Sunday, September 28, 2014

Concessions - Business or Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, September 21, 2014

Questioning the Importance of Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Just What Is SCAN?

At last week'c council meeting I was pleased to propose, and to have the rest of council support, a proposal to the provincial government to expand the current SCAN program to have staff in Prince Albert as well as in Saskatoon and Regina.  And I had no problem with amending the motion to include having a liquor inspector located here as well, since that aligns with our increasing awareness of the underlying factor of alcohol abuse in so many of our community problems.

SCAN stands for Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods, and is a program run through the Ministry of Justice.  It's built on the premise that the problems in many neighbourhoods can be directly linked to one or more problem residences or businesses, and that taking action against these particular problem locations can reduce overall crime in the neighbourhood.

The program recognizes that problem residences are most easily identified by the neighbours, who can observe habitual activities like multiple vehicles coming and going, but not staying long - the classic sign of a residence that's being used for drug trafficking.  The police just don't have the resources to have personnel watching consistently, so having neighbours notice these things is making use of the people who have the most at stake.  Reporting to SCAN is totally confidential, as well, which may reduce the risk of people not reporting for fear of retribution.

A SCAN referral doesn't mean that a residence or business is shut down immediately - warning letters to the property owner are usually the first step, unless the problem is acute enough to warrant immediate closure of the residence.  But it focuses on removing the location of criminal activity, not trying to gather sufficient evidence to prosecute individuals.  In many cases, of course, the true source of the criminal activity is several steps away - what SCAN does is make it more difficult for criminals to have a place to operate out of, which makes the neighbourhood safer as a result.

The underlying premise of the program is sound; the problem for Prince Albert is that the staff are too far away to respond quickly and efficiently to problems here, and that's what my motion was about - encouraging the province to expand a program with a good success rate to a city that needs it.

In my fourteen years on council, I've spent quite a bit of time working on making neighbourhoods safer, and I've found that all too often, it's a single house that's the source of problems.  And I've had many people thank me when the criminal activity based out of that house stops - the whole neighbourhood benefits.  I know that one house that I can see from my front door used to have people coming and going at all hours, with loud parties on the weekends.  It was finally placarded because the water was shut off, but it was a long and painful process for those of us in the neighbourhood, and for the police.  Perhaps if SCAN had been in place then, it would have been quicker.  And now that I'm seeing suspicious activity going on in a building that I can see from my kitchen window, I'm hoping that using SCAN will help, not just me, but my whole neighbourhood.

We often hear complaints about how people don't look out for their neighbours any more.  Well, this is a chance for us to try to bring some of that sense back.  Just as you watch for strange activities near their home when you know your neighbours are away, SCAN encourages you to watch for symptoms of habitual criminal activity, and gives you a place to call.  I just hope that soon, the number to call will be a local one.

"You can observe a lot by just watching." - Yogi Berra

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Looking Back at Summer, and Forward to Fall

All too soon, summer is winding down.  I notice it most in the early evenings, when it gets dark so early.  The cooler mornngs are a big change too - it's hard to believe that less than two weeks ago Andrea and I were sweltering through a hot and humid summer day in Toronto before catching the train back to Saskatoon - apparently the first over 30 day that they had enjoyed all year.  The Ontario summer was even cooler than ours, which is certainly a change.

The start of fall seems like a time of new beginnings, probably because those school day feelings stay with us our whole lives.  Although council doesn't break for the summer, we do have fewer meetings, they start earlier in the day, and we abandon our usual dress code for July and August.  So now it's back to the suit, weekly meetings (Council and Executive in alternating weeks), and the 5 p.m. meeting start.

I didn't have my usual summer building project, unlike last year, when I shingled the north half of the house, or the year before when I built a deck.  This year I did spend some time at Ingrid's house in Saskatoon, replacing the frames around her two front windows, and replacing the roof vent.  We also spent some time helping Guthrie as he moved to Saskatoon to start a new job, and find new living arrangements.  I do have an indoor project planned - putting new hardwood floors in the living room, and putting in new under-floor heating there as well.  It's the kind of project that doesn't depend on a stretch of good weather, and shouldn't be as brutal on me as last year's roof project turned out to be.

For council, this fall marks the half-way point of the current term.  We have continued to work well as a team, and I think that we've made good progress on one of our major goals, catching up on some of the road repair backlog, although not as much as last year, because of the weather.  And we've set some new targets for ourselves, most notably our goal of having the budget process completed before the end of the calendar year, rather than in the spring.

Shifting the timeline for the budget back by months is going to require extra effort by administration, since many of our budget decisions depend on knowing how this year's money has been spent, and the turnaround on that information isn't always known quickly.  However, the target was made known quite early - if it turns out not to be feasible, then adjustments will have to be made to the process.

As always, I hope that as a council we do a better job of focusing on the job at hand, and we take the energy of the new beginning of fall to remember our priorities, and work together to keep the momentum going through the winter.

"You can't turn the clock back, so you have to look ahead." - Mel Gibson

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Canadian Association of Police Governance Annual Meeting

I just got back from the annual meeting of the Canadian Association of Police Governance - the annual gathering of what are variously known as police boards or commissions.  Last year's meeting was in Saskatoon; this year's meeting was in Halifax.

As with all meetings of this sort, there's time spent on governance issues - association business, executive elections, and similar stuff.  But the bulk of the time was spent in educational sessions, where we had the chance to hear about how other cities deal with managing how the police work, and to discuss in smaller groups our various experiences.  Various boards are made up of different representatives - some have members appointed by the province, some by the municipality.  The Prince Albert Police Commission has seven members - three from council, four appointed by council.  I was the only council representative at this meeting, and three of the four public members were also there.

