Sunday, December 15, 2013

Creating New Traditions

Christmas is a time of traditions - I'm sure that every family has some traditions that go back generations.  Of course, times change, or perhaps some of the traditions of your youth weren't your favourites, or didn't fit with your spouse's traditions when you got married, so you adopt new traditions.  My personal favourite tradition is to spend the day in pyjamas and bathrobe, drinking coffee and enjoying Andrea's cinnamon rolls, watching the family open stockings and gifts, watching old movies (bring on Alistair Sim and Scrooge), and having a wonderful turkey dinner with a special bottle of wine.

One of Andrea's family traditions, from the Scandinavian side, involved having rice pudding for dessert on Christmas Eve - a huge bowl of rice pudding, with a single almond, was passed around the table until the pudding was gone.  Whoever found the almond was supposed to have good luck for the year, and part of the fun was keeping your good luck a secret for as long as possible.  Apparently Andrea's father was a master at hiding the almond in his cheek until the end of the meal - it probably helped that he was also quite fond of rice pudding.  Andrea, on the other hand, doesn't like rice pudding, so while we lived in Ontario, if we were spending Christmas in North Bay, we had rice pudding, but once we moved out here, no more rice pudding.  The tradition that we've developed over the years is to have ice cream cake for Christmas Eve dessert - something that we all like, despite its lack of connection to our past.

On the other hand, I don't like plum pudding or mince pie for Christmas dinner dessert.  While Andrea does, instead she makes a chocolate cheesecake for dessert, and I appreciate her adjusting the tradition.  That's what we need to remember about traditions - they only work while people are willing to continue to follow them.  If they don't fit, for whatever reason, it's a mistake to just keep hanging on to doing things are certain way because that's how it's always been done.

One tradition my family had when I was a kid was to take a trip into Toronto at Christmas time.  Fergus is a little over an hour from Toronto, and while I'm sure the main purpose of the trip was so that my parents could do some shopping in the big city, the highlight for me was looking in Simpson's windows.  The Simpson's store downtown (since taken over by the Bay) had elaborately decorated windows in the four corners of their building, usually around a similar Christmas theme - not with the purpose of displaying what was for sale, but purely for the entertainment, and there was always a crowd around the windows.  After we were married, Andrea and I would always make a point of going down on a December evening to join the crowds and marvel at the creativeness of the window decorators.

That's why I was happy to hear of the Downtown Business Improvement District's idea this year to have various downtown stores and businesses reveal a specially decorated window, one a day over the first 24 days of December.  While the extreme cold weather of the last week or so hasn't helped, it's something a little different to bring people downtown, and perhaps visit a store that they wouldn't normally think to drop into.  Hopefully the next ten days will be milder, and more people will get out to appreciate the extra efforts these businesses have put in.

The reason that many people give for not spending more time downtown is that they don't feel safe there.  While increased foot patrols are a help, the real key, I think, is to give more reasons for people to go downtown - more people makes a place feel safer.  I'm not saying that one single action will change the atmosphere overnight, but change is accomplished through baby steps, and these specially decorated windows are an excellent baby step, developed by the businesses themselves, and accomplished without any additional tax payers' dollars.

So if you're looking to establish a new Christmas tradition, why not spend a half hour or so in the next ten days walking up and down Central Avenue, admiring the windows.  You even have the opportunity to vote for your favourite.  We need to spend more time at Christmas slowing down to enjoy the season, and this is a perfect opportunity.

And whatever your favourite Christmas traditions, enjoy the season.

"At Christmas play and make good cheer, for Christmas comes but once a year." - Thomas Tusser

Sunday, November 24, 2013

You Can Either Be a Good Example, or a Horrible Warning

Over the last few weeks, I think that the topic most frequently raised with me is the situation that Toronto City Council now finds itself in, thanks to the behaviour of its mayor, Rob Ford.  I was appalled last week when I watched the news coverage of Monday's council meeting, as councillors took what action they could to limit the mayor's influence and control over council meetings and agendas.  The sight of the mayor (and his brother), walking around council chambers, yelling at other members of council and the public gallery, was shocking and disgraceful.  The result, of course, is that Ford now is mayor in name only, while control of meetings and agendas now rests with the deputy mayor.  I'm sure that it must be a relief to both councillors and city hall staff that they can now refocus on city business, rather than responding to media questions about the mayor's faux pas of the day.

The question that seems to come most often is "why can't they just remove him from being mayor?"  The answer to that is, of course, because council did not elect him, so they can't remove him from office.  Lack of control in one's personal life, and the subsequent refusal to take time to regain that control, no matter what the issue, is not grounds under provincial legislation to remove a mayor (or any other elected official) from office.  And that's how it should be.  Just as in Saskatchewan, removal requires more than just not being popular with your colleagues, and has to come from outside of council, either through being convicted of a criminal offence, or through a judge determining that conflict of interest occurs - which, interestingly enough, happened to Mr. Ford not that long ago, although a subsequent appeal determined that the size of his offence was out of proportion to the penalty of removing him from office.

From all accounts, Rob Ford was an extremely popular councillor for ten years, largely because he was very responsive to  his constituents.  He also wasn't afraid to stand alone in votes against the rest of council.  When he was elected mayor three years ago, it was largely through a single promise - to cut the waste at City Hall.  Unfortunately, like many campaigns based on a single slogan, things turned out to be more complex than he thought, and his success in that direction since being elected has been mixed at best.  He also seemed to have difficulty realizing that the job of mayor is different that being councillor - you have to be someone who can bring a team together, by articulating a vision that the majority of councillors can support.  And while he was able to bring enough councillors on side for some issues, that support was not solid enough to withstand the scandals of the last six months.

In May, shortly after the stories broke about the crack cocaine video, we were at FCM in Vancouver.  Several members of Toronto city council were there (not the mayor, who has never attended one of those meetings, apparently not interested in exchanging information with his counterparts across Canada), and when I spoke with them, they were universally just relieved to be away from the circus that Toronto City Hall had become.

I find it sad to watch Rob Ford.  His excuses - "I've been under a lot of stress"; "Everybody does it" - are those of an adolescent, not a man in his forties.  He seems to feel that a position of continual denial, followed by apologies when the truth comes out, is sufficient.  Sadly, he doesn't seem to realize that his job is to lead city council, not stand apart from them.  And when people refuse to follow you, you can no longer be considered the leader.  I think that he would have a great deal more credibility, and public sympathy, if he just admitted that he needs to take some time off to deal with whatever personal problems have led him to this point.

He also needs to realize that being mayor is not a nine-to-five job - it's what you are, twenty-four hours a day.  Even in a small city like Prince Albert, the expectation is that you are available to the people you represent, no matter where you are or what you're doing.  I can expect to be asked questions whenever I'm buying groceries or at the mall, and phone calls come every day of the week.  I don't complain, because that comes with the job.

People expect their elected officials to behave with integrity - that means that they expect you to tell the truth, and that your actions should match your words.  When this is lost - and it doesn't take much - it's going to be a lot harder to regain that trust.  Hopefully Rob Ford spends the next months, not in waging war against everyone on council, as he threatened at the council meeting, but in dealing with his personal issues, and working to rebuild his trust with the people of Toronto.

I'm not worried about something similar happening in Prince Albert - we seem to have a better understanding of appropriate behaviour, and of how to handle our differences while remaining civil.  It's just another reason why I'm happy with our decision to move from Toronto to Prince Albert, more than thirty years ago.

"When a man assumes a public trust, he should consider himself a public property." - Thomas Jefferson

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Strategic Planning - A Key Step in Budgeting

Over the last month, between council meetings, council has been meeting with each individual department for strategic planning sessions.  We've had three of these meetings so far, and have met with the staff of Corporate Services, Community Services, Financial Services and the Fire Department.  Still to come is our largest department, Public Works.

At these meetings we're looking closely in two areas - each department's base budget, and its organizational structure.  We're looking for efficiencies - efficiencies in spending, processes and personnel.  As I've mentioned before, the status quo in how we do things can no longer be an assumption, and there are no sacred cows.

These sessions will provide direction to the budgeting process, allowing us to start at the real beginning of the process, rather than just tweaking proposed new expenditures to fit some predetermined target for increasing taxes, while assuming that we're going to keep on doing what we're doing whether there are better ways of doing things or not.  It may have been easier and faster, but that's not why we were elected.

This is the first time in several years that we've looked at things so closely, and it's been an eye-opener for all of us on council.  I've also noticed that the approach by staff is starting to change as well - they are seeing the positive implications of working more openly with council, and of the opportunities that will benefit everyone - staff and city residents - by improving the way we do things, and by improving our focus on what really is in everyone's best interests - a city where priorities are set, and work and spending follows those priorities.

Meetings have been focused, with everyone feeling free to ask questions and offer possible options.  Through the process, I think that everyone on council, both the long-term veterans and the relative newcomers, have become more comfortable with the realization that while nobody has all the answers, by asking questions and thinking of alternatives, we're going to come up with a budget that will be better understood by everyone involved, because we'll have a better understanding of how it was developed, and our reasons for whatever the final decisions turn out to be.

