Harder to do, but more effective in the long run, is using incentives to get people to change their behaviour, or even to prevent them from choosing wrong behaviours in the first place.  This is something that we can see happening in the school system.  When I was in grade school, misbehaviour frequently resulted in a student being sent to the principal's office to be given the strap - and, yes, I made more than one of those trips.  Today, the strap is a relic of the past, and at the same school where I was often being punished, my sister, who is now an educational assistant there, tells me that good behaviour is rewarded, when students who are caught behaving appropriately are given tokens which can be redeemed for small rewards.  And it's been found to be a much more effective way of getting students to behave in acceptable ways.

Now, I have no brilliant ideas on how we could use this approach to get people to stop spitting in public, or even the less disgusting but still anti-social and costly habit of littering.  And that might be why we continue to pass bylaws that we know will be difficult to enforce - at least we can be seen to be doing something.  But there are areas where I think that the carrot approach might work better than our current stick attempts.

One of the problems that Prince Albert has, particularly in older neighbourhoods, is vacant lots.  I'm speaking of the vacant lots where a house (or houses) once stood, but no longer.  They quickly become weed-covered, which causes problems for neighbouring yards, and can even become a place where less-desirable types gather.  In general, they just bring the neighbourhood down.

In an attempt to get the owners of these eyesores to take action, council decided to double the tax rate on vacant lots.  I think that the thought was that the punishment of the extra taxes would encourage the owners to take some kind of action - preferably to build a house, or sell the property to someone who would build a house on the lot.  Unfortunately, the punishment of the extra taxes hasn't had the desired result - I don't know of any vacant lots whose owners have been encouraged by this action to build.

So, if the stick hasn't worked, what sort of a carrot could we as council offer?  How about an incentive for someone wanting to build on these lots - maybe a tax reduction for a few years?  These are lots with a great deal to offer - the infrastructure of water, power and sewer is already in place, and services like roads, sidewalks, and parks are there too.  Providing new housing in older neighbourhoods helps with revitalization.  While tax revenue would be lower for the years of tax reduction, in the long run, tax revenues would be higher for a house than for a vacant lot.  Such a solution could be a win-win, with everyone, including the city, ending up better off than we are now.

Who knows - if we started looking at every problem this way, we might even be able to solve the spitting and littering problem.

"A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty." - Anonymous

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Ignoring Advice We've Paid For

As Council, we ask administration for advice and information.  We're not the experts (although some members of council might disagree with that) - our job is to take the advice and information and use it to help guide our decision making.  One of the areas in which some city staff have more expertise than council is community planning.  A community plan should be used to provide direction to help ensure that the ways in which a community grows are attractive, efficient and effective.

We currently have a community plan that's still in draft stage - that is, it hasn't been formally approved.  But some good thinking and common sense has gone into it, and I often wonder why we don't consider the advice available, even in draft form, when we make some of our decisions.

For example, at the last two council meetings we have approved high density developments - new condos.  The draft community plan recommends that such higher density developments should be built along major arterial routes, with consideration for amenities such as parks and bus routes.  The logic is that such amenities shouldn't be thought of after the development has been made, but as part of the planning process.

The two developments that council approved, one at each meeting, haven't considered this advice.  Both are in the far east end of the city - one on 1st Street East, the other east on Highway 302.

When new developments are built without consideration for currently available amenities, they will also cost the city more, because additional pressures are put on city services.  Snow removal, garbage pick-up, fire protection services, bus route extensions - when these have to be extended into new areas, it costs the city more.

I'm not against new developments.  I understand that they increase the tax base, which we sorely need.  But I think that if we have advice on how to make them more economical, so that we're not just at a break even (or worse) situation, but might actually have revenues increase faster than expenses, then we should follow that advice.  After all, we've paid for it.

"There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions.  Nothing pains some people more than having to think." - Martin Luther King Jr.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Why Asking Questions is not Being Negative

Some of the comments after last week's entry about questions that I have after reviewing the financial statements for the Arts Board, including the Rawlinson Centre, focused, not on the questions, but on my alleged constant negativity.  I found this interesting for a couple of reasons.  First, I deliberately started the entry by saying how much I enjoy attending a wide variety of functions at the EAR, and that it is a wonderful facility.  However, going through the financial statements raised a number of troubling questions.  Asking these questions doesn't mean that I want the facility to close; it means that I want it to function well, within the rules and policies that have been developed; it means that I think that council needs to do a better job of ensuring that the tax payers' dollars that are used for this facility are spent as efficiently as possible.  Second, those complaining about my negativity did not address the concerns that I raised, or provide any explanations.  I guess it's easier just to resort to name calling, rather than providing constructive input.

Apparently, in the minds of some, asking questions is just being negative.  I'd be interested to know if they follow that same principle in their own lives, just going along with and approving whatever happens, because to do otherwise is to be negative.  If a mistake is made in their order at a restaurant, they wouldn't question it, because that would mean that the restaurant was terrible.  If an item at the grocery store is scanned incorrectly, with a higher price being charged, they wouldn't question it, because that would mean that the grocery store was terrible.  If an employee consistently comes in late, they wouldn't mention it, because that would mean that hiring that employee had been a mistake, and the employee was terrible.

