Sunday, May 29, 2016

Should Convenience Trump Fairness?

A contingent of seniors came to Executive Committee last week, to bolster a letter that had been sent by one of their representatives.  What prompted the letter was a decision made by Council a few weeks ago about the polls that will be set for this fall's municipal election.

It started when the City Clerk brought a proposal for where polling stations should be to Council several weeks ago.  The proposal removed one polling station from each of Wards One, Three and Four, leaving those wards with just one poll each, and reduced the special polling stations from the high rises in Ward Two from three to two, meaning that Ward Two would have four polls.  The other wards remained the same, at two polling stations each.

This first proposal was discussed at length, with some of us wondering what the criteria are for the special polls in high rises.  It turns out that there aren't any - these polls were set up many years ago, as a convenience for the residents of those buildings, most of whom are seniors.

I want to be clear that we aren't talking about care homes here.  The people who live in the buildings that are used to this convenience are all living independently, able to get about on their own - each building has its own parking lot, which implies a certain mobility.  But there are many buildings like this all over the city, where we expect the seniors to be able to get out to vote - and they do.  And for individuals who still live in their own homes, but aren't mobile enough to get out to a poll, mobile polls can always be arranged - I've helped to arrange such polls in the past for residents of my ward.

So we asked the City Clerk to check what is required by the Cities Act - the legislation that governs how we do things.  And she came back with a proposal that was then approved by Council - no special polls in any ward, two polls in most wards, one poll in each of Wards One and Three.  And that's what Council approved.

For whatever reason, this decision got no media coverage whatsoever.  However, residents of the buildings affected were informed by someone that they were going to be losing the convenience that they have enjoyed for several years, so a letter was written, and several of them came to Executive Committee to try to sway Council.

I'm not sure what they expected - Executive Committee does not pass motions.  What we could have done was voted to move the matter to the next council meeting.  We did not, as the matter had already been discussed at length.

I understand being upset at losing a privilege that you've enjoyed for years.  I can appreciate how pleasant it must be to vote without having to put on a coat, or even shoes.  But I'm also aware that Council needs to be fair to the residents of the city as a whole, and providing this special privilege to the people who live in three buildings (although there were some in the crowd who wanted to add one more building, that is also in Ward Two) is not fair to all city residents.

What about other buildings in the city who also are home to seniors?  It's interesting to note that some of those who purport to speak for seniors are actually only speaking for the seniors in these particular buildings in Ward Two.  Nobody is advocating for this privilege for the seniors who live in the Molstad Homes, or Abbeyfield Place, or Connaught Village, or others.

And of course, having a poll doesn't happen for free.  According to the City Clerk's office, the cost of having a poll ranges between $2,500 and $3,000, depending on the number of staff required.  If we gave the seniors who came to the meeting to protest what they asked for, that's $10,000 minimum added cost to the election, which is, of course, paid for by all tax-payers.  Not a lot in a multi-million dollar budget, I agree, but I've spent most of my time on council trying to get rid of the unfair subsidies that seem to be part of a way of life in this city, and I'm not about to close my eyes to $10,000.

It gets even costlier if you try to accommodate all seniors living in similar situations.  I estimate that there are about twenty buildings that would meet the same criteria as the current buildings.  Now we're up to $50,000 minimum.  Is it starting to look ridiculous yet?

The senior who wrote the letter seems to feel that a valid reason for continuing the subsidy is because it's been the practice for so long.  Her logic seems to be that if you have a leaky pipe, you might as well just let it keep on leaking.  Unfortunately, I know that there are some members of council who feel that you're treading on dangerous  ground if you take away something that people have enjoyed.  Sadly, they're thinking about what might affect them politically, not what is the best thing to do for the city.  And I can think of plenty of examples where we no longer provide services that we used to - we no longer mow boulevards, but expect residents to do that.  We no longer pick up residents's garbage from individual cans, often carrying them from back yards to the street in front, but instead expect residents to roll out their own garbage bins (and don't pick them up if they contain something that they shouldn't).  We've done those things to save money, and removing polls where they're not required is just another one of those cost-saving measures.

I do know that the removal of the poll from East End Hall is taking away a poll that has been there probably for longer than the high rise polls have been in place, and that it will be an added inconvenience for those in my ward who now have to travel further to vote.  But I respect Council's decision, and I know that we're meeting our legal requirements.

