Sunday, January 26, 2014

Our Transit Dilemma

Public transit in Prince Albert is receiving a fair amount of media attention recently, due to some of its users wanting improvements to the system, and using a petition to underline their concerns.  On the council side, we're facing increased costs to subsidize the system, as we try to increase ridership through increasing service.

The basic problem is that, relatively speaking, not many people use the bus system, for a variety of reasons.  Probably the main one is that if you own a car, the convenience of being able to go where you want to go whenever you want to go there vastly outweighs the inconvenience of figuring out the bus system.  And most people will opt for convenience every time.  The city is small enough that it's usually faster to drive where you want to go than take the bus, unlike in cities like Toronto, where the costs of driving, both in time and in the cost of parking once you get where you're going, are far higher than using public transit.

Environmentally, we should be encouraging bus use over private vehicle use, but I'm afraid that people's environmental sensibilities tend to be outweighed, once again, by convenience.  At council, we spend time debating parking issues, but rarely do we talk about the benefits of encouraging people to use buses rather than ensuring that they can park close to where they want to go.

One option that I think we should explore is entering into a partnership with SIAST, making a bus pass part of their registration costs for students, as is the case in Saskatoon with the U of S.  We would increase our ridership, both through the convenience of having a bus pass easily available, but also through targeting routes to SIAST during the school year.  It would also help SIAST out, by reducing their need for student parking, which I understand is not plentiful.

I also think that looking into arrangements with school boards is an area worth exploring.  In Andrea's home town, students who lived a certain distance from the high schools and junior high schools were provided with a bus pass at a reduced cost, rather than worrying about providing school buses for all students.  Such an arrangement would help both the school board and the city, and perhaps reduce the endless line-ups of parents dropping their kids off at school - safer, and less polluting, if we need to think of more arguments in favour of such cooperative arrangements.

Having a reliable, efficient public transit system is an asset to the city.  Unfortunately, those that use such a system are often overlooked.  Part of our job on council is to try to imagine ourselves in all situations, and make the city liveable and accessible for everyone.  But it's not enough to just throw more money at the problem, or think that we know the best solutions.  We need to talk to the users, and to possible partners, before deciding on how to proceed.  And we have to remember that if one solution doesn't work, then we need to try another.

There's no question that fuel prices are going to keep increasing.  We'll be far better off if we have a good transit system established before more and more people find that using public transit becomes a necessary part of their lives.

"In the same way that we have a long-term plan for building roads, we need to have a long-term plan to build transit." - Kathleen Wynne

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Some Thoughts on a New Leisure Centre

One of the things that the mayor mentioned during the State of the City address last week was his dream for a new leisure centre.  This would be something similar to the wave pool in Melfort, I believe - a family-oriented pool centre that could include various leisure opportunities.

I've said before that I understand the value that such facilities bring to the quality of life in a community.  It's great when a community has places where citizens can go for recreation, whether it be a rink, a pool, a skateboard park, or a concert venue.

But I'm also a firm believer in living within our means as a city.  I didn't live here when the Comuniplex, now the Art Hauser Centre, was built, so I don't know what sorts of assumptions were made as to how the ongoing functioning of the building would be funded.  I do know that it now costs the city $600,000 annually to make up the difference between what it earns and what it costs.  I did live here for the construction of the Rawlinson Centre, which wasn't going to cost tax-payers a cent, but unfortunately operating it costs the city $450,000 every year.  And our most recent gift to ourselves, the soccer centre, runs a $450,000 deficit annually, and we haven't even finished paying for the construction yet - tax-payers will be paying construction costs for that building as part of their taxation bill until 2015.

User fees for these buildings are supposed to cover 40% of operating costs.  It's important to remember, though, that none of the above mentioned facilities include water when those operating costs are calculated, so the amount covered by user fees is actually less than the 40% - taxpayers are making up the difference.

From what I'm hearing from city residents, there isn't much appetite for bringing yet another facility on board.  Citizens have learned over the past few years that raising money for construction of a facility isn't hard - operating a facility so that it pays for itself is the difficulty that we haven't solved yet.  Adding another half million or so to the tax bill every year isn't something that people are willing to do right now.

Before we start spending a lot of time looking at the next thing that we want to buy, let's spend some time figuring out how we're going to do a better job of getting our current facilities to pay for themselves.  I think that the idea of higher user fees for users from out of town, who don't support the facility through taxation, is worth looking at.  I know that the argument that those from out of town like to make is that they buy groceries and restaurant meals here, which is fine, but taxpayers buy groceries and meals too, and in any case, that money does not go into city coffers.  Including all costs for a facility in the user fee calculation would also help spread the costs more fairly.

