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