However, most of us are reasonable enough to recognize that mistakes happen, and asking questions about what led to those mistakes may result in improvements to service.  Most businesses would much rather you brought problems to their attention, so that they can make improvements, rather than losing your business, and possibly the business of others, who may have had similar problems.  That chronically late employee?  Unless you ask, you won't learn the reason for their lateness, and they won't learn that punctuality is important in your workplace.

The unfortunate culture of the day at city council is that to ask questions is not acceptable, because it suggests that the way the city is run is not perfect.  I'm not sure where the Utopia is that some members of council seem to have come from, but my experience is that, even if something is going well, you can probably improve things.  That's actually the basis of the principle of continual improvement - a principle that most successful businesses and organizations have adopted as a fundamental way of doing things.

If we don't answer questions, if we don't figure out what led to problems, then we can't even start to improve things.  Constant cheer leading doesn't bring about change, it just leads to complacency.

I've mentioned before about the experience that my children had when they were in the local music festival - the adjudicators always told all the participants how they could do better, and this often came after the adjudicator had asked questions about how their performance had come about.  If children can be expected to take criticism and use it to improve, why is it so hard for city council?

"If you're really good, then you know you can be better." - Lindsay Buckingham

Monday, July 2, 2012

Finally, Financials from the Rawlinson (well, some of them)

Let me start by saying that the EA Rawlinson Centre for the Arts is a wonderful facility.  With the exception of City Hall and the library, I probably go there more often than I go to any other city facility.  I've been to plays, dance recitals, concerts, comedy performances, at least one conference, and both Vinyl Cafe events, and had a great time.

And let me also say that I appreciate the invaluable support that the volunteers who help run the events there provide.  Like most volunteers, they give their own time because they support having this facility in their community.

But these two facts - the quality of the facility and the efforts of the volunteers - do not allow me to ignore my responsibilities to the citizens of Prince Albert.  The value of the facility and the volunteers does not give those who run the place the option of not providing the information that is required before getting a share of tax payers' dollars, nor does it mean that questions about those same operations shouldn't be allowed.

Council has, for too many years, approved budget increases for the EAR, through the Arts Board, without requiring that they submit the financial reports and budget that other facilities, such as the SPCA, the library, and the Tourism Board, routinely provide, without complaining, before the budget is provided to council and the public.  And the increases have not been insignificant - in 2007, the grant provided by the city was $97,000.  This year, 2012, the grant is $287,270.  And council has approved these increases without receiving any financial reports on how the money is spent, without a budget showing how the money is planned to be spent, and without any written communication from the Arts Board as to why such increases are necessary.

I've been asking for financial reports for years, and my requests have been dismissed, with other members of council often citing what a wonderful facility the EAR is, or suggesting that, by asking for financial reports, I'm insulting the volunteers.  Despite these red herrings, we've finally received, in June, the audited financial statements for the years 2008, 2009, and 2010.  I'm not sure why the delay - the reports indicate that the 2008 report was prepared July 29, 2009, the 2009 report was prepared January 20, 2011, and the 2010 report was prepared October 18, 2011.  The documents were ready, but for some reason, no one could find the time to walk them over to City Hall.

Now that we have the long-awaited financials, questions are bound to arise (even though some members of council equate asking questions to attacking the facility).  One of mine has to do with the two transfers of money that occurred in 2009 and 2010.  This money was in the Capital Reserve Fund, a fund that is made up of a fee that is charged on each ticket sold.  This is a good thing - a user fee being set aside for future needs, rather than going to the tax payer when the inevitable problems happen. The Capital Reserve Fund is intended to be kept in reserve for future capital expenditures - when the building needs major repair or renovation.  It is not intended to be used for operating expenses, and to prevent this from happening, city council is required to approve any expenditures from this fund.

However, in 2009, $123,468 was transferred from this fund to the Operating Fund.  In 2010, a similar transfer was made, this time the amount was $140,725.  Council approval was not requested in either case.  Since this isn't allowed, the financial report has presented these transfers as a loan.

I would love to hear an explanation - how did this happen?  when were you going to tell us? -  from the members of council who sit on the EAR Governance Committee, but I didn't get one when I asked the question at last Monday's council meeting.  I also made a motion asking that we see this year's budget on a quarterly basis, and have it reviewed by Financial Services, to ensure that such unpleasant surprises won't happen again.  After all, we see the budgets for other facilities before we do up the city budget, and since we haven't seen the EAR budget yet, this seems logical.  Not only that, but there is now the "loan" from the Capital Reserves to be repaid - I'd like to see the repayment plan.  Much to my surprise, because I thought that keeping tighter tabs on an organization that hasn't been able to meet end of year deadlines, and whose budget keeps leaping upwards, was a no-brainer, only Councillors Miller and Whitehead agreed with me.  The rest still find it easier to go along with the majority, perhaps for fear of upsetting some people.  Me, I'm more concerned about the reactions of the people who elected me - they're the ones I feel responsible to.

You can view the financial reports for yourself, by going to the City of PA website, then go to City Council, then Meetings and Agendas.  Click on the City Council Meeting Agenda for 2012-06-25, and scroll down to page 40.  If, like me, you've long had questions about how much money it costs to run that place, you should find it quite interesting reading.

"In my life, the daily battle hasn't been good versus evil.  It's hardly so epic.  Most days, my real battle is doing good versus doing nothing." - Deirdre Sullivan