As I've said repeatedly, it's like spending your family's money - you take care of the needs first, then the wants.  But even with the wants, you have to set priorities.  When I built our new deck two years ago, many people suggested that a hot tub would be a nice addition, and even pointed out where on the deck it could go.  It would be nice, I agree.  But we decided that it's a luxury, both in the initial cost, and in the ongoing operational costs, that just isn't in our budget right now, and it isn't likely to make it there in the near future - too many higher priorities on the list.

It's nice to dream about what would make the city better, but we need to get serious numbers for our dreams, and not move too far without figuring out which parts of our dreams are affordable.  In the meantime, let's continue to make some headway on our needs, like tackling the infrastructure deficit, and keeping the streets plowed - those are the basics that benefit everyone.

"Rather go to bed without dinner than rise with debt." - Ben Franklin

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Maintaining Perspective

One of the trickiest things to do as a councillor is maintaining one's perspective.  As the saying goes, all politics is local, and part of representing a ward, and the people who elected you, is to respond to these local complaints.  At the same time, we have to think of the city as a whole, and sometimes that means putting specific issues in your own ward at a lower priority.

It can be a tricky balancing act.  When someone is calling, demanding that their street be plowed after a heavy snowstorm, it's tempting to think that your neighbourhood should get priority.  That's one of the reasons why truly high priority streets have been identified to see the first action of the plows, and residential neighbourhoods are dealt with later, and according to a schedule that varies so that each neighbourhood has a turn at being first.  This is an issue that I'm quite comfortable leaving with city staff to deal with, rather than suggesting to them why Ward 3 streets should be at the top of the list.

Street sweeping, on the other hand, is more of a situation where certain neighbourhoods should be dealt with before others, on a consistent basis.  This is one of those "what's best for the city as a whole" situations.  Older neighbourhoods, with more trees, and areas with more pedestrian traffic, are likely to have a greater need for sweeping, and should be higher on the priority list than newer neighbourhoods.  This puts the whole city on a more level playing field.

I'm not talking about not bringing up emergency situations - if I see a tree limb that looks at though the next wind will bring it down, I'll call administration right away to let them know, to help prevent a possible accident that could cause serious property damage or worse.  But for things that are just annoying, or in situations where city crews can't be everywhere at once, I'm quite comfortable with letting administration follow the procedures that they have established, and tell people that sometimes, we just have to be patient.

Details are important, and we can't forget to consider them - heaven knows I've spent enough time poring over detailed budget and spending reports to understand that.  But when it comes to keeping the city going, it's important to remember that the job of directing those details is outside the scope of council - it's operational, and our job is setting direction, and trusting staff to figure out how to follow that direction.

Demanding instant action with every phone call - well, that's a recipe for not getting anything done, for riding madly off in all directions, as Stephen Leacock would say.  Progress is our goal, not instant gratification.

"The big picture shows it's the little things that keep everything together." - Gee Linder

Sunday, January 5, 2014

New Year - A Time for Change

It seems traditional that the new year is a time for changes - wishes for a better year than the last, new calendars, resolutions to break bad habits or develop new ones - all precipitated by the arbitrary ending of one year and the start of the next.

Once again, I didn't manage to stay awake to welcome the new year.  I've never been one for New Year's Eve festivities, and as I get older, it gets less and less likely that I will actually see the new year in.  But that doesn't stop it from coming, or me from enjoying our family's version of Hogmanay celebrations the next day - a holdover from the Scottish half of Andrea's upbringing - cinnamon rolls, gifts, baked ham and butter tart pie are all involved.

The start of the new year is also the traditional time for looking over the last year.  On a personal level, we enjoyed a couple of good holidays, and I replaced the roof on the house, realizing when my back rebelled in a major way that I'm not as young as I'd like to be.  But the job got done, and I'm already looking around the house, discussing what the next project should be.  That's the good thing about living in a century plus house - never a shortage of projects to keep one out of mischief.

On the council front, I think that the highlight of the past year for me was the growing realization by council as a whole that the status quo approach to our jobs just isn't good enough.  We always have to be looking for ways to do things better.  And it's not just council that has to adopt this approach - we need to have administration on side, doing thorough assessments of what needs doing, what it's going to cost, and how more can be done with less.

Change, while inevitable for making progress, also involves risk.  The great temptation is to minimize the risk by minimizing the change, but this short-changes the possibilities.  What we need to do is an honest determination of what the risks might be, using facts and actual practices, rather than myth and rumour, and take action which minimizes the risk as much as possible.  Our open discussions and detailed review of current expenditures have illustrated the excellent change in the way we develop budgets, and I'm looking forward to similar detailed discussions when the proposed budget is presented.

One of our biggest operational changes will happen when Jim Toye, the new city manager, formally starts his work with us on Monday, although he's already been in City Hall gathering information and getting his bearings.  With this change, I'm looking forward to a high level of co-operation between administration and council as we begin the task of setting priorities for the budget, easily the most important job of city council in any year.

I thought that last year was a very good first year for this council.  I hope that this year is even better.

In order to change the world, you have to get your head together first." - Jimi Hendrix