Sunday, December 20, 2015

An Adventure with Garbage

Last spring, garbage collection in my block of Ward 3 was changed to roll-out bins rather than the big bins in the alley.  I had made the motion at council after enduring years of having the bins filled by people not from the neighbourhood using them as free places to dump their garbage, of finding garbage spread around the bins and through the alley, and of finding piles of hundreds of discarded needles next to the bins.

The change has been remarkable - there is much less garbage lying about.  It is a bit of a hassle to remember which day is garbage day versus which day is recycling day, but fortunately for me, Andrea is the early riser in the house, and usually has the appropriate bin out by the alley before I've finished my coffee.  Just so you don't think I'm a total slacker, I usually manage to get the empty bin back to the yard before she comes home from work.

So no more problems with finding the big  garbage bins full with non-resident garbage, or the recycling contaminated with garbage.  We find that every other week pick-up is sufficient for both garbage and recycling for our household - if anything, the recycling bin fills more quickly.

The change meant that the apartment bins behind us had to move to large commercial bins, and unfortunately, non-residents who feel that it's okay for other people to pay for their garbage disposal still take advantage and feel that it's their right to fill these bins.  Just yesterday, Andrea came in from filling the bird feeder to say that there was a truck pulled up to the dumpster of the building behind us, and she was pretty sure that it had Manitoba plates.

I went out to investigate, and asked the couple if they lived in the building, because otherwise they shouldn't be dumping their garbage there.  Not too surprisingly, I was told to mind my own business and not be so nosy - with a few colourful adjectives thrown in, of course.  I told them that it was my business, as councillor for the area,and got the licence number of the truck, which was a Manitoba plate.  With a few more insults and expletives tossed my way, they got into their truck and drove away, while I called by-law enforcement to report the incident and provide what information I could.

This isn't an unusual occurrence.  I've observed at least four different trucks do the same thing, and the building owner has dropped by to complain about the situation.  I appreciate his frustration - he's paying for a bin for his tenants, not for thoughtless people, just as I would get annoyed when my sanitation fees were paying for other people's garbage disposal, often at the expense of my own.

I think that one of the solutions, for the city costs at least, is to move all residents to roll-out bins. Right now a small majority of residents (maybe 60%) have roll-out service.  I know that they are a bit more work for residents, but they help to ensure that the garbage that goes to the landfill has been paid for, either through sanitation bills or by the people bringing their garbage directly to the dump.  It would remove some of the ease with which non-residents can cruise down a back alley and get rid of their garbage for free.

As for my apartment neighbours, I'll continue to be nosy and not mind my own business, and call by-law when I see a suspicious truck.  And maybe I'll suggest to the building owner that he see if the bin can be moved to a less easily accessible spot.  And at council, I'll be pushing for more roll-out bins - they do reduce the amount of garbage in the area, which makes for a nicer neighbourhood.

"Garbage is, always.  We will die, civilization will crumble, life as we know it will cease to exist, but trash will endure." - Robin Nagle

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Setting This Year's Tax Increase

It took two council meetings, but council passed this year's tax rate this past week - an increase of 1%.  I supported this budget, because the proposed loan to the Tourism Board was removed from the budget, where it didn't belong, since it isn't part of the actual budget.  Council will vote on the loan at a future meeting.

While the budget process is still not where I would like it to be, since we only look at proposed new expenditures, not on where our current spending could be trimmed, I think that council did a good job of taking out non-essential increases.  I keep hoping that some year, we'll do a more thorough job, but at least this council looked at the budget before deciding what the increase would be - I've been on past councils where a target rate increase was set before we even looked at the budget, based on how much of an increase was thought to be bearable to residents - that's doing things backward, in my opinion.  I think that the budget should be based on what work needs to be done, and how much can be done within a year, rather than setting an artificial target.

As I mentioned, the process did take two meetings.  This is because allowing three readings of a bylaw at one meeting requires unanimous consent of all council members, and one councillor wasn't prepared to do that.  I have no problem with that - those are the rules, and it's every councillor's right to ask for a delay.  The reason that he gave was that the police budget has not yet been confirmed, as council refused to accept the proposed budget, and that led to some confused discussion around police budget approval.

So, to try to clear up the process: the police commission submits a budget request to council.  Unlike with other parts of the budget, council cannot tinker with the police budget.  The only options are to approve or not.  Council cannot, for example, say that we aren't approving a specific expenditure.  So if the police submit a budget that includes a set amount to buy new police cars, council cannot say that we will approve only half the number of cars, and reduce the budget accordingly.  What has happened so far is that the police budget has been submitted, and council has returned it to the police commission, saying that we will only allocate an amount that is $200,000 less than their proposed budget.  The police commission then has two choices, to rework and resubmit the budget so that it fits, or not rework the budget, but work throughout the year to manage on the reduced allocation.  The result is the same - they will get $200,000 less than they requested.

We could have avoided this situation by not having the budget vote until after the next police commission meeting, which is tomorrow, at which point the commission will decide how they are going to proceed.  But for whatever reason, it was brought forward before that happened, leading to the potential that someone would object to the process being off-kilter, and someone did.  As I said, well within his rights, and I've done the same more than once, but his concern over the lack of a police budget didn't stop the budget getting unanimous approval the next day, at a special council meeting.  Again, the special meeting wasn't required, as we have another council meeting in a couple of weeks, but special meetings for third readings are a bad habit that the previous mayor started, and maybe some members of council have forgotten that we don't need to be in a hurry all the time - especially about the budget.

Once we had voted, I did not see the need to delay the final vote - the result will be the same whether voted on now or in two weeks.  But the resultant focus of the media not on the budget, but on the delay, is probably a good thing to remember in the future, if we want to ensure that people are aware of the important things, not the red herrings.

"A budget is like a mythical bean bag.  (Council) votes mythical beans into it, then reaches in and tries to pull real ones out." - Will Rogers

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Second Round of Community Meetings

We're now about halfway through the second round of community meetings.  These are the meetings organized and run by the Director of Planning and Development, in which residents of each ward gather to discuss the issues affecting their ward, and perhaps generate some ideas of how the city could deal with these issues.

The second meeting for Ward 3 was held last Tuesday evening.  Unlike the last meeting, for which residents had same day notice, at least this one was advertised well in advance, although I do find it rather inexplicable that the notice in the paper didn't give either the date, time or location, but rather referred readers to the city web-page or facebook page for further information - an extra step that residents shouldn't have to go through.

About 20 residents were at this meeting - a drop from about 30 at the first meeting.  Some of that might have been because this meeting was just to report on what was said at the first meeting, so there was no real opportunity to move forward.  Once again, issues raised weren't anything that I haven't raised at council many times - the need for more visible police presence, concerns about boarded up houses, and concerns about infrastructure maintenance, largely roads and sidewalks.  Unfortunately, no other city staff were there to provide substantive answers.

There will be another round of meetings in the new year, where it is planned for the appropriate city staff to attend.  I hope that these meetings will provide some of the answers that residents should have, and not just result in the same old issues being raised.

I do think that there is value to having these meetings, but they need to be structured to provide more useful information about what the current situation is, and identify opportunities for improvement.  That would give some sense that the city plans on addressing these issues, not just providing an opportunity to vent.  I think that those running the meetings also need to be aware of some of the things that have been tried in the past, not suggest things like Community Watch as though Midtown residents haven't already been there, done that.

I think that the first two meetings had reasonable turnout, but people will not continue to come to meetings if they don't see that their issues are being addressed and their ideas are given consideration.  Their time is more valuable than that.  People have many good ideas on how to improve their neighbourhood; it's up to the city to take action to make improvements happen.

"I think there needs to be a meeting to set an agenda for more meetings about meetings." - Jonah Goldberg

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Whittling Away at 4% of the Budget

Council spent Thursday evening and all day Friday going through administration's proposed additions to the budget.  Once again, we don't look at what we're currently spending money on, and figure out ways of finding efficiencies there.  We only look at the proposed increases, which to my mind is missing a great opportunity for change - finding programs that are no longer required, and redeploying positions to new priorities.  I know that this kind of budget would be much more work, but I think that it would give us a much better result.

However, the day and a half was well spent, in that we managed to whittle down the proposed 4% increase to somewhere around 1%.  I found it entertaining that one veteran councillor wondered if having an increase of only 1% the year before an election might be considered as doing this for purely political purposes, obviously forgetting his actions of a few years ago, when he fully supported a zero per cent increase, also the year before an election.  The difference this time is that we went through the proposed expenditures before announcing the increase, unlike a few years ago when the zero per cent was announced before we started budget deliberations.  I think there's also a recognition by most members of council that more money does not always result in getting more work done - there's only so much work that can be done in the available time with the available resources of equipment, people and weather.

