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