We'll also be better equipped to answer the inevitable questions that will come from the public on our decisions.  And as one of our goals is to be more open and accountable to the people who have put us in charge, we'll be better at reaching that goal as well.

"A goal without a plan is just a wish." - Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Moving Ahead

I was very happy with the announcement that, starting in the new year, Jim Toye will be our new city manager.  I've known Jim for several years, having met him through various municipal government circles, and I believe that he has the right mix of strengths and experience to lead city administration in working well with council.

His resume is impressive, but even more impressive are the positive comments about him that we've heard from both his employers and co-workers.  He's known for being a hard worker, a good team builder, and able to work with a wide variety of people, bringing their skills and abilities together so that the sum of the whole is greater than the individual parts.

That attitude is exactly what we were hoping for when we started looking for a new city manager.  We wanted someone who would be able to take direction from council, then motivate the rest of the city staff to carry out this direction, in ways that leave everyone involved feeling appreciated, and part of the solution.  Of course, one guy can't be a miracle maker, but having someone with the goal of building a strong team, and who understands that council sets the direction to be carried out by staff, is a good place to start.

A new city manager is also an effective way of signalling to both staff and Prince Albert residents, that the status quo is no longer in place.  This council has said repeatedly that we want to be seen to be open to new ideas, and willing to try to do things differently, rather than being stuck in the same old patterns, and I believe that Jim will help us as we continue to move in that direction.  I think that he understands that all members of council have good ideas to bring to the table, and that we can be most effective if all viewpoints are considered respectfully before decisions are made.

At the level of city manager, the most important responsibility is being able to motivate staff to work to the best of their abilities, not to micromanage every detail of every project - that's what the individual experts should be allowed to do.  From what I know of Jim,  his people skills are his greatest strength, and I'm looking forward to the new energy and ideas that he'll bring to the city in the new year.

"When I meet successful people, I ask what they attribute their success to.  It's usually the same: persistence, hard work, and hiring good people."  Kiana Tom

Sunday, October 27, 2013

One Year In

This past week marked one year since this council was elected - a good time to look back and see what has changed.  Major change in any organization, of course, is best achieved through small steps, incremental changes that over time add up.  And I think that we're approaching change in this way - making small changes that, over time, will result in a more cohesive, sensible approach to how the city is managed, which is council's main responsibility.

A large part of the mayor's campaign focused on the need for council to operate more as a team, and less as a one-man show.  That was one of the first changes made, and I think the results are seen as quite positive   The team approach can be seen in several ways.  For example, committee appointments were made by council as a whole voting on each appointment, rather than decisions being made unilaterally, and appointments being seen as plums handed out from the mayor's office.  Not everyone got to be on all the committees that they wanted, but no-one can complain that the process was unfair.

Communication within council has improved.  We're now all informed when there's an event going on that council has been invited to, which is nice.  Previously, I would often be asked why I wasn't at this or that event, and that would be the first that I would have heard of it.  Obviously, not everybody can be at every event, but having more than one member of council show up is one way of showing broad council support.

All members of council take turns doing the radio and TV updates every week, which is a big change.  It gives each of us a chance to talk about what is going on, and the opportunity to talk about the perspective from each ward, which provides a more complete picture to the public.

Council meetings, both public and in camera, are much more positive.  Discussion is open and respectful, and new ideas are tossed around, added to, and amended.  Votes are not predictable, which is as it should be.  For new councillors, who might have thought that the pattern that had been established over the previous six years was the council norm, it must be a relief to realize that offering up a different opinion or idea is welcomed rather than openly discouraged.

I think that a very positive sign is the open understanding that the budget for next year is going to be an even more detailed exercise than last year, and that the status quo is no longer an acceptable option.  That's the only way manage how to do all the work required, particularly infrastructure repair and maintenance, without unduly burdening the tax payer.  And the good news is that everybody on council now recognizes this need, and is looking forward to it.

The messages that I've been getting from the public over the past year have been mostly positive as well.  People are happy to see all the work being done on streets and sidewalks, and have noticed the reduction in bickering,and the increase in positive discussion, around the council table.

I've always enjoyed my work as a councillor, and felt appreciated for my efforts by the residents of Ward 3.  But this past year working with my colleagues on council has been much more fun - I only hope that we continue to look to improve our processes over the remaining three-quarters of our mandate.

"The way a team plays as a whole determines its success.  You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don't play together, the club won't be worth a dime." - Babe Ruth

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Back from Holidays

As you may have guessed during this time of prolonged silence on the blog front, I've been away on holidays.  Fall is our favourite time for trips back to Ontario to see family - the fall colours make it the best time to be there, in my opinion.  It's been a few years since we've been back in the fall, prevented by health problems and last year's election, and this year we had extra reason to spend time with family - Andrea has a September birthday, and this year it was what her family calls a milestone birthday, where as many of them as possibly (she's one of eight), get together.

We left the day after the September 23 council meeting, taking Via Rail from Saskatoon, arriving in Toronto two days later.  That weekend was Andrea's birthday celebration with her family, which we spent just outside Alonquin Park.  We rented three cottages, and five sisters, three brothers-in-law, two nephews, a niece and two dogs had a great couple of days enjoying the fall colours and the warm and sunny weather, talking, laughing, getting updates on jobs and kids, and just generally hanging out together, either on the beach, on the deck of one of the cabins, or around a campfire.

After the weekend, we spent a few days in Toronto, enjoying the city and seeing friends and more family in the evenings, before heading to my hometown, Fergus, for the weekend.  The next week we spent a couple of days in Stratford, where we saw three excellent plays (Blithe Spirit, Mary Stuart and Othello), before spending Thanksgiving weekend with Andrea's youngest sister and her family near Peterborough.  On Tuesday we boarded the train for the trip west, getting home late Thursday evening (or more properly, early Friday morning).

It was a very good three weeks, during which we were blessed with sunny days, and were able to touch base with family and friends that we see at best only once a year.  The comforting thing is that with everyone we saw, we slipped back into conversations as though we'd just seen them a few days before - that's one sign of good and comfortable relationships.

But, of course, I never miss an opportunity to see how other communities deal with things, in hopes of picking up ideas that might help here.  One of the changes in Toronto that struck me this time was the increase in the number of people getting around on bicycles.  They have Bixi rental bikes that are quite well-used, many of the streets have bicycle lanes, and the lamp posts and parking meters in the downtown area have tons of bicycles chained to them.  Most surprising to me, though, was seeing police and parking meter people getting around on bicycles.  Considering the heavy traffic in Toronto's downtown, it's probably much faster for police to get around that way, but it also makes them quite approachable to people on the street - something that we might want to think about for police and bylaw enforcement staff, particularly in the downtown area.  Mind you, we also saw a policeman on horseback going down Yonge Street one morning - I'm not sure if that would be advantageous here.

In these days of cell phones and the internet, I was never completely out of touch with some of my council colleagues, and I was able to keep up with local happenings as well.  That helps in getting back into the thick of things - in the case of council, it was back to work on Saturday, as we had a strategic planning session with Corporate Services and the Fire Department.  These sessions are a good opportunity to talk with staff and each other about various issues, and possible options for solutions can be discussed with those most involved.  I find that I always learn something in these sessions, and I'm glad that I made it back in time.

It's always a little sad when holidays come to an end, but I can say that it was a good, relaxing time, and I'm almost looking forward to putting on my suit and tie for the next council meeting, energized from my time away.

"Wherever I go, I'm watching.  Even on vacation, when I'm in an airport or railway station, I look around and find out how people do things."  Richard Scarry

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Our Decisions Aren't Always Black and White

Very few of the decisions that have to be made by council are simple ones.  A range of factors has to be considered, and not all of them are easily measurable, or clearly right or wrong.

However, all too often that's exactly the kind of rhetoric that is used in council chambers, or behind the scenes when proponents are pushing for a decision that will allow them to do something, or when those who oppose the decision want to ensure that you will back their point of view.  And emotions usually come into play.

The decision about use of property on the riverbank is one of those decisions, where we have to sift through the emotions and passion before making a decision.  And we have to face the unfortunate fact that we can't make everybody happy.

The proposed seniors' building is a discretionary use in the area, which is why it is before council, for the third time in five years.  Previous approvals by council have expired, and the current proposal is different from the previous proposals, which is why it requires the same scrutiny.  And discretionary means just that, it is up to council to decide if a particular proposal fits well in the area.

One of the black/white statements made by some councillors is that this new council has said that we're open to development, therefore we have to approve this.  I don't actually recall council making that statement, and in any case being open to development doesn't mean that we rubber stamp every opportunity that is presented.

Another black/white argument that was made to me by one of the proponents is that I should support this so that seniors can have a nice view of the river.  The implication there is that if I don't agree, then I'm against seniors (just like I'm against flowers and trees).  Views are nice, but shouldn't come into the equation.