In any case, we made the decreases largely by rejecting the new positions and expenditures proposed by administration.  My reason for turning them down has two parts.  For one, the business case for adding the new positions was not clear.  Nobody took the time in the proposal to explain clearly how making these investments would save money - the argument put forward that other cities have made these investments just isn't a good enough reason.  The second is that I don't believe that new positions are required - this city has an extremely bad habit of adding positions, but never deleting any.  The population of the city has certainly not increased proportionally nearly as much as the staffing levels at city hall.  Just as pegging the tax increase to the cost of living increase is a good guideline, I think that matching staff levels to population levels is probably a good rule of thumb.

I'd hoped that administration would look internally to figure out where redundancies are, and propose reallocating staff resources.  If they aren't willing to make that effort, then I'm not willing to have tax payers fund new positions while still paying for staff that may not be needed in their current positions.  For instance, the mayor no longer has two secretaries, but those positions were just moved - now the city manager has two secretaries.  Several years ago, a new position was created to track the donations for the new soccer centre - that position is still in the mix, somewhere, although getting a clear answer out of management on these matters is extremely difficult.

It wasn't all cutting, of course.  In some cases we identified areas where more work, and thus spending, is needed - sidewalk repairs being one, as a complaint that has been raised at several of the ward meetings over the fall.

Unfortunately, close to the end of our discussions, the loan to bail out the Borealis Music Festival was added to the mix.  I'm not sure why it was included as part of the budget, since it was presented as a loan that would thus be revenue neutral, and not affect tax rates.  I think that it was added in the hopes that it would be hidden, sort of like in an omnibus bill, and accepted by council, rather than being presented as a separate motion on its own.  Why some members of council feel that we should bail out the Prince Albert Tourism and Marketing Board, which is its own entity, is a mystery to me.  This board is not a committee of council, but a separately incorporated group, on which two members of council sit.  But we are not responsible for paying their bills.  I feel badly for the local businesses that have not been paid, but I feel worse for the tax payers who are now expected to further subsidize this event.  And I'm also concerned about the precedent that this proposed bailout would set - other functions that the city may agree to give money to may then come and expect the city to cover their losses.

The final vote on the budget will be at a future council meeting.  While, as always, I think that we could improve the process by digging deeper into current spending to find opportunities to cut, I do think that we've done a reasonable job in getting the proposed increases down.  With the exception of the inexplicably added music festival loan, this is a budget that I could support.

"A budget is not just a collection of numbers, but an expression of our values and aspirations." - Jacob Lew

Sunday, November 8, 2015

It's Budget Season Once Again

This week, the draft budget was posted on the city website, with a proposed increase of 4%.  What many people don't realize, judging by the comments on various websites that universally slam council for this proposal, is that this is the budget drafted by administration - council had nothing to do with it.  This draft budget is the starting point, based on what administration thinks it should cost to do the work of maintaining the city.

This is the draft that people have the chance to comment on.  On Monday, after this week's council meeting, the various agencies that are funded by the city have the opportunity to present on their piece of the budget, and explain any increases.  Then on Friday and Saturday, council as a whole will go through the budget, reviewing proposed changes to the status quo - the increases that administration has suggested.

Of course, this isn't really reviewing the budget, because it isn't reviewing how we're spending money now, and identifying areas where cuts to programs could be made, or efficiencies found.  It is council's chance to lessen future expenditures, to question why new positions are needed, or why increases to program funding are essential.

It also isn't the final step in approving the budget - that will come later.  And that's the opportunity to identify areas where we could stop spending money - positions that are now redundant that could be cut, programs that we're delivering that could be done more cheaply.

It will take some pretty good arguments from administration to convince me that any new positions are needed.  I think that our staffing levels are quite high when compared to our population.  I'm not sure why, when a position is vacated through someone leaving or retiring, city managers are not required to establish the necessity of that position before it is filled.  And sometimes I think that positions are created or filled almost as insurance - I can't think why the city manager needs two secretaries, since I can remember when the mayor and the city manager managed with one secretary between them.  And we have managers without any staff to  manage, which makes no sense either.

One of the ongoing frustrations that I have with the budget is that we do it backwards - looking to spend more money before we look at where we could save.  I know that there are some members of council who believe that once a service has been provided to the public, it can never be cut, which is nonsense.  We need to look much harder at making services pay for themselves.  For instance, right now we pick up grass clippings and garden waste in a totally disorganized way.  Put a clear plastic bag of waste out, and a truck with three guys on it will pick it up.  How about if instead of providing this extra service for no charge, and in the most labour-intensive way, we provide another bin, which can be picked up by one guy in an automated truck on a set schedule, just like garbage and recycling.  If you want this service, it's an additional charge on your water bill.  If you do your own composting, you don't have to pay for the service.  As simply as that, we could remove a cost, and keep a revenue-neutral service.

I've said it many times - the budget is the most important thing that council does.  But we don't do it alone.  I would encourage you to go through the document, which is on the city's website, and if you see something that you think could be done more cheaply, or isn't part of what you think the city should be doing, give me a call.  After all, it's your money that we're spending.

"Look at our society.  Everyone wants to be thin, but nobody wants to diet.  Everyone wants to live long, but few exercise.   Everybody wants money, yet seldom will anyone budget or control their spending." - John C. Maxwell

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Nightmare on Eighth Street

This spring, the city started some long overdue street repairs in Midtown, on the 300, 400 and 500 blocks of Eighth  Street, and the 300 block on Ninth Street - replacing old water and sewer lines, repaving, and putting in new curbs and sidewalks.  The work started in May, in the 300 block of Eighth, tearing up half the street to repair a water main break.  Then the next two blocks were torn up.  Then, for some inexplicable reason, reconstruction work continued on the 400 and 500 blocks, without finishing the 300 block.  Then the equipment moved to Ninth Street, leaving the 300 block torn up.  And it remained that way all summer.

The residents at first were pleased that any work was being done, although many mourn the inevitable loss of mature boulevard trees that results from such extensive work.  But they understand that outdated pipes that break far too often need to be replaced, and getting new curbs and sidewalks is great.  But as the summer wore on, with no sign of the work being completed, people started to get a bit concerned - no one dreamed when the work started in May that the street would still be torn up in September.  And they received no information from the city as to when they could expect this work to be done, or reasons as to why the other blocks were finished, and theirs was not.  Just think, six months of dealing with difficult access to your home, no place for visitors to park, and no street lights.  And nobody telling you what's going on.

When I got back from holidays in mid-October, the phone calls started.  Some residents had called City Hall for an explanation, and were told that crews were really busy.  That's not an explanation; it's not even a good excuse.  So I read out loud one of the emails that I received from a resident at the next council meeting, and asked that administration inform all the residents on the block what was going on.

The city manager sent residents a letter, claiming that the delays were caused by the work that had to be done on the Big Dig.  Now, I realize the temptation to use that as an excuse, except that the city contracted out that work - it hasn't been city crews on that particular project.  When I was told by a resident that this was the excuse given, I was quite annoyed.  Then when I saw city crews working on paving a parking lot behind SIAST, rather than working on a residential street that has been impassable for six months, I shared my annoyance with the city manager.

That Saturday, crews were back on Eighth Street, but they haven't been back since.  Nor has there been further communication from City Hall.

To me, this sends several unfortunate messages to the residents.  The first is that our highly paid professionals are lacking in project management skills.  This apparent lack means that they don't appear to be able to plot out a work schedule that will result in a project getting done quickly, efficiently, and with the least disruption to the tax payers who live in the area.  Even though unexpected things are bound to happen, good project management will ensure that things get back on track as quickly as possible, so that the original objective is met.  It also means that new projects are not started until you are certain that you can finish the current project.  Multi-tasking is not something that should be done with these sorts of projects.

The second message is that communication is not a priority of administration.  Residents should not have to pester City Hall to find out the timeline of a project, or the reasons (or excuses) for why targets aren't met.  We could save ourselves all sorts of trouble if we just kept the people most affected informed ahead of time.

The final, and least fortunate message, is that residents in this part of the city don't matter to the people in charge at City Hall.  For whatever reason, their needs are secondary to getting a parking lot paved, and whatever other projects are considered more important than the provision of a safe, well-lit street, and the timely completion of a project.

As more than one resident has reminded me - these people pay taxes, and have a right to be provided the same level of service as other tax payers.  And, sadly, I don't have a good answer  for them, because I'm not getting straight answers either.

"Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable." - Dwight Eisenhower

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Borealis Music Festival - What Should Happen Next

The Borealis Music Festival was back on the council agenda for my first meeting back after holidays.  And not in a good way - the event lost so much money that Prince Albert Tourism, which was the entity that actually ran the festival, since they're already incorporated and thus were eligible for various grants, is now out of money, and needs $20,000 to make it to the end of the year.  Not only that, but various bills for the event haven't yet been paid, so they were asking for an additional loan of $80,000.  How they plan on repaying such a sizeable loan wasn't in the details that we were given, but we were told that it would be worked out later.  Considering the value of their financial planning so far, I think that it's safe to assume that the city wouldn't see that money again.

