Sunday, July 27, 2014

How Should We Deal with Boarded-Up Houses?

In some parts of the city, boarded-up houses don't exist.  For people who live in those areas, it's hardly a pressing problem.  But for those of us in areas where the income is below average, they are a problem, and one for which we don't have a satisfactory solution.

Houses get boarded up for a number of reasons.  The house may have been a rental house, which became unfit to be lived in - perhaps non-payment of water bills led to the water being turned off.  The home owner may have died, or simply left, and the house was unable to be sold.  Or a fire may have rendered the house uninhabitable.  Whatever the situation, the windows and doors have been boarded up, the yard is neglected and shows it, and it becomes a problem, not just for the neighbourhood, but for the city.

A boarded-up house can be the source of many problems.  Squatters may move in.  Young adults may find that it's a great place to party.  Fires get started.  At the very least, it becomes an eyesore in the neighbourhood, reducing property values.

These houses are occupying space that could be used to build good homes - homes that wouldn't require new infrastructure to be built, and whose residents would utilize current amenities like schools and playgrounds.  They are a waste of current city assets.  But instead of being used, they tend to remain empty, long past the time when they could be rehabilitated.

I can see a boarded-up house from my front yard.  It's a rental property that for several years was a drug house, with lots of short-term visitors at all hours of the day and night, and frequent backyard parties.  Fortunately, the police were responsive to complaints, and it's been empty for several years.  But it's an attractive nuisance to kids in the neighbourhood - more than once I've called police because I've seen kids starting to pry the boards off the back door or windows.  But there doesn't seem to be any action that can be taken to get the owners to take some responsibility in fixing it up so that it's habitable again, or knock it down and sell the lot to someone who will make use of it.

I've been looking for a solution to this problem for most of my time on council.  Too often, I've been told by bylaw enforcement that there's nothing that they can do.  So I've started having discussions with the city solicitor and other legal professionals, to find out what the options are, and what other cities do to solve the problem.  The next step will be to meet with bylaw enforcement staff, and the city solicitor, to find out exactly what roadblocks are stopping them from taking action sooner, or at all.  I think that it's important that we involve the people who are going to be involved in doing the work, to ensure that whatever new bylaw we come up with will work at the ground level.

Other communities have tried various options.  For example, some require owners to register any boarded-up houses, and have such houses be inspected for whatever needs to be repaired, and charge a fee for such inspection costs.  The inspection is done every year, and costs escalate if required repairs were not made.  Using the nuisance bylaw to address issues is another possibility.

The goal is not to punish the owners of these homes.  The goal is to encourage them to make the property habitable again, and if they don't, to make them pay the city for at least some of the costs that are being incurred by the extra work that such properties entail.

I realize that stuff happens, that sometimes, through no fault of their own, a home owner will have to board up a house.  But having a house in this state should be temporary, not long term, for the good of the neighbourhood and the city as a whole.

"An empty house is like a stray dog or a body from which life has departed."  Samuel Butler

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Paying for Alcohol - the Right Decision, for the Wrong Reason

I like red wine.  I have a glass of wine most evenings with dinner.  I like a cold beer on a hot day.  I enjoy a glass of Drambuie in the late evening, now and then.

That being said, I understand that for some, alcohol is an addiction, and a cause of great pain, both for addicts and their families, and for those innocent people that have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, when dealing with a drunk driver.

I also realize that Prince Albert has more than its share of people dealing with the problem of alcohol, for a wide range of reasons.  Some of those people cause very direct costs to the city, as most police calls are alcohol-related, and the police cells are full most evenings with people who have had too much to drink, and have nowhere else to go.  Others manage to keep their problems under control, or have the supports in place to help them do so.

It's a good thing that this problem is starting to be discussed more openly, but I think that dragging it into last week's council discussion about funding for a sports event was taking advantage of the situation to score political points.  To recap briefly - council had been asked to fund a local sports celebration to the tune of $2,500 specifically to sponsor a wine and cheese reception.  The councillor who spoke to the issue said that he objected because it sends the wrong message when our city has such problems with alcohol abuse.