I do not support this proposal for a couple of reasons - I think that its footprint is too large for the area, and that the proponents are underestimating the space required, particularly for parking, in order to get approval from council. It will be a three storey building, towering over the single family homes in the area.  Once the building is complete, it will be too late to do anything about it, and the owners will be free to, for example, convert assisted living spaces to condos.

They are asking to take over boulevard space, which is one of the reasons that I think it's too large, and I've been told that some residents have been pressured to sell their homes so that more area will be available.  And their statement that residents don't need that much parking may seem sensible on the surface, until I remember that Mont St. Joseph's has asked twice for surrounding park space to be rezoned for parking, because even though their residents may not own vehicles, staff and visitors need far more parking than was originally estimated.  All too often we underestimate parking needs, and the cars don't go away - they end up parked on streets, blocking driveways and decreasing visibility and street safety.

I don't deny that having another facility to pay taxes benefits the city, but we have to remember that this isn't the only property in the city that's available - that's another black/white statement that can lead to tunnel vision.

I've received more phone calls on this issue than any other that I can recall in my thirteen years on council.  The neighbours have raised some valid concerns, and as I said, we need to sift through everything before making a decision that will affect the people who live in the area, not just for a short time, but forever.

"Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted." - Albert Einstein

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Think Before You Plant

A few people have asked about the motion that I put forward and which was passed at last week's council meeting - that the city stop automatically planting a tree whenever a city-owned tree is cut down.

This came about because, as part of the repairs done to the street and underlying water pipes in the 100 block of 10th Street East this summer, the boulevard on the south side of the street, and the trees on that boulevard, were removed, putting the new sidewalk right next to the roadway, and adding a couple of feet between the residential properties and the sidewalk.  And in this couple of feet, between fences and, in one case, a large hedge, the city was preparing to plant trees.  When I asked why we were going to that expense in an area where trees weren't needed, and were unlikely to thrive due to lack of room, I was told that it was city policy to replace every tree that is removed.

I'm not sure that's true.  Two years ago, after a water main break that required digging up the boulevard in front of my house, one of the aged Manitoba maples in front of our house was removed.  It hasn't been replaced.  We weren't sorry to see it go, since it was, as most of the older Manitoba maples in Midtown, decaying and risking dropping branches on the street and sidewalk.  But it hasn't been replaced, nor have we heard anything from the city about that option.  And just for the record, I don't think a tree is needed there - the visibility pulling out onto 10th Street from 4th Avenue is poor enough.

In any case, I've heard my forester wife comment often enough that proposed solutions like planting a tree for every one that is cut are making things too simple.  Part of good forestry, even urban forestry, means planting the right tree in the right place at the right time.  And one of the responsibilities of urban forestry is taking proper care of those trees that you have.  Judging by the rotten branches and stubs that I see in my walks around the downtown neighbourhoods, we don't do a good enough job of that.  There are far too many trees with dead branches that are just waiting for a good windstorm, or less, to drop, and far too many where a half-hearted pruning job has just removed part of the problem, and the rest of the crown is obviously dying.  And many of the trees planted along Central Avenue and the feeder streets need to have the grates that surround their roots cleaned out on a regular basis.   I would far rather city crews were taking care of these problems in a systematic way, than planting trees without thinking, particularly if, as often seems to be the case, the replacement trees are those same Manitoba maples that develop problems at a relatively early age.

This doesn't mean that the city won't plant replacement trees.  If one is removed from in front of your house, and you want it replaced, all you have to do is ask.  In other areas, particularly parks and medians, planting trees is more likely to be the right choice.

All I'm asking is that, rather than following a one size fits all policy, we look a little more closely to ensure that the right tree is being planted in a space where it will have room to grow to maturity, and that the decision is part of an overall plan to ensure that Prince Albert keeps its urban forest healthy and growing, providing all the benefits that trees can provide to a city.

"As the poet said 'only God can make a tree', probably because it's so hard to figure out how to get the bark on." - Woody Allen

Sunday, September 8, 2013

A Look Back at Summer

As we ease into fall, although the temperatures are still quite summer-like, but with shorter days and cooler nights,  I find it only natural to look back at the last few months.  While they are quieter on the formal council front, with fewer meetings, personally summer is not usually a time of much relaxing for me.

I did have the opportunity to spend almost a week in Saskatoon at the national conference of police commissions.  This was an excellent conference, with many good speakers and discussion opportunities.  The focus was on the ever-increasing effect of mental health on police work - with changes to mental health practices, more and more of the issues that police have to deal with involve people with mental health problems.  It makes an already complicated job even more so, and it was certainly fascinating to hear the experiences of police departments across Canada, and learn about some of their initiatives.

And while council may be less active in the summer, I had many people comment to me about the amount of work that they could see being done on our streets, and most saw it as being extremely positive - they can see their tax dollars at work, and appreciate that.  The annoyance of having to find alternative routes to get where you're going is seen to be just that - a temporary annoyance.  Andrea's normal walk to work had to take a detour with the extensive work done in the 100 block of 10th Street East, but even she found unexpected benefits in the yellow raspberries growing along a fence in the back alley detour that she had to take for a week or two.

So how have I been filling my days?  Once again, I've been reminded that one of the joys of owning a hundred plus year old house is that there is never a shortage of work to keep me busy.  I replaced five of the windows in the house, took the old carpet out of the television room and replaced it with laminate flooring (sadly, I took a shortcut on that job which means I'll have to do it over, likely this winter), and, most notably, I've been replacing the shingles on the north side of our roof.

I've had to remove several layers of old shingles as well as the original cedar shakes, with their many, many really old tiny nails, replace some of the underlying boards, and take down the chimneys - more complicated than I originally thought it would be.  And working on a steeply pitched roof isn't something that many people are willing to volunteer for.  In fact, it's not something that I want anyone inexperienced to even try - just too risky if you don't know what you're doing, or if you're not comfortable with heights.  My efforts to hire experienced help weren't successful either, so except for much appreciated help in cleaning up the old shingles and bricks, it's been a solo effort.

It gets quite hot up there, but I'm grateful that there hasn't been too much rain to slow me down.  I figure that I'm more than halfway there, and the tricky parts are done, so I can see that I'll soon be coming to the end of the days when I have to strap on the safety harness.

Fewer council meetings through the summer means that our agendas when we get back in September are a bit thicker than usual, but hopefully summer has been a rejuvenating break for all of us.  I think that as this new council moves into its second year, and we all become more familiar with this more open and cooperative way of working, our focus on making our efforts more effective and efficient will continue to show results.

"Summertime is always the best of what might be." Charles Bowden

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Some Thoughts on City Slogans

A story on the front page of Saturday's local paper posed the question: Does Prince Albert need a new slogan?  This had been initiated by the thoughts of one of my fellow councillors, who suggested that a new brand, or slogan for the city is needed, preferably one that doesn't include the phrase Gateway to the North, since that might suggest that this is a place for passing through, not staying.

The previous council changed the city slogan just a couple of years ago, from Gateway to the North to Beautiful Gateway City, and a new sign (costing thousands of dollars) with that slogan was put up by the Tourism Centre at the south end of town.

I didn't agree with that change, partly because beautiful is a subjective term,so that what I consider beautiful and what you consider beautiful are probably different.  And really, a city that is beautiful shouldn't have to make a point of telling people that.  I also didn't agree because spending time talking about a slogan is making the mistake of putting image before substance - having a catchy slogan has nothing to do with good governance.  Sometimes with the previous council, it seemed that every year a new slogan was floated, and sank quickly without leaving a trace - remember Proud to be PA?  How about You Can't Spell Paradise Without PA?  PA - Positive Attitude?  I would hate to see council spending any more time or money on efforts to dream up a new slogan, with the idea that an attempt to rebrand our city will attract more people here.

And really, slogans are meant for advertising campaigns - in fact, one definition of slogan is that it is a brief attention-getting phrase used in advertising and promotion.  Think Disneyland (The Happiest Place on Earth) or Nike (Just Do It) or WalMart (Save money. Live better.) or Survivor (Outwit. Outlast. Outplay.)  All memorable, I'll agree.  And all created by professionals who sell things for a living, not by a bunch of city politicians, or through community involvement.

Most people asked by the local paper thought that the previous slogan, Gateway to the North, worked just fine - short, descriptive, and to the point.  Changing it to something that conveys the idea that Prince Albert is a destination isn't going to make that happen.  In my travels, I can't think of a single place that I go to because of the town's slogan - it's because there are things there that I want to do.  I don't know what Stratford's slogan is, but I do know that there's a Shakespearean Festival there,  I don't know what Toronto or Vancouver use for a slogan, but I do know that going to either of those two cities will give me lots to do.

