Sunday, November 23, 2014

This Year's Budget Process - Getting Better, Incrementally

Well, we're most of the way through this year's budget process, planning our spending for next year.  Our timing for the public review piece wasn't the best, happening the evening before Remembrance Day - never a good idea to have public meetings the night before a holiday.  Then we had our meetings to go through the budget page by page on the Friday and Saturday of the same week.

This is the first time in my experience that we're this far through the process before the end of the calendar year.  Despite the earliness, the budget documents provided were still more detailed than they have been in the past, which makes for better decision-making.  And getting the process done so early means that the initial tax notices that go out, usually containing an estimate of tax due, will now be final, so that those who prepay before the end of January to take advantage of the slight discount won't have to pay the remainder of their bill in June.

I also found that there was a bit more give and take in the process.  Just because a number had been put in the budget by administration didn't mean that we didn't make changes based on our discussions, which is how it should be.  For example, administration had put in $60,000 for floral decorations.  After some discussion, we knocked $20,000 off that - still higher than I think it should be, but at least it's one-third lower.  I still don't get why some feel that it's good use of taxpayers' money to spend it on something that only lasts for four months of the year, and that has no measurable benefit.  I'd have an easier time adding that money to the fix the waterslides fund - at least that benefits people directly, if for a shorter season.  But in any case, we did discuss the expenditure, and it's not as high as it could have been.

But there is still plenty of room for improvement in the process.  I would like to know why we can't have a standardized format from year to year - every year the information is presented differently, and we have to figure out where things are before getting a handle on what is being proposed.  I would also like to see all of the relevant information in the requests from outside agencies, rather than having to pull information about grants and revenues from a separate document to compare them to the amount of money that is being requested.  As anyone who has browsed through the various budget documents knows, it's a huge amount of paper to wade through and keep organized as discussions progress - any consolidation of information would be welcome.

Another thing that we found out in our meetings was that often, money in previous years has been set aside for capital improvements, but not spent.  If we were to truly adopt zero-based budgeting, then unspent money would be added to money available.  Had we known last year, for example, that money had been set aside in previous years for improvements to Kinsmen Park, but not spent, I would have had no difficulty in moving that money towards waterslide repair.  It would also mean that various departments would have to get better at matching what they can realistically do in a year with their budget requests, to prevent going to the taxpayer before we have to.

We still haven't had the discussion about the final piece - the various flat taxes and levies that have been applied over the years.  Two levies are done this year - the Pineview Terrace levy and the levy for the soccer centre, so we'll have to decide whether to continue these on under different names.  There have been suggestions that the Pineview Terrace levy could be put into a reserve for future health-related expenses.  And I've heard suggestions that the soccer centre levy could continue, to be used as a recreational reserve - we've all heard the requests for a new swimming pool, or a new arena, or $2 million for irrigation for the golf course.

I don't support flat taxes, as I've mentioned before, because they put a larger proportional hit on lower and middle income people - which is most of us.  The soccer centre levy was there before  - called the debt reduction levy - and I have no problem with putting money into reserves, as long as it isn't used to balance the budget after sloppy budget development, as has happened in the past.  But I'm not interested in funding special projects for a relatively small proportion of residents, and figuring out how to pay ongoing costs for new facilities needs to be done before, not after, the construction money has been raised.

So stay tuned - even though the formal budget meetings are done, we still have more to talk about before the final numbers are known.

"Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons." - Woody Allen

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Zoning Changes - We Need a Better Process

You've probably heard Albert Einstein's definition of insanity - doing the same thing over and over, but expecting different results.  One of the agenda items for Monday's council meeting reminds me of that - a zoning change has come before council, after following the usual process for consultation (send letters to residents living within a certain radius about the proposed change), and council chambers will be packed with residents demanding that we turn down this change.  And I won't be surprised if most council members bend to the will of the non-elected people in the room, and follow their wishes.  Applause will follow, the press will dutifully quote happy residents, who will laud those councillors that followed their wishes for understanding how democracy works, and disparage those councillors who had the temerity to make a different decision.

