Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Problem with Boarded Up Houses

On Friday, along with several fellow councillors and some city staff, I went on a tour of boarded up houses.  We saw about thirty properties, places where houses are still standing, in various states of repair, but for whatever reason are not occupied, and in some cases, have been vacant for years.  We saw properties in Wards 1, 2 and 3, which is where most of these properties are located, although there are some boarded up properties in other wards, generally in the older areas of the city.

Boarded up houses are a problem for Prince Albert in several ways.  First, and probably most serious, is that they are places that attract squatters - people who will move in, or use the place for parties - and thus become a risk for fires, as well as being a location for illegal activities.  They affect the neighbourhood, bringing down property values, being a source of noxious weeds, leaving stretches of unshoveled sidewalks after a snow storm, and providing an attractive nuisance to children.

Just as I think we should have a goal of having all streets in the city paved, I think that having a goal of having no abandoned properties anywhere in the city would add immeasurably to the quality of life for all residents.  I can't help but think that if a property were boarded up in some of the newer, higher income areas of the city, the neighbours would raise such holy hell that the situation wouldn't last.  In contrast, in my ward, there is a property that was placarded as being unfit to live in in 2012.  Three years later, bylaw enforcement is only starting to talk about starting the prosecution process - imagine how pleasant it would be to have lived next door to this property for the last few years.

So what's the problem?  Part of it I alluded to in the previous paragraph - bylaw enforcement don't appear to be in any rush to act, and often seem to be extremely lenient with the landlords, rather than thinking of things from the perspective of the neighbours.  As far as I'm concerned, our sympathy should be with the neighbours, not with a landlord, who often doesn't even live in the city, who can't be bothered to bring his property up to a livable standard.  At least the process has improved so that if there's a fire in one of these buildings, the fire department informs bylaw enforcement, so that they can do an inspection immediately to see if the building is salvageable - before they would often wait for a complaint before taking any kind of action.  Rather than being complaint driven, they need to become more proactive, and follow-up quickly and firmly on addresses that are already on their files.

Another problem is that we tax empty lots at a higher rate than lots with derelict buildings on them, so there's actually a disincentive to knocking down these buildings.  I think that a more reasonable approach would be to provide tax incentives to people who build on empty lots, encouraging them to take these buildings down, and build new ones, improving the neighbourhood and adding to the available decent housing in the city.

I think that adding a surcharge to landlords that are repeat offenders - whether they need repeated warnings to take action, or whether the remedial action that they take doesn't last, and the building gets back on the list.  That would show landlords that we take these problems seriously, and they can either fix them or get out of the business.  We have to stop letting things slide.

This is an example of broken window syndrome - where it's been proven that if you take care of the maintenance of buildings in a area, the crime rate goes down as the livability of the area goes up.  As such, I think that abandoned buildings are something that council and administration should put higher on the priority list.  It may seem that it affects only the older, lower income parts of the city, but improving those areas will improve the whole city - and that's the job that we've all signed up for.

"You can't improve a neighbourhood unless you bring everyone along with you" - Marcus Samuelson

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The New Executive Committee Meeting Structure - The First Meeting

Last Monday marked the inaugural Executive Committee Meeting under the new structure.  From my perspective, I found it very useful, although, as always, the first run-through shows some areas for improvement.

Executive meetings have now been structured to be focused on more in-depth presentations from various departments, rather than merely running through the decision items for the actual council meeting.  At this first meeting, we had five presentations, which is probably why the meeting ran rather long.  It was also followed by an in camera session  - I'm going to suggest to the city clerk that in future, that part of the meeting should be held first, rather than making the individuals involved wait until the end of the meeting.

As deputy mayor for the next few weeks, I chaired the entire meeting.  Because the meeting is less structured, I found that as chair, one really has to keep on top of things, to avoid people going off on tangents.  But it's nice to chair a less formal meeting - speakers still have to be recognized by the chair, but no longer have to stand when speaking.  The less formal structure also seemed to be conducive to better information exchange.

Discussion on each topic kept fairly focused, and I can see that one of the benefits will be earlier heads-up of where departments are planning to go.  This will give council earlier opportunity to shape the direction of where things go - better synchronization with administration, which should lead to better discussion of options at earlier stages, and better decisions in the long run.

The actual Council Meeting will now be chaired in its entirety by the mayor.  In the past, the deputy mayor would chair part of the meeting, so the awkward changing of seats mid-meeting will now be avoided.

To outsiders, these changes may not seem significant.  But I see major improvements, largely in the areas of more and better information exchange, and better use of everyone's time - both members of council and staff.  I'm hoping that with continual refinement of the process, and as everyone gets more comfortable with the changes, that the improvements will be evident to everyone.

"Those who initiate change will have a better opportunity to manage the change that is inevitable." - William Pollard

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Pros and Cons of SUMA

I spent four days last week in Saskatoon, attending the annual meeting of the Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association, or SUMA.  This happens every year during the first week of February, alternating between Regina and Saskatoon.  The time is spent mostly in educational sessions, both large and small, as well as in group sessions where various resolutions are proposed and voted on, and winds up with a question and answer session with members of the provincial government.

The greatest value that I've found from SUMA over the years is the time spent networking with colleagues - informal sharing of mutual problems and possible solutions.  Listening to the real-life experiences of other councillors provides ideas that tend to be much more practical than the information provided in the formal program sessions.

One of the problems with SUMA is that its members include everyone from tiny villages to the two big cities.  The problems in a small community that has maybe two stop signs are going to have very little in common with a city like Saskatoon.  The result of this broad range of needs is that the educational sessions tend to be very basic, in order to appeal to as many delegates as possible.

I think that a more practical solution would be to have different associations for the different sizes of communities.  Having one for mid-sized cities would be ideal for Prince Albert - Regina and Saskatoon are at a different scale, and could just meet with each other.  Then the small municipalities - the towns and villages - could be another.  Each could then focus on problems appropriate to their size.

I also don't get much out of the bear-pit session with the provincial politicians.  Anyone who thinks that the politicians available are going to provide some new surprising revelation in response to questions from the floor is rather naive.  In fact, this year, the premier responded to a surprising number of questions that were directed at different ministers, which suggested to me that we were going to be sure to hear the party line.

Prince Albert did get unanimous support for its resolution on mandatory bike helmets, suggesting that most communities understand that provincial legislation is required in order to move forward on matters of this type.  However, we've gotten similar support in the past, without any resulting action from the province, so I would caution against any hope that we'll see legislative change soon.

As I said, I enjoyed the time spent meeting old friends and making new ones, in the time between formal sessions.  And even if the other parts of the meeting could be better, I've found there's always something useful to take away.  The job of city council isn't one where there are a whole lot of learning opportunities out there, so I try to take advantage of all that I can.

"An investment in knowledge pays the best interest." - Ben Franklin