Sunday, January 25, 2015

A Change is as Good as a Rest

The annual meeting of the Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association (SUMA) starts next weekend, and after that, we'll be starting our new council meeting process.  What this means is that we'll have fewer meetings (every other week rather than every week), but there will be less repetition between Executive and Council meetings, meaning less wasted time for both council and administration.

The current meeting format, Council meetings every other week, with Executive the week between, hasn't been in place for that long - only since my second term on council, so that means for about ten years.  Before I was on council, meetings were biweekly, and in between there were committee meetings.  So the council of the day got rid of committees such as Finance and Works and Planning, and replaced those committees with Executive, so that all members of council, in effect, were on those committees, and matters relating to those committees were discussed with all of council, rather than having committees meet, then report to council.

However, over the years, Executive Committee became almost a dress rehearsal for council, with the agenda becoming merely what was going to be coming before council the following week. In fact, it had gotten to the point where council meeting almost seemed to be a rubber stamp of what had been discussed the previous week, so motions would pass without any discussion at the meeting itself.  For several years I've been agitating for some sort of change, to make meetings less repetitious, and with the help of administration, we've managed to do that.

So starting in February, Executive meetings will be for the discussion of new initiatives, brought forth either by council or administration, or for the discussion of new or amended bylaws.  It will also be the time for approving routine expenditures that are already within the approved budget.  I'm hoping that the discussion at these meetings will be a less formal and more open exploration of options, ideas and possibilities than happens at council meetings.  The first Executive meeting will be February 9th.   Then two weeks later, on February 23rd, we'll have the first Council meeting, which will feature the standard array of motions and bylaws.

We hope that this structure will result in more efficiency, with less time spent in meetings by both council and administration.  Not only will we have half as many meetings, but administration won't have to be at all Council meetings, as they are now.  They'll only have to be present if matters related to their departments are going to be the subject of discussion.

I'm very appreciative of the efforts of the City Clerk, Sherry Person, and her staff, to take the various ideas proposed by council, and develop the new meeting structure in such a way that the legal requirements of the Cities Act are met.  Instead of spending time telling council why change was impossible, or would take years, they figured out how to make change happen.  That's the kind of initiative that I hope sets a good example for the rest of administration, which sometimes seems to spend more time coming up with excuses to avoid change, rather than figuring out how to help change happen.

I don't know if the new system will be perfect, but I've agreed to be Deputy Mayor for the first few meetings.  That means that I'll be the guinea pig in chairing the new format, but I don't mind experimenting for the sake of improvement.  After all, if I'm going to complain about the current situation, I figure I'd better be willing to step up and help to make it better.

"Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything." - George Bernard Shaw

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Myth of Choosing Your Neighbours

We have three group homes coming before council, with the public hearing piece at this week's meeting. While the opposition so far isn't as orchestrated as the protests against the proposal for Mahon Drive last fall, we've received a few emails outlining the usual fears of allowing such homes into a neighbourhood.

The proposals are for new group homes in three wards - one in Ward Three, one in Ward Five, and one in Ward Six.  One is the same proposal that was made for Mahon Drive - a supervised home for four adolescent girls, all of whom attend school and none of whom has ever been in trouble with the law.  One is for mentally challenged adults.  And one is for seniors.  I'm willing to bet that every person in Prince Albert knows at least one person who would fit in each of those groups, if they don't belong to one themselves, and I'm quite sure that they wouldn't dream of telling those individuals that they're not welcome to live in their neighbourhood. But somehow, putting the phrase group home into the equation makes it objectionable.

The standard argument made is that allowing a group home into a neighbourhood will decrease property values.  While this is said every time, it's really just a red herring - there isn't a single instance of anywhere in the city where a group home has resulted in property values decreasing.  I think that the real, unspoken reason is that people are afraid of people different from them moving in.

Many people live with the illusion that the ideal life is one where you are surrounded by people exactly like you - the ideal demographic of married couples with 2.1 children, who share your values and tastes in everything.  And yet, as soon as you read that, you realized that you know plenty of perfectly nice families that don't fit that demographic, probably including your own family, and that even your nearest and dearest don't necessarily share your values, or your likes and dislikes.  And probably your current neighbours have some habits that you wish they didn't.