I, on the other hand, did not support it because I don't think that the city should give money for non-essentials, particularly to a group that can certainly afford to buy their own wine.  It's rather ironic that the motion ended up passing, for the same $2,500, simply by removing the direct reference to sponsoring the wine and cheese reception.  In other words, we gave the same amount of money, the wine and cheese reception went ahead, and the organizing committee just had to adjust their book-keeping a bit.  But for some members of council, it gave the opportunity to look as though they're taking the high moral ground against something, even though no actual action was taken to address the underlying problem.

Too bad the same outcry didn't happen a few years ago, when we gave $48,000 to a golf celebration, a considerable amount of which was ear-marked specifically for wine and beer.  Then-councillor Williams and I were the only ones to vote against that expenditure, for the same reason - the tax payer shouldn't be paying for alcohol, because it is a non-essential.

And where was this moralizing a few years ago, when the motion for a drive-through off-sale passed with a comfortable majority of council supporting it?  How we could support making it even easier for people to access alcohol is beyond me, but again I was in the minority in opposing this, which has indirectly led to a recent court challenge - something that wouldn't have been necessary had we only done the right thing a few years ago.

The problem of alcohol abuse is a complex one, and one that the city has very few tools to deal with.  City residents can decry the people drinking on benches in Memorial Square, but at the same time ignore the message that traditions like Safe Grad send to young people, despite the statistics that tell us that binge drinking by high school students is at scarily high levels.

If council is going to, as some say, take a stand against alcohol, what will we do the next time a request for a special occasion permit comes to us?  In the past, such events, endorsed by council, have caused extra problems for police, but somehow don't raise public indignation to the same levels as do people passed out on the riverbank.

Alcohol is one of those vexing problems for which there is no clear solution that works for everyone.  I don't know what the right answer, or combination of answers is.  All I can do is continue to make decisions based on what I feel is best for the tax payer, and try to avoid making moral judgements that don't really change anything.

"Here's to alcohol: the cause of, and answer to, all of life's problems." - Matt Groening

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Dealing with the Inevitability of Emergencies

One of the fundamental truths of life seems to be that, no matter what, no matter how well you've planned, unexpected problems will leap up and bite you.  In your personal life, you might have an emergency fund for such things.  You'll get into trouble if you define emergency too loosely, or if you use the fund to pay for things that you could have anticipated.  For example, there's a big difference between the emergency caused because your car was broadsided in an accident, and the emergency when your car breaks down because you haven't been doing regular maintenance.  The second, of course, isn't a real emergency - you could have minimized the risks by thinking ahead.

With the city, we've been most recently hit by the unexpected repair bill for the soccer centre roof - money that wasn't in the budget, of course.  It's a familiar quandary - we set our plans for the year in the budget, make tough decisions like the one not to fully fund the waterslide repairs, but stuff always comes up that we have to find emergency money for.

Of course, as with your own budget, there are always things that come in under budget, and these savings can be used to cover the unexpected problems.  But we can't rely on that, and it doesn't mean that we shouldn't have a better emergency fund than we do.  The inadequacy of our emergency reserves is not because we've had more than our share of emergencies, but more because of foolish actions by past councils, which drained reserves for non-emergency expenses.  Building it back up is slow, hard slogging, not made easier by the never-ending requests for funding of this and that.

An example of an additional funding request is the most recent one - to keep the ice in the Art Hauser Centre for extra weeks next spring, for the benefit of figure skaters.  In no way can this be considered an essential - it's providing a convenience for a relatively few number of people, who currently have to drive all the way out to Buckland for extended season ice time.  And yet, the familiar chorus - "It's for the children" - has already been sounded, making those of us who try to take an objective look at spending look like big meanies.  I would have absolutely no problem agreeing to this, if the special interest groups involved would agree to pay the additional costs - but of course, they consider the $10,000 cost too onerous for them, but a perfectly reasonable request to make of the taxpayer, via the city.

