Sunday, February 28, 2016

More Budget Fun

On Tuesday council has a full day of budget discussions planned.  This may come as a surprise to those who think that we passed the budget before Christmas, but this is a separate piece.  Or three pieces, to be more accurate.  We'll be discussing the water, sanitation and airport budgets.  These are kept separate because some of their funding doesn't come from tax revenues, but from direct fees - things like the sanitation fees on your water bill, landfill charges, and airport fees.

The original plan was to meet to discuss these budgets in January, but the departure of the director and assistant director of finance meant that the meeting had to be delayed for several weeks.

Regrettably, council never seems to want to dig into these budgets too deeply, or to see where efficiencies could be found.  Similarly, administration has been reluctant to make any changes to what is brought before council - when I raise possible changes, the usual response is that they will look at my suggestion, but somehow, the next year, things remain the same.

For example, for several years now I have suggested that we change the way that we pick up yard waste.  Right now, there is a special truck that requires three guys who then drive up and down back alleys and streets looking for clear plastic bags, on no set schedule.  In fact, this past year, they got so far behind that they had to go out on a weekend to make their pick-ups - on overtime, of course.  I have suggested that we move to a service that would use the same trucks as are used for garbage and recycling.  People who want this service could then subscribe, routes could be developed, and the single use truck that requires three guys could be sold.  By doing this, a service that right now costs about $150,000 a year could pay for itself, by having the users pay, not be subsidized by everybody else.  Saskatoon has adopted this exact way of dealing with yard waste.

After several years of making this suggestion, nobody at administration has told me that it won't work.  One councillor has told me that you can't take away services, but that's just so much bull puckey.  Many of us have had the way we get our mail delivered changed just this past year, and survived, and garbage pick-up has evolved over the years from individual cans to back alley dumpsters to individual roll-out bins to separating garbage and recycling.  No way of delivering a city service is set in stone, and we should always be looking at ways to improve our efficiency.

And it isn't just suggestions that have been ignored - this council made a motion three years ago that water billing be done monthly.  It was supposed to happen in 2014.  It hasn't happened yet.  Nobody on administration has bothered to tell us why they are ignoring a direction from council, and I can't help but feel that isn't how it should work.

I look at every budget as an opportunity to plan for the future.  For instance, why aren't we planning to replace all back alley dumpsters with individual bins for each family, and setting out a schedule and required budget to do this?  Both council and administration need to be less satisfied with the status quo - heaven knows one of the things everyone who runs for council talks about is the need for change, but once on council, the urgency for change seems to fade.  It shouldn't - it's the only way to move forward.

"Budget - a mathematical confirmation of your suspicions." - A.A. Latimer

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Cultural Conversations

I spent this past Thursday in Saskatoon, attending the Municipal Cultural Planning Workshop.  I thought that this was a good use of my time, since Prince Albert is currently in the process of trying to develop a cultural plan, and this day offered not just theories on how to do this from a consultant, but actual case histories from Maple Creek and Humboldt.

The premise of cultural planning is that culture is an integral part of a community, and is essential in building healthy, attractive communities.  We also have to recognize that a healthy culture doesn't just happen - as a city, planning and development has to consider the impacts of decisions, both good and bad, on a community's culture.

When we think about culture, we often think in terms of the arts - concerts, art galleries, theatre.  But this workshop emphasized that culture is much broader than that - culture includes not just those traditional concepts, but also includes recreational and entertainment opportunities, social gathering opportunities, open and accessible public spaces, and even safe, affordable housing options.  Using that perspective, one can see that Prince Albert already has a very diverse culture, with a good variety of sports facilities, art galleries, concert and theatre venues, and parks.  What we need to do now is look at a couple of things - more equitable distribution of these cultural opportunities, and how to ensure that the city is spending its money most efficiently and effectively.

The consultant that conducted the workshop was probably one of the worst public speakers that I've ever heard, but fortunately the case studies were well-presented, and I found the one from Humboldt the most informative part of the session, and probably the example with the best potential to be applied to Prince Albert.

What Humboldt has done is to list all of the services that the city provides - everything from street paving and water treatment to sports facility subsidies, and ranked them according to how valuable they are to the community.  They then use this ranking to set priorities for funding.  This seems fairly straight forward - some things are legislated requirements, like zoning or record-keeping, but some things are more optional, so setting their value is more subjective.  This is how they're starting their new budget process - everything is looked at, and has a value attached to it.

I'm not saying that this kind of decision-making is easy.  If you have a very vocal minority that is willing to speak up and complain if their favourite activity is going to be reduced, or have the user fees increased, that can certainly complicate the process.  But I think that setting core values for what the community should provide helps to make those decisions.

I've been advocating for this kind of budgeting for years - it's quite different from our practice of assuming that we continue with whatever we're doing, then add new things.  Rarely do we evaluate what we're currently doing, and make changes there.  You may recall the fuss a few years ago when I asked what we were spending on floral decorations, because the assumption from administration was that we would just continue to spend what turned out to have been $40,000 annually, for a total of $240,000 over the previous six years.  We could instead have put that money into waterslide maintenance, saving the community from a year without waterslides - that's what happens when you don't look at the whole picture when setting priorities, and when you assume that just because you're doing something now, you have to continue doing it forever.

