Sunday, January 27, 2013

Look Before You Leap, then Look Again

You may have heard last week that a trip is being planned for city council and some administration to check out the new Mosaic Place in Moose Jaw.  This trip was suggested by the board of the Raiders, who would like to see a new arena to replace the Art Hauser Centre.

I have a few thoughts about this whole idea.  Starting to gather information at early stages, which everyone agrees we're at, is certainly a good idea.  And checking with a community of similar size which has recently gone through the process is also a good idea.  But there are far more things that we need to consider before we decide that this should be part of a ten year plan for the city - ten years is not a very long time, and we have more urgent, basic needs that have been neglected for too long.

I know that there's a certain excitement and energy to special projects that just doesn't happen with the regular, boring, infrastructure maintenance stuff.  The city has an enviable history of residents getting together to fund the construction of such things as the original Comuniplex, the Kinsmen water slides, the Rawlinson Centre, and the soccer centre.  And it's less than ten years ago that the Bring Back the Magic campaign put $5 million into upgrades that resulted in the Comuniplex being refurbished and renamed the Art Hauser Centre.  These facilities all provide benefits to the city, its residents, and the surrounding area.  They also each have added significantly to the city budget, and the costs to the city to keep them operating increase every year.

I think that before we even consider adding yet another city-owned facility to the more than 100 that we already are responsible for, we need to review the current state of all our facilities.  We need to know their operating costs, the level of usage, and the revenues.  We need to know their projected life span, and what sort of maintenance is required on an ongoing basis.  And we need to decide if we can afford all the facilities that we currently own.  Some difficult decisions may need to be made, because we have to realize that, even though the city may have carried the costs in the past, it's no longer practical or fair for some facilities to be subsidized to the extent that they have been.

We also need to develop some standard principles around these facilities.  I think that the costs for each facility should include all operating costs, including water, which currently is included for some facilities, but not others.  I think that all facilities should have to provide a financial report and a budget before their annual funding is approved - again, in the past, this has been required for some facilities but not others.  I think that when facilities reach the end of their lifespan, when costs to keep them repaired start to be unreasonable, we need to decide at that point whether we need to maintain the facility, or if the need can be covered in some other way.  For example, the Girl Guide Hall needed a new roof.  When the repairs began, black mold was revealed, making it a far costlier project.  This is the point where we need to ask ourselves why we are maintaining a building for a single organization, when we have several community halls that could probably accommodate their needs.  And I'm not meaning to pick on the Girl Guides, whose building costs us far less than some other facilities, and who pay for their own water use, but no group should be considered off-limits or sacred.

This is difficult, I know.  We all have our favourite causes that we support.  But we have to make decisions that are objective, and not based on the affinities and connections of members of council.  Too often we have made decisions that are more emotional than practical, and those decisions have cost the city as a whole.  It comes down to balance.  I'm not saying that all facilities need to be self-sufficient.  I am saying that we need to treat all facilities the same, and look for cost-effective solutions, so that we can afford both the every day necessities of paved and plowed streets and safe drinking water, while being able to enjoy going to a hockey game, a concert, or a walk along the Rotary Trail.

And the place to start, as I've suggested before, is with a total facilities review.  Only when we know where we are can we start to figure out what we need to do to get where we want to be.

"Some debts are fun when you are acquiring them, but none are fun when you set about retiring them." - Ogden Nash

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Baby Steps

As I mentioned in last week's blog entry about getting to a new bridge, most of our goals as a city council can only be reached in steps.  So  much of what we want to accomplish is big, and costly, and will take time - it's really easy to get frustrated by the seeming impossibility of getting to where we want to go.  We have to remember the words of Lao-Tzu, the Chinese philosopher - "A journey of a thousand miles begins with but a single step."

We need to approach revitalizing the downtown area the same way.  It's not going to be done by throwing big bucks at things like new building fronts, or putting in paving stones rather than sidewalks, or putting in a different style of street lights, or putting up banners.  None of these things, either individually or together, is going to convince more people to come downtown to shop or dine or get their hair cut.  And doing any or all of these things costs money that has to be taken from somewhere else.