The zoning change in question?  A group home for five young girls is being proposed for a residence on Mahon Drive.  The young girls in question have not been in trouble with the law, but rather are in situations where they cannot live with their families, and are between the ages of thirteen and eighteen - high school girls.  At least one staff member is on site at all times, with two present in the evenings.

I've been receiving phone calls and emails about this since before it came to council.  The surface reason that is being presented is that such a home will be a traffic hazard, and there will be insufficient parking.  Never one to believe everything that people tell me, particularly when they are trying to tell me how I should vote, I went to check the area out.  The neighbourhood is relatively new - every house, including the one being proposed for the home, has a two car garage with a wide driveway.  Sufficient parking, especially for a home in which most of the residents will not have their own vehicles.  In fact, I would bet that most of the current homes have more vehicles than this residence would.  The street itself is not a major thoroughfare, but is a quiet crescent.  The police tell me that it is not an area with a history of traffic accidents.

I get the feeling that residents are talking about parking and traffic safety because those are socially acceptable concerns - they don't want to be accused of being one of the Not In My Back Yard types.  And when they hear the words "group home", they make the leap to half-way house, because they haven't been told anything else - they've been sent a letter - the least efficient form of communication.

I find these meetings where residents crowd council chambers to be an extremely poor way of discussing the issue, because absolutely no discussion takes place.  People with their minds already made up come to tell us what we should do, and either openly or implicitly suggest that if we don't vote their way, they won't vote our way in the next election.  The proponents also have the chance to present, but again, it's not an opportunity for discussion.  And council becomes the awkward guy in the middle, trying to sort out reality from rumour.

The insanity part comes in because this is how we deal with zoning changes - not productive, creates divisions on council and in the community, and decisions are made based on emotion, not fact.  And it's been this way the whole time that I've been on council - people have learned that the best way to get council on side for any proposed change is not to present with solid facts and arguments, but rather, fill council chambers with emotional people, either pro or con.

So, how would I do this differently?  Well, I think that when a proposal comes to administration that is going to require a zoning change, I would require that the proponent hold a public meeting to present their idea to the neighbourhood, well before it comes to council.  And this wouldn't just be for people within a certain radius; it should be widely advertised, so that anyone in the city, as well as members of council, could attend and ask questions.  That's the kind of venue where questions can be asked and answered, and potential issues could either be defused, or ameliorated.  If it was made clear at these meetings just how many extra vehicles were going to be in the neighbourhood, for example, then the argument that there won't be sufficient parking wouldn't be considered more than a red herring.

That way council could make its decision based on hard facts, questions would have been asked and answered, directly to and from the proponents, and council would get out of this middleman position that we've put ourselves into.  In fact, we'd be able to look at things from the perspective of how a change would affect the community as a whole, not just look at it from the viewpoint of a few residents.

And the emotion wouldn't detract from what should be our focus on Monday - public input on the draft budget, which is coming after the council meeting.  Now that's where we should be spending our time - listening to ideas about the budget, not listening to people who are worried about potential new neighbours.

"Somehow, our devils are never quite what we expect when we meet them face to face." - Nelson DeMille

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Bus Subsidy Dilemma

At last week's Executive Committee meeting, the subject of increasing the city's subsidy of bus passes for those on social assistance came up.  One of the problems that I have with Executive Committee meetings as they are currently structured is that we vote on things, the vote is not binding, but it tends to get reported in the media as though it is, causing public outcry as though the decision has been made.  But actually, the final vote will be at the Council meeting this week, and things could always change.

The issue is that the price for the subsidized pass, $15 a month, hasn't increased since 2008, so the proposed increase of $5 a month is making up for six years of increased costs.  It's still a very good deal - $20 for unlimited bus service for a month, but it is also a 25% increase.  The dollar number may seem low, but the percentage increase is more than, for example, the recent rate increase for using city facilities.

I would like more information about the current subsidized usage - how many people take advantage of this opportunity?  Are passes transferable, or is there photo ID on them that limits the usage to one person?  How often does a pass holder use the pass in a month?  If it's only a couple of times, perhaps it would be cheaper for Social Services to provide single use tickets, rather than a pass.

