Sunday, July 19, 2015

Another Big Screen TV on the Horizon

A few years ago I compared the way the city spent money to a household that spends its money impulsively on toys like big screen televisions, then is surprised when there is no money to fix the roof.  I was referring to our collective fondness to load up on recreational facilities at the expense of the boring and mundane business of maintaining basic infrastructure.

The last big example of this was the soccer centre - built without any idea of how much it would cost to run.  But we have other such facilities - the Rawlinson Centre, the waterslides, the Art Hauser Centre.  All of these are great facilities, I agree.  I also know that they cost the city ever-increasing amounts of money to run and maintain, and we have a reluctance to go into those potentially unpleasant details, not just in the deciding stage, but also after the fact.  Just think of how long it took to get reports of where and how much the Rawlinson Centre was costing us on an annual basis.

And then when we have a situation like we did last year, when the waterslides had to be closed because they hadn't been maintained, people are shocked, and expect council to wave some kind of a magic wand to make the necessary money appear.  We don't have a magic wand - we can only raise taxes, which isn't a popular move either.

So one of my constant refrains has been that before we decide to move ahead on any of these wonderful wants (not needs) we need to know what the long-term cost is going to be, and how it's going to be covered.  Hand in hand with that, we need to have a plan that sets out priorities for development, so that the framework for the decision is already there, making the process clear and defensible.

However, rumours are always out there, about the next great thing - I'm sure you've heard about the Olympic-sized swimming pool, or the new hockey rink.

Last week, we were presented with a proposal for a beach volleyball court.  The idea from the group of adults proposing this (yes, this time they won't be able to bring in a bunch of kids to sway our emotions), is that it would be located up by the soccer centre (able to take advantage of the free parking and the washrooms), and the city would, as always, pay for the ongoing operations and maintenance.  Apparently they've raised half the money for construction, but want the city to commit to this before they raise the other half.

I understand that it would be nice to have the city pick up the tab so that a group can indulge in their favourite summer time activity.  But, just as with the soccer centre, there's a tendency to overestimate the use this facility would get, and the potential benefit to the city as a whole.  I'm particularly wary of the hype about bringing in tournaments, since we were promised that with the soccer centre, but not a single tournament has occurred over the last five years.

Not only do we need to have priorities set, we need to decide, as a community, what our capacity is for maintaining recreational facilities.  We need to be realistic about the unfortunate fact that the costs of running things never seem to go down, but only up.  There needs to be some onus on the users of these facilities to contribute more to their upkeep - people seem to feel that it's sufficient to donate to build a new facility, but I haven't noticed too many fund-raising campaigns to pay to keep the lights on and the power running.

It's all a matter of living within our means, and part of that is identifying the whole cost of the opportunities that are presented to us - just like when you buy a house, it's not the purchase price that is the limitation, it's the ongoing maintenance.  Otherwise, you end up with a leaky roof.

"It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him."  J.R.R. Tolkien

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Things I'd Like People to Stop Saying about the Downtown

I was at a meeting a couple of weeks ago with the Downtown Business Improvement District people.  I came home from the meeting thinking that there are a few phrases that are repeated at every meeting, and I'd be quite happy if these could be avoided in the future, because the constant repetition isn't moving us forward, or helping find solutions.

The first is that downtown is the heart of the city.  That may have been true once, but it isn't any more.  To me, the heart of a community is a place where most people go, and I know that there are many people who rarely go downtown, and more who go downtown only because they work there.  You can get by very well without setting foot on Central Avenue north of Fifteenth Street - most shopping and banking is now located elsewhere.  Thirty years ago Central Avenue had three grocery stores and five banks.  Today there is one bank, and no grocery stores.  It doesn't mean that downtown can't thrive - you don't have to be the heart of a city to still be pretty nice.

Another thing that is often said is that we need to have some kind of attraction downtown that will cause people coming from Saskatoon and heading to the lakes to take a detour.  In fact, this idea is often refined to specify that we need to have some kind of water-type attraction.  I'm not sure that this will ever work, for a couple of reasons.  When we were at FCM in Niagara Falls last year, it was quite clear that one of the most amazing water attractions in the world wasn't enough to give that town a thriving downtown.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  The Fallsview area of town was full of people, but the downtown had the same problems that most small town downtowns have - empty storefronts, vacant lots, and not many people.