Of course, an individual or family can buy a  house without having to clear it with the neighbours.  And while your current neighbours might be just dandy, they could be replaced by a family whose teen-age son is learning how to play the drums, and practises in the garage with the door open, or by a family who likes to have fire-pit parties late into the night, or by a family whose income is derived from dealing drugs, or by members of a motorcycle gang.

I'll admit - I haven't always been thrilled with some of  my neighbours' activities.  And I'm quite sure that there are probably times when they have found some of my family's activities annoying (Guthrie's junior high antics come to  mind).  But I also remember that when I was stranded up on the roof a few years ago, after a wind blew over the ladder, it was a neighbour who came to the rescue, and I'm hoping that another former neighbour still remembers when I called the police when I heard her home being broken into.

Because that's what neighbours do - they lend a hand, or help out in a pinch.  They're not necessarily people that you socialize with, but they say hi over the fence, and keep their eyes open when you're away for the weekend.  And I can't think why group home residents would be any different - if anything, it's an advantage knowing ahead of time what the neighbours will be like.

As members of council, we have to remember one basic fact - group homes exist only because there is a need.  The people who, for whatever reason, need to live in these kinds of homes are city residents with the same rights as the mythical two parent family with 2.1 children.  And we shouldn't let our knowledge of the right thing be swayed yet again by people who think that they have the right to control who their neighbours are.

"You cannot subvert your neighbour's rights without striking a dangerous blow at your own." - Carl Schurz

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Looking Ahead to the New Year

We're at the end of the Christmas holiday season, and looking forward to getting back to work in the new year.  As is the case for many people, this is a time for reflecting on the year past, and setting some targets for next year.

This was a year of family change, as Guthrie started new work outside of Saskatoon, so is only with us on weekends - it's almost an empty nest.  A great move for him, although it meant that we had to find people to feed the cats when we went away for a couple of weeks in August, something that we haven't had to worry about for several years.  Both he and Ingrid (and her cats) were home for a good stretch at Christmas, although Guthrie did have to work two days between Christmas and New Year's - it was good to have the whole family together, and it's the only time of year that it happens.  And nobody got sick, or broke an ankle - the holidays are much better when those kinds of circumstances are avoided.

My big renovation project this year was redoing the living room - tearing out lath and plaster, insulating, dry-walling, ripping up the floor, installing in-floor heating, laying new hardwood flooring, painting, and putting in a gas fireplace insert.  The traditionally chilly room is now quite comfortable, and proving to be very attractive to the cats, who love the warm floor.  It was a large project, and I'm sure there were times when Andrea wondered if I'd ever be finished, but we were able to put the furniture back in a week before Christmas.  The only piece left to be done is to get the fireplace functional - I'll need professional help for that.

Last year was a good year for council - significant progress has been made on the backlog in roads infrastructure, and we completed the budget in record time, without rushing the discussions too much.  The decision not to open the waterslides last summer, while not popular, at least effectively demonstrated what happens when infrastructure maintenance is left unfunded - hopefully we've learned the importance of counting all the costs before we jump aboard the next new facility bandwagon.

For next year, I see several areas where council can improve.  We need to seriously look at the various taxation tools that are available to us, and not just keep on doing the same thing.  The flat tax, and how it's applied, needs to be reviewed to ensure that we're treating both residents and businesses equitably.  We made a bit of progress in that area for businesses, but I know that we can do better.

We need to change the way we apply user fees for the various city facilities.  All costs, including water, should be included for all facilities when fees are set, and user fees should also include a portion that goes into a reserve fund for future maintenance needs.  Only the Rawlinson Centre has such a fund - it should be standard for all city-owned facilities.

And we shouldn't even start talking about new facilities until we have a standard financial management process for all facilities that is sound.  Any proposals for new facilities need to include operating costs up front, and how they will be funded - we can't rely on vague promises that facilities "won't cost taxpayers a cent", since those promises have proven to be broken as easily as they were made.

