Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Problem with Boarded Up Houses

On Friday, along with several fellow councillors and some city staff, I went on a tour of boarded up houses.  We saw about thirty properties, places where houses are still standing, in various states of repair, but for whatever reason are not occupied, and in some cases, have been vacant for years.  We saw properties in Wards 1, 2 and 3, which is where most of these properties are located, although there are some boarded up properties in other wards, generally in the older areas of the city.

Boarded up houses are a problem for Prince Albert in several ways.  First, and probably most serious, is that they are places that attract squatters - people who will move in, or use the place for parties - and thus become a risk for fires, as well as being a location for illegal activities.  They affect the neighbourhood, bringing down property values, being a source of noxious weeds, leaving stretches of unshoveled sidewalks after a snow storm, and providing an attractive nuisance to children.

Just as I think we should have a goal of having all streets in the city paved, I think that having a goal of having no abandoned properties anywhere in the city would add immeasurably to the quality of life for all residents.  I can't help but think that if a property were boarded up in some of the newer, higher income areas of the city, the neighbours would raise such holy hell that the situation wouldn't last.  In contrast, in my ward, there is a property that was placarded as being unfit to live in in 2012.  Three years later, bylaw enforcement is only starting to talk about starting the prosecution process - imagine how pleasant it would be to have lived next door to this property for the last few years.

So what's the problem?  Part of it I alluded to in the previous paragraph - bylaw enforcement don't appear to be in any rush to act, and often seem to be extremely lenient with the landlords, rather than thinking of things from the perspective of the neighbours.  As far as I'm concerned, our sympathy should be with the neighbours, not with a landlord, who often doesn't even live in the city, who can't be bothered to bring his property up to a livable standard.  At least the process has improved so that if there's a fire in one of these buildings, the fire department informs bylaw enforcement, so that they can do an inspection immediately to see if the building is salvageable - before they would often wait for a complaint before taking any kind of action.  Rather than being complaint driven, they need to become more proactive, and follow-up quickly and firmly on addresses that are already on their files.

Another problem is that we tax empty lots at a higher rate than lots with derelict buildings on them, so there's actually a disincentive to knocking down these buildings.  I think that a more reasonable approach would be to provide tax incentives to people who build on empty lots, encouraging them to take these buildings down, and build new ones, improving the neighbourhood and adding to the available decent housing in the city.

I think that adding a surcharge to landlords that are repeat offenders - whether they need repeated warnings to take action, or whether the remedial action that they take doesn't last, and the building gets back on the list.  That would show landlords that we take these problems seriously, and they can either fix them or get out of the business.  We have to stop letting things slide.

This is an example of broken window syndrome - where it's been proven that if you take care of the maintenance of buildings in a area, the crime rate goes down as the livability of the area goes up.  As such, I think that abandoned buildings are something that council and administration should put higher on the priority list.  It may seem that it affects only the older, lower income parts of the city, but improving those areas will improve the whole city - and that's the job that we've all signed up for.

"You can't improve a neighbourhood unless you bring everyone along with you" - Marcus Samuelson

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The New Executive Committee Meeting Structure - The First Meeting

Last Monday marked the inaugural Executive Committee Meeting under the new structure.  From my perspective, I found it very useful, although, as always, the first run-through shows some areas for improvement.

Executive meetings have now been structured to be focused on more in-depth presentations from various departments, rather than merely running through the decision items for the actual council meeting.  At this first meeting, we had five presentations, which is probably why the meeting ran rather long.  It was also followed by an in camera session  - I'm going to suggest to the city clerk that in future, that part of the meeting should be held first, rather than making the individuals involved wait until the end of the meeting.

As deputy mayor for the next few weeks, I chaired the entire meeting.  Because the meeting is less structured, I found that as chair, one really has to keep on top of things, to avoid people going off on tangents.  But it's nice to chair a less formal meeting - speakers still have to be recognized by the chair, but no longer have to stand when speaking.  The less formal structure also seemed to be conducive to better information exchange.

Discussion on each topic kept fairly focused, and I can see that one of the benefits will be earlier heads-up of where departments are planning to go.  This will give council earlier opportunity to shape the direction of where things go - better synchronization with administration, which should lead to better discussion of options at earlier stages, and better decisions in the long run.

The actual Council Meeting will now be chaired in its entirety by the mayor.  In the past, the deputy mayor would chair part of the meeting, so the awkward changing of seats mid-meeting will now be avoided.

To outsiders, these changes may not seem significant.  But I see major improvements, largely in the areas of more and better information exchange, and better use of everyone's time - both members of council and staff.  I'm hoping that with continual refinement of the process, and as everyone gets more comfortable with the changes, that the improvements will be evident to everyone.

"Those who initiate change will have a better opportunity to manage the change that is inevitable." - William Pollard

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Pros and Cons of SUMA

I spent four days last week in Saskatoon, attending the annual meeting of the Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association, or SUMA.  This happens every year during the first week of February, alternating between Regina and Saskatoon.  The time is spent mostly in educational sessions, both large and small, as well as in group sessions where various resolutions are proposed and voted on, and winds up with a question and answer session with members of the provincial government.

The greatest value that I've found from SUMA over the years is the time spent networking with colleagues - informal sharing of mutual problems and possible solutions.  Listening to the real-life experiences of other councillors provides ideas that tend to be much more practical than the information provided in the formal program sessions.

One of the problems with SUMA is that its members include everyone from tiny villages to the two big cities.  The problems in a small community that has maybe two stop signs are going to have very little in common with a city like Saskatoon.  The result of this broad range of needs is that the educational sessions tend to be very basic, in order to appeal to as many delegates as possible.

I think that a more practical solution would be to have different associations for the different sizes of communities.  Having one for mid-sized cities would be ideal for Prince Albert - Regina and Saskatoon are at a different scale, and could just meet with each other.  Then the small municipalities - the towns and villages - could be another.  Each could then focus on problems appropriate to their size.

I also don't get much out of the bear-pit session with the provincial politicians.  Anyone who thinks that the politicians available are going to provide some new surprising revelation in response to questions from the floor is rather naive.  In fact, this year, the premier responded to a surprising number of questions that were directed at different ministers, which suggested to me that we were going to be sure to hear the party line.

Prince Albert did get unanimous support for its resolution on mandatory bike helmets, suggesting that most communities understand that provincial legislation is required in order to move forward on matters of this type.  However, we've gotten similar support in the past, without any resulting action from the province, so I would caution against any hope that we'll see legislative change soon.

As I said, I enjoyed the time spent meeting old friends and making new ones, in the time between formal sessions.  And even if the other parts of the meeting could be better, I've found there's always something useful to take away.  The job of city council isn't one where there are a whole lot of learning opportunities out there, so I try to take advantage of all that I can.

"An investment in knowledge pays the best interest." - Ben Franklin

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