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