I wish that we had a standard practice for dealing with costs like subsidies and user rates.  I think that it would be preferable to have such things reviewed and increased on an annual basis, rather than our current practice of dealing with increases sporadically.  For one thing, it means that the increases, when they happen, tend to be larger than current inflation rates because we're trying to make up for increased costs over a longer time frame, which is upsetting to people.  For another thing, it means that we're running at a deficit, instead of making sure that rates are adjusted as costs go up.  For sure, the increases to fuel costs alone over the last six years are greater than the proposed $5 increase.

I also wish that other members of council would recognize the incongruity of resisting these increases, but also resisting tax increases.  Someone has to pay for increased costs, and it's going to be either the user or the tax payer.  It's also incongruous to hear some councillors objecting to a bus subsidy increase, because it affects lower income people, but on the other hand supporting flat taxes, which shift more of the tax burden to mid- and lower income residents.

I also wish that the provincial government provided money for public transit, as is the case in other provinces.  I think that encouraging the use of public transit is a broad public good, resulting in less wear and tear on infrastructure, fewer traffic and parking issues, and reduced environmental impact, and it should be directly supported by all levels of government.

As so often happens, there are more questions than answers when we're asked to make a decision, and it's not a simple issue.  The bottom line is that costs for everything go up, and we need to have a consistent approach that recognizes this, and is applied as fairly as possible to all residents.  Of course, getting to such an approach isn't simple either, but I need that we think to look at our problems from this perspective, rather than looking at each problem in isolation - that only seems to lead to inconsistency.

"Giving subsidies is a two-edged sword.  Once given, it's very hard to take a subsidy away." Najib Razak

Sunday, October 19, 2014

User Rate Increases - A Step in the Right Direction, But Not Far Enough

Council has approved fee rate increases for our facilities, except for the golf course, for the coming year, although as always there are those who worry that people will be upset by having to pay marginally more to use city facilities.

I don't share those fears - I think that most people understand that when costs rise, whether for staff or fuel or heating, those cost increases affect how much it costs the city, and those who use city facilities need to pay a share of those costs.

But I did vote against the proposed increase, because I don't think that user fees, as currently calculated, don't include all the true costs of these facilities.

Our target for user fees is that they should cover about 40% of the costs of running the facility, recognizing that a certain proportion of subsidization is reasonable, because having these facilities is a benefit to the city as a whole, not just to those people who actually walk through the doors of the facilities.  Unfortunately, the way this is currently calculated does not include factoring in the costs for long-term maintenance of these facilities, nor does it recognize that different facilities probably have different user costs, but we just do a flat across the board rate increase, and hope that will be sufficient for all.

It's kind of like thinking you can afford a house because you can manage the monthly mortgage payments, but forgetting to budget for such inevitable expenses as a new roof, furnace replacement, new appliances, or painting the wood trim.  A sensible household budget includes setting aside money for such things, so that your budget doesn't run aground when these expenses come up, either as planned expenditures, or in an emergency situation, like if your fridge dies suddenly.

The way it happens now, user fees don't include setting something aside for inevitable costs of maintenance or repair, so the taxpayer ends up having to foot the entire bill for those costs.  If we did have a maintenance reserve fund set up, perhaps we wouldn't have had to keep the waterslides closed this year - we could have funded ongoing maintenance out of a reserve developed by a budgeted piece of the user fee.

The only facility that is an exception to this is the Rawlinson Centre, where one dollar of every ticket sold is put into a reserve intended for capital improvements, such as upgrading the sound system.  Unfortunately, this reserve wasn't kept for its intended purpose, but was used instead to balance the budget, but hopefully with more open financial operations for that facility, this won't happen again.

But it's a good indication of how simple the process can be.  If you can calculate what an appropriate reserve should be for major maintenance expenditures on all our facilities, a flat rate could be added to each ticket from every facility, with a reserve set up that could be used for all facilities.  Another option, although not quite a simple, would be to calculate a sensible reserve for each facility, and figure out what the appropriate surcharge would be on the user fee for that facility.  That method would probably assess the users more fairly, but would be more complicated to administer, which also translates into additional costs for staffing.

