Sunday, December 14, 2014

Putting the Budget To Bed

The budget passed at last Monday's council meeting, and for the first time in nine years I was able to support it.  Not that it's a perfect budget - there's plenty of room for improvement in both the process and the result, but I think that some changes were made in the right direction that were worthy of support.

For me, one of the major improvements was the adjustment to the roads improvement levy for the commercial sector.  I think that our approach to the commercial sector is too disconnected - perhaps because, unlike residents, businesses don't vote.  The way the roads levy was originally set for the commercial sector, small businesses paid $700 annually, and large businesses $7,000.  You don't have to be a financial expert to know that a small business might not clear $700 in a day, whereas a large business like WalMart clears $7000 easily before noon.  It's a demonstration of the inherent unfairness of flat taxes, and we've taken steps to start to correct that unfairness.

The small business levy has been reduced, and there are more increments as the size of business increases, rather than the three levels that there were before.  Personally, I believe that the way to go with the levy for both businesses and residents is to assess the way taxes were traditionally done - at least this is a step in the right direction.

The Pineview Terrace levy is gone, and the soccer centre levy should end at some point this year.  Unfortunately, we didn't discuss the options for dealing with both of these - I know that some members of council have suggested that we continue the soccer centre levy as a reserve for future capital projects, but it remains to be seen what will happen with this levy.  Personally, I'm not happy with leaving this loose end, but some of my colleagues thought that two days of budget deliberations was quite enough.  I know that it's tiring, but that's how the job works.

In any event, we have a relatively small tax increase of 2 per cent, and small businesses and those residents whose home has a lower assessed value should even see a small decrease - always welcome news to the tax payer.

So what changes to the process would I like to see for next year?   Well, as I've already mentioned, more work needs to be done on the commercial side, to deal with the inequities that remain.  We need to remember that small businesses are the ones that are owned by local residents - the profits tend to remain in the city, and we need to encourage this sector.  I'd like to see the other flat tax, the $60 one, clearly ear-marked for snow removal, and set according to what is actually required.  Last year, we said that half of it would go to snow removal, with the remainder left for undisclosed purposes - if we have to have a flat tax, let's at least dedicate it to a definite purpose, and set it accordingly.

I also expect administration to look at organization and staffing.  It seems that we're continually asked to increase staff levels, even though the city population isn't increasing at the same rate.  I would rather see the city manager focus on ensuring that staff are organized efficiently, and that when a position is vacated, for whatever reason, a case is made for the continued need for that position, rather than just filling it automatically.  Administration has to get on side with the idea of continual improvement - too often I get the sense that status quo is quite all right with many of them, even as the world is changing all around us.

But, as I said, this year there were many improvements in the process.  I hope to see as many next year, so that I can again support both the process and the result.

"Budget - a mathematical confirmation of your suspicions." - A.A. Latimer 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Committee Appointments, the Democratic Way

Last week's Executive Committee meeting was the time when new committee appointments were decided.  As we're mid-way through the current term of council, it seemed a good time to take stock, and see if changes were appropriate.

Committees are different from when I was first on council.  Committees of that time, like Finance, or Works and Planning, which used to meet separately and then make recommendations to council, have been replaced by Executive Committee, so that matters now come directly to council.  And some committees that were in place at the time of the last election, like the Beautification Committee, were determined to be redundant, so no longer exist.  Many of the committees are not committees of council, but rather are external committees that have city representatives.  I don't think that there's any perfect committee structure, so it's good that the city has control, for the most part, over how committees are set up and their membership.

This council does committee appointments quite differently than the previous council.  Rather than the mayor making all the decisions, and handing out committee appointments like favours, this council has a two step process.  First, each member of council decides which committees they would be interested in being on - there's not much point in putting someone on a committee if they're not interested in being there.  Then, council as a whole votes on which councillor will be on which committee - it doesn't get more democratic than that.

The result this time, for me, is a bit of a change.  I remain on the Police Commission, and now represent council on the Downtown Business Improvement District committee.  Since my ward borders the downtown, and Laura at the Bison often teases me that I'm there so much it's my unofficial office, I'm looking forward to working with downtown businesses on revitalization ideas.  And I have a feeling that I'll continue to go to Saskatoon Airport Authority meetings, representing the mayor, who often has conflicting demands on his time.

In my time on council, I've been on most committees.  I think that, to be valuable, a committee has to do more than meet - it has to set priorities, and work towards making sensible recommendations for council to act on.  I get the feeling from some of my colleagues that they see some committees as having some sort of higher status, but I don't buy into that kind of thinking - like many status-related things, the glory is mostly in individual's minds.  The public is rarely aware of who is on which committee, or in what each committee is responsible for.  Committees are mostly in the background, discussing issues and sorting through information, but making final decisions remains a council responsibility.

Committees do provide valuable input, but it's best to keep the system flexible - don't have committees that duplicate work already being done elsewhere, don't meet unless there's something to discuss, and don't be afraid to disband committees that aren't doing anything - as long as council follows these guidelines, we won't be so overburdened with committees that we forget our real responsibilities.

"To get something done, a committee should consist of no more than three people, two of whom are absent." - Robert Copeland

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The New Contract to Run the Rawlinson Centre - What's the Problem?

Council approved the new contract with Star Entertainment to run the Rawlinson Centre at the council meeting last Monday evening.  This is the first year that we've contracted directly with Star Entertainment - in previous years the Arts Board was responsible for the contract, resulting in problems like financial statements not being submitted, and money from reserves being spent without prior approval from Council.  In the interests of improving transparency, council has taken over the responsibility.  Unfortunately, we haven't done a very good job.

The contract total for the next year is $395,000, an increase over last year's number.  That's a lot of money, and was high enough that three members of council voted against it, me among them.

But the underlying problem with this contract is that is was handled differently from our other contract processes.  Normally for a large contract like this, the city would tender it out, or do a request for proposals.  That would give us an idea of the fair market value - what is reasonable for running a venue of that size.

However, for some reason, most of council felt that it was okay to just give the contract to the company that's been running the venue for the last ten years, taking an ever-increasing part of the city budget every year.  Not only that, but we increased the size of the contract, for no apparent reason, other than that there was no raise last year.  A couple of council members even said that they like the individual involved, and that was good enough for them, indicating that they missed the class where we learned that when it's not your personal money you're spending, liking shouldn't enter into the decision-making process.

Another option would have been for administration to do some research - find out what similar facilities in other cities cost - so that we would know if we're in the ball park.  If that research was done, it wasn't shared with council.

And while having a written contract is an improvement over the years when there was nothing in writing, a contract should include a few milestones and deliverables, setting some targets and expectations.  And no, the single statement of "running the facility" does not meet my idea of a deliverable.

We missed the opportunity to make the situation better.  If we had tendered it out, perhaps the result would have been the same - maybe almost $400,000 is the going rate.  If that were the case, and if there were some hard deliverables in the contract, setting out targets that need to be met before payments are made, then I might have been able to support this.  But we chose to take the lazy way out, for whatever reason.

And interestingly, there hasn't been a single word about this in the local paper.  That they chose to put council's support of a provincial helmet law on the front page of Tuesday's paper (one of those feel good motions that costs us nothing), rather than this topic certainly raises some questions about what is considered news in this town.

I'm still reminded regularly by city residents that this facility was built with the promise that it wouldn't cost tax payers a cent - the fact that it takes an increasing amount of money every year is a recurring irritant to many people, who rightly think that council should try to fix the situation. That we couldn't even be bothered to follow regular procedures before making the decision to carry on with the old contract just adds insult to injury.

"A verbal contract isn't worth the paper it's printed on." - Sam Goldwyn

Sunday, November 23, 2014

This Year's Budget Process - Getting Better, Incrementally

Well, we're most of the way through this year's budget process, planning our spending for next year.  Our timing for the public review piece wasn't the best, happening the evening before Remembrance Day - never a good idea to have public meetings the night before a holiday.  Then we had our meetings to go through the budget page by page on the Friday and Saturday of the same week.

This is the first time in my experience that we're this far through the process before the end of the calendar year.  Despite the earliness, the budget documents provided were still more detailed than they have been in the past, which makes for better decision-making.  And getting the process done so early means that the initial tax notices that go out, usually containing an estimate of tax due, will now be final, so that those who prepay before the end of January to take advantage of the slight discount won't have to pay the remainder of their bill in June.

I also found that there was a bit more give and take in the process.  Just because a number had been put in the budget by administration didn't mean that we didn't make changes based on our discussions, which is how it should be.  For example, administration had put in $60,000 for floral decorations.  After some discussion, we knocked $20,000 off that - still higher than I think it should be, but at least it's one-third lower.  I still don't get why some feel that it's good use of taxpayers' money to spend it on something that only lasts for four months of the year, and that has no measurable benefit.  I'd have an easier time adding that money to the fix the waterslides fund - at least that benefits people directly, if for a shorter season.  But in any case, we did discuss the expenditure, and it's not as high as it could have been.