I'm not sure where the reasonable line is, but I do think that when we set user fees we shouldn't be looking at just the operating costs of the facilities - we should also be building in a reasonable cost for ongoing maintenance and repair work.  We should think of user fees the same way as a landlord thinks of rent - the landlord has to consider the inevitable costs of keeping the building functional in the long run, not just of covering the current operating costs.  These additional fees should be put directly into reserves, not left in the general operating budget - it's just to easy to spend it when it's there.

In the meantime, we'll have to figure out how to pay for a major repair in a four-year old building - most likely by pushing another, older building further back in line, and hope that its roof holds out.

"Where is the politician who has not promised to fight for lower taxes - and who has not proceeded to vote for the very spending projects that make tax cuts impossible." - Barry Goldwater

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Setting a Target for Growth

This week, the media was full of stories that mayor said that we have a goal to increase the population of the city to 50,000 by 2025 - an increase of about 30% over the next ten years.  He has since amended his terminology to say that it's a target, not a goal, which is probably wise, considering that in the thirty some years that I've lived here, the population has only increased by about 5,000.  It also doesn't fit with what we've been told by various experts - that Prince Albert is unlikely to have a huge growth spurt, unlike Saskatoon.  The city is likely to remain just a small city for the foreseeable future.  And that's not a bad thing - there are lots of benefits to living in a city where rush hour is only five minutes.  So let's not get caught up in the idea that growth for the sake of growth is what we want.

The intention behind the target/goal is that with a larger tax base, the tax burden has more people to share in it.  Unfortunately, costs rise though - as an example, more people means more streets, and more cars on those streets, so maintenance costs rise.  A larger industrial base is actually a greater help in reducing the tax burden, as long as we don't turn around and give tax breaks to industry in hopes of luring them here, as has already been done with Paper Excellence, although the mill opening date just seems to keep moving further and further away.

The idea of being prepared, though, is a good one, rather than playing catch-up after the people are here.  But we have to remember that we're playing catch-up right now, just to bring things up to where they should be, in a city this size.  Remember, we still have unpaved streets, and I'd like to see a plan for getting streets paved, and old water pipes replaced, before we start worrying about building new roads for potential new subdivisions.

Now that the target is out there, I hope that we use this as impetus to start organizing our thinking.  Let's start with figuring out what work needs to be done to make the infrastructure all over the city up to standards that one would expect in a city in this century - paved streets, sidewalks, new water mains where they're needed.  Figure out where the need is greatest, and focus our efforts there.  I get annoyed when I see areas that have long been neglected continue to be overlooked, but work going on in areas where the need isn't as great, but perhaps the taxpayers are more vocal.

Then let's look at where we should be planning for growth, and start setting aside money for these efforts.  I think that most people would agree that a second bridge is high on that list, even without massive population growth, so let's stop waiting for other levels of government to build us a bridge, and start investigating what sort of partnership involvement those other levels of government expect from us, and budget for that.  It's not going to happen if we just keep talking the same talk - let's try changing the conversation.

But when we do talk growth, let's not just throw out random numbers - let's figure out what's feasible, and figure out how to get there.

"Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell." - Edward Abbey

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Lessons from Niagara Falls

Andrea and I just returned from Ontario, where we spent the first few days of our trip at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities annual meeting in Niagara Falls.  It was probably the smallest place that FCM has been held - the city has a population of only 84,000 - but its tourism development means that it has a very large convention centre where the meetings took place, and there were also sufficient accommodations for the more than 2,000 delegates.

We chose not to stay in the hotel where the other delegates from Prince Albert stayed.  Instead, we found a bed and breakfast that was a fifteen minute walk from the convention centre.  I've found that staying in a bed and breakfast offers several benefits - doing so supports a local business, rather than a large chain, you get to see more of the city, you get to interact with the other guests at breakfast, you learn more about the city from the owner, and you also get a good breakfast.

