Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Spice of Life

One thing that I'm sure the other members of council would agree on - this is not a job that is ever boring.  The scope of topics that fall within the responsibility of council is pretty wide, and we always have multiple options to consider and discuss.  In fact, if we don't take the time to consider new and different ways of approaching old problems, we're not going to make any headway on some long-standing problems.  As Dr. Phil might say, if you keep doing what you're doing, you're going to keep getting what you're getting.

The scope ranges from the basics of making sure that drinking water is clean, that streets get plowed, and that garbage is picked up, to the longer range concerns about how to encourage economic development and finance big expenditures.

To give a few examples of the variety of topics that we'll be dealing with over the next few months, as we develop the budget:

The airport is one of the topics that I think needs much more public discussion, to figure out how we can make it a more attractive amenity.  For instance, the land is owned by the city, and the current users out there have leases.  I think that we should discuss the option of selling some of the land, so that businesses that choose to locate out there have some incentive to make capital improvements.  Right now, it's almost a lose-lose proposition, with the city not making much  money, and businesses out there reluctant to make major investments to improve their properties, and thus the area, making it more attractive to other businesses.

Another topic coming forward is the need to expand our recycling program.  Increasing the volume of material that goes for recycling means less going to the landfill, which increases its lifespan, putting off the time when we will have to find more land for our garbage.  Our current recycling system relies on people to self-sort out paper and plastic milk jugs, either in individual blue bins, or in communal ones in back alleys.  There is also a plastic recycling service, for a reasonable fee of ten dollars a month, which picks up plastics every two weeks.

There has been some discussion about expanding the current system, so that plastics as well as paper and milk jugs, are all tossed into the same bins that we have now.  I think that before we go down that path, we need to recognize that the current system isn't working particularly well - garbage is often found in the blue bins, and when that happens, the bin is treated as another garbage bin, and its contents are taken to the landfill.  This is extremely discouraging to those of us who try to do the right thing, and it's one reason why my family subscribes to the plastic system - at least we know that the material that we put out every two weeks won't be headed to the landfill.

I think that we need to explore the idea of making recycling optional.  If you choose to have a blue bin, you could get a rebate on the sanitation charge that appears on your water bill.  If you aren't going to bother with recycling, then you would pay the full rate.  And if you took a bin, but put garbage in it, you would lose both the bin and the rebate.

And as a final example of our variety, we have the ongoing issues around the downtown area.  Those merchants who still remain downtown face a range of frustrating circumstances, such as parking limitations, aging buildings, and the ongoing perception of higher crime in the area.  I know that various initiatives have tried to bring more people into the area, with summer street fairs probably being the best and most successful example of these.  I was disappointed that this year, nothing was organized for the Christmas season, after one downtown block last year tried a one day fair that was quite enjoyable, and brought many people in.  Perhaps it's time to look at the current structure and functioning of the Business Improvement District Association, and see if there is a way for it to become a better advocate of the businesses that it represents, with a focus on more ongoing activities, rather than one or two special events every year.

As I said, these are just three examples of the variety of issues that council deals with, all of them with both short and long term implications.  We have to bring energy and ideas to everything that comes before us, and be careful not to fall into the trap of keeping on with what we're doing, because there's always going to be ways of doing it better.

"Two cheers for democracy: one, because it admits variety, and two, because it permits criticism." - E.M. Forster

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Keeping the Field Unlevel

With the setting of user fees for the golf course at last week's council meeting, we've once again missed the opportunity to level the playing field among city facilities.

The golf course does not pay for the water that it uses, which is considerable.  Neither do the Rawlinson Centre, or the soccer centre, or City Hall.  However, city-owned facilities like the library and the Girl Guide Hall do pay for the water that they use, and have to include it in their operating budgets.  And of course, residents and businesses have to pay for their water use.

What this means is that those facilities, businesses and home owners who do pay for their water are subsidizing the facilities that don't pay, because somebody has to cover the costs.  I don't know about you, but I think that it would be a lot fairer if all the costs for a facility are included when setting user fees, and I can't think of a single solid reason why we should exempt certain facilities.

Last year, the last time that fees for the golf course were set, I asked city administration for the water usage and related costs for all city facilities.  I know that these are available - there are water meters in all buildings, and they're read regularly.  However, like many of my inquiries in previous councils, I have yet to get an answer.  I'll be asking again, and now we have the new policy for an answer within 30 days, so I'm more hopeful of a result this time.

The proposed golf course fees, interestingly, are prepared by the Golf Course Advisory Board.  The members of this board, all of whom are golfers, say that their main concern is keeping rates low to attract more players (which, coincidentally, also saves them money).  I understand the need to attract users, but I believe that they should still have to pay a fair portion of what it costs to keep the place running, and until water rates are included as part of the user fees calculation, that isn't happening.

But this council has voted to accept the rates proposed by the Board.  The rationale proposed by some of the councillors who support this is that, by golly, raising the rates might discourage people, particularly those from out of town, from golfing there.  Personally, I don't think that adding a buck or two to the rate for what is a recreational activity indulged in by people who have that kind of discretionary money to spend is going to stop too many of them.

The result will be, of course, that the water rates of people on fixed incomes, like seniors, will continue to subsidize people who are participating in a recreational activity, which isn't fair.  I'm looking forward to our next discussion on raising residential water rates, which have increased several times over the last six years, and we're still being told that the current ongoing increases aren't going to be enough.  The arguments of the five councillors who supported this inequity should be interesting.

In talking to one of those councillors after the meeting, he said that he thought that we should treat all city facilities the same.  He's right, of course, but considering that right now, we're not doing that, I'm quite willing to work towards levelling the playing field one facility at a time, whenever the opportunity presents itself.

"Because we tend to be biased in favour of our own viewpoint, it is important to keep the standard of fairness at the forefront of our thinking.  This is especially important when the situation may call on us to see things we don't want to see, or give something up that we don't want to." - Linda Eller