I will once again be pushing for this kind of budgeting, and I would expect each department to look at their spending not from the perspective of what more can we spend money on, but from the perspective of what is the value to the community of what we're spending money on.  And we have to look at the community as a whole, not just certain segments that have enjoyed more services over the years.  For a community to have a healthy cultural component, everyone has to benefit, not just a select few.

"Culture is the interaction of people and life itself.  It's how we deal with life, love, death, birth, disappointment...all of that is expressed in culture." - Wendell Pierce

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Thoughts on the Juried Art Show

It's Winter Festival season, and one of the first events, as usual, was the Juried Art Show, held this past Friday evening.  As I'm currently deputy mayor, I had the chance to attend to represent council.  I've often had this opportunity, and every time I'm impressed by the wide variety of pieces and by the impressive quality of the entries.  I also enjoy the chance to talk to some of the artists, as well as with the many people from the community who show up to enjoy the evening.

Well over two hundred artists submitted entries, in pretty much every medium you could imagine - paint, pottery, photography, fabric, yarn - and some you might not, with some entries using such material as old pipes and other recycled items.  That this variety of artwork could be organized and hung in a relatively short time frame speaks volumes about both the curator and the gallery staff and the hard work that has obviously been put into this show.

Events like the Juried Art Show also reflect that artistic appreciation is a purely individual thing.  The adjudicator does hand out awards, but there is also the People's Choice Award, which reflects the opinion of those in attendance.  In matters of art, there is no hard and fast right or wrong.

One of the things that I like most about art is its accessibility to everyone.  You don't have to have a particular level of skill to participate, and there are so many different media to explore that even if you can't draw a straight line with a ruler, you can probably create something using a different medium that you can be proud of.  Prince Albert has many opportunities for you to explore your artistic side, with the Arts Centre offering classes for all ages in drawing, painting, pottery and other art forms from many talented individuals.  And art is something that can be done throughout your life, getting better and better the more you do.

The Mann Art Gallery has put a great deal of effort into bringing arts awareness to the community, offering various courses for both children and adults, often with a theme of exploration, allowing participants to find out areas that they enjoy, and broadening their experiences.

The city supports the Arts Centre and the Mann Art Gallery, of course, and other places where artistic efforts are important, like the Rawlinson Centre and the JMC library.  Proportionally, we subsidize athletic venues like the Art Hauser Centre, the fieldhouse, skating rinks, and the golf course far more than the venues focused on artistic endeavours.  That's something to remember when new facilities are being proposed - we need to balance the services that we offer our citizens, ensuring that there are opportunities for the wide range of interests of all citizens, not favouring certain sectors over others.

"Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time." - Thomas Merton

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Lead Elephant in the Room

The local paper ran an opinion piece by one of its reporters this past week, in which he outlined his concerns about the continuing problem that the city has - that several hundred (at least) homes in the city still have lead water service connections, and that the assistance program that the city used to offer to help with their replacement is no longer available.  Then the next day, there was a letter from the councillor for the ward in which the reporter lives, which seemed to link street-oiling to lead water pipes (no connection), and suggested that the program had been dropped because my experience with it had been daunting.

So I thought that I would clarify my experience, and outline some things that the city should be doing, financial assistance or no financial assistance.

First, I agree with the premise of the column.  That this city still has unsafe water going to some of its residents is disgraceful and embarrassing.  That's bad enough, but the city does a terrible job of tracking this, or of informing residents of the problem, and what can be done about it.

Several years ago, when I first became aware of the problem, we were told that about a thousand homes were affected.  That's still the number that the city uses, and seven years have passed.  It would be helpful, and is totally within our capabilities, to keep a total of the number of houses that still have these connections, and track and report on when they are replaced.

When the pipes on a street are replaced, we fix the lead service connection on the city's side.  It is the homeowner's responsibility to replace the connections inside the house.  It would be simple matter to inform the residents on a street that this would be their opportunity to get their side fixed, but that doesn't happen, even though I have suggested this to administration.

We did have an assistance program several years ago that provided homeowners with $2000 to help with the costs of replacing the pipes on their property, and I was able to take advantage of that.  The worst part of getting the job done was finding a contractor willing to dig up just my yard - I found out about the lead service connection in 2008, the work was finally done in 2012.  But if an entire street was being done, perhaps that would make it more attractive to a contractor.

To me, this is the kind of thing that council should provide leadership on.  As a city council, we don't have control over much.  Our only source of revenue is property taxes.  And yet, there is much talk about plans to attract new business and industry, or new airlines.  How about instead we talk about how to improve the living conditions of the people who already live here - setting a plan to get all streets paved, and ensuring that all homes have safe drinking water - those things are totally within our control.  Instead, we think that building new and better recreational facilities that end up costing taxpayers more and more money is what will make this city great.

We're wrong.  We need to focus on the fundamentals, on what we can control.  That means keeping streets and sidewalks in good repair, providing safe drinking water, plowing streets in the winter, and ensuring that residents feel safe.

Oh, and if we wanted to bring back the assistance program for replacing lead water service connections?  At $2,000 per household, multiplied by the estimated 1000 homes - that's 2 million dollars - the same amount that one councillor is proposing that we spend on a new irrigation system for the golf course.  I know where my priorities are.  Sadly, I don't think that all members of council share these priorities.

"Excellence is achieved by the mastery of the fundamentals." - Vince Lombardi