Let's put it into a bit of perspective.  The city has already given this event a $15,000 grant, even though they applied too late according to the rules.  We also provided an additional $15,000 in kind - largely in labour costs for set-up and site preparation.  Council did this based on a proposal and associated budget that even at the time seemed totally unrelated to reality - the projected attendance of 15,000 over three days, with half coming from local residents, apparently was conjured out of thin air.  Consider that the Edmonton Folk Festival attracts 25,000 - surely that should have factored into planning, but it wasn't.  And their other income, from T shirts, promotional items and beer sales, was also based on that 15,000 number.

Now we have decided to give them another $20,000 - that a total of $50,000 of tax payers' money.  They didn't get 15,000 attendees.  The reported attendance is less than 10% of that - 1,200.  The city subsidy per attendee is now $41.66, rather than the initial $2.  If we decide at some future point to add the additional $80,000, that brings the subsidy per attendee to $108.33.  That gets very difficult to defend to tax payers who may think that the city should spend based on the needs of many, not the entertainment desires of a minority.

Since the event happened, we've been getting information in dribs and drabs.  First we were told, right after the event, that they had adjusted their plans and the budget as the event got closer.  That's fine, but nobody told the city, which had made its decision based on the original plan, not on whatever the adjusted plan was.  We've since been told that they were counting on a chunk of funds from the Destination Marketing Board, which was funded through voluntary contributions from hotels, but the participation by hotels is far less than had been hoped, so that organization was already in the process of folding up shop - why would they be counted on to help pay the bills?

Prince Albert Tourism submitted a status quo budget for 2015, and although they mentioned plans for a music festival, they didn't include it as a line item in their budget.  If you're going to take on something of that size, that obviously has the potential to financially sink your organization, you should revise your budget first thing.  It's like buying a new car, but not adjusting your personal budget to account for the new payments - just asking for trouble.

I've had questions about this from the beginning (which another councillor deemed ridiculous), and I have even more now.  One of my key questions at Monday's meeting was about the actual numbers - we had none in front of us, and there was nobody from Tourism there - which speaks volumes about how complacent they were about getting bailed out of a problem that was entirely of their making.  I was told that the numbers had been presented at an in camera meeting the previous week.  This generated even more questions - this subject is not land, legal or labour (the only reasons that the Cities Act allows for not having something in the public portion of the meeting), so why weren't the numbers made public?  If we're just concerned about embarrassing some of the individuals involved, I don't think that's nearly as embarrassing to council as continuing to cover things up.

I also would like to know why Administration recommended the original proposal to council, instead of putting it under close scrutiny.  Where was their oversight?  I'm occasionally chided by other members of council when I question Administration, since they're supposed to be the professionals providing us with good advice.  This is why, and why more members of council should step forward with their questions - our responsibility is not to administrative staff, but to the tax payers.

So now we're getting a better understanding of the financial mess that the festival has left behind, how do we move forward?  First, we need to see the books, both for the Borealis Music Festival, and for Prince Albert Tourism.  It's like planning your financial future - first you have to know how big a mess you're in, and identify the mistakes that got you there.

Should the decision be made to go ahead, then the organizational team needs to be identified, with responsible and competent people in charge.  People with financial and promotional experience need to be in charge of various aspects of the event - it's not enough to hand it over to enthusiastic amateurs who have no idea how to organize the many aspects that go into making something like this a success.

Those who were involved have to identify where mistakes were made.  I would much rather have those involved say what they learned, and what they're going to change because it really didn't work as they thought it would, than hear that it was a great event, and that those few who were there had a really good time.  I'm always surprised by the defensive response when people extrapolate your questions to mean that you must hate Prince Albert, volunteers, music, the arts in general, small children and flowers.

I understand that many people worked very hard to bring this festival to Prince Albert.  I also understand that events that bring people into the city have the potential to improve the city both financially and in less easily measured ways.  However, my role as a councillor includes asking the hard questions to ensure that new events are successful, and can grow.  We need to balance opportunity with risk, and more people involved all the way along the line, from the organizers through the various levels of administration to council, need to ask these hard questions.

And part of that is open debriefing after events happen, so that you can fix mistakes and build on what worked.  That's what hasn't happened yet with the Borealis Music Festival, and it is what has to happen before council even considers providing assistance in future years.

"You can't change what you don't acknowledge." - Dr. Phil

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Post-Vacation Thoughts

Three weeks ago, Andrea and I were on a train, heading east for Toronto, for our annual trip to Ontario to remind our families what we look like.  As is our habit, we take the train both coming and going, to provide us with some forced relaxation on either side of what tends to become a hectic time of trying to visit family and friends in several different locations.  On the train, for most of the time, you're out of range of cell phone or internet, so your time is spent disconnected from the outside world, reading, napping, and talking with other passengers.  And eating, of course - the Via Rail chefs produce amazingly delicious meals, three times a day.

Once in Ontario, we spent the first weekend with Andrea's family, as five of the sisters, plus husbands and children, gathered near Magnetawan to celebrate the milestone birthday of one sister.  These birthday weekends feature much eating, drinking, laughing, and catching up on each other's lives - this one also featured a pumpkin beer tasting, a bonfire, and sparklers.  We then spent a few days in Fergus visiting my family, a couple of days in Niagara on the Lake, seeing two plays and visiting two wineries, Thanksgiving weekend in Millbrook with Andrea's youngest sister and her family, before a final couple of days in Toronto, having dinner with Andrea's only brother and his wife, plus another sister and her husband and son.  Then it was back on the train for the two day trip home, arriving back in Saskatoon only seven minutes behind schedule, on Thursday evening.

Even though it was vacation, I'm always keeping an eye out for how other communities handle the issues that every city has to deal with.  In Niagara on the Lake, for example, we had the chance to spend a couple of hours with a former Prince Albert businessman, Paul Moser, who told me that residents there are allowed to buy an annual parking pass for a set fee, so that they can park downtown without feeding the parking meter.  The parking meters are still there, of course, and the many, many tourists that flock there to tour wineries or take in a play or two at the Shaw Festival, provide parking revenues.  However, the local residents don't have the disincentive of having to dig out change for the meter whenever they go downtown, and the city gets parking revenue from two sources - from residents through the passes, and from the tourists through the meters.  These are the kind of options that I wish this city would explore, whenever we bemoan the lack of activity in the downtown area, while at the same time we hear that one of the reasons that people don't like coming downtown is because of the parking meters and the ever-vigilant ticketing people.

In Winnipeg, we had a few hours between arrival and departure, when we were able to wander about The Forks, the riverside area that has been developed with walking and biking paths, a children's museum, restaurants, and an indoor market.  We noticed that several white lawn and kitchen chairs with writing on them were scattered throughout the market.  When we looked closer, we saw that each chair had a suggestion written on it in black marker.  It turns out that Winnipeg has a website called ChairYourIdea, to which residents can submit ideas for improving the city - some of the ideas are then written on the chairs.  Some of the ideas are quite fanciful (I'm not sure how a Ferris wheel restaurant on the riverbank would work, although I'm sure the view would be great), some were more practical, like having a lending library for tools, that also provided seminars on simple home  repairs, which I think is a great idea, especially for lower income families.

Vacations are a great opportunity to get perspective.  While there are always lots of people in downtown Toronto, we also saw many empty storefronts, and more panhandlers and people sleeping on the street than I remember from past visits.  We also drove through downtown Hamilton on our way from Niagara on the Lake - there open stores seemed to be the exception, with many blocks appearing to be completely vacant.  Keeping downtowns vital is a problem no matter where you go.

While it's always great to see family and catch up with old friends, it's also great to come back home, and sleep in our own bed after three weeks of variable mattresses, and enjoy a good shower, after three weeks of variable water pressure.  And I'm looking forward to reconnecting with my council colleagues, on Tuesday this week, as we're taking Monday off to vote!

"The ant is knowing and wise, but he doesn't know enough to take a vacation." - Clarence Day

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Ward Three Public Meeting

The public meeting for Ward Three, that I talked about a month ago, was held last Thursday evening.  This is one of a series of public meetings, arranged by the Director of Planning for the city.  His current plan is to hold a meeting in each ward (so far meetings have been held in Wards One, Four and Three), with the last meeting held in late October for Ward Two.  He then intends to complete the community plan, and bring it to council for approval.  Councillors were not involved in the planning of the meetings, and although I made some suggestions as to meeting content and notice, for the most part they were ignored.

Attendance at the first meeting in Ward One was quite good, probably because flyers were dropped in all the mailboxes in the ward well before the meeting.  There was no such notice for the Ward Four meeting, which resulted in only about four ward residents being at the meeting - the remainder of people there were either city staff, councillors, or political candidates.