But there is still plenty of room for improvement in the process.  I would like to know why we can't have a standardized format from year to year - every year the information is presented differently, and we have to figure out where things are before getting a handle on what is being proposed.  I would also like to see all of the relevant information in the requests from outside agencies, rather than having to pull information about grants and revenues from a separate document to compare them to the amount of money that is being requested.  As anyone who has browsed through the various budget documents knows, it's a huge amount of paper to wade through and keep organized as discussions progress - any consolidation of information would be welcome.

Another thing that we found out in our meetings was that often, money in previous years has been set aside for capital improvements, but not spent.  If we were to truly adopt zero-based budgeting, then unspent money would be added to money available.  Had we known last year, for example, that money had been set aside in previous years for improvements to Kinsmen Park, but not spent, I would have had no difficulty in moving that money towards waterslide repair.  It would also mean that various departments would have to get better at matching what they can realistically do in a year with their budget requests, to prevent going to the taxpayer before we have to.

We still haven't had the discussion about the final piece - the various flat taxes and levies that have been applied over the years.  Two levies are done this year - the Pineview Terrace levy and the levy for the soccer centre, so we'll have to decide whether to continue these on under different names.  There have been suggestions that the Pineview Terrace levy could be put into a reserve for future health-related expenses.  And I've heard suggestions that the soccer centre levy could continue, to be used as a recreational reserve - we've all heard the requests for a new swimming pool, or a new arena, or $2 million for irrigation for the golf course.

I don't support flat taxes, as I've mentioned before, because they put a larger proportional hit on lower and middle income people - which is most of us.  The soccer centre levy was there before  - called the debt reduction levy - and I have no problem with putting money into reserves, as long as it isn't used to balance the budget after sloppy budget development, as has happened in the past.  But I'm not interested in funding special projects for a relatively small proportion of residents, and figuring out how to pay ongoing costs for new facilities needs to be done before, not after, the construction money has been raised.

So stay tuned - even though the formal budget meetings are done, we still have more to talk about before the final numbers are known.

"Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons." - Woody Allen

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Zoning Changes - We Need a Better Process

You've probably heard Albert Einstein's definition of insanity - doing the same thing over and over, but expecting different results.  One of the agenda items for Monday's council meeting reminds me of that - a zoning change has come before council, after following the usual process for consultation (send letters to residents living within a certain radius about the proposed change), and council chambers will be packed with residents demanding that we turn down this change.  And I won't be surprised if most council members bend to the will of the non-elected people in the room, and follow their wishes.  Applause will follow, the press will dutifully quote happy residents, who will laud those councillors that followed their wishes for understanding how democracy works, and disparage those councillors who had the temerity to make a different decision.

The zoning change in question?  A group home for five young girls is being proposed for a residence on Mahon Drive.  The young girls in question have not been in trouble with the law, but rather are in situations where they cannot live with their families, and are between the ages of thirteen and eighteen - high school girls.  At least one staff member is on site at all times, with two present in the evenings.

I've been receiving phone calls and emails about this since before it came to council.  The surface reason that is being presented is that such a home will be a traffic hazard, and there will be insufficient parking.  Never one to believe everything that people tell me, particularly when they are trying to tell me how I should vote, I went to check the area out.  The neighbourhood is relatively new - every house, including the one being proposed for the home, has a two car garage with a wide driveway.  Sufficient parking, especially for a home in which most of the residents will not have their own vehicles.  In fact, I would bet that most of the current homes have more vehicles than this residence would.  The street itself is not a major thoroughfare, but is a quiet crescent.  The police tell me that it is not an area with a history of traffic accidents.

I get the feeling that residents are talking about parking and traffic safety because those are socially acceptable concerns - they don't want to be accused of being one of the Not In My Back Yard types.  And when they hear the words "group home", they make the leap to half-way house, because they haven't been told anything else - they've been sent a letter - the least efficient form of communication.

I find these meetings where residents crowd council chambers to be an extremely poor way of discussing the issue, because absolutely no discussion takes place.  People with their minds already made up come to tell us what we should do, and either openly or implicitly suggest that if we don't vote their way, they won't vote our way in the next election.  The proponents also have the chance to present, but again, it's not an opportunity for discussion.  And council becomes the awkward guy in the middle, trying to sort out reality from rumour.

The insanity part comes in because this is how we deal with zoning changes - not productive, creates divisions on council and in the community, and decisions are made based on emotion, not fact.  And it's been this way the whole time that I've been on council - people have learned that the best way to get council on side for any proposed change is not to present with solid facts and arguments, but rather, fill council chambers with emotional people, either pro or con.

So, how would I do this differently?  Well, I think that when a proposal comes to administration that is going to require a zoning change, I would require that the proponent hold a public meeting to present their idea to the neighbourhood, well before it comes to council.  And this wouldn't just be for people within a certain radius; it should be widely advertised, so that anyone in the city, as well as members of council, could attend and ask questions.  That's the kind of venue where questions can be asked and answered, and potential issues could either be defused, or ameliorated.  If it was made clear at these meetings just how many extra vehicles were going to be in the neighbourhood, for example, then the argument that there won't be sufficient parking wouldn't be considered more than a red herring.

That way council could make its decision based on hard facts, questions would have been asked and answered, directly to and from the proponents, and council would get out of this middleman position that we've put ourselves into.  In fact, we'd be able to look at things from the perspective of how a change would affect the community as a whole, not just look at it from the viewpoint of a few residents.

And the emotion wouldn't detract from what should be our focus on Monday - public input on the draft budget, which is coming after the council meeting.  Now that's where we should be spending our time - listening to ideas about the budget, not listening to people who are worried about potential new neighbours.

"Somehow, our devils are never quite what we expect when we meet them face to face." - Nelson DeMille

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Bus Subsidy Dilemma

At last week's Executive Committee meeting, the subject of increasing the city's subsidy of bus passes for those on social assistance came up.  One of the problems that I have with Executive Committee meetings as they are currently structured is that we vote on things, the vote is not binding, but it tends to get reported in the media as though it is, causing public outcry as though the decision has been made.  But actually, the final vote will be at the Council meeting this week, and things could always change.

The issue is that the price for the subsidized pass, $15 a month, hasn't increased since 2008, so the proposed increase of $5 a month is making up for six years of increased costs.  It's still a very good deal - $20 for unlimited bus service for a month, but it is also a 25% increase.  The dollar number may seem low, but the percentage increase is more than, for example, the recent rate increase for using city facilities.

I would like more information about the current subsidized usage - how many people take advantage of this opportunity?  Are passes transferable, or is there photo ID on them that limits the usage to one person?  How often does a pass holder use the pass in a month?  If it's only a couple of times, perhaps it would be cheaper for Social Services to provide single use tickets, rather than a pass.

I wish that we had a standard practice for dealing with costs like subsidies and user rates.  I think that it would be preferable to have such things reviewed and increased on an annual basis, rather than our current practice of dealing with increases sporadically.  For one thing, it means that the increases, when they happen, tend to be larger than current inflation rates because we're trying to make up for increased costs over a longer time frame, which is upsetting to people.  For another thing, it means that we're running at a deficit, instead of making sure that rates are adjusted as costs go up.  For sure, the increases to fuel costs alone over the last six years are greater than the proposed $5 increase.

I also wish that other members of council would recognize the incongruity of resisting these increases, but also resisting tax increases.  Someone has to pay for increased costs, and it's going to be either the user or the tax payer.  It's also incongruous to hear some councillors objecting to a bus subsidy increase, because it affects lower income people, but on the other hand supporting flat taxes, which shift more of the tax burden to mid- and lower income residents.

I also wish that the provincial government provided money for public transit, as is the case in other provinces.  I think that encouraging the use of public transit is a broad public good, resulting in less wear and tear on infrastructure, fewer traffic and parking issues, and reduced environmental impact, and it should be directly supported by all levels of government.

As so often happens, there are more questions than answers when we're asked to make a decision, and it's not a simple issue.  The bottom line is that costs for everything go up, and we need to have a consistent approach that recognizes this, and is applied as fairly as possible to all residents.  Of course, getting to such an approach isn't simple either, but I need that we think to look at our problems from this perspective, rather than looking at each problem in isolation - that only seems to lead to inconsistency.