As for getting people heading to the lakes to stop - they do.  I see recreational vehicles and boats in tow in the Safeway parking lot every Friday morning in the summer.  I see people fueling their vehicles at several gas stations along Second Avenue West.  People stop for their needs, but their objective is getting to the lake as quickly as possible - they're not interested in detours.  I wish that we would focus more on getting the people who live here to come downtown - despite the oft-repeated misconception that there's no sense in trying to do anything in the summer, since everybody goes to the lakes.  I'm one that doesn't, and I think that we should cultivate opportunities for the residents that don't have the wherewithal or desire to go elsewhere in the summer.  There's a potential market with a greater chance of success.

And finally, I think that we look at downtown through too narrow a lens.  It's often said that we need more people living downtown, and those who say that are looking just at Central Avenue.  I prefer to think of downtown as including the surrounding neighbourhoods - to Sixth Avenue on the east and Second Avenue on the west.  If we broaden our lens to include this larger area, all of a sudden we see that there are a lot of people who live downtown.  Instead of focusing improvements on Central Avenue, how much more attractive would these neighbourhoods be if we started improving their amenities - paving streets, fixing sidewalks, adding more green space.  Face it - new light standards on Central Avenue don't make a bit of difference to the people that we want to head there instead of somewhere else.

But if we look at making this larger area more attractive, you will get more people living here, and people living closer to downtown businesses will be more likely to patronize those businesses.  More people being active and visible in an area will result in the area becoming more attractive to others, and feeling safer when they're there.

Improvement to the downtown area isn't going to happen by trying to go backwards, and bringing back all of the businesses that used to be there.  It isn't going to happen by finding a single magic bullet that will suddenly bring hordes of people to the downtown, who will then be so inspired that they will spend all their money there, and change their vacation plans.  But if we make the downtown a more attractive place for the people who live there, the changes that we're looking for will happen incrementally.

There are, of course, no guarantees.  We also need to look at taking more risks, trying new things.  Any real change requires risk, of course.  The irony is that we're far more prone to trying to bring back ideas that worked in the past, even though all the evidence shows that the risk of failure from that sort of approach is higher than trying new things.

So I'm proposing to follow the advice Don Draper gave on Mad Men - if you don't like what people are saying, change the conversation.  Let's change the way we talk about improving the downtown, and maybe we'll start to see the first small signs of change.

"Tradition is a guide, and not a jailer." - W. Somerset Maugham




Sunday, June 28, 2015

Some Thoughts on the Latest Park Proposal

One of the items at last week's meeting was a proposal from the Anavets to develop the space at the southeast corner of 11th Street and Central Avenue.  This spot, which has been vacant for several years since a fire destroyed the building on the site, has been used for a number of things in the intervening years - a hot dog stand, an ice cream stand, and the occasional barbecue.  For the last several years, it's been unused and unmaintained.

It belongs to the city.  A few years ago, we had a couple of people show interest in developing the lot, but unfortunately the selected bidder never followed through with his proposal, and there's been no interest since, although I'm not sure if we've put much effort into advertising the opportunity.

Enter the Anavets, who are thinking about putting in a funding request to the federal government for a special projects grant to develop a park to honour veterans in the space.  I'm not sure how much of a grant they are requesting, but they have suggested that the city could donate the land, valued at $42,000.

It's always difficult to be critical of these proposals - parks are positive things, veterans deserve to be honoured, we need more ideas about how to beautify the downtown - all of these factors can make it difficult to speak up about the potential downside of such proposals.  But that makes it all the more important to do so at an early stage.

To start with, we already have a park to honour veterans downtown.  It's right in front of City Hall, and it's why that area is called Memorial Square.  I think that it could use some improvements, but to me it makes more sense to coordinate efforts and to focus on improving this area, which could include adding whatever elements the Anavets are proposing.  The benches that were removed from around the fountain a few years ago, at the time the western premiers were meeting in the city (presumably so that they wouldn't have to look out on people using the area) are still in the City Yards, and could be reinstalled.  The idea of having additional flagstaffs so that flags could be lowered at the association's discretion could certainly be accommodated within this space.