On Thursday, the day of the meeting, Andrea came home at lunch to find a flyer about the meeting in our mailbox - not the best timing, but better late than never.  As a result, about fifty ward residents showed up, although I did get a couple of emails after the meeting justifiably complaining about the short notice.

I had suggested that if we wanted to focus these meetings, it would be helpful for a large map to be made, showing where city amenities are.  Not only would this provide a starting point for discussions, but it would also illustrate the disparity among wards - and perhaps get council to a point where we could agree that there should be a baseline of amenities for all wards - not all wards have all paved streets, for example, or sidewalks, or parks, or city-built splash parks.  Unfortunately, this didn't happen, but I still think that it's a good idea.

Most of the issues raised were issues that I have raised at council - the lack of roll-out garbage bins, derelict housing, poor back alley maintenance, discarded needles in streets and playgrounds, lack of police presence.  The only new thing that I heard was one resident asking about the possibility of raising chickens.  While I agree that there may be issues with trying this out, I also know that one of my daughter's neighbours in Saskatoon keeps chickens (yes, contrary to bylaw), and they cause no problems at all.  Rather than just say no, how about we look at the potential issues, and see what policies need to be put in place to solve those issues before they start.  Knowing the woman in question, I'm quite sure that her chickens would not be a nuisance to anyone.

The city manager was at the meeting, and I hope that one of his takeaways from the meeting was that it's not just me raising these issues - they are legitimate concerns of the people that I represent.  The people of Ward Three pay taxes like other city residents, and their concerns deserve to be heard and addressed just like those of residents in other parts of the city.  For example, for several years I've been advocating for an increase in the budget for back alley maintenance.  It's a little discouraging to hear other councillors refuse to support such an increase, because they don't have the same number of back alleys, and in any case, the back alleys in their ward are paved.  We're supposed to have a broader perspective than that.

I was also glad to see Councillor Miller and Councillor Orr at the meeting, as they were at the other two meetings.  It's good to see that some councillors realize that their job isn't just to represent the residents of their wards, but also to see and hear the concerns of other parts of the city.  I plan on attending as many of these meetings as I can, and I hope that the director of planning realizes that if you want people to come to meetings, you have to let them know about the meetings, well in advance, and not rely on social media to do the job for you.

This meeting was just a starting point.  I think that we need more meetings before any recommendations make it into the final community plan, which is the director of planning's goal for using this information.  Rather than making assumptions as to what the best solutions to the various problems identified would be, I think that it would be well worth the effort to come back to each ward with a draft plan, to confirm with the people who live there that these are ideas that are worth trying.  That's because no matter how much expertise city staff may have, the people who have to live with the results are the residents.  Otherwise, these meetings will turn out to have wasted everybody's time.

"If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be 'meetings'." - Dave Barry

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Once Again, I'm the Resident Curmudgeon

A week or so ago, the local paper asked for my thoughts on the provision of money from the Special Events Fund for the recent Borealis Music Festival.  This fund is $50,000 that council sets aside each year, to be provided to local groups who want assistance in putting on events of provincial or national attraction.  I suggested to the reporter that we need to rethink our whole policy around providing money to events - maybe it's time to consider setting up a levy on hotels, as other communities do, with the levy going into a fund for these events, rather than council taking money out of tax revenues.  After all, hotels are the ones who benefit directly from people coming to these events - the city gains no revenues.

After Andrea read the article, I asked her if I came across as too curmudgeonly.  She laughed, and said that I was no worse than usual.  And then she said that it was too bad that it often seems that I'm the only curmudgeon on council - the only one who insists on asking questions when it comes to spending tax payers' money.  Which is funny, because I think that asking questions about how we spend people's money is a huge part of the job - we're not elected just to be automatic cheerleaders for every idea that comes forward, although that seems to be the perception of some of my colleagues.

It's not that I'm against events such as the Borealis Music Festival.  When the proposal came before council, I pointed out that it did not qualify under one of the basic criteria - applications for use of this fund are supposed to be submitted a year before the event.  That's because putting on an event of provincial or national attraction requires a lot of time to plan and execute.  The music festival was less than five months away.

At the time I identified several weak spots in their budget - their attendance projections (15,000 people), were wildly ambitious, and their estimates for revenue from beer and souvenir sales were also extremely high, and tied to the same proposed attendance.  They were going to transport people from Christopher, Emma and Candle Lakes, without considering that on a long weekend, someone who is at the lake is likely there because that's where they want to be, not back in Prince Albert.  And I questioned the wisdom of not branding the type of music that was going to be offered - most people like to know what they're buying before they shell out a significant amount of money.

I pointed these things out not to be  mean, or discouraging, but to increase their chances of holding an event that would be seen as a success, with the potential to grow in the future.  I understand the whole idea of dreaming big, but my responsibility is to try to make sure that tax dollars are spent with regard to the benefit of the community as a whole.

But my questions weren't answered - in fact one of my colleagues said at the meeting that such questions were ridiculous and a waste of time.  And seven members of council voted to give the music festival $15,000 from the Special Events Fund, and a equal amount of in-kind contributions - hanging banners, mowing grass, trimming trees, and other such services.  And we agreed to block off a large portion of Kinsmen Park for the duration, making it unavailable for local residents.

Now apparently the initial budget was revised over the next few months, as the organizers realized that they weren't attracting the numbers that they had hoped for.  I don't know how well they kept their other sponsors informed, but they didn't share these downward projections with council.  So it was rather a surprise to hear after the fact that they were quite pleased with their estimated attendance of 1,200, as being more than they expected.  Somewhere along the line, they realized that attendance was going to be only about ten per cent of what they had originally planned - the plan that they had used to persuade council that this was a worthy investment of $15,000 (plus an equal amount of in-kind contributions).  So each attendee was subsidized by more than ten dollars of tax dollars.

Now suppose that, in their first year, they had planned a smaller, one day event.  Fewer acts would have decreased their costs, and they could have put some kind of identifier on the kind of music.  Lower costs could have translated to a lower admission price - fifty dollars for a single day's admission translates to more than $100 for a couple - quite pricey if you're not sure of what's being offered.  And don't worry about bringing people in from the lakes - focus on how to make the event more attractive to the people who are here.  In that case, attracting a thousand people would be considered a success, and something to build on.

I understand that some of the people involved with the music festival resented my comments in the paper, which is unfortunate.  I think that using that energy to identify what didn't work, and what they are going to try differently would be more productive than blaming the guy who asks the questions.

And remember, as long as you're looking to spend tax dollars, I'm going to be asking hard questions about it.  That's my job.

"You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world.  But it takes people to make the dream a reality." - Walt Disney

Sunday, August 16, 2015

A Couple of Lessons I Hope We Learn from Last Week's Storm

Last Wednesday afternoon I was working on a broken lawnmower in my backyard when I noticed the sky to the north west getting dark, very quickly.  Then there was some thunder, and the wind rose.  And the rain started.  I ran into the house to close the windows that were all wide open because of the heat of the last couple of days.

Ten minutes later, the storm was over, and the sun came out again.  But those few minutes had made a real mess of the Midtown area.  The wind had been so strong that the umbrella on the deck had been lifted right out of the table and turned upside down.  The garbage and recycling bins were blown over.  The yard and deck were covered with small branches from the poplar and maple trees in the backyard.

However, compared to some places around the neighbourhood, we were only lightly touched.  Along the streets, large branches, mostly from overmature Manitoba maples, had come down on the street or were blocking the sidewalks.  In front of Ecole Valois, a maple tree had broken off right at the ground, and over on 9th Street, another maple tree had broken off at the ground.

I had a close look at the tree in front of the school - it was full of red rot.  Thirty years ago when we first moved into this house, there was a large Manitoba maple in the south west corner of the front yard that was showing signs of decay - large conks and dead branches.  Andrea diagnosed red rot, and when I cut it down, it proved to be the case.

That's the thing with trees - by the time they show outward signs of decay, it's probably far advanced, and the best thing to do is just take down the tree.  And you can walk along any street in Midtown, and see the symptoms of red rot on the maples that are planted along the boulevards (and in many yards, too).  Conks, dead branches, new growth sprouting up at the base of the tree.  All of these are symptoms of a tree that is rotten at the core.

Unfortunately, the city's response, when I try to bring their attention to the problem, is to send out a crew that usually just prunes off the dead branch.  This does not solve the problem, in fact, it makes it worse.  Not only is the tree further weakened, and a new opening made for infection, but the problem is still there.  Either more branches will start to die, bringing on more temporary fixes, or, as happened with last week's storm, branches or the tree itself will come down.  When that happens, at best crews have to go out to pick up the mess.  At worst, the tree damages private property, leaving the city liable for damages.