City council can't make the city into what we hope it could be just by talking.  Our role is to put the guidelines in place to allow things to happen - bylaws, zones, taxation policies - and hope that these guidelines enable and encourage growth, not restrict it.  Our responsibilities of maintaining infrastructure and ensuring public safety are also key to making the city an attractive place to live.  That's where we need to focus our energies, recognizing that there are no quick fixes, and that most of our problems aren't solved just by throwing tax payers' dollars in a general direction.

Changing our slogan - not even close to the top of the priority list, in my opinion.

"There is a tendency to try to dumb everything down and turn everything into a one-paragraph press release or even less, just a slogan." - Malcolm Turnbull

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Slowing Down in Summer

Last Monday was our last council meeting until the middle of August.  We've been doing this for several years now - one council meeting in July, and one in August, with an Executive meeting in each month the week before the council meeting.

There are some positives to this.  For those who prefer to vacation in the summer, it provides a couple of blocks of time when a three week absence won't result in missing any meetings.  It also gives some relief to administrative staff who attend council meetings - they too can take time off, or at least have a shorter than usual day on Mondays when a meeting is cancelled.

But city business still goes on.  In fact, for most of our staff, who either work outdoors or manage those who do, this is their busy time, and summer vacations are not something that they can take for granted.  Things have changed - just as shopping is now a seven day a week option, vacations are no longer limited to the summer, and perhaps council operations need to recognize that taking it easy during the summer may not be affordable any more.  Maybe we need to keep working year-round, even if it means that if you take summer holidays, you may not get that perfect attendance award.  But council as a whole may be able to get more done.

Perhaps we need to take the opportunity in summer to focus on the important, but not necessarily urgent, matters.  Perhaps getting together to brainstorm solutions for some of our chronic issues might be a good use of our time.

For example, in talking with some of our staff about the focused paving projects that we're doing this year, to try to catch up with the backlog from past years of neglect, they've had some good ideas about how the process could be made more efficient.  There are a lot of steps that have to happen from start to finish when repairing a street, but some of the steps, like boulevard repair, may not happen in the same year, or even within a couple of years, as the main work.  We should explore the options out there for removing those gaps, and work with staff so that those ideas with the most promise get a trial run, rather than just have things continue to be done the way they've always been done.

Another chronic issue that is probably the one that is raised with me most often, is dealing with boarded up properties.  This seems to be more of an issue in the summer, perhaps because that's often when those with nowhere else to live will move into these places, even without the basic utilities of power and running water.  You can imagine how unpleasant a place like this would be to have in your neighbourhood, and it's not uncommon for fires to occur in these situations, endangering both the temporary inhabitants and the surrounding homes.  We need to find a faster way of getting these properties either back up to code and habitable, or taken down, and I would welcome the opportunity to discuss possible solutions with council and staff.

This council is trying to operate differently from previous councils - working more efficiently, and spending taxpayers' dollars more effectively.  Maybe it's time we looked at our meeting schedule, and even at the way we approach our discussions about problems, differently too.  I'm not advocating that we forget that it's summer - I enjoy the longer days and the more relaxed feeling that everyone seems to have (and I appreciate not having to wear a suit to council meetings), but I think that, even though it's summer, we still need to continue looking at our problems, and finding solutions.  And just as the best ideas often come when you're relaxed, not trying to meet deadlines, maybe we'll come up with solutions for some long-standing problems.

"Summer's lease hath all too short a date." - William Shakespeare

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Water, Water Everywhere

Along with the mayor, Councillor Miller and the fire chief, I toured Little Red River Park on Friday, and was able to see first-hand the damage that the extra water released into the system has caused.  It's surprising how the landscape has been permanently changed, along with the various man-made structures in the park, and there's no doubt that it's going to be quite some time before this favourite spot for hiking, picnics and running is usable again.

In all the various water-logged issues that we've been swamped with this year (deep apologies for the pun), there are some things to be grateful for.  The rise in the North Saskatchewan last weekend was much lower than predicted, and personally I thought that being prepared for the worst while hoping for the best was the responsible way to go.  We should also be grateful that the province picked up the bills for flood preparation, including taking care of the sand-bagging around the Cosmo Lodge.  Costs to the city have been minimal.

The evacuation of Cumberland House, while it proved not to be necessary, was another case of being safe rather than sorry.  And a couple of community events for the evacuees that were open to everyone was a nice bonus - we don't have enough opportunities for getting out in the summer within the city - not everyone can head out to the lake on a warm summer evening.

If there's one concern that rises out of the situation not being as bad as was predicted, it's that there might be a sense of complacency the next time there are flood warnings, so people might slack off in their preparations.  From what I've learned from the province, they're constantly working to improve their predictive models, using information from what actually happens with increased water flows, so I'm sure that  this year's data will be built into their models and the confidence in the predictions will improve.

The silver lining of the devastation to Little Red is the chance to rebuild based on what we've learned, so that we're better prepared for next time.  For example, the asphalt paths right next to the river that are now gone - maybe we shouldn't be investing money in that sort of infrastructure that's so close to the water.  We'll be able to take advantage of new knowledge about structural improvements when replacing or repairing the various crossing structures so that they might be able to better withstand the next flood.  Because water being what it is, there will be a next time.

Let's just hope that next time, we're as well-prepared as we were this time.

"Nothing is softer or more flexible that water, yet nothing can resist it."  Lao Tzu

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Lessons I Hope We've Learned from This Year's Budget

Now that the tax notices have been sent, there's been quite a bit of feedback on the impact on both residents and business owners.  Most home owners are facing a higher increase due to the flat taxes - the Pineview Terrace levy of $27, the $60 flat tax set a couple of years ago which has an undefined purpose, but which has been used in both previous years to balance the budget, and the new $189 flat tax which is directed to road repair and maintenance.  Flat taxes have a greater proportional impact on lesser valued properties - only high value properties will have seen a lower than average increase.  In my own case, our property taxes have increased by 19%.

This, of course, pales in comparison to the impact on businesses, particularly small businesses, where flat taxes have the same higher proportional impact as on lower value homes.  Unfortunately, administration didn't provide specific examples of what the effect would be, but when I did some rough calculations based on how the $60 flat tax had translated into taxes on businesses from $300 to $3,000, it wasn't difficult to make the assumption that tripling the flat tax was going to hit small businesses pretty hard, and I said this before each budget vote, but to little effect, unfortunately.  My motion to remove the $60 flat tax and put it back into the mill rate calculations was also unsuccessful.

As I said in an earlier blog, I don't like flat taxes, but I support the two directed flat taxes because they will be dedicated to set, and necessary, purposes, not used to balance the budget.  The road maintenance flat tax was the only option that we could think of to make up for past neglect and misspending.  If this tax proves to be more than we need for a year of work, then it can be reduced in the future.  And the Pineview Terrace levy will be gone after 2015.

Tax increases are never popular, of course, even when they're necessary, but I hope that, as a council, we've learned from the almost universal negative response that we've received, whether formally, in the press, or in our casual encounters, and that we use this learning in next year's budget process.

First, we need to look at the whole budget, including the base budget, at the start of the process.  Even this year, only a few things were taken out of the base budget, and that was because they were specific unnecessary expenditures identified by council members.  But when you don't see all the details, it's really hard to identify all of the savings that could be made.  In some places, zero-based budgeting is the norm, and I'd really like us to start there.  That's when every expenditure made by the city is identified, and justified, before being approved.  Our administration tends to start with last year's budget, and add to it, rather than looking at current spending and seeing where we could spend less.

I think that an overall personnel review is long overdue.  It seems that new positions are often created, but we rarely look at reductions in positions, even when attrition makes it possible to do so without affecting an actual person.

There should be no sacred cows in the budget.  Just because we have always done things a certain way, or spent money on certain things, doesn't mean that these things should continue without there being any scrutiny of the need, or the method.

We need for administration to give us a better picture of the impact of proposed tax increases, for both residents and businesses.  I think that often, because we're elected by the people who live in our wards, not by the businesses that are located there, we don't worry as much about the effect of our various decisions on the businesses that are necessary for the health of our community.  We often talk about the quality of life that the various recreational and artistic facilities provide - a broad spectrum of healthy businesses in a community is even more important to our quality of life.

And, as always, let's not be afraid to ask questions if we're not clear on something, or if something seems too good to be true, like the idea that reassessment wouldn't cause tax increases.  Why people thought that if the value of your property went up, your taxes wouldn't also increase, is one of those "if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is" things.  Let's ask for definite proof, rather than just hearing what we want to hear.

Every year is a learning experience, but it can only benefit our city if we take and apply what we've learned, rather than hoping that people will forget before the next election.

"What is the difference between a taxidermist and a tax collector?  The taxidermist takes only your skin." - Mark Twain

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Why I Like the Street Fair (Even When the Sun Doesn't Shine)

This past Saturday was the ninth annual street fair.  This is an event that I always look forward to, the opportunity to wander up and down Central Avenue, eat outside, enjoy the outdoor entertainment, browse the various displays, and check out what the stores have to offer.