But at last week's council meeting we did vote to take a small, inexpensive step to make it easier for those going downtown to spend more time there.  We passed a motion to make all of the parking meters on Central Avenue two hour, rather than having the mix of one and two hour meters that is the current situation.

This situation came about a couple of years ago when the city spent $700,000 for new parking meters in the downtown - we'll be paying for those meters for the next three years and ten months ($14,600 per month).  The new meters only take loonies and twonies, with the idea that this would increase parking revenues.  We also hired another parking meter person, with the theory being that the increased meter revenues would pay for this person's salary.  At about the same time, the fine for parking at an expired meter went up to $10 (if you pay right away), to discourage people from parking too long.

On Central Avenue, meters were all set for a maximum of one hour.  Even if you put in a twonie, the most time that you could get was one hour.  Part of the reason for this limitation came from businesses in the block where the university is located - students were parking on the street, and taking up spaces for the entire day, preventing customers of those businesses from having easy access.  The hope was that shorter meter times and higher parking fines would discourage this behaviour.

Unfortunately, one hour isn't very long if you're downtown and want to run a number of errands, or have an appointment that runs overtime.  When an accounting firm moved into the Forest Centre, they quickly found that this was a problem for many of their clients, so they made a request to the city to have the allowable time on meters in that block changed to two hours, and this was done.

However, when other businesses on Central made the same request, they were turned down, and told to work through the Business Improvement District, which didn't follow through.  Frustrated, they asked me if there was anything that I could do.

Having been in the situation where I've been meeting someone for coffee, and they had to run out to feed the meter, or were ticked because they put in a twonie (since the meter says that it takes twonies and loonies) but only got one hour of parking, I thought that making all meters on Central two hour meters was the simplest solution that would end some confusion and give people some encouragement to stay downtown.  So I brought forward a motion at council to do just that, and it was passed last week.  One benefit of the new meters is that this will be very easy and low-cost to do, and should be done within a couple of weeks.

Is this the magic bullet for our downtown?  Of course not.  But it's something that was easy, low-cost, and lessens one of the irritants that people run into when they're considering whether to go downtown or elsewhere.

And it was taking a step, not standing in the same place talking about all the things that we could do, but not actually doing anything.  We need to remember that it's the doing, not the talking, that gets things done, even if we're only taking baby steps.

"As I get older, I pay less attention to what men say.  I just watch what they do." - Andrew Carnegie

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Bridge Report - What Next?

As you're probably aware, the well-publicized bridge report did not contain the news that was hoped for - that the province recognizes that a second bridge crossing of the North Saskatchewan River is needed, and that planning for such a project can now begin, with a funding commitment in place.

Instead, it said that the current bridge, if maintained, meets our needs, and should last for another thirty years, considering capacity and projected population growth.

While this news is disappointing, it wasn't a surprise.  We have been told before that based on traffic volumes, a second bridge isn't required.  Slow going during long weekends, while inconvenient and annoying,  is not sufficient reason for the province to cough up several million dollars, no matter how many people sign a petition.  In fact, the decision last summer to open all the lanes during the August long weekend so that people coming from the south weren't inconvenienced was probably not the best way of emphasizing to people from outside the Prince Albert area how serious the situation is.

And I don't think that there's a magic population number that if reached, would automatically trigger an opening of the money bags to fund a new bridge - it's just not that simple.

While the vocalized disappointment is understandable, I don't think that there's any ground to be gained in getting angry or political.  The report was prepared by independent consultants, and consultants aren't always going to give the answers that are wanted.

I think it is important to figure out how we can move forward, and take at least the first possible step.  That's why I will be making a motion at the next council meeting that we endorse the report's proposed location for a future second crossing - east of the airport.  Then, that decision will be made - we won't have to have another study at some future date to figure out a location.  If we can get the surrounding RMs to come in on the endorsement, so much the better.