Niagara Falls seems almost to be two different cities.  The one that most people see is the area focused around the falls - they are spectacular, and draw crowds from all over the world. The large hotels and the casino are all close to the falls, and boast of the view.  The Niagara Parks Commission maintains a paved pathway along the river for several miles that is suitable for both biking and walking, with beautiful gardens along both sides of the road, and features like an aviary and a butterfly conservatory.  One area, a bit down from the falls, called Clifton Hill, is the street that reminded me of the fair - wax museums, halls of fame, arcades, and a huge Ferris wheel at the top.  At the other end is Marineland, another fair-like experience.

But outside of these areas, the city has the same trouble that most cities have - maintaining a viable, older downtown.  In fact, the difference was evident just on the short walk from the B&B to the conference centre.  It was quite obvious where the tourism area started, just by the state of the sidewalks.  One of the tours offered by the conference was to that downtown area, showing us the various efforts that have been put into making it more attractive with streetscaping efforts - sadly, the many empty storefronts show that it takes more than pots of flowers and signage to attract people to a downtown.  Our host at the B&B also told us of various efforts to bring in live theatre that hadn't worked - with the Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake, only a short drive away, the competition is very tough.

However, even for a town that relies on tourism to stay alive, there were signs in the tourist area that stated that cars have the right of way.  If I really wanted to make an area people-friendly, I'd limit the cars, perhaps by having shuttles to the falls rather than encouraging people to drive to the falls.  Although you might think that the exorbitant parking rates ($30 a day!) might encourage people to park further away and walk a few blocks, the lots seemed to be always full.

Another tour that I found interesting was one that focused on the recreational opportunities for young people in the city.  Rather than trying to have a facility in each neighbourhood, the Boys and Girls Club has one central facility for all activities, and they work with the schools to transport kids to this facility.  Being able to focus on maintaining one facility allows them to offer a wide range of activities, and have the resources available for transportation.  This makes sense to me - more efficient and effective, benefiting the whole community.

Far less interesting to the majority of tourists is the historical background of the area.  Just up the street from our B&B was the site of the Battle of Lundy's Lane - the bloodiest battle of the War of 1812.  The battlefield is also a cemetery.  We were also within walking distance of the museum, which had an exhibit devoted to the war, and another small museum across from the battlefield, which is an old reconstructed tavern from the era.  Andrea visited all of these, and was one of very few visitors.  While I realize that these sorts of attractions don't have quite the draw of the Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum, the tourism desk at the conference centre had no information about these - we found out about them from the CAA Tour Book.  I think that the city could do more to invest in this side of tourism.

At the trade show, which always offers new and innovative ideas and products, there was a model of a self-cleaning toilet, suitable for use in parks and along trails.  It cost in the neighbourhood of $100,000, and I couldn't help but think what an asset that would be along the Rotary Trail.  I think that investing in something like this that would make the trail more attractive to users is something worth exploring.  There were also models of outdoor exercise equipment that could be used along trails - these sorts of interactive things are far more likely to attract people to the riverbank than some of the other options that are currently being presented to council.

As I usually do, I found the educational aspects of the conference most interesting, as well as the opportunity to talk with delegates from across the country about our common issues.  I'm hoping that those of us who were there bring these new ideas back to our council and committee meetings - that's the whole point of going to these conferences, of course.

"The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page." - Augustine of Hippo

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Waterslides

The announcement this week that the waterslides need major maintenance work before they are safe to be used by the public, and may not reopen unless a community group or individual steps up with the necessary funds, was a surprise to many people.  Once again, council is caught between the proverbial rock and hard place - the demands on our financial resources far exceed our current tax levels, and increasing those tax levels to pay for everything that everybody wants, would place too heavy a tax burden on city residents.

It's starting to seem almost like the movie Groundhog Day - different facility; same story, unfortunately.

While I know that the waterslides are a fun and affordable day in the water for people, especially those who don't have a cottage at the lake (that would be most of us), it's not one of our more affordable facilities, since it's only used for less than three months of the year, and the user revenue isn't enough to cover the costs of having it open, staffed, and maintained.  And having it an outdoor facility means that the maintenance costs are higher - there's a reason why there are only two outdoor waterslides in Saskatchewan.

Part of the problem is that council wasn't made aware of the magnitude of the situation until this year - despite what may be alleged by anonymous posters on various websites, we were not informed of the potential safety issues until this year.