I really don't care which method is followed - I just want to see us start thinking more about long-term maintenance of our facilities, and avoid the kind of difficult decisions that have to be made when the cost of fixing is beyond our budget, as happened last spring.

The other anomaly that I would like to avoid in future is this practice of determining user fees before we do the budget.  To me, making financial decisions before the budget process is very much putting the cart before the horse, and it limits our flexibility at budget time.  If during the budget process we find that costs for a certain facility are projected to be greater next year, we've missed our opportunity to add that to the user fee calculation, since I'm quite sure that most members of council won't want to revisit this particular discussion again within the same year.

But I know that change happens in stages.  I'll be happy if next year, administration brings us proposed user fees that include long-term costs, not just the short-term.  I would have no problem in agreeing to that kind of proposal.

"A budget is just a method of worrying before you spend your money, as well as afterward." - Unknown

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Why I Think We Need to Change Executive Committee Meetings

We've had some informal discussion among members of council about possible changes to what we do in Executive Committee meetings, which are held on alternate Mondays from Council Meetings.  While no decisions have been made, I thought that it might be helpful if I were to explain why some of us are thinking that the current format needs to change.

First, Executive Committee hasn't been in place since time immemorial.  Well before my time on council started, council meetings were held weekly.  Council of the day decided that meetings could be held every other week, since much of the preparatory work that was done for council was done in committees.  These committees were made up of various combinations of members of council, and included such committees as finance, parks and recreation, and public works.

This was the practice during my first term on council, and into the second term.  During that second term, we hired a new city manager, who suggested that we could get rid of the committees, and have the matters that were handled by those committees dealt with by all members of council, in what became Executive Committee meeting on alternate Mondays.  For those of us who were on several committees of council, it meant fewer meetings.  It also meant that everybody got to have input on all city matters, rather than having, for example, only a few councillors on the finance committee.

However, with the next mayor and council, and a different city manager, Executive Committee became more of a rehearsal for the actual council meeting, where final decisions are made.  It also became an opportunity for matters to be fully discussed at Executive Committee meetings, which aren't televised, so that the actual vote the following week was rushed through without much public discussion.  In essence, we were meeting twice on the same subjects.

I'm not afraid of work, but I do like my time to be used well, so I've been advocating for a change in Executive Committee for awhile now.  And now, halfway through the term of this council, others are starting to be willing to explore options.

I've been suggesting that Executive Committee use that meeting time for two purposes.  The first would be to have more detailed discussions with staff about new proposals that they are bringing forward, in a less formal setting.  Too often when we ask questions at these meetings, we don't have the time to delve fully into the necessary information, so Executive Committee meetings would be the opportunity for that.  It will mean that staff will have to come prepared for such deeper discussions, and that councillors will have to use the opportunity to ask meaningful questions, not make political points.

I would also suggest that we could use these meetings to vote on items that have previously been discussed, such as projects that have already received budget approval.  That would leave more time at formal Council Meetings to focus our public discussions and decisions on items that haven't yet been approved.

I'm not proposing eliminating Executive Committee meetings, which will be a relief to those who are under the misconception that councillors are paid by the meeting.  I am proposing that when we meet, we should be as productive as possible.

There are those who regard any change as suspicious.  However, I'm a believer that continual improvement means looking at all our processes, and not being afraid to try something new, in the interests of doing things better.  After all, procedural changes, which is all that this would be, are relatively easy to make, and don't cost a lot of money - low risk all round.

"Change is inevitable - except from a vending machine." - Robert C. Gallagher

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Concessions - Business or Service

As part of our digging deeper into budget, for the first time that I can recall, we've seen detailed revenues and expenditures for the various city concessions.  In the past, we've only gotten generalized numbers, without specifics.  As is so often the case, once the details are available, then we can ask better questions, including getting to the basic question of "If we aren't getting a decent return, why are we doing this?"

It's a fundamental question when you're running a business - you run it in order to make a profit.  When it comes to providing a service, well, then it gets trickier - how much should the city be expected to provide to people who visit the Art Hauser Centre, or the soccer centre?