In any case, it doesn't take too much common sense to realize that fixing the problem by removing the dying tree the first time will save time, money, and potentially higher future costs, because the crew only has to make one trip.  Of course, replanting the tree should also be a no-brainer, although right now, the policy is that the city only plants a new tree if residents request it.  And far too often, the species that is planted is Manitoba maple, a tree that has a relatively short life span compared to ash or elm, the other trees that are commonly planted on the boulevard.

I've suggested on more than one occasion that the city needs to do a better job of managing its urban forest, but without much success.  It was small consolation last week when one of my councillor colleagues sent out an email after the storm - "I guess Atkinson was right about those trees."

I hope that administration takes the opportunity to rethink their strategy on dealing with dying trees.  It's not too complicated - if a tree is showing symptoms of rot, that means it's rotten.  Cut the tree down, plant one in its place, and we'll be well on the way to maintaining the health of our urban forest, which adds so much to the quality of life in a city.  Continue to think that cutting off dead branches is the solution, and watch the damage continue to increase.  The choice seems pretty simple to me.

"If you don't have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?" - John Wooden

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Public Consultation - How Can We Get the Best Bang for Our Buck?

This past Thursday I took a tour of Ward 3 with the Director of Planning and Development.  We were looking at the various recreational sites that the ward has to offer (not many), and also at some of the problem areas - vacant lots, abandoned houses - that are scattered throughout the area.

The director plans to hold public meetings in each ward to get a sense of the needs in each area on a wide array of topics - everything from crime to roads to garbage pick-up to recreational facilities.  The output of these meetings would then guide the development of the official community plan.

I understand the potential value of public meetings.  They give people a chance to voice their concerns about the issues where they live.  They give the people who are directly affected by the decisions being discussed some input into those decisions.  They provide a broader perspective, and in some cases, an under-represented perspective, to the people drafting the plans.  Although people don't like to acknowledge it, the unfortunate fact is that not many people in the higher levels at city hall live in Midtown or the East or West Flats, and likely have a bit of an unconscious bias about the actual wants and needs of the people who live there.  And finally, those people who feel that they have been a part of the process will also help to support it with the broader population.

However, there are those who discount the value of public meetings, pointing out that they tend to draw relatively small numbers.  Two recent meetings, about a splash park and playground equipment,one in the East Hill and one in the West Hill, had fewer than twenty people at each.  Considering the amount of time and effort that goes into organizing and running such meetings, that's a pretty high cost per participant.

So how do we get people out, and make sure that we get valuable input?  I think that giving the meeting focus helps.  On the other hand, you don't want too much focus.  Perhaps the splash park meeting was too focused - it might have given the impression that a decision had been made.  On the other hand, thinking that you're going to be able to have meaningful discussions on everything in one evening is being more than slightly ambitious.

I think that a more productive approach for the ward meetings that are being proposed for the fall would be to have a series of meetings, with a focus subject for each meeting.  Perhaps one to discuss safety concerns, another to discuss infrastructure issues, another for recreational opportunities.  An initial meeting could be held to gauge the interest in each topic, and subsequent meetings scheduled for topics with the greatest interest.  Another advantage of more focused meetings would be that only those administrative staff who are directly involved would have to attend.  This would also give people the opportunity to spread the word.  People in attendance at the first meeting could tell their friends and neighbours - "Hey, you've been concerned about the state of the tennis courts.  You should come to the meeting when they're going to talk about recreational opportunities in the ward."  As they say, word of  mouth is the best way to advertise.

Partnering with groups in the area to spread the word is also something we should try.  I suggested to the director that, rather than have the Ward 3 meeting at Midtown Hall, we should have it at Riverside School instead.  The active parents' group there could give us a lot of help, both in publicizing the meeting and in providing us advice on when good times for meetings are.  And I'm a big fan of direct advertising through mail drops - not everybody is on social media or reads the paper.

Our responsibility is to be sure that we have the appropriate base line information at these meetings.  I'm not talking about what we think should happen, but more information about what we currently have, or know.  The focus of the meeting should be on listening, not on talking and presenting our ideas.

I think that public consultation is an excellent forum for communication.  It gives residents the opportunity to voice their concerns and give their ideas.  And it lets residents know that we don't have all the answers, but that together, we think that we can come up with better ideas than we can working on our own.

"Men often oppose a think merely because they have had no agency in planning it, or because it may have been planned by those whom they dislike." - Alexander Hamilton

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Another Big Screen TV on the Horizon

A few years ago I compared the way the city spent money to a household that spends its money impulsively on toys like big screen televisions, then is surprised when there is no money to fix the roof.  I was referring to our collective fondness to load up on recreational facilities at the expense of the boring and mundane business of maintaining basic infrastructure.

The last big example of this was the soccer centre - built without any idea of how much it would cost to run.  But we have other such facilities - the Rawlinson Centre, the waterslides, the Art Hauser Centre.  All of these are great facilities, I agree.  I also know that they cost the city ever-increasing amounts of money to run and maintain, and we have a reluctance to go into those potentially unpleasant details, not just in the deciding stage, but also after the fact.  Just think of how long it took to get reports of where and how much the Rawlinson Centre was costing us on an annual basis.

And then when we have a situation like we did last year, when the waterslides had to be closed because they hadn't been maintained, people are shocked, and expect council to wave some kind of a magic wand to make the necessary money appear.  We don't have a magic wand - we can only raise taxes, which isn't a popular move either.

So one of my constant refrains has been that before we decide to move ahead on any of these wonderful wants (not needs) we need to know what the long-term cost is going to be, and how it's going to be covered.  Hand in hand with that, we need to have a plan that sets out priorities for development, so that the framework for the decision is already there, making the process clear and defensible.

However, rumours are always out there, about the next great thing - I'm sure you've heard about the Olympic-sized swimming pool, or the new hockey rink.

Last week, we were presented with a proposal for a beach volleyball court.  The idea from the group of adults proposing this (yes, this time they won't be able to bring in a bunch of kids to sway our emotions), is that it would be located up by the soccer centre (able to take advantage of the free parking and the washrooms), and the city would, as always, pay for the ongoing operations and maintenance.  Apparently they've raised half the money for construction, but want the city to commit to this before they raise the other half.

I understand that it would be nice to have the city pick up the tab so that a group can indulge in their favourite summer time activity.  But, just as with the soccer centre, there's a tendency to overestimate the use this facility would get, and the potential benefit to the city as a whole.  I'm particularly wary of the hype about bringing in tournaments, since we were promised that with the soccer centre, but not a single tournament has occurred over the last five years.

Not only do we need to have priorities set, we need to decide, as a community, what our capacity is for maintaining recreational facilities.  We need to be realistic about the unfortunate fact that the costs of running things never seem to go down, but only up.  There needs to be some onus on the users of these facilities to contribute more to their upkeep - people seem to feel that it's sufficient to donate to build a new facility, but I haven't noticed too many fund-raising campaigns to pay to keep the lights on and the power running.

It's all a matter of living within our means, and part of that is identifying the whole cost of the opportunities that are presented to us - just like when you buy a house, it's not the purchase price that is the limitation, it's the ongoing maintenance.  Otherwise, you end up with a leaky roof.

"It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him."  J.R.R. Tolkien

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Things I'd Like People to Stop Saying about the Downtown

I was at a meeting a couple of weeks ago with the Downtown Business Improvement District people.  I came home from the meeting thinking that there are a few phrases that are repeated at every meeting, and I'd be quite happy if these could be avoided in the future, because the constant repetition isn't moving us forward, or helping find solutions.

The first is that downtown is the heart of the city.  That may have been true once, but it isn't any more.  To me, the heart of a community is a place where most people go, and I know that there are many people who rarely go downtown, and more who go downtown only because they work there.  You can get by very well without setting foot on Central Avenue north of Fifteenth Street - most shopping and banking is now located elsewhere.  Thirty years ago Central Avenue had three grocery stores and five banks.  Today there is one bank, and no grocery stores.  It doesn't mean that downtown can't thrive - you don't have to be the heart of a city to still be pretty nice.

Another thing that is often said is that we need to have some kind of attraction downtown that will cause people coming from Saskatoon and heading to the lakes to take a detour.  In fact, this idea is often refined to specify that we need to have some kind of water-type attraction.  I'm not sure that this will ever work, for a couple of reasons.  When we were at FCM in Niagara Falls last year, it was quite clear that one of the most amazing water attractions in the world wasn't enough to give that town a thriving downtown.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  The Fallsview area of town was full of people, but the downtown had the same problems that most small town downtowns have - empty storefronts, vacant lots, and not many people.

