Sunday, April 19, 2015

Customer Service - What a Concept

A comment often made, by both residents and members of council, is that the city should be run like a business.  I think that when people say that, whether they're part of council or not, they mean that we need to be conscious of spending money wisely, investing in the long-term, and looking for the most efficient way of operating, whether it's running facilities or maintaining infrastructure.

What isn't usually discussed is one of the basic tenets of running a business - providing good customer service.  I had an experience last week that illustrated to me how many of our city employees don't realize that one of their responsibilities is providing good customer service, as they are usually the front line in dealing with the tax payer, who is the customer for the many services that the city provides.

I got a notice from the city over an assessment issue, with a phone number to contact if I wanted more information.  Since I wanted more information, I dialed the number.  The following conversation went like this.

City employee: "Financial Services."

Me: "Who am I speaking to?"

City employee: "Financial Services."

Me: "I know that.  Who am I speaking to?"

City Employee (rather rudely): "Who's this."

Me: "Councillor Lee Atkinson, and I'd like to speak to XXX (the individual who had signed the letter)."

City Employee (slightly more pleasant tone): "He's in Regina." At this point, I would have expected an offer to take a message, an inquiry as to what I was calling about, in case someone else could help me, or at least some information as to when the individual who had signed the letter would be back, or possibly all three.  I got nothing.

Me:  "Okay, I'd like to speak to Joe Day (the director of Financial Services)."

City Employee:  "He's in a meeting."  Again, no interest in why I was calling, or any interest in helping me with whatever my problem is.

Me:  "Never mind, I'll call the City Manager."

I hung up, angry because I had followed the directions in the letter for further information, and was not helped one bit by whoever answered the phone.  This is a good illustration of what I'm often told by frustrated residents who have contacted City Hall with a question or concern - not much help, and a reluctance to identify oneself, so that a person may be told one thing one day, and a different thing the next, but can't tell who the individual was who provided information that may have been faulty.

When I shared this with Andrea, a long-time government employee, she was amazed.  The standard in her workplace is that you always identify yourself when you answer the phone, and if you can't help the person on the other end, you find someone who can.  Their guideline for response to phone inquiries is within 24 hours.  Since I never received a response from the Sanitation Department to an inquiry I made about roll-out garbage bins more than two weeks ago (I finally just went directly to Council with my request), I'm pretty sure that no such standard has been set for city employees.

I suppose that some employees might think that providing good customer service doesn't matter, because it's not like we have any competition in our business.  That being said, it is more efficient to deal with a customer's question the first time it's asked, rather than making them keep trying - you're saving not just their time, but also the time of other city employees who might answer the phone next time, or the time of people up the line who may eventually have to step in to deal with an increasingly annoyed customer.

It's also just plain good manners.  We have signs posted at our cashier stations, warning people who are there to pay water bills or parking tickets that they need to be respectful.  That's more likely to happen if the respect also happens the other way.

Some of my council colleagues have raised suggestions that the city needs to develop a slogan or a brand to help sell ourselves.  I would suggest that if we start with the people who are the first line of customer response, ensuring that they are polite, helpful, and don't think that their job is done until the customer is satisfied, that would be a much less costly way of building our city's reputation, with the people who really count, the people who live here.

Me?  I'm still waiting for an answer to my question.

"You can get through life with bad manners, but it's easier with good manners."  Lillian Gish

Saturday, April 11, 2015

A Couple of Things I Didn't Know About the Needle Exchange Program

Friday morning as Andrea and I were headed out to get groceries, we had an unpleasant surprise.  Dumped on the boulevard by our house was what appeared to be a pile of garbage.  When I took a closer look, it turned out to be a large pile of drug paraphernalia - needles, both used and unused, alcohol swabs, cotton balls, spoons, elastics, a variety of capsules (blue, pink, green and yellow), bloody paper towels and tissues, zip-lock bags.  And when I say large, I mean large - more than sixty needles.

How and why this pile of garbage got there I don't know - I know that it wasn't there the afternoon before.  While I'm sort of accustomed to seeing needles in the gutters as we walk downtown everyday, and on a recent walk down our back alley I found a horrendous pile of needles between a dumpster and a neighbour's fence, it was more than a little upsetting to see this, on a boulevard where children walk to school every day, and people walk their dogs.

So I called the Harm Reduction Program, and two people came to pick this stuff up.  Since I had them handy, I asked a couple of questions, and the answers surprised me, and might surprise you.  Since there were so many needles, I asked how many needles they hand out to any individual at any one time.  The answer was, to my mind, unbelievable and indefensible.


