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