Our current review of all city facilities needs to continue.  I'd like to see an assessment of city-owned parking lots.  If they aren't being used (and I can't remember the last time I had difficulty finding a parking spot downtown), then we should consider getting rid of them, rather than continuing to maintain something that isn't really needed.

We do have several new staff in management positions.  Let's hope that they bring with them new ideas, new attitudes, and a willingness to try new things, plus the leadership skills that could transform how all of the administrative staff work together.

And I hope that council continues to work respectfully together, focusing on making the remaining two years of this term even more productive than the first two.

"What the new year brings to you will depend a great deal on what you bring to the new year." - Vern McLellan

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Putting the Budget To Bed

The budget passed at last Monday's council meeting, and for the first time in nine years I was able to support it.  Not that it's a perfect budget - there's plenty of room for improvement in both the process and the result, but I think that some changes were made in the right direction that were worthy of support.

For me, one of the major improvements was the adjustment to the roads improvement levy for the commercial sector.  I think that our approach to the commercial sector is too disconnected - perhaps because, unlike residents, businesses don't vote.  The way the roads levy was originally set for the commercial sector, small businesses paid $700 annually, and large businesses $7,000.  You don't have to be a financial expert to know that a small business might not clear $700 in a day, whereas a large business like WalMart clears $7000 easily before noon.  It's a demonstration of the inherent unfairness of flat taxes, and we've taken steps to start to correct that unfairness.

The small business levy has been reduced, and there are more increments as the size of business increases, rather than the three levels that there were before.  Personally, I believe that the way to go with the levy for both businesses and residents is to assess the way taxes were traditionally done - at least this is a step in the right direction.

The Pineview Terrace levy is gone, and the soccer centre levy should end at some point this year.  Unfortunately, we didn't discuss the options for dealing with both of these - I know that some members of council have suggested that we continue the soccer centre levy as a reserve for future capital projects, but it remains to be seen what will happen with this levy.  Personally, I'm not happy with leaving this loose end, but some of my colleagues thought that two days of budget deliberations was quite enough.  I know that it's tiring, but that's how the job works.

In any event, we have a relatively small tax increase of 2 per cent, and small businesses and those residents whose home has a lower assessed value should even see a small decrease - always welcome news to the tax payer.

So what changes to the process would I like to see for next year?   Well, as I've already mentioned, more work needs to be done on the commercial side, to deal with the inequities that remain.  We need to remember that small businesses are the ones that are owned by local residents - the profits tend to remain in the city, and we need to encourage this sector.  I'd like to see the other flat tax, the $60 one, clearly ear-marked for snow removal, and set according to what is actually required.  Last year, we said that half of it would go to snow removal, with the remainder left for undisclosed purposes - if we have to have a flat tax, let's at least dedicate it to a definite purpose, and set it accordingly.

I also expect administration to look at organization and staffing.  It seems that we're continually asked to increase staff levels, even though the city population isn't increasing at the same rate.  I would rather see the city manager focus on ensuring that staff are organized efficiently, and that when a position is vacated, for whatever reason, a case is made for the continued need for that position, rather than just filling it automatically.  Administration has to get on side with the idea of continual improvement - too often I get the sense that status quo is quite all right with many of them, even as the world is changing all around us.

But, as I said, this year there were many improvements in the process.  I hope to see as many next year, so that I can again support both the process and the result.

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

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Committee Appointments, the Democratic Way

Last week's Executive Committee meeting was the time when new committee appointments were decided.  As we're mid-way through the current term of council, it seemed a good time to take stock, and see if changes were appropriate.

Committees are different from when I was first on council.  Committees of that time, like Finance, or Works and Planning, which used to meet separately and then make recommendations to council, have been replaced by Executive Committee, so that matters now come directly to council.  And some committees that were in place at the time of the last election, like the Beautification Committee, were determined to be redundant, so no longer exist.  Many of the committees are not committees of council, but rather are external committees that have city representatives.  I don't think that there's any perfect committee structure, so it's good that the city has control, for the most part, over how committees are set up and their membership.