"Giving subsidies is a two-edged sword.  Once given, it's very hard to take a subsidy away." Najib Razak

Sunday, October 19, 2014

User Rate Increases - A Step in the Right Direction, But Not Far Enough

Council has approved fee rate increases for our facilities, except for the golf course, for the coming year, although as always there are those who worry that people will be upset by having to pay marginally more to use city facilities.

I don't share those fears - I think that most people understand that when costs rise, whether for staff or fuel or heating, those cost increases affect how much it costs the city, and those who use city facilities need to pay a share of those costs.

But I did vote against the proposed increase, because I don't think that user fees, as currently calculated, don't include all the true costs of these facilities.

Our target for user fees is that they should cover about 40% of the costs of running the facility, recognizing that a certain proportion of subsidization is reasonable, because having these facilities is a benefit to the city as a whole, not just to those people who actually walk through the doors of the facilities.  Unfortunately, the way this is currently calculated does not include factoring in the costs for long-term maintenance of these facilities, nor does it recognize that different facilities probably have different user costs, but we just do a flat across the board rate increase, and hope that will be sufficient for all.

It's kind of like thinking you can afford a house because you can manage the monthly mortgage payments, but forgetting to budget for such inevitable expenses as a new roof, furnace replacement, new appliances, or painting the wood trim.  A sensible household budget includes setting aside money for such things, so that your budget doesn't run aground when these expenses come up, either as planned expenditures, or in an emergency situation, like if your fridge dies suddenly.

The way it happens now, user fees don't include setting something aside for inevitable costs of maintenance or repair, so the taxpayer ends up having to foot the entire bill for those costs.  If we did have a maintenance reserve fund set up, perhaps we wouldn't have had to keep the waterslides closed this year - we could have funded ongoing maintenance out of a reserve developed by a budgeted piece of the user fee.

The only facility that is an exception to this is the Rawlinson Centre, where one dollar of every ticket sold is put into a reserve intended for capital improvements, such as upgrading the sound system.  Unfortunately, this reserve wasn't kept for its intended purpose, but was used instead to balance the budget, but hopefully with more open financial operations for that facility, this won't happen again.

But it's a good indication of how simple the process can be.  If you can calculate what an appropriate reserve should be for major maintenance expenditures on all our facilities, a flat rate could be added to each ticket from every facility, with a reserve set up that could be used for all facilities.  Another option, although not quite a simple, would be to calculate a sensible reserve for each facility, and figure out what the appropriate surcharge would be on the user fee for that facility.  That method would probably assess the users more fairly, but would be more complicated to administer, which also translates into additional costs for staffing.

I really don't care which method is followed - I just want to see us start thinking more about long-term maintenance of our facilities, and avoid the kind of difficult decisions that have to be made when the cost of fixing is beyond our budget, as happened last spring.

The other anomaly that I would like to avoid in future is this practice of determining user fees before we do the budget.  To me, making financial decisions before the budget process is very much putting the cart before the horse, and it limits our flexibility at budget time.  If during the budget process we find that costs for a certain facility are projected to be greater next year, we've missed our opportunity to add that to the user fee calculation, since I'm quite sure that most members of council won't want to revisit this particular discussion again within the same year.

But I know that change happens in stages.  I'll be happy if next year, administration brings us proposed user fees that include long-term costs, not just the short-term.  I would have no problem in agreeing to that kind of proposal.

"A budget is just a method of worrying before you spend your money, as well as afterward." - Unknown

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Why I Think We Need to Change Executive Committee Meetings

We've had some informal discussion among members of council about possible changes to what we do in Executive Committee meetings, which are held on alternate Mondays from Council Meetings.  While no decisions have been made, I thought that it might be helpful if I were to explain why some of us are thinking that the current format needs to change.

First, Executive Committee hasn't been in place since time immemorial.  Well before my time on council started, council meetings were held weekly.  Council of the day decided that meetings could be held every other week, since much of the preparatory work that was done for council was done in committees.  These committees were made up of various combinations of members of council, and included such committees as finance, parks and recreation, and public works.

This was the practice during my first term on council, and into the second term.  During that second term, we hired a new city manager, who suggested that we could get rid of the committees, and have the matters that were handled by those committees dealt with by all members of council, in what became Executive Committee meeting on alternate Mondays.  For those of us who were on several committees of council, it meant fewer meetings.  It also meant that everybody got to have input on all city matters, rather than having, for example, only a few councillors on the finance committee.

However, with the next mayor and council, and a different city manager, Executive Committee became more of a rehearsal for the actual council meeting, where final decisions are made.  It also became an opportunity for matters to be fully discussed at Executive Committee meetings, which aren't televised, so that the actual vote the following week was rushed through without much public discussion.  In essence, we were meeting twice on the same subjects.

I'm not afraid of work, but I do like my time to be used well, so I've been advocating for a change in Executive Committee for awhile now.  And now, halfway through the term of this council, others are starting to be willing to explore options.

I've been suggesting that Executive Committee use that meeting time for two purposes.  The first would be to have more detailed discussions with staff about new proposals that they are bringing forward, in a less formal setting.  Too often when we ask questions at these meetings, we don't have the time to delve fully into the necessary information, so Executive Committee meetings would be the opportunity for that.  It will mean that staff will have to come prepared for such deeper discussions, and that councillors will have to use the opportunity to ask meaningful questions, not make political points.

I would also suggest that we could use these meetings to vote on items that have previously been discussed, such as projects that have already received budget approval.  That would leave more time at formal Council Meetings to focus our public discussions and decisions on items that haven't yet been approved.

I'm not proposing eliminating Executive Committee meetings, which will be a relief to those who are under the misconception that councillors are paid by the meeting.  I am proposing that when we meet, we should be as productive as possible.

There are those who regard any change as suspicious.  However, I'm a believer that continual improvement means looking at all our processes, and not being afraid to try something new, in the interests of doing things better.  After all, procedural changes, which is all that this would be, are relatively easy to make, and don't cost a lot of money - low risk all round.

"Change is inevitable - except from a vending machine." - Robert C. Gallagher

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Concessions - Business or Service

As part of our digging deeper into budget, for the first time that I can recall, we've seen detailed revenues and expenditures for the various city concessions.  In the past, we've only gotten generalized numbers, without specifics.  As is so often the case, once the details are available, then we can ask better questions, including getting to the basic question of "If we aren't getting a decent return, why are we doing this?"

It's a fundamental question when you're running a business - you run it in order to make a profit.  When it comes to providing a service, well, then it gets trickier - how much should the city be expected to provide to people who visit the Art Hauser Centre, or the soccer centre?

Of course, we don't get the returns from what is generally considered to be the most profitable product - alcohol sales.  The beer sales from the 7th Hole concession cart at the golf course and the Art Hauser Centre go to the tenants - the Golf and Curling Club and the Raiders, respectively.  Those two groups were thinking like businesses, and the city wasn't, when those deals were made.  It's something to remember when we're renegotiating those arrangements.

And we also found out that during the major athletic competitions that Prince Albert hosted last winter, the concessions weren't always open to take advantage of potential business - hard to make money when you're not open, and it also makes people less reliant on the service, if it's not going to be something they can count on.  In fact, it seems to be common knowledge that it's often faster to go to Timmy's during hockey intermissions than to line up at the concession - and the coffee is better too.

One councillor suggested that we should look at concessions as a service provided by the city, not as a profit generator.  If that's the case, then we should do a couple of things.  First, we should pare down the offerings to the basics, and to products that have a long shelf life, so that we don't lose additional money throwing out perishables that haven't sold.  That would keep our costs down.  Second, if a concession is a service, then let's add a portion of the cost to user fees, since it would be a part of the service provided by the facility.

On the other hand, if it's going to be a revenue generator, let's have it run more like a business - open during prime money-making times, closed when it doesn't pay.  Again, limit the choices, to reduce the costs.  And let's improve the speed of service, so that people don't feel that it's better to go off-site.

I am glad that we've finally seen the numbers, even if the results are disappointing.  And now that our eyes have been opened, and we have the facts, let's decide why we do things, before we decide on how.

"More business is lost through neglect than through any other cause." - Rose Kennedy

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Questioning the Importance of Questions

At last week's council meeting, council voted to remove the public inquiry portion of council meetings.  I'm not sure what the impetus was for this - I know that some councillors thought that it was taking up too much time on the council agenda - sometimes as much as half an hour.  And some felt that other councillors misused the opportunity, bringing up a lengthy list of micromanaging questions, possibly with the hope of moving these things up on the list of getting things done.

I didn't vote with the majority on this one, and two fellow councillors were also in opposition.  I believe that our reasons were similar - public inquiries is a good place to raise questions that have been raised with us, in the interests of educating both our fellow council members and the general public.  For instance, a few years back, I had a question that I raised during the public portion of the meeting, about the number of homes in Prince Albert that still had lead water service connections.  Not only did this make many people aware of this potential health hazard, it also led to the development of a program to assist people in having these connections replaced, and to guidelines for how to keep your drinking water safe if you do live in one of these homes.