This year I didn't have very high hopes for the event.  The heavy rain on Friday, combined with the forecast for more of the same all day Saturday, had participants trying to figure out how they would manage in torrential rain.  And when it was raining first thing Saturday morning, I really didn't think that anyone would bother going downtown, but would instead choose to keep dry at home.  I admit that would have been my choice.

I was forced to go out though - Andrea is part of Morley Harrison's stock company for his historical vignettes, and she was committed to being part of this year's offering, "The Damned Dam", about the La Colle Falls Dam project.  At their rehearsal the evening before, they had decided to perform inside the museum, to avoid any concerns about rain, so we headed there around 10:30.  Since I had some time to pass before the 11 a.m. performance, I wandered up the street.

It wasn't raining at this point, and I was pleasantly surprised at the number of people on Central.  Certainly not as many as would have been there had it been a sunny day, but far more than I expected to see.  While the first block, where the Co-op used to be, was a dead zone, further up many of the stores had decided to participate, often putting up tents to shelter merchandise, there were plenty of food vendors, and Memorial Square, in front of City Hall, was full of kids and parents taking advantage of games and face-painting.  The steps of City Hall were being used as a stage, an excellent opportunity for some young dancers to perform to an appreciative audience.  I ran into so many people that wanted to talk that I was late getting back to the museum, and missed part of the play.

After Andrea changed out of her play attire, we wandered up and down, checking things out and chatting with people.  Many people were carrying umbrellas, just in case, but it was obvious that a little rain wasn't going to stop them from enjoying the opportunity to do something different.  I think that the street fair meets a need in the community - it's a place that people can bring their kids, and know that there will be things for them to do that don't cost anything.  For adults, you're bound to run into people that you know, and catch up on things.  It's a chance to slow down, see the downtown in a different light, and perhaps see some of its potential as a gathering place.

I think that there's still a lot that could be tried.  If there was an Open Doors type of event, in which buildings like City Hall, the Forest Centre, and the downtown churches are open for tours, that would give people a place to duck into in the case of bad weather.  Putting the historical play inside the museum turned out to have a couple of unexpected benefits - the performers were much more easily heard than is the case when they're outdoors, competing with music and conversation, and the museum had many people who came for the three performances of the play, but then stuck around to check out the displays.  These kind of potential synergies need to be explored more fully.

The rain may have dampened things, and limited some of the usual events, but those who came out enjoyed themselves, had the chance to socialize, and maybe learned something new.  Not a bad way to spend a Saturday.

"Everybody needs some time to rejuvenate, refresh, recharge and begin again." - Ravathi Sankarun

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Some FCM Reflections

I've just returned from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) annual general meeting, which was held this year in Vancouver.  As we often do, Andrea and I went out a few days early for a bit of a vacation before the work began.  Just my luck, those were the rainy days, but even in the rain, Vancouver gave us lots to see and do.  It's a great city that has put a great deal of thought into keeping its development balanced with maintaining accessible green space in a very livable and vibrant downtown.

There has been some questioning in the media about the value of FCM for members of council.  It is definitely not, as one letter to the editor of the paper said, a "paid vacation".  I think that people often don't consider that there is no school that one can attend to learn how to be a member of city council.  Our education might best be termed as self-directed learning.  I've found that one of the best ways of doing that is by talking to others about their experiences, and the best venue that I've found for that is FCM.  The six members of council who attended FCM spent long days and evenings taking advantage of as many educational opportunities as possible.

There are four different types of  learning opportunities at FCM.  There are the formal working sessions, which feature presentations on various issues, and you can select the ones most appropriate for your circumstances.  For example, this year a particularly timely one for Prince Albert was on the location of cell phone tower locations, which offered solutions that have worked in other communities.

There is an enormous trade show, which has new products and ideas ranging from new voting systems to waste disposal options.  It's a good place to get ideas which can then be passed along to administration for further assessment, to see how such ideas could work for Prince Albert.  I saw a couple of things that might be useful for the Rotary Trail.  One was using LED for public lighting - this could be an inexpensive and environmentally friendly option for providing lighting along the trail.  The other was a self-cleaning public washroom, one of which is already being used in downtown Vancouver - the lack of public washroom facilities has been cited as one of the drawbacks to using the Rotary Trail.

There are study tours which offer the chance to see solutions that are actually being tried.  I took one tour that focused on housing solutions for those who are difficult to house.  In Vancouver, the provincial government has actually taken the lead on this problem, and owns housing that is utilized for this purpose, and the city has staff that are dedicated to implementing the solution.  I think that partnerships like these are those most likely to succeed with problems like housing that stem from a range of root causes.

And finally, there are the informal learning opportunities that come from networking with councillors from cities and towns across Canada.  All that we really have in common is our jobs as members of council, and that's what we talk about.  It's a chance to pick people's brains about what they have done about perennial problems like crime, downtown areas, recreational developments, managing growth, or disappearing industries.  For example, I had a good conversation with the mayor of Oliver, BC, whose town was devastated when the local mine closed, but which has been revitalized by the growth of the wine industry.

If we don't take advantage of the opportunities to learn how other communities do things, we'll miss the chance to learn from both their mistakes and their successes.  We'll keep on doing things the way we've always done them, because we won't have learned about recent innovations.  Part of doing the job well is learning how to do the job smarter and better, and conferences like FCM are a good investment in that, both for members of council, and for the city as a whole.

"The great aim of education is not knowledge, but action." - Herbert Spencer

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Some Thoughts on the Proposed GPS Policy

There's been quite a bit of media coverage over the last couple of weeks about a policy brought forward by administration to set guidelines for the use of various technical devices that are available in city-owned property - cell phones, radios, vehicles, water meter reading devices, for example.  Mostly, it speaks to the use of GPS (Global Positioning Systems) that are in such things, and how the city could use this GPS availability to track the location of city employees.

I voted against this proposal for a number of reasons.  While the main reason for the policy was suggested to be for improved safety, this seems to be a bit of a stretch.  Employees rarely work alone, and never in remote locations.  As well, I think that it's a fair assumption that work schedules and locations are known by supervisors, managers and co-workers - if there's a problem, finding where the worker is will be the least of the problem.  And a GPS won't be able to tell when there's a problem.

I was also concerned that the staff proposing this couldn't tell us of another municipality where this is in place, suggesting that either it isn't a good idea, or that full research on the idea hadn't taken place.  I'm a firm believer in gathering all the information that's out there before submitting a proposal, and that groundwork hasn't yet been done.  The concerns raised by the privacy commissioner the day after our meeting also seem to indicate that the proposal had missed a fairly important piece of research.

Although the proposal focused on the need for safety, many of the comments and questions since have focused on the potential of using this technology for monitoring where outside workers are, and when, and for checking on such things as length of coffee breaks.  I totally disagree with this.  We pay supervisors and managers good salaries, part of which are for doing the actual work of supervising and managing employees, and I believe that far better results occur from face-to-face discussions of expectations and issues of non-performance, than from electronic surveillance.

There's also an inequity here of how we treat inside and outside workers.  As far as I know, we do not monitor inside employees, who may well spend time talking to co-workers, on inappropriate web-sites, or updating their Facebook pages when they should be working.  Perhaps we're less concerned because the public is unlikely to see these behaviours and complain, but if we're going to set up a system for monitoring, we'd better be sure that we're treating all employees the same.

The proposed policy has been sent back for further development and consultation, particularly with the unions.  Hopefully, before it shows up before us again, the research has been done to answer everyone's questions.

" There will come a time when it isn't 'They're spying on me through my phone' any more.  Eventually it will be 'My phone is spying on me'." - Philip K. Dick

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Assessing the Risks of Change

Any time council proposes doing things differently, we're guaranteed to get emails or phone calls from residents or other interested parties about how we shouldn't make changes, because the change will cost more.  The most recent example is our decision to move to monthly water billing in January 2014, rather than the current quarterly billing.  The immediate reaction from some has been that our costs for the actual billing will now be triple, and certainly, for paper billing, mailing a bill every month rather than quarterly will cost three times as much.

Any time change happens, there is a cost involved.  What has to be part of the decision-making process, is an assessment of what benefits are associated with the change, and whether those benefits outweigh the costs.  In the case of monthly water billing, I think that the benefits of making it easier for residents to pay water bills, the reduced risk of delinquency of payment because we'll know monthly if if someone isn't paying, and the reduced risk of a leak going unnoticed are all big benefits that have to be part of the analysis.

We also need to see if there are ways of lessening the increased billing cost.  I'm not sure if administration has investigated the option of electronic billing, as provincial utilities now have available, but I think that's something that we should look into.  I also think that we need to figure out a way of encouraging more people to submit their meter readings electronically - what sort of incentives might increase the proportion of residents who voluntarily do this for us, reducing the need, and the cost, of having city employees read all the meters.