This council does committee appointments quite differently than the previous council.  Rather than the mayor making all the decisions, and handing out committee appointments like favours, this council has a two step process.  First, each member of council decides which committees they would be interested in being on - there's not much point in putting someone on a committee if they're not interested in being there.  Then, council as a whole votes on which councillor will be on which committee - it doesn't get more democratic than that.

The result this time, for me, is a bit of a change.  I remain on the Police Commission, and now represent council on the Downtown Business Improvement District committee.  Since my ward borders the downtown, and Laura at the Bison often teases me that I'm there so much it's my unofficial office, I'm looking forward to working with downtown businesses on revitalization ideas.  And I have a feeling that I'll continue to go to Saskatoon Airport Authority meetings, representing the mayor, who often has conflicting demands on his time.

In my time on council, I've been on most committees.  I think that, to be valuable, a committee has to do more than meet - it has to set priorities, and work towards making sensible recommendations for council to act on.  I get the feeling from some of my colleagues that they see some committees as having some sort of higher status, but I don't buy into that kind of thinking - like many status-related things, the glory is mostly in individual's minds.  The public is rarely aware of who is on which committee, or in what each committee is responsible for.  Committees are mostly in the background, discussing issues and sorting through information, but making final decisions remains a council responsibility.

Committees do provide valuable input, but it's best to keep the system flexible - don't have committees that duplicate work already being done elsewhere, don't meet unless there's something to discuss, and don't be afraid to disband committees that aren't doing anything - as long as council follows these guidelines, we won't be so overburdened with committees that we forget our real responsibilities.

"To get something done, a committee should consist of no more than three people, two of whom are absent." - Robert Copeland

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The New Contract to Run the Rawlinson Centre - What's the Problem?

Council approved the new contract with Star Entertainment to run the Rawlinson Centre at the council meeting last Monday evening.  This is the first year that we've contracted directly with Star Entertainment - in previous years the Arts Board was responsible for the contract, resulting in problems like financial statements not being submitted, and money from reserves being spent without prior approval from Council.  In the interests of improving transparency, council has taken over the responsibility.  Unfortunately, we haven't done a very good job.

The contract total for the next year is $395,000, an increase over last year's number.  That's a lot of money, and was high enough that three members of council voted against it, me among them.

But the underlying problem with this contract is that is was handled differently from our other contract processes.  Normally for a large contract like this, the city would tender it out, or do a request for proposals.  That would give us an idea of the fair market value - what is reasonable for running a venue of that size.

However, for some reason, most of council felt that it was okay to just give the contract to the company that's been running the venue for the last ten years, taking an ever-increasing part of the city budget every year.  Not only that, but we increased the size of the contract, for no apparent reason, other than that there was no raise last year.  A couple of council members even said that they like the individual involved, and that was good enough for them, indicating that they missed the class where we learned that when it's not your personal money you're spending, liking shouldn't enter into the decision-making process.

Another option would have been for administration to do some research - find out what similar facilities in other cities cost - so that we would know if we're in the ball park.  If that research was done, it wasn't shared with council.

And while having a written contract is an improvement over the years when there was nothing in writing, a contract should include a few milestones and deliverables, setting some targets and expectations.  And no, the single statement of "running the facility" does not meet my idea of a deliverable.

We missed the opportunity to make the situation better.  If we had tendered it out, perhaps the result would have been the same - maybe almost $400,000 is the going rate.  If that were the case, and if there were some hard deliverables in the contract, setting out targets that need to be met before payments are made, then I might have been able to support this.  But we chose to take the lazy way out, for whatever reason.

And interestingly, there hasn't been a single word about this in the local paper.  That they chose to put council's support of a provincial helmet law on the front page of Tuesday's paper (one of those feel good motions that costs us nothing), rather than this topic certainly raises some questions about what is considered news in this town.

I'm still reminded regularly by city residents that this facility was built with the promise that it wouldn't cost tax payers a cent - the fact that it takes an increasing amount of money every year is a recurring irritant to many people, who rightly think that council should try to fix the situation. That we couldn't even be bothered to follow regular procedures before making the decision to carry on with the old contract just adds insult to injury.

"A verbal contract isn't worth the paper it's printed on." - Sam Goldwyn

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