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