Parks are costly to maintain.  I only have to give the example of the difficulty that we have in maintaining Kinsmen Park to demonstrate that.  And while I'm sure that the Anavets have the best of intentions to take care of their proposed park, I know that it can be difficult to keep up the level of maintenance required when you rely on volunteer help.

The city cannot afford to give away land.  It sets a dangerous precedent, and we have to remember that we are only the stewards of city assets, not the owners.  Far better if this land is redeveloped as a business that would generate taxes, than left as an open green space that, unfortunately, is likely to become a repository for garbage and needles.

I appreciate the interest of the Anavets in increasing our awareness of the importance of honouring our veterans.  However, I would rather see our efforts concentrated on improving the space and amenities that are currently dedicated for that purpose, and working on increasing viable business opportunities where it makes sense.

"Parks are idealizations of nature, but nature in fact is not a condition of the ideal." - Robert Smithson

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Tax That Never Seems to End

Several years ago, when I was first on council, one of the separate taxes in the tax bill was called the Debt Elimination Levy.  Its purpose was just as it said - to eliminate outstanding city debt.  That was three mayors ago.

Two mayors ago, once the debt was eliminated, the levy morphed to pay for the improvements to the Art Hauser Centre - remember Bring Back the Magic?  That's the problem with those campaigns where the public is asked to pledge money - while the money is being collected, which is some cases happens over years, the work is started, and somebody has to pay.  Of course, that somebody is the city, being used like a credit card so that we can buy now and pay later.

Then came another mayor, and the soccer centre.  Before the Art Hauser payments were complete, the purpose of the levy was changed again, this time to pay the construction costs for the soccer centre.  At least at this point, 2008, I convinced the other members of council that the levy should be identified as such, so that it appears on your tax notice as Capital Projects - Fieldhouse and Wellness Centre. Again, it was like a loan, so that those members of the public who had pledged money could take years to pay it off, but in the meantime, the facility would be built.

And now we come to today, and another mayor.  And apparently, the construction of the soccer centre is now completely paid for.  And yet, the levy lingers on - although not at council's direction.  Apparently, we're just continuing to collect the money, without identifying why.

I'm quite surprised at the lack of information surrounding the use of this money.  Administration has not been able to tell me exactly when the levy changed from being for the soccer centre to just being for Capital Projects. Nor do they seem to know how much of the project ended up actually being paid for by those who pledged money, since a proportion of those who pledge money often end up not being able to fulfil those pledges.  That kind of information would be very useful, especially if we decide to go down this path of building new facilities in the future.

So that's why I made a bit of a stink about it at last week's meeting.  It is not administration's job to decide the continuation of taxes - that enviable job belongs with council.  It is not administration's job to decide where that money should go - that too belongs with council.  It is administration's job to track the ins and outs of the money, just as with anyone's normal budget - you know what bills are due when, and you certainly know when you've finished paying off  a big debt.  I expect no less of administration.

The idea of setting aside money before you start a project is a sound one.  I do have a bit of a concern about setting aside money without knowing why.  I'm sure that it wouldn't take long before someone thought that it would be a great idea to spend $2 million on a new sprinkler system for the golf course.  Or the Raiders would think that a new arena would be the best use for the money.  Or the swim club would think that an Olympic-sized pool was just what the city needed.  You get the idea - when there's a pool of money sitting there, it's really tempting to use it for whatever the interest may be, even if it isn't the best thing for the whole city.

Although we have no end of interest groups telling us what the city needs, I think that if you asked the average tax payer what they think we need, they might start by saying "Lower taxes."  They might think that spending on needs first would be a great idea - how about if, before we invest in another recreational facility, we think about setting a goal to have all city streets paved, and all lead service water connections replaced.  How about we continue catching up on the basic infrastructure backlog that we got ourselves into, partly by building new facilities that can't support themselves.

In any event, let's not start taking tax payers' money at a certain level just because we've gotten into the habit.  That's not in line with all the nice words that we've been saying about transparency.  Let's be more open about the money coming in, and the money going out.  And before we make any major decisions about spending money on new  facilities that only serve a portion of the population, let's ask the people who are going to pay for it if they think that it's a good idea.

"There is no such thing as a good tax." - Winston Churchill

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Some Learnings from FCM

Last week was the annual meeting of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), held this year in Edmonton.  Several members of council attended, and, as usual, there was a variety of learning opportunities, some in formal sessions, others through field tours.

