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