Now, those are just some simple examples of the sort of analysis that needs to be done any time we propose change.  Too often, I think that change is proposed because there is new technology available, and we want to try it out.  As an example, our move to I-pads a couple of years ago for meeting agendas and emails has not been totally smooth, and there's still a fair amount of paper that has to be put together related to meetings.  Emails sometimes disappear before they've been read, and I know that some councillors are concerned about email being accessible to administration, losing a sense of confidentiality that we had when we each had our own email on our own systems.  But none of these issues was discussed fully before the change was implemented.

We need to have as much information as possible, and we need to discuss openly all the pros and cons about any changes that we're thinking about.  It's just as important to think of all the potential problems ahead of time, and how we can resolve or avoid them, as it is to think of all the wonderful things that will happen with a change.  And each councillor needs to honestly look at both sides of the issue, no matter which way they lean, to ensure that these discussions happen.

Very few things in life, or at council, are purely black or white.  Weighing the costs and benefits takes time, but it also allows us to find the appropriate shade of grey that we can defend, and explain to our constituents.    I've found that most people, when you give them the complete picture, and the steps that were taken in making the decision, are appreciative of the effort that was taken.  They might have made a different decision, but most will also respect the fact that our job, as members of council, is to make those decisions to the best of our ability.  And then we move on to the next decision.

"If you are not willing to risk the unusual, you will have to settle for the ordinary." - Jim Rohn

Saturday, May 4, 2013

A Couple of Water-Related Issues

Considering the high waters that have been making headlines lately, it's rather topical that water was also part of a couple of agenda items at last Monday's council meeting.  Both are issues that I've raised in the past, and finally other members of council are starting to seriously consider and debate the options.

The first one is to account for the utilities costs (water, sewage, garbage collection, recycling) for all city facilities.  I've been making this suggestion for years, because our user fees are based on such fees covering a  percentage of the costs of those facilities (generally 40 - 50%), and if you don't include utility costs when figuring these out, the result is that the user fees are based on a lower than actual cost.  So who picks up the rest of the cost?  The taxpayer of course.

I'm not sure why this inequity has been allowed to continue, but at least now, we'll know what the real costs are.  Whether we adjust user fees will be another decision to be made once we have that information.  Considering the increases in water rates that have been necessary this year, I think that this additional information will be useful for making future increases a bit more fair.

The second is the decision to start billing for water on a monthly, rather than a quarterly basis, starting in 2014.  I think that the arguments for this outweigh the additional costs.  Quarterly billing will be easier for families to plan and budget for.  In an extremely unscientific poll, when I asked other members of council when their next water bill was due, not one could answer.  Neither could I (although when I asked Andrea, she knew).  So if, for example, your water bill is lost in the mail, you're unlikely to realize it until you get the overdue notice.  If it comes monthly, you'll notice its absence.

For many families, paying one-third of the current bill on a monthly basis will be easier to manage as well.  Currently, our family's water bill is in the $210 range - setting aside $70 every month sounds easier, even though it will add up to the same thing.  And I would hope that, at some point, we'll be able to implement equalized billing, just like SaskPower and SaskEnergy do.  And to help reduce our costs, I'm hoping that the city can make the move to electronic billing, just like the provincial utilities are encouraging people to do.

With monthly billing, we'll also be able to follow up on non-payment of bills more quickly, and be able to note problems, like unusually high bills which may indicate a leak somewhere, more quickly.

Water is one of those city services that isn't very glamourous, but that affects everyone.  I hope with these two changes, we're moving to more equitable, and more affordable, provision of this necessity of life.

"Thousands have lived without love, but not one without water." - W.H. Auden

Sunday, April 28, 2013

A Week in the Life of a Councillor

For a bit of a change of pace this week, I thought that I would give an overview of the work that I did last week as a member of council.  It was a pretty typical week since this new council began, and you may be surprised at the number of meetings involved, and the range of topics covered.

Mondays are always busy.  We had a management committee meeting in the morning (the mayor, Councillor Cody, and I) where we review various upcoming items and determine their disposition, acting as a sort of first filter of council.  There was a general meeting with the Health Region, followed by Committee of the Whole and Executive, the regular meetings on non-Council meeting weeks.

Tuesday there was an Arts Board meeting - Councillor Miller and I have now been named as council representatives to the Arts Board, so that will be something that is new to both of us.

Wednesday the mayor, the city manager, and I met with Sask Housing, which I was asked to attend as a former chair of the housing committee.  Next came a meeting with PA Community Housing, which have proposed a new building in Ward 3, which they wanted to discuss.  And finally that day, the management committee met with the soccer association to discuss their agreement with the soccer centre.

Thursday the job was more social in nature - I brought greetings on behalf of the city to the annual general meeting of the Cancer Society.  This worked out well, as Andrea's Relay for Life team, the Studs and Peelers, has been asked to be the Honourary Chair for this year's Relay in June, so we were able to attend together, along with three other members of the team.  As this is something that has affected our family in many ways, it was an honour to attend on behalf of my council colleagues.

Friday evening was another opportunity to bring greetings - this time to the provincial meeting of TOPS groups from all over the province.  One thing that I've found consistently in this whole business of bringing greetings from mayor and council - the groups that are gathered are always appreciative of the effort that is made, whichever one of us shows up, and I always feel very welcomed.

Weekends are usually spent reviewing the agenda for next week, preparing this blog, and touring about to check on various locations that might have been identified as having issues.  I find that it's always helpful to see the actual problems on site, before raising them with staff or at council.

And of course, any day of the week I can expect phone calls from residents.  This week's calls included concerns about the potential effect of the city stopping leaf pick up, blocked catch basins, snow pushed up onto a boulevard, as well as an inquiry about the process to be followed for booking the river bank for an event.  I think that people often turn to their councillor with such questions and concerns, as we probably have a better idea of who to contact and where to start than the average resident.  And it's a part of the job that I enjoy - directly helping people.

So that was my week - or at least the city councillor part of it.  In between, I also finally risked taking the snow tires off the family vehicles, filed our income tax returns, went out for coffee a few times, and enjoyed the first beer of the season on our deck yesterday afternoon.

Here's hoping the warm weather lasts, the snow disappears without causing too much flooding, and council continues to function as well as it has been.

"If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be meetings." - Dave Barry

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Why This Flat Tax Is Appropriate (in my opinion)

Flat taxes are not fair. For someone living in a home with a lower assessed value, the proposed $189 flat tax will be a higher proportional tax increase than for someone in a home with a higher assessed value.  If your current tax bill is $1000, it represents an almost 20% increase.  If your current tax bill is $4000, it represents only 5%.

I represent an area where the assessments tend to be lower, with a fairly high percentage of seniors on fixed incomes, and I have consistently opposed the imposition of flat taxes because of their inherent unfairness.  Currently there are two - a $27 tax that is directed to the reconstruction of Pineview Terrace, and a $60 flat tax that was imposed a few years ago, which was supposed to be set aside for special infrastructure projects, but in its first year was used to balance the budget.

So why do I support this new proposed flat tax?  Mainly, it's because our situation with road maintenance and repair has reached crisis proportions, after six years of underfunding, starting when $2 million was taken directly out of the roads budget and directed towards the Neat and Clean project.  Neat and Clean money, as I'm sure you'll recall, was invested in such things as new furniture for the mayor's office and council chambers, new carpeting in City Hall, and painting lamp posts on Central Avenue as high as the painters could reach.  We now have to deal with the results of this neglect and mis-spending, compounded over six years, and made worse because those  problems that weren't addressed over these six years are now more expensive to remedy.

The new flat tax will be put into a dedicated fund, solely directed to road maintenance and repair.  All proposed roadwork expenditures have been removed from the general budget, and will be covered from this fund.  We expect to collect $4 million this year; any money not spent this year will be retained for next year.  If it turns out that it's more than can be spent in a single year, the amount can be adjusted each year to ensure that the amount collected matches what can reasonably be expected to be spent in that year.

The other reason that I support this tax is because roads are used by all Prince Albert citizens - we will all benefit.  We do need to identify the roads that will be covered under this years budget, and ensure that true need sets priority, to deal with the worst roads first.  This work also needs to be coordinated with utility work - nobody wants to see a road resurfaced one year, then taken apart the next year for water main replacement.

The Pineview Terrace tax is scheduled to expire in a couple of years, as is the assessment for the soccer centre, although that is based on mill rate, not a flat tax.  When those are finished, council will have a few more options - either redirecting those funds, or eliminating them from the tax bill, which might provide a bit of tax relief.

I do think that the current flat tax of $60 should be removed, and put on to the mill rate.  This tax, as I mentioned earlier, wasn't directed toward a specific purpose, and I think that the only way to justify a flat tax is to be able to point at the specific reason for it.  I will be making such a motion at Monday's council meeting.

I'm not happy about the flat tax, but I'm supporting it because I think it is the only way to get out of the mess that previous councils have gotten us into.  I hope that we remember this lesson, and don't saddle future councils with such problems.