The direction now is that members of council are to direct their inquiries to the city manager, who will then direct them to the appropriate department.  However, this doesn't let other councillors know about an issue that may also interest them (unless we choose to bury ourselves in emails cc'd to everybody), and more importantly, it leaves out the public education piece.  It also slows the process down - if a question is raised at council, the appropriate department head is made aware of it right away, rather than having it filtered through the extra level of bureaucracy.

If there was an issue with too much time being spent at council meetings on these questions, I can think of a couple of ways we could have reduced the time without removing the entire process.  Providing guidelines to councillors about what is appropriate for public inquiries would be one way - specific questions about details on when, for example, a worrisome tree on a boulevard is going to be removed are not of general interest, and can be dealt with outside the public process.  Councillors need to remember that our job isn't to micromanage project priorities, or tell staff how to do their jobs.  If a constituent calls with a question, a councillor's job is to find the answer, not to get the job moved higher on the priority list.

Limiting questions to the public council meeting, rather than having them raised in all three forums (council, executive and committee of the whole) would also save time, as would limiting each councillor to the number of questions at each meeting, or perhaps having questions at alternate meetings, as we do now with public forum.

I would rather we had explored some options for solving the perceived problem, rather than just abolishing completely the idea of raising questions publicly.  Most of us talked about improving transparency with city business when we were asking for people's support in the last election - now we have taken away one of our tools for transparency, which I'm sure is disappointing to more people than just me and two other members of council.

"The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge." - Thomas Berger

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Just What Is SCAN?

At last week'c council meeting I was pleased to propose, and to have the rest of council support, a proposal to the provincial government to expand the current SCAN program to have staff in Prince Albert as well as in Saskatoon and Regina.  And I had no problem with amending the motion to include having a liquor inspector located here as well, since that aligns with our increasing awareness of the underlying factor of alcohol abuse in so many of our community problems.

SCAN stands for Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods, and is a program run through the Ministry of Justice.  It's built on the premise that the problems in many neighbourhoods can be directly linked to one or more problem residences or businesses, and that taking action against these particular problem locations can reduce overall crime in the neighbourhood.

The program recognizes that problem residences are most easily identified by the neighbours, who can observe habitual activities like multiple vehicles coming and going, but not staying long - the classic sign of a residence that's being used for drug trafficking.  The police just don't have the resources to have personnel watching consistently, so having neighbours notice these things is making use of the people who have the most at stake.  Reporting to SCAN is totally confidential, as well, which may reduce the risk of people not reporting for fear of retribution.

A SCAN referral doesn't mean that a residence or business is shut down immediately - warning letters to the property owner are usually the first step, unless the problem is acute enough to warrant immediate closure of the residence.  But it focuses on removing the location of criminal activity, not trying to gather sufficient evidence to prosecute individuals.  In many cases, of course, the true source of the criminal activity is several steps away - what SCAN does is make it more difficult for criminals to have a place to operate out of, which makes the neighbourhood safer as a result.

The underlying premise of the program is sound; the problem for Prince Albert is that the staff are too far away to respond quickly and efficiently to problems here, and that's what my motion was about - encouraging the province to expand a program with a good success rate to a city that needs it.

In my fourteen years on council, I've spent quite a bit of time working on making neighbourhoods safer, and I've found that all too often, it's a single house that's the source of problems.  And I've had many people thank me when the criminal activity based out of that house stops - the whole neighbourhood benefits.  I know that one house that I can see from my front door used to have people coming and going at all hours, with loud parties on the weekends.  It was finally placarded because the water was shut off, but it was a long and painful process for those of us in the neighbourhood, and for the police.  Perhaps if SCAN had been in place then, it would have been quicker.  And now that I'm seeing suspicious activity going on in a building that I can see from my kitchen window, I'm hoping that using SCAN will help, not just me, but my whole neighbourhood.

We often hear complaints about how people don't look out for their neighbours any more.  Well, this is a chance for us to try to bring some of that sense back.  Just as you watch for strange activities near their home when you know your neighbours are away, SCAN encourages you to watch for symptoms of habitual criminal activity, and gives you a place to call.  I just hope that soon, the number to call will be a local one.

"You can observe a lot by just watching." - Yogi Berra

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Looking Back at Summer, and Forward to Fall

All too soon, summer is winding down.  I notice it most in the early evenings, when it gets dark so early.  The cooler mornngs are a big change too - it's hard to believe that less than two weeks ago Andrea and I were sweltering through a hot and humid summer day in Toronto before catching the train back to Saskatoon - apparently the first over 30 day that they had enjoyed all year.  The Ontario summer was even cooler than ours, which is certainly a change.

The start of fall seems like a time of new beginnings, probably because those school day feelings stay with us our whole lives.  Although council doesn't break for the summer, we do have fewer meetings, they start earlier in the day, and we abandon our usual dress code for July and August.  So now it's back to the suit, weekly meetings (Council and Executive in alternating weeks), and the 5 p.m. meeting start.

I didn't have my usual summer building project, unlike last year, when I shingled the north half of the house, or the year before when I built a deck.  This year I did spend some time at Ingrid's house in Saskatoon, replacing the frames around her two front windows, and replacing the roof vent.  We also spent some time helping Guthrie as he moved to Saskatoon to start a new job, and find new living arrangements.  I do have an indoor project planned - putting new hardwood floors in the living room, and putting in new under-floor heating there as well.  It's the kind of project that doesn't depend on a stretch of good weather, and shouldn't be as brutal on me as last year's roof project turned out to be.

For council, this fall marks the half-way point of the current term.  We have continued to work well as a team, and I think that we've made good progress on one of our major goals, catching up on some of the road repair backlog, although not as much as last year, because of the weather.  And we've set some new targets for ourselves, most notably our goal of having the budget process completed before the end of the calendar year, rather than in the spring.

Shifting the timeline for the budget back by months is going to require extra effort by administration, since many of our budget decisions depend on knowing how this year's money has been spent, and the turnaround on that information isn't always known quickly.  However, the target was made known quite early - if it turns out not to be feasible, then adjustments will have to be made to the process.

As always, I hope that as a council we do a better job of focusing on the job at hand, and we take the energy of the new beginning of fall to remember our priorities, and work together to keep the momentum going through the winter.

"You can't turn the clock back, so you have to look ahead." - Mel Gibson

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Canadian Association of Police Governance Annual Meeting

I just got back from the annual meeting of the Canadian Association of Police Governance - the annual gathering of what are variously known as police boards or commissions.  Last year's meeting was in Saskatoon; this year's meeting was in Halifax.

As with all meetings of this sort, there's time spent on governance issues - association business, executive elections, and similar stuff.  But the bulk of the time was spent in educational sessions, where we had the chance to hear about how other cities deal with managing how the police work, and to discuss in smaller groups our various experiences.  Various boards are made up of different representatives - some have members appointed by the province, some by the municipality.  The Prince Albert Police Commission has seven members - three from council, four appointed by council.  I was the only council representative at this meeting, and three of the four public members were also there.

I always find it interesting to hear about how other communities deal with problems that we all face.  Probably the most common problem is how to manage the ever-increasing costs of policing, which currently takes up about one-third of our city budget.

Winnipeg has taken an approach to this that I think is worth investigating to see if it could work here.  They have adopted a police cadet model, in which cadets, unarmed and working in pairs, deal with such issues as picking up intoxicated people, directing traffic, security at special events, and downtown safety patrols.  This frees up police officers for doing actual police work, rather than using them for activities that don't require a high level of training.

Winnipeg pays cadets in the neighbourhood of $20 an hour, far less than a trained officer, so there are real cost savings to be had.  They also use the cadet program to identify potential police recruits - a far cheaper alternative than having an officer go through costly training only to find out that they aren't really suited for the job.  And not surprisingly, they have found that the response time of police officers to serious crimes has improved, which is another efficiency.

Using such a model here would free up officers from such current duties as working security at the Exhibition, accompanying bylaw enforcement officers on downtown patrols, having an officer posted at the high school, dealing with drunks (which is probably the source of the greatest number of calls that they currently deal with), or guarding the bridge when lanes are closed off, or when there is a weight restriction applied.  Currently, we pay police officers quite a bit of overtime to do many of these things, and I think that we need to investigate any option to reduce these costs, and ensure that they can focus their energies on the big issues.

The greatest opposition to the cadet program has come from police unions, who see it as taking away from their jobs.  However, when much of this work is currently done by officers on overtime, and when we see the opportunity to improve response times, I can't see us reducing the number of officers - I think that this would allow us to use them more efficiently.  There's certainly more than enough work to go around.

