Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Alcohol Paradox

You may have heard that Prince Albert was the only municipality in Saskatchewan that did not take advantage of the offer from the Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Commission to allow bars to open at 6 a.m. today for the Olympic gold medal hockey game.  Council didn't actually make that decision; the opportunity came far too late in the week for council to have the opportunity to discuss it, so it was more a matter of not making a decision, rather than making the decision not to allow it.  But if it had come to council, I don't think that I would have supported it.

Don't get me wrong.  I drink alcohol.  I enjoy a glass of red wine with dinner most evenings, I enjoy trying new types of wine, and I make my own wine, although I use kits, rather than making wine from real grapes or other fruit.  In the summer, drinking a cold beer on the deck is one of the joys of life.

On the other hand, I know the damage that alcohol can do.  Both Andrea and I know the pain of having alcoholics within the family, and the helpless feeling that it brings.

And I have recently been to meetings where community groups have discussed the need to develop an alcohol strategy for Prince Albert.   The statistics provided at these meetings are startling, and scary.  The amount spent annually per capita on alcohol in Prince Albert is $1,249, more than $400 more than the per capita rate in Saskatoon, and more than $500 more per capita than Moose Jaw and the provincial average.  More than $2 million of the police budget between 2009 and 2012 was spent on dealing with public intoxication.

Some of the statistics related to youth drinking are equally scary - more than two-thirds of Grade 10 students reported binge drinking - the national average is less than half.

And there are more alarming statistics related to drunk driving, violent crime, and social services.

So we have a problem that costs tax-payers big money, reduces the time that police have to deal with other issues, and has devastating effects on families.  The effects are felt across all income levels, as tempting as it is to assume that it is a problem that only belongs to certain segments of society.

I don't know what the solution is.  Part of the difficulty in coming up with such a strategy is the paradox of alcohol - for some people, and at a certain level of use, alcohol is merely a pleasant diversion in life.  But for some, after a certain point, it brings only grief.  And that grief doesn't stop at the individual - think of the innocent victims of drunk drivers.

Having these discussions about the problem is a good step.  Recognizing the broad range of related problems, while it doesn't make finding solutions any easier, at least shows us that the strategy will have to be multi-faceted.

Part of the solution has to be recognizing that perhaps, how we look at alcohol use has to change.  So many of our celebrations include alcohol as an integral part of things - just look at the different approaches high schools use in their graduation celebrations.

I look at opening bars to watch the gold medal game in the same way.  Why does watching a hockey game require drinking at 6 a.m.?  It doesn't, of course, judging by the quiet celebrating that Guthrie and a few of his friends had in our TV room this morning.  But I know that there are those who will argue that this was an exceptional event, so it should have been allowed, since it wasn't forcing people to drink, but providing them with the opportunity to gather together to celebrate.

But I think that, in a city which has finally acknowledged that we need to act as a community to look at the broader problem of how we deal with alcohol, allowing bars to open would be sending a message that we don't take the problem seriously - and we have to start matching what we do with what we say.

"Alcohol gives you infinite patience with stupidity." - Sammy Davis Jr.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Start of Tax Season

The first draft of the city budget is now available (you can download it from the city web-site), and a proposed budget increase has been floated out.  The actual budget still has to go through a detailed review with council, of course, which I think will be helped by the fact that we've gone through the various aspects of the base budget in great detail, in several focused meetings with the appropriate city departments - an educational process that was valuable to all of us.  Understanding the starting point for our spending is an important first step in budgeting that we haven't done often enough over the past few years, so looking at the detail, while time-consuming, is a major improvement to the process.

Just as with your household budget, even when you know the starting point, it only makes sense to look at that starting point, and see where efficiencies can be made, and I expect administrative staff to do exactly that - where can we cut current spending, while maintaining the same level of service, by finding operational efficiencies?  What are we still doing that we could stop doing, without any noticeable reduction in service?