What possible reason can there be to hand out twenty needles at one time?  I suppose that an argument could be made that it saves the user repeated trips to the Harm Reduction Office.  But I'm not sure what part of harm reduction is delivered by making it easier for the user to take drugs - I would have thought that reduction meant encouraging less use, not more.  And of course, more needles makes it easier to share, and increase the number of drug users, not decrease.

The other piece of rather surprising information is that it's not really a needle exchange program, despite the name.  To get those twenty needles, the user does not have to turn in twenty needles.  Nope.  Not even one.  The rather impressive figures handed out to illustrate the success of the program count every needle turned in as a return.  But that includes the needles that are placed in drop boxes, the needles picked up by the Fire Department, and the needles picked up by the Harm Reduction Program, including the sixty-odd that they picked up on Friday from the boulevard outside my home.  That's how they get a shortfall of only 81,196 needles from the 2012-13 year, when they handed out 1,278,150 needles and got back 1,196,854.

 I think that using the phrase needle exchange is being somewhat misleading - no exchange takes place.  Needles go out, needles come back, but needles are not exchanged.  I also think that handing needles out in such large numbers in a single transaction is only making the problem worse, and I really don't see how the city can support such a program.

I understand that providing needles helps to prevent other complications.  But I resent the program being presented as something other than what it is, and numbers being used to present as rosy a picture as possible.  Develop a program with some realistic controls, be honest about how it's working, and maybe we can work together to reduce the number of needles that keep showing up on our streets.

"Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon and the truth." - Buddha

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Flood Worries

Back in the 1970s, the provincial government established guidelines for floodways and 100 year flood zones.  This was well before my time living here, let alone being on council, and I'm not sure if it was ever adopted by the city, or factored into any decisions, since building has subsequently occurred within that zone without any restrictions.  More recently, in the time of the previous mayor, more restrictive zoning, to allow for a 500 year flood zone, was established by the province.  Flood zones are merely a way of assessing risk, that at some point within the specified time frame, it is more than 90% likely that a flood will occur which extends to the area within the zone.

It is, of course, a difficult prediction, with the accuracy of the prediction being reduced the longer it's extended.  And climate change makes it even more difficult to make accurate predictions.  Nevertheless, the province has set a new 500 year flood zone, which council has not yet adopted.  Our new city planner has suggested that we do so, to enable us to move forward with a new community plan.

Thursday evening we held a community meeting, and we will hold another meeting in May.  Not surprisingly, the couple of hundred people in attendance had many questions, and unfortunately we don't have a lot of answers.  But starting with questions is a good first step, although we're in a bit of a difficult spot - the province has set the rule, and we can't fight it or opt out, we just have to figure out how to move forward.  I think having these meetings is a good first step in doing that.

What most people want to know is what difference this will make moving forward.  The rules for new house construction are clear - the lack of clarity comes with how current home owners and their properties are affected.  For example, are they required to flood-proof their residences?  Apparently, this is not  mandatory, but it isn't clear what would happen if you don't take those steps, and then are affected by a flood.  Will there be areas that are off-limits for any new construction, no matter what adaptations are made?

Not surprisingly, most of the questions that came at the meeting related to the effect that these new guidelines will have on current property values.  Will there be a caveat attached to properties in the event of resale?  I think that anyone can understand the concern that people have when what is probably their greatest financial asset may no longer be valued at what it might have been, but it is also true that the value of a property can't be definitively set until it is sold.

Change is a constant in everyone's lives - our best recourse is to determine the range of potential effects, and try to mitigate them whenever possible.  We can't guarantee that those whose homes lie within the new flood zone guidelines will not have to deal with some change, but the more questions we can find answers for, and the more information that we can provide, either through meetings, reports, or one-on-one conversations, the better prepared we will be for whatever lies ahead.

"It wasn't raining when Noah built the ark." - Howard Ruff

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Balancing Risk with Reality

Last week's council meeting featured our decision on supporting three community events, using the previously budgeted $50,000.  I asked that the three requests be separated, but was refused, so I had to vote against all three, even though I only have serious reservations about the realistic prospects of one, the proposed Borealis Music Festival, which asked for, and received, $15,000 of the total amount, as well as $15,000 of in-kind support.