I spoke at length with the woman who gave this presentation, and she will be sending me more detailed information.  I'm looking forward to sharing this with the rest of the commission, and seeing what we can do to see how such a model could work here.

"Every piece of work needs the right person in the right place at the right time." - Benoit Mandelbrot

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Council Compensation - What's Fair?

There's been a bit of coverage in the media this week about council compensation, after the public accounts were released last week, as they are every year, identifying what everyone on council was paid the previous year.  Compensation levels have gone up over the previous year, for two reasons.  Our base salaries are linked to the compensation levels for Cabinet, so when those go up, our salaries go up the next year.  This council also voted to increase the per diem - the daily rate that is paid whenever a full day is spent on council business, and the car allowance.  This vote took place more than a year ago, so last year's compensation reflects decisions made some time ago, in a regular council meeting, in public, as are all decisions related to council compensation.

The per diem is the reason why there is a difference between some councillors' salaries.  Mine was probably at the top of the list this time because I go to out of town committee meetings, which take a whole day.  Attending conferences out of town also means per diems, as does attending full day meetings in town, like those that we have for strategic planning.  The per diem increase was the first since I've been on council - twelve years - and we lagged far behind the rates paid by other cities in the province, so we were playing catch up, as it were.

The report also included what each member of council has spent for travel expenses.  Again, whether a councillor attends out of town conferences is going to affect the amount paid for travel - not everyone has the flexibility in their schedules to do so.  Each councillor has an amount set in the budget for travel each year, and it's up to each councillor to decide what travel, if any, they are going to do.  This is an equitable system which seems to be working well - it's worth noting that nobody exceeded their travel budget, which I think is a good illustration that councillors plan out their travel to ensure that they can attend those conferences which most interest them, and aren't just looking to spend all that they can.

The difficulty that some media seemed to have was that council approved the increase in per diems and car allowance, suggesting that we gave ourselves our own raise.  Of course, the only raise that we control is the per diem rate, which works out to less than 10% of total salary.  The other 90% is controlled by the province.  There have been some years when there's been no increase at all, neither in base rate or per diems, which as I said, hadn't been increased in more than 10 years.

I think that the current system is about as hands-off as we can get.  I suppose there are alternatives out there - we could link to increases in cost-of-living, which would mean a raise every year, or we could link to raises that city employees get.  Both of these would result in much greater increases, and I don't think that would be popular with the public.

It's interesting that the other part of public accounts which releases the salaries of city employees, only starts with those employees who earn more than $50,000 annually, and doesn't release any staff travel expenses.  So the situation is that eight of the nine people who make the final decisions on how the city runs would not have their salaries released if we were under the same rules.  I'm not advocating that, but it does put things into perspective - even with our so-called huge salary increases, we don't make a lot of money.  There aren't too many places where the bosses make less than the staff.

I don't think that anyone on council is there to get rich - if they are, they've had a big surprise.  The job doesn't pay well, you're on call seven days a week, your every decision is public and open to criticism, and on-line forums have brought a whole new way for people to insult you anonymously.

I didn't run for council to get rich, but I do think that some form of compensation is required, and it should be equitable with other cities in the province.  I can't think of a single occasion where I've been berated by a member of the public for being over-paid, but I have gotten many thanks from people who see that I put in a fair amount of effort, and they appreciate that.  I've also gotten even more comments from people along the lines of  "I could never do that for that amount of money.  Thank goodness there are people who will."

And that's what it comes down to - anybody with a job knows that the paycheque is only part of the reason that you do the job.  But not too many people would do their jobs for nothing, and I don't think that anyone on this current council needs to be embarrassed about being compensated fairly for doing a difficult job.

"What's worth doing is worth doing for money." - Gordon Gekko (Wall Street)

Sunday, July 27, 2014

How Should We Deal with Boarded-Up Houses?

In some parts of the city, boarded-up houses don't exist.  For people who live in those areas, it's hardly a pressing problem.  But for those of us in areas where the income is below average, they are a problem, and one for which we don't have a satisfactory solution.

Houses get boarded up for a number of reasons.  The house may have been a rental house, which became unfit to be lived in - perhaps non-payment of water bills led to the water being turned off.  The home owner may have died, or simply left, and the house was unable to be sold.  Or a fire may have rendered the house uninhabitable.  Whatever the situation, the windows and doors have been boarded up, the yard is neglected and shows it, and it becomes a problem, not just for the neighbourhood, but for the city.

A boarded-up house can be the source of many problems.  Squatters may move in.  Young adults may find that it's a great place to party.  Fires get started.  At the very least, it becomes an eyesore in the neighbourhood, reducing property values.

These houses are occupying space that could be used to build good homes - homes that wouldn't require new infrastructure to be built, and whose residents would utilize current amenities like schools and playgrounds.  They are a waste of current city assets.  But instead of being used, they tend to remain empty, long past the time when they could be rehabilitated.

I can see a boarded-up house from my front yard.  It's a rental property that for several years was a drug house, with lots of short-term visitors at all hours of the day and night, and frequent backyard parties.  Fortunately, the police were responsive to complaints, and it's been empty for several years.  But it's an attractive nuisance to kids in the neighbourhood - more than once I've called police because I've seen kids starting to pry the boards off the back door or windows.  But there doesn't seem to be any action that can be taken to get the owners to take some responsibility in fixing it up so that it's habitable again, or knock it down and sell the lot to someone who will make use of it.

I've been looking for a solution to this problem for most of my time on council.  Too often, I've been told by bylaw enforcement that there's nothing that they can do.  So I've started having discussions with the city solicitor and other legal professionals, to find out what the options are, and what other cities do to solve the problem.  The next step will be to meet with bylaw enforcement staff, and the city solicitor, to find out exactly what roadblocks are stopping them from taking action sooner, or at all.  I think that it's important that we involve the people who are going to be involved in doing the work, to ensure that whatever new bylaw we come up with will work at the ground level.

Other communities have tried various options.  For example, some require owners to register any boarded-up houses, and have such houses be inspected for whatever needs to be repaired, and charge a fee for such inspection costs.  The inspection is done every year, and costs escalate if required repairs were not made.  Using the nuisance bylaw to address issues is another possibility.

The goal is not to punish the owners of these homes.  The goal is to encourage them to make the property habitable again, and if they don't, to make them pay the city for at least some of the costs that are being incurred by the extra work that such properties entail.

I realize that stuff happens, that sometimes, through no fault of their own, a home owner will have to board up a house.  But having a house in this state should be temporary, not long term, for the good of the neighbourhood and the city as a whole.

"An empty house is like a stray dog or a body from which life has departed."  Samuel Butler

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Paying for Alcohol - the Right Decision, for the Wrong Reason

I like red wine.  I have a glass of wine most evenings with dinner.  I like a cold beer on a hot day.  I enjoy a glass of Drambuie in the late evening, now and then.

That being said, I understand that for some, alcohol is an addiction, and a cause of great pain, both for addicts and their families, and for those innocent people that have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, when dealing with a drunk driver.

I also realize that Prince Albert has more than its share of people dealing with the problem of alcohol, for a wide range of reasons.  Some of those people cause very direct costs to the city, as most police calls are alcohol-related, and the police cells are full most evenings with people who have had too much to drink, and have nowhere else to go.  Others manage to keep their problems under control, or have the supports in place to help them do so.

It's a good thing that this problem is starting to be discussed more openly, but I think that dragging it into last week's council discussion about funding for a sports event was taking advantage of the situation to score political points.  To recap briefly - council had been asked to fund a local sports celebration to the tune of $2,500 specifically to sponsor a wine and cheese reception.  The councillor who spoke to the issue said that he objected because it sends the wrong message when our city has such problems with alcohol abuse.

I, on the other hand, did not support it because I don't think that the city should give money for non-essentials, particularly to a group that can certainly afford to buy their own wine.  It's rather ironic that the motion ended up passing, for the same $2,500, simply by removing the direct reference to sponsoring the wine and cheese reception.  In other words, we gave the same amount of money, the wine and cheese reception went ahead, and the organizing committee just had to adjust their book-keeping a bit.  But for some members of council, it gave the opportunity to look as though they're taking the high moral ground against something, even though no actual action was taken to address the underlying problem.

Too bad the same outcry didn't happen a few years ago, when we gave $48,000 to a golf celebration, a considerable amount of which was ear-marked specifically for wine and beer.  Then-councillor Williams and I were the only ones to vote against that expenditure, for the same reason - the tax payer shouldn't be paying for alcohol, because it is a non-essential.