I always find it interesting to hear about how other communities deal with problems that we all face.  Probably the most common problem is how to manage the ever-increasing costs of policing, which currently takes up about one-third of our city budget.

Winnipeg has taken an approach to this that I think is worth investigating to see if it could work here.  They have adopted a police cadet model, in which cadets, unarmed and working in pairs, deal with such issues as picking up intoxicated people, directing traffic, security at special events, and downtown safety patrols.  This frees up police officers for doing actual police work, rather than using them for activities that don't require a high level of training.

Winnipeg pays cadets in the neighbourhood of $20 an hour, far less than a trained officer, so there are real cost savings to be had.  They also use the cadet program to identify potential police recruits - a far cheaper alternative than having an officer go through costly training only to find out that they aren't really suited for the job.  And not surprisingly, they have found that the response time of police officers to serious crimes has improved, which is another efficiency.

Using such a model here would free up officers from such current duties as working security at the Exhibition, accompanying bylaw enforcement officers on downtown patrols, having an officer posted at the high school, dealing with drunks (which is probably the source of the greatest number of calls that they currently deal with), or guarding the bridge when lanes are closed off, or when there is a weight restriction applied.  Currently, we pay police officers quite a bit of overtime to do many of these things, and I think that we need to investigate any option to reduce these costs, and ensure that they can focus their energies on the big issues.

The greatest opposition to the cadet program has come from police unions, who see it as taking away from their jobs.  However, when much of this work is currently done by officers on overtime, and when we see the opportunity to improve response times, I can't see us reducing the number of officers - I think that this would allow us to use them more efficiently.  There's certainly more than enough work to go around.

I spoke at length with the woman who gave this presentation, and she will be sending me more detailed information.  I'm looking forward to sharing this with the rest of the commission, and seeing what we can do to see how such a model could work here.

"Every piece of work needs the right person in the right place at the right time." - Benoit Mandelbrot

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Council Compensation - What's Fair?

There's been a bit of coverage in the media this week about council compensation, after the public accounts were released last week, as they are every year, identifying what everyone on council was paid the previous year.  Compensation levels have gone up over the previous year, for two reasons.  Our base salaries are linked to the compensation levels for Cabinet, so when those go up, our salaries go up the next year.  This council also voted to increase the per diem - the daily rate that is paid whenever a full day is spent on council business, and the car allowance.  This vote took place more than a year ago, so last year's compensation reflects decisions made some time ago, in a regular council meeting, in public, as are all decisions related to council compensation.

The per diem is the reason why there is a difference between some councillors' salaries.  Mine was probably at the top of the list this time because I go to out of town committee meetings, which take a whole day.  Attending conferences out of town also means per diems, as does attending full day meetings in town, like those that we have for strategic planning.  The per diem increase was the first since I've been on council - twelve years - and we lagged far behind the rates paid by other cities in the province, so we were playing catch up, as it were.

The report also included what each member of council has spent for travel expenses.  Again, whether a councillor attends out of town conferences is going to affect the amount paid for travel - not everyone has the flexibility in their schedules to do so.  Each councillor has an amount set in the budget for travel each year, and it's up to each councillor to decide what travel, if any, they are going to do.  This is an equitable system which seems to be working well - it's worth noting that nobody exceeded their travel budget, which I think is a good illustration that councillors plan out their travel to ensure that they can attend those conferences which most interest them, and aren't just looking to spend all that they can.

The difficulty that some media seemed to have was that council approved the increase in per diems and car allowance, suggesting that we gave ourselves our own raise.  Of course, the only raise that we control is the per diem rate, which works out to less than 10% of total salary.  The other 90% is controlled by the province.  There have been some years when there's been no increase at all, neither in base rate or per diems, which as I said, hadn't been increased in more than 10 years.

I think that the current system is about as hands-off as we can get.  I suppose there are alternatives out there - we could link to increases in cost-of-living, which would mean a raise every year, or we could link to raises that city employees get.  Both of these would result in much greater increases, and I don't think that would be popular with the public.

It's interesting that the other part of public accounts which releases the salaries of city employees, only starts with those employees who earn more than $50,000 annually, and doesn't release any staff travel expenses.  So the situation is that eight of the nine people who make the final decisions on how the city runs would not have their salaries released if we were under the same rules.  I'm not advocating that, but it does put things into perspective - even with our so-called huge salary increases, we don't make a lot of money.  There aren't too many places where the bosses make less than the staff.

I don't think that anyone on council is there to get rich - if they are, they've had a big surprise.  The job doesn't pay well, you're on call seven days a week, your every decision is public and open to criticism, and on-line forums have brought a whole new way for people to insult you anonymously.

I didn't run for council to get rich, but I do think that some form of compensation is required, and it should be equitable with other cities in the province.  I can't think of a single occasion where I've been berated by a member of the public for being over-paid, but I have gotten many thanks from people who see that I put in a fair amount of effort, and they appreciate that.  I've also gotten even more comments from people along the lines of  "I could never do that for that amount of money.  Thank goodness there are people who will."

And that's what it comes down to - anybody with a job knows that the paycheque is only part of the reason that you do the job.  But not too many people would do their jobs for nothing, and I don't think that anyone on this current council needs to be embarrassed about being compensated fairly for doing a difficult job.

"What's worth doing is worth doing for money." - Gordon Gekko (Wall Street)

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