As for getting people heading to the lakes to stop - they do.  I see recreational vehicles and boats in tow in the Safeway parking lot every Friday morning in the summer.  I see people fueling their vehicles at several gas stations along Second Avenue West.  People stop for their needs, but their objective is getting to the lake as quickly as possible - they're not interested in detours.  I wish that we would focus more on getting the people who live here to come downtown - despite the oft-repeated misconception that there's no sense in trying to do anything in the summer, since everybody goes to the lakes.  I'm one that doesn't, and I think that we should cultivate opportunities for the residents that don't have the wherewithal or desire to go elsewhere in the summer.  There's a potential market with a greater chance of success.

And finally, I think that we look at downtown through too narrow a lens.  It's often said that we need more people living downtown, and those who say that are looking just at Central Avenue.  I prefer to think of downtown as including the surrounding neighbourhoods - to Sixth Avenue on the east and Second Avenue on the west.  If we broaden our lens to include this larger area, all of a sudden we see that there are a lot of people who live downtown.  Instead of focusing improvements on Central Avenue, how much more attractive would these neighbourhoods be if we started improving their amenities - paving streets, fixing sidewalks, adding more green space.  Face it - new light standards on Central Avenue don't make a bit of difference to the people that we want to head there instead of somewhere else.

But if we look at making this larger area more attractive, you will get more people living here, and people living closer to downtown businesses will be more likely to patronize those businesses.  More people being active and visible in an area will result in the area becoming more attractive to others, and feeling safer when they're there.

Improvement to the downtown area isn't going to happen by trying to go backwards, and bringing back all of the businesses that used to be there.  It isn't going to happen by finding a single magic bullet that will suddenly bring hordes of people to the downtown, who will then be so inspired that they will spend all their money there, and change their vacation plans.  But if we make the downtown a more attractive place for the people who live there, the changes that we're looking for will happen incrementally.

There are, of course, no guarantees.  We also need to look at taking more risks, trying new things.  Any real change requires risk, of course.  The irony is that we're far more prone to trying to bring back ideas that worked in the past, even though all the evidence shows that the risk of failure from that sort of approach is higher than trying new things.

So I'm proposing to follow the advice Don Draper gave on Mad Men - if you don't like what people are saying, change the conversation.  Let's change the way we talk about improving the downtown, and maybe we'll start to see the first small signs of change.

"Tradition is a guide, and not a jailer." - W. Somerset Maugham

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Some Thoughts on the Latest Park Proposal

One of the items at last week's meeting was a proposal from the Anavets to develop the space at the southeast corner of 11th Street and Central Avenue.  This spot, which has been vacant for several years since a fire destroyed the building on the site, has been used for a number of things in the intervening years - a hot dog stand, an ice cream stand, and the occasional barbecue.  For the last several years, it's been unused and unmaintained.

It belongs to the city.  A few years ago, we had a couple of people show interest in developing the lot, but unfortunately the selected bidder never followed through with his proposal, and there's been no interest since, although I'm not sure if we've put much effort into advertising the opportunity.

Enter the Anavets, who are thinking about putting in a funding request to the federal government for a special projects grant to develop a park to honour veterans in the space.  I'm not sure how much of a grant they are requesting, but they have suggested that the city could donate the land, valued at $42,000.

It's always difficult to be critical of these proposals - parks are positive things, veterans deserve to be honoured, we need more ideas about how to beautify the downtown - all of these factors can make it difficult to speak up about the potential downside of such proposals.  But that makes it all the more important to do so at an early stage.

To start with, we already have a park to honour veterans downtown.  It's right in front of City Hall, and it's why that area is called Memorial Square.  I think that it could use some improvements, but to me it makes more sense to coordinate efforts and to focus on improving this area, which could include adding whatever elements the Anavets are proposing.  The benches that were removed from around the fountain a few years ago, at the time the western premiers were meeting in the city (presumably so that they wouldn't have to look out on people using the area) are still in the City Yards, and could be reinstalled.  The idea of having additional flagstaffs so that flags could be lowered at the association's discretion could certainly be accommodated within this space.

Parks are costly to maintain.  I only have to give the example of the difficulty that we have in maintaining Kinsmen Park to demonstrate that.  And while I'm sure that the Anavets have the best of intentions to take care of their proposed park, I know that it can be difficult to keep up the level of maintenance required when you rely on volunteer help.

The city cannot afford to give away land.  It sets a dangerous precedent, and we have to remember that we are only the stewards of city assets, not the owners.  Far better if this land is redeveloped as a business that would generate taxes, than left as an open green space that, unfortunately, is likely to become a repository for garbage and needles.

I appreciate the interest of the Anavets in increasing our awareness of the importance of honouring our veterans.  However, I would rather see our efforts concentrated on improving the space and amenities that are currently dedicated for that purpose, and working on increasing viable business opportunities where it makes sense.

"Parks are idealizations of nature, but nature in fact is not a condition of the ideal." - Robert Smithson

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Tax That Never Seems to End

Several years ago, when I was first on council, one of the separate taxes in the tax bill was called the Debt Elimination Levy.  Its purpose was just as it said - to eliminate outstanding city debt.  That was three mayors ago.

Two mayors ago, once the debt was eliminated, the levy morphed to pay for the improvements to the Art Hauser Centre - remember Bring Back the Magic?  That's the problem with those campaigns where the public is asked to pledge money - while the money is being collected, which is some cases happens over years, the work is started, and somebody has to pay.  Of course, that somebody is the city, being used like a credit card so that we can buy now and pay later.

Then came another mayor, and the soccer centre.  Before the Art Hauser payments were complete, the purpose of the levy was changed again, this time to pay the construction costs for the soccer centre.  At least at this point, 2008, I convinced the other members of council that the levy should be identified as such, so that it appears on your tax notice as Capital Projects - Fieldhouse and Wellness Centre. Again, it was like a loan, so that those members of the public who had pledged money could take years to pay it off, but in the meantime, the facility would be built.

And now we come to today, and another mayor.  And apparently, the construction of the soccer centre is now completely paid for.  And yet, the levy lingers on - although not at council's direction.  Apparently, we're just continuing to collect the money, without identifying why.

I'm quite surprised at the lack of information surrounding the use of this money.  Administration has not been able to tell me exactly when the levy changed from being for the soccer centre to just being for Capital Projects. Nor do they seem to know how much of the project ended up actually being paid for by those who pledged money, since a proportion of those who pledge money often end up not being able to fulfil those pledges.  That kind of information would be very useful, especially if we decide to go down this path of building new facilities in the future.

So that's why I made a bit of a stink about it at last week's meeting.  It is not administration's job to decide the continuation of taxes - that enviable job belongs with council.  It is not administration's job to decide where that money should go - that too belongs with council.  It is administration's job to track the ins and outs of the money, just as with anyone's normal budget - you know what bills are due when, and you certainly know when you've finished paying off  a big debt.  I expect no less of administration.

The idea of setting aside money before you start a project is a sound one.  I do have a bit of a concern about setting aside money without knowing why.  I'm sure that it wouldn't take long before someone thought that it would be a great idea to spend $2 million on a new sprinkler system for the golf course.  Or the Raiders would think that a new arena would be the best use for the money.  Or the swim club would think that an Olympic-sized pool was just what the city needed.  You get the idea - when there's a pool of money sitting there, it's really tempting to use it for whatever the interest may be, even if it isn't the best thing for the whole city.

Although we have no end of interest groups telling us what the city needs, I think that if you asked the average tax payer what they think we need, they might start by saying "Lower taxes."  They might think that spending on needs first would be a great idea - how about if, before we invest in another recreational facility, we think about setting a goal to have all city streets paved, and all lead service water connections replaced.  How about we continue catching up on the basic infrastructure backlog that we got ourselves into, partly by building new facilities that can't support themselves.

In any event, let's not start taking tax payers' money at a certain level just because we've gotten into the habit.  That's not in line with all the nice words that we've been saying about transparency.  Let's be more open about the money coming in, and the money going out.  And before we make any major decisions about spending money on new  facilities that only serve a portion of the population, let's ask the people who are going to pay for it if they think that it's a good idea.

"There is no such thing as a good tax." - Winston Churchill

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Some Learnings from FCM

Last week was the annual meeting of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), held this year in Edmonton.  Several members of council attended, and, as usual, there was a variety of learning opportunities, some in formal sessions, others through field tours.

One field tour that I found most informative was an alcohol enforcement tour that Councillor Miller and I went on.  We accompanied staff from police, fire, liquor and building enforcement as they visited two bars, one in downtown Edmonton, the other a very large bar (capacity of 500 patrons) on the outskirts.  The four city departments that go on this tour work together to manage crowds and activities.  Both bars had software that allows them to check people's driver's licences as they enter.  There are a couple of benefits to this.  First, they can confirm who is in a bar at any time.  Second, should someone cause a disturbance, they are then flagged, and refused admission in the future.  This information can be shared with other bars that have the same software, helping to prevent incidents from even starting.  The software was a city initiative, and I can see how it could really benefit Prince Albert, where so many of our weekend problems stem from relatively few individuals with alcohol problems.