And where was this moralizing a few years ago, when the motion for a drive-through off-sale passed with a comfortable majority of council supporting it?  How we could support making it even easier for people to access alcohol is beyond me, but again I was in the minority in opposing this, which has indirectly led to a recent court challenge - something that wouldn't have been necessary had we only done the right thing a few years ago.

The problem of alcohol abuse is a complex one, and one that the city has very few tools to deal with.  City residents can decry the people drinking on benches in Memorial Square, but at the same time ignore the message that traditions like Safe Grad send to young people, despite the statistics that tell us that binge drinking by high school students is at scarily high levels.

If council is going to, as some say, take a stand against alcohol, what will we do the next time a request for a special occasion permit comes to us?  In the past, such events, endorsed by council, have caused extra problems for police, but somehow don't raise public indignation to the same levels as do people passed out on the riverbank.

Alcohol is one of those vexing problems for which there is no clear solution that works for everyone.  I don't know what the right answer, or combination of answers is.  All I can do is continue to make decisions based on what I feel is best for the tax payer, and try to avoid making moral judgements that don't really change anything.

"Here's to alcohol: the cause of, and answer to, all of life's problems." - Matt Groening

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Dealing with the Inevitability of Emergencies

One of the fundamental truths of life seems to be that, no matter what, no matter how well you've planned, unexpected problems will leap up and bite you.  In your personal life, you might have an emergency fund for such things.  You'll get into trouble if you define emergency too loosely, or if you use the fund to pay for things that you could have anticipated.  For example, there's a big difference between the emergency caused because your car was broadsided in an accident, and the emergency when your car breaks down because you haven't been doing regular maintenance.  The second, of course, isn't a real emergency - you could have minimized the risks by thinking ahead.

With the city, we've been most recently hit by the unexpected repair bill for the soccer centre roof - money that wasn't in the budget, of course.  It's a familiar quandary - we set our plans for the year in the budget, make tough decisions like the one not to fully fund the waterslide repairs, but stuff always comes up that we have to find emergency money for.

Of course, as with your own budget, there are always things that come in under budget, and these savings can be used to cover the unexpected problems.  But we can't rely on that, and it doesn't mean that we shouldn't have a better emergency fund than we do.  The inadequacy of our emergency reserves is not because we've had more than our share of emergencies, but more because of foolish actions by past councils, which drained reserves for non-emergency expenses.  Building it back up is slow, hard slogging, not made easier by the never-ending requests for funding of this and that.

An example of an additional funding request is the most recent one - to keep the ice in the Art Hauser Centre for extra weeks next spring, for the benefit of figure skaters.  In no way can this be considered an essential - it's providing a convenience for a relatively few number of people, who currently have to drive all the way out to Buckland for extended season ice time.  And yet, the familiar chorus - "It's for the children" - has already been sounded, making those of us who try to take an objective look at spending look like big meanies.  I would have absolutely no problem agreeing to this, if the special interest groups involved would agree to pay the additional costs - but of course, they consider the $10,000 cost too onerous for them, but a perfectly reasonable request to make of the taxpayer, via the city.

I'm not sure where the reasonable line is, but I do think that when we set user fees we shouldn't be looking at just the operating costs of the facilities - we should also be building in a reasonable cost for ongoing maintenance and repair work.  We should think of user fees the same way as a landlord thinks of rent - the landlord has to consider the inevitable costs of keeping the building functional in the long run, not just of covering the current operating costs.  These additional fees should be put directly into reserves, not left in the general operating budget - it's just to easy to spend it when it's there.

In the meantime, we'll have to figure out how to pay for a major repair in a four-year old building - most likely by pushing another, older building further back in line, and hope that its roof holds out.

"Where is the politician who has not promised to fight for lower taxes - and who has not proceeded to vote for the very spending projects that make tax cuts impossible." - Barry Goldwater

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Setting a Target for Growth

This week, the media was full of stories that mayor said that we have a goal to increase the population of the city to 50,000 by 2025 - an increase of about 30% over the next ten years.  He has since amended his terminology to say that it's a target, not a goal, which is probably wise, considering that in the thirty some years that I've lived here, the population has only increased by about 5,000.  It also doesn't fit with what we've been told by various experts - that Prince Albert is unlikely to have a huge growth spurt, unlike Saskatoon.  The city is likely to remain just a small city for the foreseeable future.  And that's not a bad thing - there are lots of benefits to living in a city where rush hour is only five minutes.  So let's not get caught up in the idea that growth for the sake of growth is what we want.

The intention behind the target/goal is that with a larger tax base, the tax burden has more people to share in it.  Unfortunately, costs rise though - as an example, more people means more streets, and more cars on those streets, so maintenance costs rise.  A larger industrial base is actually a greater help in reducing the tax burden, as long as we don't turn around and give tax breaks to industry in hopes of luring them here, as has already been done with Paper Excellence, although the mill opening date just seems to keep moving further and further away.

The idea of being prepared, though, is a good one, rather than playing catch-up after the people are here.  But we have to remember that we're playing catch-up right now, just to bring things up to where they should be, in a city this size.  Remember, we still have unpaved streets, and I'd like to see a plan for getting streets paved, and old water pipes replaced, before we start worrying about building new roads for potential new subdivisions.

Now that the target is out there, I hope that we use this as impetus to start organizing our thinking.  Let's start with figuring out what work needs to be done to make the infrastructure all over the city up to standards that one would expect in a city in this century - paved streets, sidewalks, new water mains where they're needed.  Figure out where the need is greatest, and focus our efforts there.  I get annoyed when I see areas that have long been neglected continue to be overlooked, but work going on in areas where the need isn't as great, but perhaps the taxpayers are more vocal.

Then let's look at where we should be planning for growth, and start setting aside money for these efforts.  I think that most people would agree that a second bridge is high on that list, even without massive population growth, so let's stop waiting for other levels of government to build us a bridge, and start investigating what sort of partnership involvement those other levels of government expect from us, and budget for that.  It's not going to happen if we just keep talking the same talk - let's try changing the conversation.

But when we do talk growth, let's not just throw out random numbers - let's figure out what's feasible, and figure out how to get there.

"Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell." - Edward Abbey

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Lessons from Niagara Falls

Andrea and I just returned from Ontario, where we spent the first few days of our trip at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities annual meeting in Niagara Falls.  It was probably the smallest place that FCM has been held - the city has a population of only 84,000 - but its tourism development means that it has a very large convention centre where the meetings took place, and there were also sufficient accommodations for the more than 2,000 delegates.

We chose not to stay in the hotel where the other delegates from Prince Albert stayed.  Instead, we found a bed and breakfast that was a fifteen minute walk from the convention centre.  I've found that staying in a bed and breakfast offers several benefits - doing so supports a local business, rather than a large chain, you get to see more of the city, you get to interact with the other guests at breakfast, you learn more about the city from the owner, and you also get a good breakfast.

Niagara Falls seems almost to be two different cities.  The one that most people see is the area focused around the falls - they are spectacular, and draw crowds from all over the world. The large hotels and the casino are all close to the falls, and boast of the view.  The Niagara Parks Commission maintains a paved pathway along the river for several miles that is suitable for both biking and walking, with beautiful gardens along both sides of the road, and features like an aviary and a butterfly conservatory.  One area, a bit down from the falls, called Clifton Hill, is the street that reminded me of the fair - wax museums, halls of fame, arcades, and a huge Ferris wheel at the top.  At the other end is Marineland, another fair-like experience.

But outside of these areas, the city has the same trouble that most cities have - maintaining a viable, older downtown.  In fact, the difference was evident just on the short walk from the B&B to the conference centre.  It was quite obvious where the tourism area started, just by the state of the sidewalks.  One of the tours offered by the conference was to that downtown area, showing us the various efforts that have been put into making it more attractive with streetscaping efforts - sadly, the many empty storefronts show that it takes more than pots of flowers and signage to attract people to a downtown.  Our host at the B&B also told us of various efforts to bring in live theatre that hadn't worked - with the Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake, only a short drive away, the competition is very tough.

However, even for a town that relies on tourism to stay alive, there were signs in the tourist area that stated that cars have the right of way.  If I really wanted to make an area people-friendly, I'd limit the cars, perhaps by having shuttles to the falls rather than encouraging people to drive to the falls.  Although you might think that the exorbitant parking rates ($30 a day!) might encourage people to park further away and walk a few blocks, the lots seemed to be always full.

Another tour that I found interesting was one that focused on the recreational opportunities for young people in the city.  Rather than trying to have a facility in each neighbourhood, the Boys and Girls Club has one central facility for all activities, and they work with the schools to transport kids to this facility.  Being able to focus on maintaining one facility allows them to offer a wide range of activities, and have the resources available for transportation.  This makes sense to me - more efficient and effective, benefiting the whole community.