Of course, we don't get the returns from what is generally considered to be the most profitable product - alcohol sales.  The beer sales from the 7th Hole concession cart at the golf course and the Art Hauser Centre go to the tenants - the Golf and Curling Club and the Raiders, respectively.  Those two groups were thinking like businesses, and the city wasn't, when those deals were made.  It's something to remember when we're renegotiating those arrangements.

And we also found out that during the major athletic competitions that Prince Albert hosted last winter, the concessions weren't always open to take advantage of potential business - hard to make money when you're not open, and it also makes people less reliant on the service, if it's not going to be something they can count on.  In fact, it seems to be common knowledge that it's often faster to go to Timmy's during hockey intermissions than to line up at the concession - and the coffee is better too.

One councillor suggested that we should look at concessions as a service provided by the city, not as a profit generator.  If that's the case, then we should do a couple of things.  First, we should pare down the offerings to the basics, and to products that have a long shelf life, so that we don't lose additional money throwing out perishables that haven't sold.  That would keep our costs down.  Second, if a concession is a service, then let's add a portion of the cost to user fees, since it would be a part of the service provided by the facility.

On the other hand, if it's going to be a revenue generator, let's have it run more like a business - open during prime money-making times, closed when it doesn't pay.  Again, limit the choices, to reduce the costs.  And let's improve the speed of service, so that people don't feel that it's better to go off-site.

I am glad that we've finally seen the numbers, even if the results are disappointing.  And now that our eyes have been opened, and we have the facts, let's decide why we do things, before we decide on how.

"More business is lost through neglect than through any other cause." - Rose Kennedy


Sunday, September 21, 2014

Questioning the Importance of Questions

At last week's council meeting, council voted to remove the public inquiry portion of council meetings.  I'm not sure what the impetus was for this - I know that some councillors thought that it was taking up too much time on the council agenda - sometimes as much as half an hour.  And some felt that other councillors misused the opportunity, bringing up a lengthy list of micromanaging questions, possibly with the hope of moving these things up on the list of getting things done.

I didn't vote with the majority on this one, and two fellow councillors were also in opposition.  I believe that our reasons were similar - public inquiries is a good place to raise questions that have been raised with us, in the interests of educating both our fellow council members and the general public.  For instance, a few years back, I had a question that I raised during the public portion of the meeting, about the number of homes in Prince Albert that still had lead water service connections.  Not only did this make many people aware of this potential health hazard, it also led to the development of a program to assist people in having these connections replaced, and to guidelines for how to keep your drinking water safe if you do live in one of these homes.

The direction now is that members of council are to direct their inquiries to the city manager, who will then direct them to the appropriate department.  However, this doesn't let other councillors know about an issue that may also interest them (unless we choose to bury ourselves in emails cc'd to everybody), and more importantly, it leaves out the public education piece.  It also slows the process down - if a question is raised at council, the appropriate department head is made aware of it right away, rather than having it filtered through the extra level of bureaucracy.

If there was an issue with too much time being spent at council meetings on these questions, I can think of a couple of ways we could have reduced the time without removing the entire process.  Providing guidelines to councillors about what is appropriate for public inquiries would be one way - specific questions about details on when, for example, a worrisome tree on a boulevard is going to be removed are not of general interest, and can be dealt with outside the public process.  Councillors need to remember that our job isn't to micromanage project priorities, or tell staff how to do their jobs.  If a constituent calls with a question, a councillor's job is to find the answer, not to get the job moved higher on the priority list.

Limiting questions to the public council meeting, rather than having them raised in all three forums (council, executive and committee of the whole) would also save time, as would limiting each councillor to the number of questions at each meeting, or perhaps having questions at alternate meetings, as we do now with public forum.

I would rather we had explored some options for solving the perceived problem, rather than just abolishing completely the idea of raising questions publicly.  Most of us talked about improving transparency with city business when we were asking for people's support in the last election - now we have taken away one of our tools for transparency, which I'm sure is disappointing to more people than just me and two other members of council.

"The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge." - Thomas Berger