One problem in many cities with an active downtown bar scene is the problem that happens after the bars close.  People leave, but then find that they need to get rid of the liquid that they've been ingesting over the last few hours.  Unfortunately, they can't go back into the bar to visit the washroom, so they tend to use the street - not too pleasant.  Edmonton has put in public washrooms in the same area downtown as the bars.  These washrooms have glass walls, so that people can see if there is anyone inside, and so that anyone with the bright idea to wreck the place can be easily seen.  To prevent people from sleeping overnight, the washrooms are locked after a suitable interval after closing time.

Edmonton has recognized that bars are good economic drivers, that unfortunately can have associated problems.  Rather than just shut down the economic opportunity, they have instead focused on finding solutions to those problems that still allow the bars to do what they do best.

I also attended an educational session on neighbourhood revitalization.  Edmonton has developed a tax regime that is applied over the entire city, but which recognizes that some neighbourhoods have lagged behind others in infrastructure repair and improvements - funds are specifically directed at these neighbourhoods.  I really liked that fact that they are trying to bring all neighbourhoods up to the same standards, and recognize that the city as a whole benefits from that kind of effort.

For the downtown core, the city borrows money from the province to revitalize areas and encourage development, then uses the increased taxes from these developments, such as large hotels, to then pay back the borrowed money.

In many ways, Edmonton seemed to be very similar to Prince Albert, and I think that we can learn a great deal about how they approach our similar problems.  While we don't have the advantages of their much larger population, we should still be able to apply some scaled down solutions.

Every year, when the time comes to approve the upcoming expenses for FCM, we get questions from the media as to whether it's worth the cost.  For those councillors who choose to take advantage of the many educational opportunities at FCM, both formal sessions and informal networking, I'd say that it's money well invested in our city's future.

"Learning is not attained by chance; it must be sought for with ardor and diligence." - Abigail Adams

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Garbage Pick-up Update

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about the decision by council to move from large dumpsters to individual garbage bins for the residents on my block.  The dumpsters were often overloaded, particularly at the end of the month when apartment residents would move out and leave large piles of material in and around the dumpsters, and people from outside the city seemed to think that pulling up at a dumpster and filling it with their garbage was an acceptable alternative to taking it to the landfill themselves.

The change, as directed by council, was supposed to happen by May 15th, and the owners of the apartment buildings in the block were to be notified that they would have to start using a commercial garbage service, like most of the multiple unit buildings in the city.

May 15th came and went, with no change.  So after the long weekend, I spoke with the city manager, wondering why nothing had happened.  His excuse was that he has a lot of balls in the air.  That's not acceptable to me - if something that council has decided will happen isn't going to happen, then the time to let us know that it isn't going to happen is before the deadline, not after.

Friday morning (May 22nd), Andrea and I were enjoying breakfast on the deck when a city truck went down the back alley, picking up the blue recycling bins.  After Andrea expressed some regret that we had a bin of newspapers inside, waiting to be taken out, I wondered why they weren't picking up the other dumpsters, the ones for garbage.  I also wondered why the city hadn't delivered any notification to residents, before starting the process.  It was only a few minutes before I got my first phone call from a resident, wondering what was going on.  Then another resident stopped by on his bike - he had been told that the city was just taking the recycling bins, but leaving the garbage bins, because the apartment buildings didn't have commercial bins.

Unfortunately, the problem wasn't with the recycling bin - it was with the garbage bins.  And the direction in the motion passed by council had been quite clear - individual residences were to have their own roll-out blue bins and garbage bins, and the apartment buildings were to have commercial bins, by May 15th.

Later in the morning a notice was delivered, so I called the number in the notice to find out what was going on.  Not only was that individual not around, apparently nobody else was aware of the situation.  I was told that I could call back next week.  Someone else that I talked to told me that the city didn't have any 300 gallon dumpsters - since that is what we have now, it was an indication of how poor the communication about this issue has been at City Hall.

The city's version of customer service had struck once again.

A short while later our blue bin was delivered.  Since nobody in the Sanitation Department seemed to know what was going on, I left a message with the City Manager, outlining my disappointment in the lack of follow-through of a direction made by a motion of council.

When Andrea and I got back from our usual Friday morning routine of errands, a city vehicle was dropping off individual garbage bins.  I talked with one of the workers, who was writing Apts. Only in marker on the remaining large dumpsters in the alley.  This apparently is the stop-gap measure to be used until the apartment buildings get commercial bins - I'll be finding out next week when they got the notice, and how long they've been given.

So once again I've been annoyed by the lack of action from city hall staff, by the poor communication and coordination among staff, and by the uncoordinated approach of dealing with city residents.  I have a feeling that if I hadn't raised the fact that the target date for bin replacement had passed, I, and the other residents of the block, would still be waiting for our bins.  I don't think that it's part of my job to remind the people who are supposed to coordinate the work done by city staff of the direction that they have been given - that should be part of their work planning process.

We've made some difficult decisions over the last few years with regard to staff.  At some point, I hope that both the new and old staff realize that our expectation is that it wasn't that we wanted different people doing the job the same way, but that we wanted the job done differently.  So far, that hasn't happened.

"If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading." - Lao Tzu

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Is a Council Meeting the Place for Prayer?

There's been some talk over the past few weeks about the recent Supreme Court decision that prayer at city council meetings is not constitutional.  The decision was largely based on the idea that prayer in a public place is exclusionary - that those who do not share in the beliefs being prayed about are being excluded.

So far our city council has not made any change, although there was some talk about getting a legal opinion (although we're a city council, which was the specific object of the decision, which makes it pretty clear to me).  Regina stopped having their opening prayer immediately; other councils have not made any changes that I'm aware of.

As far as I can tell, most members of council feel that we should continue with prayer, because that's what we've traditionally done.  Others have said that they see no harm in it, and one councillor bemoaned the increasing atheism of society, confusing atheism (a lack of belief in God) with secularism (excluding religious activities from public events).  And some have said that they appreciate the opportunity to gather their thoughts before a meeting.

Personally, I think that we don't need to have a prayer before a meeting.  It's not that I'm against religion - I attend church regularly, have been on my church council, and currently am a member of the board of trustees of my church.  But I know that everyone does not share in my beliefs, and I don't think that a governing body that is supposed to represent everyone in a community should assume that everyone is comfortable with public prayer.  We may think that the prayer is broadly ecumenical and doesn't exclude anybody, but that's an easy assumption to make when you're in the Christian majority.

Tradition is a fine thing, but it's a poor excuse for continuing a behaviour that some may find offensive or exclusionary.  We used to call members of council aldermen, ignoring the fact that such a term excluded fifty per cent of society.  It's not too difficult to find examples of things that used to be tradition, but have been changed or abandoned over the years - remember when stores were closed on Sundays?

As for the opportunity to gather thoughts, nobody is stopping individual councillors from doing that on their own, silently.  I can't think of any other workplace where people pray communally before starting their work - are we suggesting that making decisions at council requires more spiritual guidance than any other job that requires making decisions?

One of my favourite constituents, who passed away recently, phoned me once after a meeting of the previous council, asking if I could get her a copy of the prayer.  When I asked her why, she said that it didn't appear as though many members of council were actually listening to the prayer, judging by their behaviour during the meeting.  That made me laugh, but it also showed the pointlessness of this public display of piety - why bother with it if you're going to forget what was said as soon as the prayer is over?

To me, prayer is an extremely personal thing that doesn't need to be public.  For council to continue to do so, even after the Supreme Court has declared the practice to be unconstitutional, is ignoring the realities of our current society, and excluding people whose beliefs may differ from our own, but who still deserve to feel completely welcome at a city council meeting.

"Never pray for justice, because you might get some."  - Margaret Atwood

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Garbage Options

Garbage pick-up, or as it's identified on your water bill, sanitation services, is probably one of the more crucial services that the city provides - right up there with providing clean water and safe streets.  If you've ever been in a city during a garbage strike, you'll remember how quickly the effects are felt.  Andrea was in Toronto a few years ago during their last garbage strike, and she still remembers how public garbage cans were taped up, full of garbage, to try to prevent more garbage from being added, and how piles of garbage in public parks made things most unpleasant.

While we haven't had to suffer through anything like that, it doesn't mean that we should be complacent about our garbage system, or not try to make improvements.  This is the first year in some time that we've actually reviewed the sanitation budget, and it's something that we should be doing annually, rather than just assuming that the status quo is good enough.