Far less interesting to the majority of tourists is the historical background of the area.  Just up the street from our B&B was the site of the Battle of Lundy's Lane - the bloodiest battle of the War of 1812.  The battlefield is also a cemetery.  We were also within walking distance of the museum, which had an exhibit devoted to the war, and another small museum across from the battlefield, which is an old reconstructed tavern from the era.  Andrea visited all of these, and was one of very few visitors.  While I realize that these sorts of attractions don't have quite the draw of the Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum, the tourism desk at the conference centre had no information about these - we found out about them from the CAA Tour Book.  I think that the city could do more to invest in this side of tourism.

At the trade show, which always offers new and innovative ideas and products, there was a model of a self-cleaning toilet, suitable for use in parks and along trails.  It cost in the neighbourhood of $100,000, and I couldn't help but think what an asset that would be along the Rotary Trail.  I think that investing in something like this that would make the trail more attractive to users is something worth exploring.  There were also models of outdoor exercise equipment that could be used along trails - these sorts of interactive things are far more likely to attract people to the riverbank than some of the other options that are currently being presented to council.

As I usually do, I found the educational aspects of the conference most interesting, as well as the opportunity to talk with delegates from across the country about our common issues.  I'm hoping that those of us who were there bring these new ideas back to our council and committee meetings - that's the whole point of going to these conferences, of course.

"The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page." - Augustine of Hippo

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Waterslides

The announcement this week that the waterslides need major maintenance work before they are safe to be used by the public, and may not reopen unless a community group or individual steps up with the necessary funds, was a surprise to many people.  Once again, council is caught between the proverbial rock and hard place - the demands on our financial resources far exceed our current tax levels, and increasing those tax levels to pay for everything that everybody wants, would place too heavy a tax burden on city residents.

It's starting to seem almost like the movie Groundhog Day - different facility; same story, unfortunately.

While I know that the waterslides are a fun and affordable day in the water for people, especially those who don't have a cottage at the lake (that would be most of us), it's not one of our more affordable facilities, since it's only used for less than three months of the year, and the user revenue isn't enough to cover the costs of having it open, staffed, and maintained.  And having it an outdoor facility means that the maintenance costs are higher - there's a reason why there are only two outdoor waterslides in Saskatchewan.

Part of the problem is that council wasn't made aware of the magnitude of the situation until this year - despite what may be alleged by anonymous posters on various websites, we were not informed of the potential safety issues until this year.

One way of preventing this situation from recurring with all our facilities, might be to have an annual report from each facility on what kind of shape it's in, what kind of regular or recurring maintenance is required to keep  it functioning, and what the cost would be.  We don't get anything like this at present, and I think it would be extremely helpful.

It's kind of like with your car or house - there are things that should be done on a regular basis, and you need to be aware of what these things are and what the cost is going to be so that you can put it into your budget.  Even with major expenditures like a new roof or a furnace, knowing the approximate lifespan of these things gives you the chance to build up savings to cover the cost, before it becomes an emergency.

The sad reality is that the waterslides may never reopen.  I think that for the investment required, we would be far better off to look into the costs of building a facility that can be used year-round.  The challenge will be figuring out ahead of time, not just how much the facility will cost to build, but how much it will cost to operate and maintain.  I know that this sort of thing isn't nearly as exciting, but it would prevent such unpleasant surprises in the future.  Just like the costs of fuel and maintenance should be considered before you buy a car, and you wouldn't think of buying a car that you could only drive for a few months of the year, we need to think of the whole picture before we invest in another facility.

"Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance." - Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. 

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Margo Fournier Centre Problem

At last week's council meeting, we had many users of the Margo Fournier Centre show up to voice their concerns about the recent notification from the city to user groups that they may need to find alternative places for their various activities.  The notification wasn't something that had been directed by council, and it didn't say that the centre would definitely be closing, but was more of a heads-up.  And filling council chambers had the usual result - members of council voted to reverse the notification, even though it hadn't been a council decision.  However, the problem remains, and we're just getting a handle on its extent.

Council has been gathering information on the many, many buildings that the city owns and maintains, and it's no secret that we have more facilities than we can afford.  In our rush to provide residents with a good variety of recreational and sports facilities, previous councils didn't take the time upfront, before the decision was made to go ahead with yet another facility, to figure out the ongoing cost of maintaining these facilities in good repair, as well as the more boring necessities, like roads and clean water.

This is the inevitable result - our population is not increasing at a rate that can support all of these facilities.  Hard decisions have to be made, because we can't continue to support all of our facilities at the levels that people have become used to.

I appreciate the value that the Margo Fournier Centre brings to the downtown.  I think that there's great value in having a facility that people who work downtown can walk to on their lunch hour for fitness classes.  I realize that the attached Heritage Centre is a good gathering place for seniors, providing essential social opportunities.

I hope that the users also realize that their usage is heavily subsidized by the city - in other words, the tax payers.  Users need to recognize that the convenience of being able to walk to a fitness class on their lunch hour should likely carry a greater cost than five dollars a class - or even less, when you realize that people who have a monthly pass to the field house can attend any of the classes at the Margo Fournier Centre for no additional cost.

The other inequity that has been mentioned before, but needs to be mentioned again, is that many of the users of city facilities, including the Margo Fournier Centre, don't live in the city, so their cost is further subsidized, since they're not paying the taxes that city residents do.  I found it rather ironic that many of the people who signed the petition to keep the Margo Fournier Centre open had addresses from outside the city - they don't have to worry about their taxes going up to keep city facilities open and safe.  I certainly support having different user rates for non-city residents, to help make up the difference.

I also think that we need to include all costs of maintaining facilities when we set user rates for the public, and that includes utility and water costs - otherwise we're just perpetuating the inequities, and passing the costs on to the tax payers.  It also might end some of the misconceptions that certain facilities pay for themselves - this isn't true if all costs aren't involved, and at this point, they aren't.

I've had many interesting and positive conversations with some of the people concerned about the potential closure of this facility, and I have no doubt of their sincerity and appreciation for this facility.  I hope that in their continuing discussions with the various interest groups that they put forward alternatives that include establishing a fair cost rate for using the facility, and don't just hope that the current situation will continue.

And please, please, please, let's remember this the next time council chambers are filled with a crowd of people demanding that we need a new facility - we just can't have it all.

"There's no free lunch." - Milton Friedman

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Option to Save Tax Payers Some Money

Legislation has recently been changed that will allow the city to add unpaid water bills to the taxes for a property - an option that is currently under debate with council.  This problem usually happens with rental properties, when the tenant leaves without ensuring that all their debts are paid.  It also can be an issue with commercial properties that are leased  - the lessee does not always pay their bills either.

Part of the problem is that water bills are only paid quarterly, rather than monthly, so someone could move out of a property leaving the water bill unpaid, and by the time the bill is sent, the person who used the water is long gone, so shutting off the water to the residence isn't possible - someone new is likely living there now, and it wouldn't be fair to make them pay the costs for water that they didn't use.  Although the city tries to get repaid by using collection agencies, that doesn't always work, and eventually, the debt is written off.

This may seem like not that big of a problem, but it is.  The most recent amount that had to be written off, covering the last four years, was roughly $450,000 - not an insignificant amount.  When the debt is written off, then the rest of the tax base, those people who pay their water bills and taxes, ends up picking up the expenses that would have been covered by the unpaid debt.  And that's not fair.

I think that the solution made possible by the changes to legislation will make things much more fair.  The city will be able to add the amount unpaid to the taxes for the residence or commercial property, and the owner will end up paying.

I know that some landlords feel that this is unfair, as they didn't run up the water bill, or leave without paying it, and I can understand that initial reaction.  However, I also know some landlords that include the water bill in the rent, so that they don't have to worry about whether the tenant is paying the bill.  I also know that the landlord can write off such additional expenses as part of their business expenses.  I think that it's more fair than having tax payers eventually make up the difference.

I also think that moving to monthly billing for water will reduce the problem somewhat.  A bill that's only a third the size should be more manageable for those tenants who have to pay their own utilities directly, and the city should catch those who aren't paying more quickly.

In any case, I think that moving to this option, which will reduce the amount of unpaid money that the city ends up writing off will mean that we have more money to take care of our ongoing responsibilities of maintaining this city-run facility - one of our more crucial responsibilities.

"Credit is a system whereby a person who can't pay, gets another person who can't pay, to guarantee that he can pay." - Charles Dickens

Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Need for More Debate

One of the things that I find lacking at council meetings is real debate.  I don't mean the repetitive spouting of stances, or making personal comments on the characters of those we disagree with (for example, dismissing someone's comments because "they're always so negative"), rather than responding to the substance of the comment, or the frequent wish to just move on.