Knowing the general location can then be used in long-term planning, and in developing a functional study to identify the best specific site, taking into account such factors as geological bases, land ownership, and other service requirements.  That way, we'll be ready for the next infrastructure funding opportunity, be it federal or provincial, and be able to move forward, rather than reworking the same study over and over again, and remaining in the same place that we've been for the last thirty years.

It would also be useful to identify each incremental step in the process to a new bridge.  We're unlikely to get a full package of funding to do it all at once - bridge, plus all the highway connectors for the transportation plan.  But if we can set the process out in less financially  intimidating steps, then we might actually move ahead.

Most change happens in stages anyway.  Let's be patient, work with other levels of government rather than pointing fingers, and figure out what we can do, not just complain about what we can't get right now.

"You don't have to see the whole staircase to take the first step." - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

And Another Year Begins

Once again, we're looking forward to another year, which I'm sure will be filled with surprises.  2012 was certainly an interesting year.  As with most years, there were lots of happenings that no-one would have predicted, both good and bad.  That uncertainty about the future is what keeps life interesting.  While it's important to remember and learn from the past, I think that it's more important to look ahead, plan as best you can, but accept that there's only a certain amount of life that is actually within our control.  And when the unexpected happens, deal with it.

In the area of things that are classified as within our control, I'm hoping that this year, council takes a good look in two areas.  I think that we need to look at everywhere that we're spending our money, and how we spend our time, and make sure that we managing both money and time efficiently and economically, because both are limited.

Managing our money is done mainly through the budget process, which I hope will be a longer and more open process this year.  There are two components to budgeting - what do we need to spend money on, and where can we cut our spending.  It's no problem getting people's ideas on where we need to spend more money - snow removal, street sweeping, infrastructure repair, better management of our urban forest, a new bridge - these are just a few of the areas that have been identified as needing more financial attention.  It's harder when it comes to identifying areas where efficiencies could be made to save money that could then be redirected to these higher priorities.

We need to identify services that the city provides that cost more than the benefits received - one example that comes to mind is the way the city recycles residential grass clippings, branches, and other yard waste.  Right now, we ask people to place such waste in clear plastic bags, and periodically a city truck carrying three employees cruises the back alleys, looking for these bags, separate from regular garbage and recycling pick-ups.  The bags are then taken to the landfill, where they are cut open and added to the organic sludge that is used as ground cover for the cells where garbage is dumped.

This is a service that our family has never used.  Andrea is a major proponent of composting - she grew up in a family where it was taken for granted that you dumped your coffee grounds, tea bags, apple cores and orange peels in a bucket that was periodically taken out to the compost pile behind the garden.  We currently have three compost bins in the backyard, as well as a worm composter inside.  And I know that many families do the same.  I think that we first have to question whether we should be offering this as a door to door service, or if we would be better off with having a few centralized locations where people could bring their organic waste.

We could also save a step in the process by requiring that organic matter be put into paper bags, rather than plastic, which isn't recyclable.  The last time that we were in Stratford, we noticed that people put out three kinds of garbage for pick-up - regular, blue recycling bins, and large paper bags filled with compostable material.

This is, of course, just one example of a service where we could possibly save money by doing things differently.  Everyone at the table, and the city staff who provide us with information, need to start looking at every service provided to see how it can be done more efficiently and effectively, or if it is something that needs to be provided at all.

In the area of spending our time more efficiently, I think that we're taking a step in the right direction by looking at the current plethora of committees that we have, and eliminating some of them.  The management committee will be bringing forward to council a list of committees that we see as being no longer necessary, for council to make the final decision.  Then council as a whole will decide who will be on which committee.  This should result in a lower overall workload, and a more fair distribution of work.

This council is just at the start of its mandate, and I'm sure that we will make plenty of mistakes over the next four years.  But I think that if we remember to focus on the areas where we can actually make real differences, and keep ourselves open to new ideas and ways of doing things, we'll be able to see improvements that benefit the city as a whole.  And that's a positive way to face our future.

"Look at life through the wind-shield, not the rear-view mirror." - Byrd Baggett