One field tour that I found most informative was an alcohol enforcement tour that Councillor Miller and I went on.  We accompanied staff from police, fire, liquor and building enforcement as they visited two bars, one in downtown Edmonton, the other a very large bar (capacity of 500 patrons) on the outskirts.  The four city departments that go on this tour work together to manage crowds and activities.  Both bars had software that allows them to check people's driver's licences as they enter.  There are a couple of benefits to this.  First, they can confirm who is in a bar at any time.  Second, should someone cause a disturbance, they are then flagged, and refused admission in the future.  This information can be shared with other bars that have the same software, helping to prevent incidents from even starting.  The software was a city initiative, and I can see how it could really benefit Prince Albert, where so many of our weekend problems stem from relatively few individuals with alcohol problems.

One problem in many cities with an active downtown bar scene is the problem that happens after the bars close.  People leave, but then find that they need to get rid of the liquid that they've been ingesting over the last few hours.  Unfortunately, they can't go back into the bar to visit the washroom, so they tend to use the street - not too pleasant.  Edmonton has put in public washrooms in the same area downtown as the bars.  These washrooms have glass walls, so that people can see if there is anyone inside, and so that anyone with the bright idea to wreck the place can be easily seen.  To prevent people from sleeping overnight, the washrooms are locked after a suitable interval after closing time.

Edmonton has recognized that bars are good economic drivers, that unfortunately can have associated problems.  Rather than just shut down the economic opportunity, they have instead focused on finding solutions to those problems that still allow the bars to do what they do best.

I also attended an educational session on neighbourhood revitalization.  Edmonton has developed a tax regime that is applied over the entire city, but which recognizes that some neighbourhoods have lagged behind others in infrastructure repair and improvements - funds are specifically directed at these neighbourhoods.  I really liked that fact that they are trying to bring all neighbourhoods up to the same standards, and recognize that the city as a whole benefits from that kind of effort.

For the downtown core, the city borrows money from the province to revitalize areas and encourage development, then uses the increased taxes from these developments, such as large hotels, to then pay back the borrowed money.

In many ways, Edmonton seemed to be very similar to Prince Albert, and I think that we can learn a great deal about how they approach our similar problems.  While we don't have the advantages of their much larger population, we should still be able to apply some scaled down solutions.

Every year, when the time comes to approve the upcoming expenses for FCM, we get questions from the media as to whether it's worth the cost.  For those councillors who choose to take advantage of the many educational opportunities at FCM, both formal sessions and informal networking, I'd say that it's money well invested in our city's future.

"Learning is not attained by chance; it must be sought for with ardor and diligence." - Abigail Adams

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Garbage Pick-up Update

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about the decision by council to move from large dumpsters to individual garbage bins for the residents on my block.  The dumpsters were often overloaded, particularly at the end of the month when apartment residents would move out and leave large piles of material in and around the dumpsters, and people from outside the city seemed to think that pulling up at a dumpster and filling it with their garbage was an acceptable alternative to taking it to the landfill themselves.

The change, as directed by council, was supposed to happen by May 15th, and the owners of the apartment buildings in the block were to be notified that they would have to start using a commercial garbage service, like most of the multiple unit buildings in the city.

May 15th came and went, with no change.  So after the long weekend, I spoke with the city manager, wondering why nothing had happened.  His excuse was that he has a lot of balls in the air.  That's not acceptable to me - if something that council has decided will happen isn't going to happen, then the time to let us know that it isn't going to happen is before the deadline, not after.

Friday morning (May 22nd), Andrea and I were enjoying breakfast on the deck when a city truck went down the back alley, picking up the blue recycling bins.  After Andrea expressed some regret that we had a bin of newspapers inside, waiting to be taken out, I wondered why they weren't picking up the other dumpsters, the ones for garbage.  I also wondered why the city hadn't delivered any notification to residents, before starting the process.  It was only a few minutes before I got my first phone call from a resident, wondering what was going on.  Then another resident stopped by on his bike - he had been told that the city was just taking the recycling bins, but leaving the garbage bins, because the apartment buildings didn't have commercial bins.

Unfortunately, the problem wasn't with the recycling bin - it was with the garbage bins.  And the direction in the motion passed by council had been quite clear - individual residences were to have their own roll-out blue bins and garbage bins, and the apartment buildings were to have commercial bins, by May 15th.