"Desperate times call for desperate measures." - Proverb

Sunday, April 7, 2013

A Different Way of Doing Things

If I were to describe the atmosphere around council meetings these days, I would use words like respectful, conciliatory, open, listening.  I get the sense that those of us around the table are aware that we each have good ideas to contribute, and that when we openly discuss issues, we can use these ideas to develop far better solutions than any one of us could come up with alone.

A good example of this is the recent decision that we made surrounding expenditures for floral decorations.  Once the subject was raised, it turned out that we were all in agreement that the status quo wasn't achieving results in line with the size of the expenditure, and the voicing of opinions saying so wasn't squelched, but was instead encouraged.  We then tossed around ideas for how we could continue beautification efforts, while not spending so much money.

While we'll still have a budget line for flowers, it will be for purchasing materials, and the labour will be internal.  We'll also be looking at such things as volunteer work and sponsorship.  And we'll be looking at what works, and what doesn't, when we develop next year's budget.  It's amazing what can happen when we step out of the comfort zone of just doing what we've been doing, and instead look at what we want to achieve, and the different ways of achieving that goal.

Some might suggest that this willingness to compromise somehow indicates weakness of purpose.  I think that it demonstrates our recognition of the strength of diversity, which is the reason behind having a council of nine individuals.  We're different, and we need to use these differences when we're discussing issues and coming up with solutions.

We need to take this approach with every item in the budget.  Just because we've always spent money on certain things, or always done things in a certain way, doesn't mean that it's been the best or the only way of achieving results.  This approach takes more effort, and it takes more time, but the positive results show in more than just financial ways.

A council where all members feel that their contributions are welcome, that asking questions about possible options is not discouraged, that new ideas will be seriously considered - that's a council that's going to be able to make effective change, and that means that everyone, council, administration and residents, is going to benefit.  I'm not promising that we'll be able to solve all our problems, but I do think that things are getting better.

"Compromise is the best and cheapest lawyer." - Robert Louis Stevenson

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Really, I Don't Hate Flowers

At the end of our two days of budget review meetings, I asked where in the budget was the $40,000 that previous councils had allocated each year for the last six years for floral decorations. I was told that it was in the base budget – in other words, administration had assumed that past expenditures were to continue, without any kind of review, so had left it in there, while claiming that a 3.6% increase in the base budget was necessary. As I said in my previous post, this is a basic flaw in our budgeting process that we need to fix – we have to look at everywhere we’re currently spending money, and reduce where we can, as a first step in the budgeting process. The process has to include more than deciding how big the tax increase is going to be.

And then I finished by saying “I hate those flowers,” a quote that the local media was quick to pick up on.

Of course, I don’t hate flowers. What I hate is what that expenditure symbolizes to me – style over substance, image over content, wants over needs. Those often seemed to be the priorities of council for the past six years, and that’s part of the reason why we’re in such a difficult situation now, as we try to figure out a way, not just of keeping up with basic maintenance needs, but of making up for lost opportunities and higher costs due to past neglect and deferrals – of choosing style over substance.

So when the contract for floral decorations came up at Monday’s Executive Meeting, I took the opportunity to clarify my concerns. I started by saying that I’ve joined a 12-step program for flower haters, but then I made the serious pitch that we should not go forward with this contract, which isn’t even with a local company. I know that some might view the $40,000 as a pittance, but over the past six years, that single pittance has added up to $240,000 – money that could have been used for more permanent improvements or repairs. The flowers are a transient thing, lasting, at best, five months, with benefits that are impossible to quantify.

Other communities have found ways to beautify their cities without spending a heap of taxpayers’ money to do it. I understand that Moose Jaw has a voluntary program, and I’ve mentioned before the Heritage Gardener program in Andrea’s home town of North Bay, Ontario, where the entire waterfront – several kilometers of walkways and bike paths reclaimed from former rail yards – has flower beds on both sides of the paths put in and maintained by groups of volunteers, with the city only providing water connections at various points. I think that even the T-shirts provided to volunteers (my mother-in-law was one) were sponsored by an outside company. Ingrid lives in the Riversdale area of Saskatoon, and even her lower-income neighbourhood has public planters and rosebushes maintained by residents.  These are the sorts of initiatives that I think could work here, but which we haven’t looked into.

It’s important to remember that there are hidden costs over and above the $40,000 as well. The contractor may have provided the materials for the barrels of petunias that were set out in military precision in front of City Hall every year, but it was city crews that had to spend time setting out the barrels every May, and removing them every September. These costs don’t appear as a line item in the budget, but it’s time that those crews could have spent elsewhere, to greater effect.

When the base budget was first posted, we were told that it was made up only of labour costs. It turns out that’s not exactly the case.  There's a whole lot of stuff in the base budget beyond labour costs - snow- plowing, street sweeping, fleet vehicle maintenance, grass cutting, building operating costs are just some examples of costs that are in the base budget.  These examples would be considered essential, of course, although it is up to council, not administration, to determine the level at which these things are done.

The base budget also includes more non-essentials than just the flowers.  For instance, advertising costs are in there - a total of $235,000.  I wouldn't propose cutting the entire advertising budget, because of course we need to advertise things like tenders, hiring opportunities and things like the election information piece that went to every residence last fall, but some things, like the infomercials on local radio that the last council paid about $70,000 annually for, aren't necessary for the city to function, and I would propose cutting those.

Also funded through the base budget are facilities such as the golf course, the soccer centre, the Art Hauser Centre and the Rawlinson Centre.  Rather than just automatically funding these facilities at current levels, I don't see why we can't set targets for these facilities to reduce their budgets.  After all, they're already getting free water, sanitation, advertising and floral decorations.  If we expect city residents to tighten their belts so that they can pay higher taxes, we should expect no less from those who benefit from these higher taxes.

We need to change our whole attitude towards budgeting. And part of that attitude has to include the recognition that everyone involved, both council and administration, has to look at all our costs – big and small – to be able to separate the non-essentials from the essentials, the wants from the needs, the nice-to-haves from the must-haves. As I said earlier, several years of confusing these things has led to the current situation, and we need to act decisively to start to swing things the other way.

And if that means looking at the flowers as a starting point, then let’s do that.

"Where have all the flowers gone?" - Pete Seeger

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Budget Meeting Thoughts

Council spent all day Friday and Saturday, from nine in the morning until five in the afternoon both days, going through the budget line by line. We went through two thick binders of budget material - one for capital expenditures, which includes things like equipment purchases, and the other for general operating expenditures, which includes things like labour costs and contracts.

Unlike in previous years, when we would set aside two days for this work, but then rush through things in one day, taking things in chunks, we had lots of good open discussion about specific items, and there were no sacred cows in what we were reviewing.  Two long days, but I think that those who have been involved before found it a better and more rewarding process.

That's not to say that the process couldn't be made better.  We weren't actually reviewing the whole budget - administration had already posted the base budget, and we didn't have the opportunity to review the line items in that budget, and find ways of cutting costs there.  The base budget is much more than staff wages, as   I found out when I went looking in the binders for the $40,000 that we spend every year on floral decorations - that's still in the base budget, and it's an item that I think could be reduced, but it wasn't part of our discussions.

I'd also like the opportunity to go through the base budget because that's where costs like snow removal and street sweeping are.  The general operations budget often speaks to adding funds to those items, but without being able to see what current costs are, it's hard to evaluate whether the proposed additional costs are reasonable.

Assuming that current expenditures will remain as they are is an assumption that we can't afford.  We have to look at finding efficiencies in how and where we're currently spending, because, unfortunately, we can't afford everything on everyone's wish list.  We have to be very careful to distinguish between wants and needs, something that the previous council didn't do very well.

Spending from specific reserves also needs to be scrutinized more closely.  We tend to pass these without much discussion, since the money is there, in a reserve.  But we can't forget that this money came from the tax payer, and needs to be spent just as wisely as the taxes that we're proposing to collect this year.

The service review that we had in early March was a good start, but unfortunately it didn't affect anything in this year's budget.  I think that next year we should do the service review earlier, then use that to give administration budget direction - maybe something like reduce costs for a specific area by a certain percentage.  I would also recommend against putting out preliminary numbers on what the tax increase will be.  The base budget made public a few weeks ago stated that a 3.6 % tax increase would be necessary just to keep pace with wages, but it also assumed the status quo on all expenditures in the base budget, and left out the fact that council had yet to review the capital and general operating budgets.

By next year's budget, we also should have made decisions on how we will deal with all of the buildings that the city currently owns, and have utility and sanitation costs included for all departments and facilities.  We will then be able to factor these costs in when setting user fees, which should reduce the burden on the tax payer.  I would also suggest that all facilities should be required to establish reserve funds in their budgets, so that future capital expenditures are more manageable.

So what's next in the budget process?  Administration now has the job of putting forward various options for proportional and flat tax increases, in various combinations, which will then come back to council for further discussions.

It's a long process, and particularly for those newcomers to council, I'm sure it's overwhelming at times.  And the decisions are not easy.   But line by line, item by item, we're doing the job that we've been elected to do - keeping that in mind makes the decisions easier.