For starters, there are inequities in the system.  Most residents have roll-out bins, with separate bins for garbage and recyclables.  However, some older neighbourhoods (including mine), which still have back alleys, have large communal bins, two or three garbage bins for every recycle bin.  One of the reasons that we kept with the communal bins several years ago was that some residents, particularly seniors, were concerned about their ability to manage rolling out a bin.  However, their are a couple of major downsides to communal bins.  One is that some people seem to think that they should be able to use these bins even if they don't live in the houses that they serve - more than once I've seen pick-up trucks dumping large amounts of garbage into my bin, and when it was full, move on to the next one down the alley.  The other is that people seem to think that they can just leave garbage there, in or out of the bin, including broken furniture, bicycles, and boxes of clothing.  These are not picked up during the regular runs of the garbage truck, so can hang about for weeks until finally getting removed.

We don't treat apartment buildings equally.  Some are required to have commercial pick up, which they pay for themselves.  Others, including the three buildings in the block behind my house, are allowed to use the communal bins.  However, the cost per unit is much less than for the houses on the other side of the alley, even though the volume of garbage produced by the multiple units in each building is much greater than that produced by my house and my next door neighbour.  And often, at moving time, anything left behind by the departing resident is just dumped into the communal bin by the landlord, at no extra charge.  I think that we should move all multiple unit buildings to the same standard, rather than giving some breaks, which end up costing the city money, and requiring neighbours to have to do extra clean-up.

For me, the final straw was walking down the alley one afternoon, and finding a pile of hundreds of needles by a communal bin.  It appeared as though drug users had been taking shelter between the bin and the fence of the home behind to shoot up, then just tossing the needles.  That opportunity wouldn't be there if each residence had its own, roll-out bin.

I called city administration, but after waiting for two weeks for someone to call me back, I just went straight to council, asking to have individual roll-out bins for my block.  Although I didn't get unanimous support, because apparently a couple of my colleagues don't agree that all residents should have access to the same services, it did pass, and my neighbours and I will be getting roll-out bins by the middle of May.  The owners of the three apartment buildings will have to make their own arrangements.  I'm looking forward to having room in my own garbage and recycling bins.

Recycling is another area where we could improve.  I've mentioned before the problems with garbage being placed in recycling bins, both private and communal, which results in the entire recycling load having to go to the landfill.  As well, we have the additional pick-up of clear bags containing leaves and other yard waste, which requires an additional truck with three staff.  I think that we should do as Saskatoon has started doing - have a subscription service for recycling, with an additional bin, so that those who require the service then have three bins - black, blue and green.  I think that it would also be quite reasonable to penalize those who, for whatever reason, don't understand how not to put garbage into a recycling bin.  If garbage is found in your recycling bin, you should lose the opportunity, and have a surcharge on your sanitation fee, since the whole point of recycling is to reduce the demand on the landfill.  And while we're at it, we could have different rates for different sizes of garbage bins, to encourage people to recycle as much as possible, and further minimize what ends up at the landfill.

I would be greatly encouraged if administration could investigate some of these options, so that next year when we look at the sanitation budget, it's more than just the same old thing.  Garbage is not something that's going away, but there's always opportunity for improvement.

"Human society sustains itself by transforming nature into garbage." - Mason Cooley

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Customer Service - What a Concept

A comment often made, by both residents and members of council, is that the city should be run like a business.  I think that when people say that, whether they're part of council or not, they mean that we need to be conscious of spending money wisely, investing in the long-term, and looking for the most efficient way of operating, whether it's running facilities or maintaining infrastructure.

What isn't usually discussed is one of the basic tenets of running a business - providing good customer service.  I had an experience last week that illustrated to me how many of our city employees don't realize that one of their responsibilities is providing good customer service, as they are usually the front line in dealing with the tax payer, who is the customer for the many services that the city provides.

I got a notice from the city over an assessment issue, with a phone number to contact if I wanted more information.  Since I wanted more information, I dialed the number.  The following conversation went like this.

City employee: "Financial Services."

Me: "Who am I speaking to?"

City employee: "Financial Services."

Me: "I know that.  Who am I speaking to?"

City Employee (rather rudely): "Who's this."

Me: "Councillor Lee Atkinson, and I'd like to speak to XXX (the individual who had signed the letter)."

City Employee (slightly more pleasant tone): "He's in Regina." At this point, I would have expected an offer to take a message, an inquiry as to what I was calling about, in case someone else could help me, or at least some information as to when the individual who had signed the letter would be back, or possibly all three.  I got nothing.

Me:  "Okay, I'd like to speak to Joe Day (the director of Financial Services)."

City Employee:  "He's in a meeting."  Again, no interest in why I was calling, or any interest in helping me with whatever my problem is.

Me:  "Never mind, I'll call the City Manager."

I hung up, angry because I had followed the directions in the letter for further information, and was not helped one bit by whoever answered the phone.  This is a good illustration of what I'm often told by frustrated residents who have contacted City Hall with a question or concern - not much help, and a reluctance to identify oneself, so that a person may be told one thing one day, and a different thing the next, but can't tell who the individual was who provided information that may have been faulty.

When I shared this with Andrea, a long-time government employee, she was amazed.  The standard in her workplace is that you always identify yourself when you answer the phone, and if you can't help the person on the other end, you find someone who can.  Their guideline for response to phone inquiries is within 24 hours.  Since I never received a response from the Sanitation Department to an inquiry I made about roll-out garbage bins more than two weeks ago (I finally just went directly to Council with my request), I'm pretty sure that no such standard has been set for city employees.

I suppose that some employees might think that providing good customer service doesn't matter, because it's not like we have any competition in our business.  That being said, it is more efficient to deal with a customer's question the first time it's asked, rather than making them keep trying - you're saving not just their time, but also the time of other city employees who might answer the phone next time, or the time of people up the line who may eventually have to step in to deal with an increasingly annoyed customer.

It's also just plain good manners.  We have signs posted at our cashier stations, warning people who are there to pay water bills or parking tickets that they need to be respectful.  That's more likely to happen if the respect also happens the other way.

Some of my council colleagues have raised suggestions that the city needs to develop a slogan or a brand to help sell ourselves.  I would suggest that if we start with the people who are the first line of customer response, ensuring that they are polite, helpful, and don't think that their job is done until the customer is satisfied, that would be a much less costly way of building our city's reputation, with the people who really count, the people who live here.

Me?  I'm still waiting for an answer to my question.

"You can get through life with bad manners, but it's easier with good manners."  Lillian Gish

Saturday, April 11, 2015

A Couple of Things I Didn't Know About the Needle Exchange Program

Friday morning as Andrea and I were headed out to get groceries, we had an unpleasant surprise.  Dumped on the boulevard by our house was what appeared to be a pile of garbage.  When I took a closer look, it turned out to be a large pile of drug paraphernalia - needles, both used and unused, alcohol swabs, cotton balls, spoons, elastics, a variety of capsules (blue, pink, green and yellow), bloody paper towels and tissues, zip-lock bags.  And when I say large, I mean large - more than sixty needles.

How and why this pile of garbage got there I don't know - I know that it wasn't there the afternoon before.  While I'm sort of accustomed to seeing needles in the gutters as we walk downtown everyday, and on a recent walk down our back alley I found a horrendous pile of needles between a dumpster and a neighbour's fence, it was more than a little upsetting to see this, on a boulevard where children walk to school every day, and people walk their dogs.

So I called the Harm Reduction Program, and two people came to pick this stuff up.  Since I had them handy, I asked a couple of questions, and the answers surprised me, and might surprise you.  Since there were so many needles, I asked how many needles they hand out to any individual at any one time.  The answer was, to my mind, unbelievable and indefensible.


What possible reason can there be to hand out twenty needles at one time?  I suppose that an argument could be made that it saves the user repeated trips to the Harm Reduction Office.  But I'm not sure what part of harm reduction is delivered by making it easier for the user to take drugs - I would have thought that reduction meant encouraging less use, not more.  And of course, more needles makes it easier to share, and increase the number of drug users, not decrease.

The other piece of rather surprising information is that it's not really a needle exchange program, despite the name.  To get those twenty needles, the user does not have to turn in twenty needles.  Nope.  Not even one.  The rather impressive figures handed out to illustrate the success of the program count every needle turned in as a return.  But that includes the needles that are placed in drop boxes, the needles picked up by the Fire Department, and the needles picked up by the Harm Reduction Program, including the sixty-odd that they picked up on Friday from the boulevard outside my home.  That's how they get a shortfall of only 81,196 needles from the 2012-13 year, when they handed out 1,278,150 needles and got back 1,196,854.

 I think that using the phrase needle exchange is being somewhat misleading - no exchange takes place.  Needles go out, needles come back, but needles are not exchanged.  I also think that handing needles out in such large numbers in a single transaction is only making the problem worse, and I really don't see how the city can support such a program.

I understand that providing needles helps to prevent other complications.  But I resent the program being presented as something other than what it is, and numbers being used to present as rosy a picture as possible.  Develop a program with some realistic controls, be honest about how it's working, and maybe we can work together to reduce the number of needles that keep showing up on our streets.

"Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon and the truth." - Buddha