One way of preventing this situation from recurring with all our facilities, might be to have an annual report from each facility on what kind of shape it's in, what kind of regular or recurring maintenance is required to keep  it functioning, and what the cost would be.  We don't get anything like this at present, and I think it would be extremely helpful.

It's kind of like with your car or house - there are things that should be done on a regular basis, and you need to be aware of what these things are and what the cost is going to be so that you can put it into your budget.  Even with major expenditures like a new roof or a furnace, knowing the approximate lifespan of these things gives you the chance to build up savings to cover the cost, before it becomes an emergency.

The sad reality is that the waterslides may never reopen.  I think that for the investment required, we would be far better off to look into the costs of building a facility that can be used year-round.  The challenge will be figuring out ahead of time, not just how much the facility will cost to build, but how much it will cost to operate and maintain.  I know that this sort of thing isn't nearly as exciting, but it would prevent such unpleasant surprises in the future.  Just like the costs of fuel and maintenance should be considered before you buy a car, and you wouldn't think of buying a car that you could only drive for a few months of the year, we need to think of the whole picture before we invest in another facility.

"Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance." - Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. 

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Margo Fournier Centre Problem

At last week's council meeting, we had many users of the Margo Fournier Centre show up to voice their concerns about the recent notification from the city to user groups that they may need to find alternative places for their various activities.  The notification wasn't something that had been directed by council, and it didn't say that the centre would definitely be closing, but was more of a heads-up.  And filling council chambers had the usual result - members of council voted to reverse the notification, even though it hadn't been a council decision.  However, the problem remains, and we're just getting a handle on its extent.

Council has been gathering information on the many, many buildings that the city owns and maintains, and it's no secret that we have more facilities than we can afford.  In our rush to provide residents with a good variety of recreational and sports facilities, previous councils didn't take the time upfront, before the decision was made to go ahead with yet another facility, to figure out the ongoing cost of maintaining these facilities in good repair, as well as the more boring necessities, like roads and clean water.

This is the inevitable result - our population is not increasing at a rate that can support all of these facilities.  Hard decisions have to be made, because we can't continue to support all of our facilities at the levels that people have become used to.

I appreciate the value that the Margo Fournier Centre brings to the downtown.  I think that there's great value in having a facility that people who work downtown can walk to on their lunch hour for fitness classes.  I realize that the attached Heritage Centre is a good gathering place for seniors, providing essential social opportunities.

I hope that the users also realize that their usage is heavily subsidized by the city - in other words, the tax payers.  Users need to recognize that the convenience of being able to walk to a fitness class on their lunch hour should likely carry a greater cost than five dollars a class - or even less, when you realize that people who have a monthly pass to the field house can attend any of the classes at the Margo Fournier Centre for no additional cost.

The other inequity that has been mentioned before, but needs to be mentioned again, is that many of the users of city facilities, including the Margo Fournier Centre, don't live in the city, so their cost is further subsidized, since they're not paying the taxes that city residents do.  I found it rather ironic that many of the people who signed the petition to keep the Margo Fournier Centre open had addresses from outside the city - they don't have to worry about their taxes going up to keep city facilities open and safe.  I certainly support having different user rates for non-city residents, to help make up the difference.

I also think that we need to include all costs of maintaining facilities when we set user rates for the public, and that includes utility and water costs - otherwise we're just perpetuating the inequities, and passing the costs on to the tax payers.  It also might end some of the misconceptions that certain facilities pay for themselves - this isn't true if all costs aren't involved, and at this point, they aren't.

I've had many interesting and positive conversations with some of the people concerned about the potential closure of this facility, and I have no doubt of their sincerity and appreciation for this facility.  I hope that in their continuing discussions with the various interest groups that they put forward alternatives that include establishing a fair cost rate for using the facility, and don't just hope that the current situation will continue.

And please, please, please, let's remember this the next time council chambers are filled with a crowd of people demanding that we need a new facility - we just can't have it all.

"There's no free lunch." - Milton Friedman