Because, of course, after the base budget, we then have to make decisions on the various requests to do more, to fund more services, to increase programming, to build new facilities, to improve infrastructure.  This is where it helps to keep in mind what are city responsibilities, and focus our energies on those.  Our mandate is not to be all things to all people, but to choose those things which fall within our bailiwick.  There are many worthy causes and activities out there, but we aren't set up to solve all the problems.  We've gotten into trouble in the past by trying to duplicate services that are provincial or federal responsibilities - we just can't afford those sorts of well-meaning efforts.

I'm always surprised by the people who get upset over any tax increase.  They must think that the city operates in some magical parallel universe where costs for things like electricity, natural gas and fuel don't increase in price.  The cost of gas at the fuel pump goes up - the cost of keeping police and fire vehicles on the road goes up too.  Increases for electricity and natural gas  - we have to keep buildings lit up and warm.  And the cost of staff increases over time as well - even if we don't increase the number of staff, salaries and benefits go up.

I think that it's reasonable for taxes to go up every year, because the cost of living goes up every year.  I also think that we're in a situation where additional increases are needed to make up for past neglect of our basic responsibilities.  Where the discussion tends to get interesting and passionate is when we're thinking of going beyond the basics, of investing in new services or facilities that are going to increase the overall cost of running the city, in the long term.  How do we balance the very real needs that we have, with the understandable wishes for improvements that may not benefit the entire city.

This is where it gets difficult, because there is no one right answer - it's where city governance becomes more of an art than a science.  What I hope is that, no matter what our individual positions may be on any specific budget detail or proposal, we take the time to discuss the pros and cons thoroughly, and remember that everyone's viewpoint deserves to be heard with respect.  If we can do that, then our work on the budget and the resulting tax increase, will have been time well spent.

"Be wary of strong drink.  It can make you shoot at tax collectors...and miss." - Robert A. Heinlein

Sunday, February 9, 2014

SUMA Takeaways

Like most of the rest of council, I was in Regina for several days, attending the annual SUMA convention.  I find that there's always something to learn at these events, both from the formal educational sessions, and from discussions with attendees from other communities, and this year was no different.

For me, the highlight was probably the over-whelming support for the motion I put forward on behalf of our council - to amend legislation to allow councils more control over dealing with boarded up houses.  The motion had to be amended, because we had worded it so that it was directed at amending the Cities Act, which is the legislation directed at cities.  However, the discussion that ensued indicated that this is a problem in all sizes of communities, so the motion was reworded to include the legislation that governs towns, villages and northern communities.

Hopefully this motion will set into action the necessary steps so that what has been an ongoing issue can be handled more efficiently directly by the communities affected.  Some of the boarded up houses that are an issue have been in that state for more than ten years.  Not only are these houses an eyesore in a neighbourhood, bringing down property values, they also bring extra risks to an area, as we have had more than one incident of fires starting in these empty houses, when they become a source of shelter for homeless people.

Provincial politicians attend SUMA, both as formal speakers and also to mingle during sessions.  Like most people there, I was surprised when the premier floated the idea about increasing the education tax, with a portion to be directed to infrastructure.  I don't agree with that - I believe that the education tax should be kept for those purposes, since I certainly haven't heard anyone on the school board talk about having money to spare.  Like everybody else, there's always more to do than there is money.  I'm not sure why the province doesn't look at putting the sales tax up by a percentage point to provide more funding for infrastructure.  Sales tax is the fairest tax out there - you alone make the decision on purchases, and the tax is directly proportional to the size of the purchase, so if  you buy more, you pay more tax.

I also enjoyed the opportunity to have more informal conversations with my council colleagues, outside of conference events.  Having breakfast and supper together gave us a good chance to share opinions on the previous day's discussions, and to hear what was learned at different educational sessions, since one person can't get to all the concurrent sessions.

As with any event, if you go with an open mind, and some questions to pose to your compatriots from other communities, you're bound to learn something that will help you do your job better.  I never fail to learn from SUMA - this year was no exception.

"No grand idea was ever born in a conference, but a lot of foolish ideas have died there." - F. Scott Fitzgerald