Perhaps this is a sign that we should be looking at ways to make voting more convenient for everybody.  I'm specifically thinking of on-line voting.  If the census can be filled out on-line (and we got the long form, which threw Andrea for a bit, but she managed to do it within the required time frame), we should be able to figure out a way to vote securely on-line.  That would make it more convenient for everybody, and also might attract the demographic that is currently under-represented - young people.  Fair and cost-effective - that's what we should be looking for, not continuing special privileges for a few people, paid for by the rest of us.

"What is right is often forgotten by what is convenient." - Bodie Thoene

Sunday, May 15, 2016

When is Flying a Flag Appropriate?

The biggest news around City Hall this past week was the attention drawn to the flag that was raised on Monday, for Celebrate Life Week.  The week is intended to call attention to the pro-life side of the ongoing abortion debate.  To say that this is a contentious issue, with strong emotions on both sides, is understating things.

The policy for flags to be flown in Memorial Square is pretty straight-forward - proclamations like this one, that are divisive or politically contentious, or that have a religious basis, are supposed to come to council for a decision.  This didn't happen for this situation, perhaps because the flag has been flown for several years, without ever receiving approval from council.

Personally, I don't think that most people are aware of what flags may or not fly in front of City Hall on any given day.  But this one, this year, caught the eye of a couple of young women, who wondered, rightly, why the city would consider it the right thing to do to endorse one side or the other of such an emotional debate.  So in the rain, they stood, holding signs in protest, planning a larger protest later in the week.  When we saw the picture in the paper, we realized that one of the people is a friend of our daughter's - not really a surprise, as her friends are young people who are not afraid to stand up for what they believe in.

The arguments coming out of City Hall in defence have been rather pathetic.  First, there's the old excuse of we've done this for years.  At one point, the blame was placed on newcomers to town - almost how dare people come here and point out the folly of our ways.  There was the popular defence of freedom of speech. But the weakest was probably that flying the flag doesn't mean support, we just fly the flag of anyone who asks.

That last argument is ridiculous.  Flags are symbols of support.  It's easy to come to the conclusion that a flag flown in front of City Hall, along with the Canadian, Saskatchewan and Prince Albert flags, means that the city supports the pro-life side of the debate.

On Thursday, there was a noon-hour rally at Memorial Square that I attended, for a couple of reasons.  I support the young ladies who were brave enough to bring this to public attention, and I agree with them.  I think that abortion is a matter of personal choice, and I don't think that it's anyone's right to tell anyone else what to do in such a difficult situation.  Legislative changes made it a legal option more than thirty years ago, and it's not appropriate for City Hall to enter the debate.

Some of the bravely anonymous comments on various web-sites have likened this flag to the flag that we fly every year during Gay Pride week.  After all, there are people who have difficulty with the idea of extending equal rights to people with different sexual orientations.  However, it is different, because in that case, we're speaking out against discrimination, and saying that, as a city, we don't believe in that kind of discrimination.  As well, the Gay Pride flag isn't trying to get anyone to change their sexual orientation - those supporters are just asking that people be more aware of the discrimination that they face in living their lives, and do what they can to change that.

So what should the city do when a group approaches us to fly their flag?  Well, I think that following our policy would be a good start.  I also think that we should identify when a flag is likely to give the impression that something has broad endorsement when it doesn't.  Some flags will be easy to agree to - Anti-Racism Week, Heart and Stroke Month, the Cancer Society's Daffodil flag during April - those are causes that the city supports.

And also, when someone points out that what we're doing is offensive, stop making excuses.  There's nothing wrong with admitting that a mistake has been made, and taking action to fix that mistake.  That on its own would have prevented some embarrassing headlines this past week.

"The endorsement process is an evolution.  You endorse someone that you believe in, whose ideas and solutions align with yours." - Herman Cain

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Putting the Golf Cart Before the Horse

At Executive Committee last Monday we were asked to approve a proposal for a ten-year Asset Management Plan for repairs and upgrades at the golf course, including $2 million to replace the irrigation system.  Once approved, this would be followed by a financial plan for how this all would be paid for.