"It's clearly a budget.  It's got a lot of numbers in it." - George W. Bush

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Service Review - A Welcome First Step in the Budget Process

This year's budget process is turning out to be much more open and thoughtful than it's been the last few years, which is a welcome change.

City staff have prepared a draft budget, which is posted on the city web-site.  This is basically just the status quo, based on past years' budgets.  It indicates a 3.6 per cent increase, presumably for wage increases.  However, council hasn't even started looking at this document.

Our first step, in meetings held this past Thursday afternoon and evening, and all day Friday, was a service review.  We looked at current services provided by the city, and asked questions of administration and department heads about where possible savings could be found through operational efficiencies.  We also talked about where cuts could be made in certain programs - a line of discussion that certainly hasn't been encouraged in the past.  I think that it speaks well of the current council that we have realized that an important step in establishing a budget is looking first at where the money is going, and finding efficiencies there, rather than assuming that setting tax increases is the only way of dealing with city problems.

And there seem to be no sacred cows any more - our discussions covered the full range of where city money is spent, and we seem to be prepared to look at everything in detail in the hopes of saving money.  This too is a huge change in perspective, and one that I have been advocating for some time.

We're also looking at areas that have been neglected in past budgets - street maintenance is probably the most notable area that has been underfunded for several years, and the current state of our streets is a sad testament to the results of this sort of neglect.  I'm hopeful that this year's budget will start to reverse this trend - the longer we put things off, the more expensive the repairs will be.  I've also asked that the current state of city trees be reviewed - the windstorms of the past two summers have shown the extensive damage and resulting costs that occur when we don't manage our urban forests.

At next Monday's council meeting, we will hear from some of the groups that get funding from the city, with their positions on funding that they need for the upcoming year.  It's also an opportunity for the public to comment on the draft budget.  While I'll admit that going through the budget line by line isn't the most fun way to spend an evening, it is eye-opening to see the choices and decisions that have to be made, and if you have concerns about how council decides to allocate your taxes, this is your opportunity to let us know your thoughts.

And once we've received the input, then hard decisions will have to be made.  I'm hopeful that the current atmosphere of openness and respectful discussion will continue, and that the resulting budget will be one that all members of council can support.

"A budget tells us what we can't afford, but it doesn't keep us from buying it."  William Feather

Saturday, March 2, 2013

A Few Things that You May Not Know About the New Utility Rates

At the last council meeting, a bare majority of council members (5-4) voted to increase your utility rates every year for the next four years.  This was in spite of a motion that I put forward that we only set the new rates for one year, which would give us the opportunity to rethink things next year.

I voted against the proposed increase for a number of reasons. While I recognize the importance of maintaining the infrastructure that provides one of life's basic requirements, I don't believe that council, or the public, was provided with enough information about the proposed new rates, or what other options might have been.  From the information that we have been given, it appears as though residential users will be getting a higher proportional increase than commercial users, and that those residential users who use less water will be getting a higher proportional increase than those who use more water, and both of those things strike me as being unfair.

Once again, it seems as though the impatience of some members of council to make decisions before having as much pertinent information as possible has trumped the importance of knowing exactly what it is that the citizens of Prince Albert are going to have to deal with.

Publicly, the message from administration is that this is an increase of 10.4 per cent for the average residential user.  I asked for a breakdown on how this would affect high, medium and low residential users, and from the information that I was provided, it appears that the 10.4 per cent increase only applies if you're what is considered a high user - 2500 cubic feet per quarter.  If you fall into the moderate user area, 1800 cubic feet (which is where my water bill puts our family), the increase in the first year is actually 11.8 per cent.  And if you're what is considered to be a low user, 1200 cubic feet, your increase in the first year will be 13.6 per cent.

And who are the low users?  They would be those households of one or two people, often seniors living on fixed incomes, who will be facing the largest proportional impact on their utility bills.  And for those who have worked to reduce their water consumption - those who have invested in more efficient shower heads and low-use toilets, or who collect rain water for their gardens rather than using the hose - well, they probably did it because they're interested in the environment, but they won't be getting any financial thanks from the city for their efforts, that's for sure.

I would have been much more comfortable with this if the information provided had laid out the whole spectrum of changes, rather than just focusing on the 10.4 per cent.  To me, that's being misleading, by giving only the least of the increases, rather than all of them.

The other confusing part to me, that has yet to be explained clearly, is the difference between the increase for residential and commercial users.  The 10.4 per cent increase for residential users would appear to be quite a bit more than the 4.66 per cent increase that commercial users will be paying.   However, the city manager has said that the two increases are the same, but he has yet to provide us with his reasoning for how 10.4 per cent equals 4.66 per cent (let alone how 13.6 per cent equals 4.66 per cent).

Part of the problem is that your utility bill covers far more than just your water usage - you're paying for infrastructure maintenance and repair, as well as for garbage pick-up, both of which are unrelated to your water use, and you're also paying for a portion of the costs of city administration.  Once again, these are all necessary costs, but I would prefer that they are dealt with as part of the overall taxation process, rather than being hidden as part of your utility bill.

I also don't understand why water billing can't be done monthly, as most other household bills are.  I've raised this in the past, and been told by administration that it would be too expensive, but, as with many other things, the reasons why this can't be done haven't been explained.

I've had a few phone calls and conversations with people saying that they don't understand the logic behind the proposed increases, and I haven't been able to provide them with much information.  To me, that's a clear sign that we're not ready to move forward with these changes, and until we can explain clearly how people will be affected, we shouldn't be rushing to the first solution offered by administration.

"Figures can lie, and liars do figure." - Anonymous

Saturday, February 16, 2013

A New Way of Dealing with Committees

This new council is looking at city committees, and how committee appointments are made, in a whole new way.  We're hoping that the result is a set of committees that are functional, with defined work objectives, and that produce ideas that council can use in making decisions.

There are two types of committees to which council makes appointments.  The first type is external committees - committees that are established by outside agencies, but that require representation from Prince Albert.  The Library Board, the District Planning Commission, and the North Central Saskatchewan Transportation Committee are examples of these.  Our council does not control the functioning of these committees, but council appointees to these committees are expected to keep council updated with new information that might affect Prince Albert.

The committees that are within council's control are called, appropriately, committees of council.  These are set up to be a sounding board for issues that are brought before council, and are expected to give focused discussion on these issues, and make recommendations back to council on decisions that are council's responsibility.  For example, in the past the Housing Committee has been asked to develop policy around the utilization of the Housing Trust Fund.

Our committee review process has three stages.  The first was looking at all of the committees of council to see if there were any that were superfluous because their work was unnecessary, such as the Street Naming Committee, since there is a policy on street-naming in place.  We were able to trim a few of the more than 60 committees on the list in that way.

The second stage is selecting which councillors will be appointed to which committees.  Unlike previous councils, where decisions were made by the mayor, after meeting one-on-one with each councillor, then endorsed by council without any discussion, this council has chosen a more democratic and open process.  First, all members of council were asked to indicate which committees, both external and council committees, that they would be interested in being on.  Then, at last week's Executive Committee meeting, we voted on which councillors should be appointed to each committee, by secret ballot.  In some cases, councillors withdrew from the vote, when they saw the interest of another councillor, so voting wasn't necessary.  In other cases, taking a vote was necessary.  The resulting recommendations will be ratified at the next council meeting on February 25th.

I think that this process is a great improvement.  Everyone had the opportunity to declare their interest, and to see the interests of their colleagues.  Everyone also was able to participate in the decision.  And the voting was done in the open, with the ballot counting done by the city manager.  It was a bit of a time-consuming process, but we got faster as we went along.

Some councillors may be disappointed that they didn't get to be on all of the committees that they expressed interest in, and some may be disappointed that they are no longer on a committee that they have been on for some time.  As with most things in life, changes in perspective can bring new ideas to the table, which should be beneficial.  I've been on the North Central Saskatchewan Transportation Committee for my entire time on council, and while I found it quite educational, and met many good people from other communities and from the Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure over the years, I'm sure that the councillor who will replace me on the committee will do just as good a job.

Meetings of committees of council are open to the public, so any councillor that has an interest in the committee, but wasn't successful in getting the appointment, can still attend the meeting, ask questions, and participate in the discussion.  They just can't vote on committee matters, but they can bring forth their ideas when the actual decision is made by council.  I did this quite often in my first term on council, and learned quite a bit, even though I actually wasn't a committee member.

There will be a third stage of this committee review process.  All committees of council will be expected to develop a committee work plan for the upcoming year by the end of April, and report on their activities at the end of the year.  If there is no work plan or report, the committee will be deemed not necessary at this time, and dissolved.

This new council is not afraid of doing things differently, and of including all members in discussions and decisions.  I look at the extra time involved in these discussions as investments in figuring out how to do our jobs better, which should benefit Prince Albert in the long run.  And that, of course, should be the goal of every  member of council.

"Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half the people are right more than half the time." - E.B. White