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