I mean that we need to do more serious discussion about options, and the pros and cons of them, with actual facts attached.  We need to forget the personal stuff, or trying to look better than the other people around the table, or jockeying for favourable positions for the next election.  We're less than halfway through this term, and we need to concentrate on making good, informed decisions now, rather than worrying too much about the future.

In fact, I'd venture the opinion that focusing on our decisions at every opportunity now will actually be seen positively by the residents of Prince Albert, when they see that we're looking at the whole picture, long term, rather than short term.

I have a couple of specific examples, one finished, the other with the opportunity still available.

At our final budget vote, I raised the ongoing issue about removing the flat tax that was put in place by the previous council.  I raised the same issue last year, and was told that it would be looked into.  It wasn't.  What was raised in place of debate was the rather specious argument that it was too late to consider this, and in any case, people were pretty sure that it would then raise the proposed tax increase by several percentage points.  Unfortunately, pretty sure without any facts to substantiate shouldn't cut it, and it wasn't like it was a surprise - it was supposed to be looked at a year ago, and if that had happened there would have been plenty of time to bring facts to the table.  Instead, the decision went ahead without real debate, again, and again most of the residents of the city will be paying more than they would if the original flat tax was removed.

The opportunity to have real debate will come up when we discuss the water utility budget increase.  A few years ago, we went forward with a sizeable increase, for the next several years.  Since that time, we have new information about the state of the water treatment plant, but we aren't revisiting the decision made at that time, although it is certainly within our mandate to do so.  But it seems as though many of my fellow members of council would rather just stay with the decision that was made, rather than reconsidering it in the face of new information and more recent changes.

I often think that, especially when we discuss money, we're hesitant to change, almost as if we're worried that doing so will attract unwarranted attention from the taxpayers.  I also think that in many cases, rather than figuring out how much money we need to do the amount of work that can be done in a year, we instead focus on what number we think will be acceptable to residents, whether that amount is sufficient to do the necessary work or not.  In these cases, I wish that our debate would focus on the reality of what can be accomplished, not on the more ephemeral what we think will fall within the mysterious realm of acceptable, even though we know that we can't please everyone.

Let's spend less time worrying about what image we're presenting, and more time putting some substance into our discussions, and I think that the overall result will be positive for everybody, including the taxpayers.

"It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it." - Joseph Joubert

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Correcting a Misconception

For some people, when they get what they think is a good story, they'll keep repeating it, with embellishments, until they forget what the actual truth is.  That's how rumours get started, and grow.

There's one story about me that I hear occasionally, that I want to set the record straight on.  And I'm sure that I'll hear it again, even after I've set the record straight, but at least I'll know that the truth is out there.

The misconception that has been voiced more than once is that I've never, in all my fourteen years on council, voted in favour of an annual budget.  This is not true.  I have voted to support the budget three times, when I felt that the budget process had been fair and open, and that the result was fair to all city residents.  They weren't perfect budgets, but I felt that they did the best job possible of addressing the various issues of the day.

But I haven't supported several budgets, and always gave my reasons for doing so.  I did not vote to support, for example, the budget that took money from the road maintenance budget, and directed it towards Neat and Clean, the slush fund that was used for such things as painting light standards as high as the painter could reach, and no higher, and putting new furniture in the mayor's office and in council chambers.  I did not vote to support the budget that had a tax increase of 0%, because that resulted in our falling even further behind in infrastructure maintenance, and was only set because it was an election year - an extremely short-sighted and obvious tactic.

There are people on the current council that voted to support both of those budgets, but nobody ever asks them to explain why.  I find it interesting that, when people go along with the majority, it doesn't seem to get questioned, but those of us who aren't afraid to voice different opinions get questioned, and the implication is definitely made that we're not good team players.

This year, I think that the budget process was better than it has been for several years, although there still is much work to be done in questioning the status quo.  The difficulty that I have is with the continuation of the initial $60 flat tax, that was created four or five years ago so that the rate increase could be smaller, and then  immediately used to balance the budget.  I voted against that flat tax, and continue to do so.  When I objected last year, a commitment was made that this year, council would look at removing this undirected tax, as we had brought in the flat tax directed towards road repairs.  But that didn't happen, with no explanation.

I have less problem with taxes directed toward capital expenditures - last year's tax was set to cover the amount of work that we thought could be done, and we were trying to make up for several years of past neglect.  At some point, when we've caught up, I expect that tax to be removed.  As for the initial $60, undirected tax, I don't agree with the current proposal to direct half the $60 towards snow removal - that is an operational expense that varies widely from year to year, and we don't know if the $30 will be enough, or too much.  And it still leaves $30 undirected.

I'm surprised that so many members of this council support flat taxes, since they are considered regressive by  most cities.  Low and middle value homes proportionally pay more under a flat tax than higher value homes.  Most of us represent far more lower and middle income citizens, and yet, we're quite okay with an unfair tax for most of those who elected us.  It doesn't make sense to me.

The so-called flat tax is applied differently to commercial properties.  For those, it ranges from $300 to $3000.  Somehow, we recognize that a small business cannot afford to pay as large a tax as a large business, but we don't apply the same logic to small homes compared to large homes.  I'd love to hear a coherent explanation of that inconsistency.

I have a problem when people suggest that I should vote against my better judgement just so that council can appear to be united.  Council isn't some old boys' club, and being on council isn't a game.  We're each elected to represent our constituents and their interests, as well as consider the well-being of the city as a whole, and we can only move ahead and change if we're not afraid to question and at times disagree, not just with the status quo, but with each other.  And I will continue to vote in the way that I think is right.

"A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on." - Winston Churchill

Sunday, March 30, 2014

More Water Woes

Once again, past neglect of infrastructure maintenance and replacement is costing us far more than the investment in these basic responsibilities would have.  This long cold winter is causing problems with water - broken water mains and frozen water pipes mean that one of the basic requirements of life hasn't been available for some city residents for weeks.  It has also illustrated that our ways of dealing with these disruptions need to be revised.

We thought that it was bad two years ago when the whole city was under a boil water order for six weeks.  While the current problem doesn't affect the whole city, for those affected, it's much worse.  At least with the boil water order you could still flush your toilet and have a shower.  For homes with no water or sewer, all their routines, throughout their day, have to be adjusted.  And for seniors, or those housebound for reasons of poor health, it's even more difficult.

I have received more phone calls about this problem than any other in recent memory.  Most people understand that with the number of breaks, the city can't fix them all at once (although there is the occasional caller who feels that they should be at the top of the list).  But most people would just like to know when they can hope to have water again.  If you know that it's going to be weeks, then maybe you'll make plans to move in with friends or family for the duration, but if it's only going to be a few days, perhaps you'll tough it out.  And the phone calls I'm getting are to see if perhaps I can find out how long it's going to be.  I'm not having much luck in finding that out, but when I checked on Friday, we were up to more than 90 homes without water.

While I appreciate that city crews and the extra contractors we've hired are doing their best to get the situation resolved, from an administrative perspective, I think we need to provide more support.  Finally, we have taken the step of providing residents with access to showers at the Kinsmen Arena (which also highlights the oversight in the design of the field house when showers weren't included).  Drinking water is being provided to homes without water, but rather sporadically, and not in very large quantities.  We need to have a set schedule for delivering water, so that people can arrange their lives to be there at the right times.  Or perhaps have cases of water available at City Hall for affected residents to pick up.

And we need to figure out an approximate timeline for when people will get this basic service back, so that they can plan how they will deal with the difficulties.  We should be able to estimate how long it's taking to fix each problem, then extrapolate from that to set out timelines.  It's a basic part of providing good customer service that we need to get better at.

I also think that we shouldn't be charging people for a service that they're not getting.  I know that it will be difficult to adjust the water bills of these residents, but I know that if I had gone without water for several weeks, I wouldn't expect to have to pay for a service that I didn't receive.  More than one resident has said that this adding insult to injury better not happen.

Going forward, I think that council has to take a similar approach as we started for road repairs last year, this time looking at our underground infrastructure.  Not surprisingly, the problems are in the east and west flats and midtown areas - those areas where improvements have not kept pace with the newer parts of the city.  Council's decision to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on picking up grass clippings, rather than investing that money in water pipe replacement so that people can rely on having drinking water - I know which one I think is more important, and I think that most people would agree.  And that's why I keep arguing every year, both during the budget process and after, that we need to look at everything that we spend money on, and make sure that we're covering the basics, before we spend money on the nice to haves.

It's just unfortunate that it takes things like the current water crisis to drive the point home.

"Water is the driving force in nature." - Leonardo da Vinci