You might have thought, as I did, that this is the sort of thing that should have been raised during budget proceedings, rather than being brought for approval in the middle of the year.  I mean, we're not talking insignificant amounts, and these needs should have been known last year.  Putting it before Council now, and claiming that it's now urgent, is poor planning, in my opinion.

I was also amazed by the statement by one member of council - that the golf course makes money for the city.  For the record, it returns no money to city revenues.  It does claim to be self-sufficient, but its financial tracking is murky - I know that in the past Parks would buy equipment that would later turn out to be used exclusively by the golf course.  This kind of convoluted financial figuring makes one suspicious.  And, of course, like other civic facilities, it doesn't pay for its water usage, which means that $90,000 yearly is spent watering the greens with drinkable water, and this plan didn't include anything that indicated that they were intending to change this wasteful practice.

And to be quite  honest, a golf course is not something that only the city can provide.  I do not golf myself, but Guthrie occasionally golfs with his buddies, and they don't go to Cooke - they go to one of the private golf courses just outside the city.  This tells me that a golf course doesn't need to rely on taxpayers' money to survive.  Now I can just hear golfers getting worked up - those smaller courses don't provide the level of golfing that they like.  I don't dispute that; I just think that they should not expect the taxpayer to subsidize the minority of city residents that golf at Cooke.

And golfing at Cooke is not for lower income residents.  The basic green fee, according to the city website (which still was using 2015 rates) was $51.00 - no wonder Guthrie goes elsewhere.  Annual memberships can run into the thousands.  But that seems to be how we do things - we want to provide residents with "world class" facilities, but we don't expect them to pay full freight.

And then to expect us to approve this plan, before we have any idea how it will be financed - well, that's the corner we're too often backed into - we approve something before we know all the costs, then have to go to the taxpayer afterward to pay the bills.  Let's start acting responsibly, try living within our means, and stop subsidizing those who can afford to pay for their own recreational preferences.

"You'll  never out-earn your bad habits and stupidity.  You have to change your habits and get smart with your money." - Mary Hunt

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Another Levy with No Clear Purpose

Last Monday, council approved a new bylaw that will allow the city to charge hotels a Destination Marketing Levy, with the levy varying based on the value of the property.  This is not to be confused with the former voluntary destination marketing fee that had no connection to the city, but which was paid to the Destination Marketing Board, which was intertwined with the Tourism Board and the Borealis Music Festival in ways that were never made completely public - that voluntary fee no longer exists, and of course, the money in that fund is long gone.

This levy is, of course, just a new tax with a different name.  I have a few problems with this new tax.  For one thing, I don't think that adequate consultation was done, either with the businesses affected or with council as a whole.  If we're as transparent as we said we were going to be four years ago, then there should have been much more open discussion about the options before it came to council for a decision.

Another problem that I have is that we have no real plan for the money.  It will just go into a special fund, allegedly for attracting large events.  As if this wasn't vague enough, the actual use will be decided, according to the city manager, by a special committee established for that purpose.  Who will be on that committee, and what its parameters will be, has not been determined, or if it has, it hasn't been shared with council as a whole.  It joins another levy, this one paid for by all residents through their taxes, that started out to pay for the construction of the soccer centre.  That use is done, but the money is still being collected and saved, for no apparent purpose.

My preference would be, when we set up these special funds, that they're identified as being for a specific purpose, and when that purpose is met, we stop collecting the money.  My fear is that, once a significant amount has accumulated in one of these special funds, one or more special interest groups will come to council, crowd the chambers, and we'll end up putting the money towards another facility that in the long run, will cost the city far more in ongoing operating and maintenance costs, whether it be a new arena, swimming pool, golf course improvement, or some other structure that some people think will be the magic bullet that will attract new businesses and residents to the city, but will just be added to the list of facilities that can't pay their own way, and that the city is expected to make up any shortfalls.

You would think that we would learn from past mistakes.  But it seems that every time, we go down the same path, and are surprised when taxpayers are annoyed by our inability to change our ways.  As well they should, since it's their money that we're so fast to find different ways of collecting and spending.

"When a new source of taxation is found, it never means, in practice, that the old source is abandoned.  It merely means that the politicians have two ways of milking the taxpayer where they had one before." - H. L. Mencken