Later in the morning a notice was delivered, so I called the number in the notice to find out what was going on.  Not only was that individual not around, apparently nobody else was aware of the situation.  I was told that I could call back next week.  Someone else that I talked to told me that the city didn't have any 300 gallon dumpsters - since that is what we have now, it was an indication of how poor the communication about this issue has been at City Hall.

The city's version of customer service had struck once again.

A short while later our blue bin was delivered.  Since nobody in the Sanitation Department seemed to know what was going on, I left a message with the City Manager, outlining my disappointment in the lack of follow-through of a direction made by a motion of council.

When Andrea and I got back from our usual Friday morning routine of errands, a city vehicle was dropping off individual garbage bins.  I talked with one of the workers, who was writing Apts. Only in marker on the remaining large dumpsters in the alley.  This apparently is the stop-gap measure to be used until the apartment buildings get commercial bins - I'll be finding out next week when they got the notice, and how long they've been given.

So once again I've been annoyed by the lack of action from city hall staff, by the poor communication and coordination among staff, and by the uncoordinated approach of dealing with city residents.  I have a feeling that if I hadn't raised the fact that the target date for bin replacement had passed, I, and the other residents of the block, would still be waiting for our bins.  I don't think that it's part of my job to remind the people who are supposed to coordinate the work done by city staff of the direction that they have been given - that should be part of their work planning process.

We've made some difficult decisions over the last few years with regard to staff.  At some point, I hope that both the new and old staff realize that our expectation is that it wasn't that we wanted different people doing the job the same way, but that we wanted the job done differently.  So far, that hasn't happened.

"If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading." - Lao Tzu

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Is a Council Meeting the Place for Prayer?

There's been some talk over the past few weeks about the recent Supreme Court decision that prayer at city council meetings is not constitutional.  The decision was largely based on the idea that prayer in a public place is exclusionary - that those who do not share in the beliefs being prayed about are being excluded.

So far our city council has not made any change, although there was some talk about getting a legal opinion (although we're a city council, which was the specific object of the decision, which makes it pretty clear to me).  Regina stopped having their opening prayer immediately; other councils have not made any changes that I'm aware of.

As far as I can tell, most members of council feel that we should continue with prayer, because that's what we've traditionally done.  Others have said that they see no harm in it, and one councillor bemoaned the increasing atheism of society, confusing atheism (a lack of belief in God) with secularism (excluding religious activities from public events).  And some have said that they appreciate the opportunity to gather their thoughts before a meeting.

Personally, I think that we don't need to have a prayer before a meeting.  It's not that I'm against religion - I attend church regularly, have been on my church council, and currently am a member of the board of trustees of my church.  But I know that everyone does not share in my beliefs, and I don't think that a governing body that is supposed to represent everyone in a community should assume that everyone is comfortable with public prayer.  We may think that the prayer is broadly ecumenical and doesn't exclude anybody, but that's an easy assumption to make when you're in the Christian majority.

Tradition is a fine thing, but it's a poor excuse for continuing a behaviour that some may find offensive or exclusionary.  We used to call members of council aldermen, ignoring the fact that such a term excluded fifty per cent of society.  It's not too difficult to find examples of things that used to be tradition, but have been changed or abandoned over the years - remember when stores were closed on Sundays?

As for the opportunity to gather thoughts, nobody is stopping individual councillors from doing that on their own, silently.  I can't think of any other workplace where people pray communally before starting their work - are we suggesting that making decisions at council requires more spiritual guidance than any other job that requires making decisions?

One of my favourite constituents, who passed away recently, phoned me once after a meeting of the previous council, asking if I could get her a copy of the prayer.  When I asked her why, she said that it didn't appear as though many members of council were actually listening to the prayer, judging by their behaviour during the meeting.  That made me laugh, but it also showed the pointlessness of this public display of piety - why bother with it if you're going to forget what was said as soon as the prayer is over?

To me, prayer is an extremely personal thing that doesn't need to be public.  For council to continue to do so, even after the Supreme Court has declared the practice to be unconstitutional, is ignoring the realities of our current society, and excluding people whose beliefs may differ from our own, but who still deserve to feel completely welcome at a city council meeting.

"Never pray for justice, because you might get some."  - Margaret Atwood