Of the three, only the baseball tournament actually managed to put in its proposal a year ahead of time, which is one of the prerequisites, but most other councillors were okay with approving all three.  The reasoning behind having groups submit proposals a year ahead of time is the recognition that a successful event of provincial or national scope cannot be pulled together in the space of a few months, but in this case, impatience ruled the day.

It was unfortunate that one councillor chose to respond to my questions with personal insults rather than reasoned debate, but I guess that's what you do when you don't have good answers.  Responding that way does no favours to either me, the rest of council, or the public, and it certainly doesn't provide the public with what they deserve - a council that shows it is thoughtful before spending tax payers' money.

My over-riding concern with the proposed music festival is that, while I'm sure the proponents are well-intentioned, they haven't done the required homework, and they're trying to be too big, too fast, before they know whether this is a good idea or not.  I know that you never know if something will work for sure before you try it, but I also know that most successful ventures didn't spring fully grown and massive their first year.

For example, the music festival has a projected attendance of 5,000 people a day.  That's a lot.  They compare themselves to other festivals, ignoring the fact that these festivals have long histories, and have built reputations and a client base over that time.  So while it might seem reasonable to feel that this festival would be comparable to Ness Creek, held near Big River, which has an annual attendance of around 4,000, the hard fact that has been ignored is that Ness Creek has been around for 25 years, has developed its brand of ecological awareness and home-grown music, and its attendance in the first year was around 200.  It grew over time, which is only reasonable.

The promoters have not identified the type of music that will be offered, saying that they don't want to tie themselves down.  Unfortunately, by not having a brand, they aren't likely to attract people who are unfamiliar with the specific bands that will be there.  If you like folk music, you may go to the Regina or Winnipeg Folk Festivals, even if you haven't heard of all of the musicians, because you know that music in a style that you like will be offered.  But if you don't even know the genre, why would you drop $50 (for one day) on the off-chance that you'll like the music.

The promoters are also thinking that transporting people in from the lakes will swell the crowds.  My gut feeling is that people who go to the lake on a long weekend do so because they want to be at the lake.  If the weather is good, why on earth would you be interested in coming back into the city?  If the weather is lousy, attending an open-air music festival isn't going to be a popular option.  And people are likely to be unwilling to depend on a bus to get them back and forth - people like the flexibility that having their own vehicle offers, even if there is totally inadequate parking.

Merchandising is a big part of their proposed business model, with projected beer sales of 2 per attendee, and the assumption that most attendees will spend money on a T shirt.  Again, if I've spent $50 just to get in the gate, I'm not going to be willing to spend that much again on beer and a T shirt, so perhaps testing the waters for demand in the first year would be prudent, rather than sinking money into merchandise.

And probably most crucial, this all has to be pulled together in four months.  That's not a lot of lead time when you still need to put together the organizational team, and sign enough acts for three days, especially when they say that they will be operating in multiple, undefined venues. Both Ness Creek and the Regina Folk Festival are advertising their line-ups now, and are selling passes.  The Borealis Music Festival web-site is still under construction, with only five acts listed.  The proponents haven't even set up the required registered non-profit group, but are operating through the Tourism and Marketing Board.

As I said, I got no answers to my questions, which isn't surprising.  It's not that I'm against Prince Albert doing what it can to attract people, but we shouldn't extrapolate numbers from other events, or other communities, and assume that the same results will occur here, for a product that hasn't been defined, on a long weekend.  Yes, people travel from outside the community for events at the Rawlinson Centre, but there aren't 5,000 of them at a time, and they aren't coming for a non-defined event.

I'm sure that the reason that I didn't get answers to my questions is because the organizers don't have them yet.  Part of that may be because they've rushed into this, without realizing the time, people and research required to reduce the risks and increase the odds of success.  It's a shame that, because they're in such a rush to do something this year, they may reduce the chance of building something that would last.  And that will make it harder to get support in the future - a big price to pay for not doing the research up front.

"Sometimes questions are more important than answers." - Nancy Willard

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Problem with Discretionary Spending

You may not be aware that, every year, the city has earmarked in its budget $50,000 to help fund community events.  Why I suggest that you may not be aware, is because this is a budget item that we don't discuss specifically.  It was set in 2009, I believe, and there are some guidelines around it, but we don't review it at budget time, to assess if it is enough, not enough or too much, or if the way it's been used is within the current policy, or if that needs to be revised.

The current guidelines are that it is supposed to be used for national or provincial events, but not for conferences.  In the past it has been used mostly for athletic events, with part of the justification being that the upgrading that happens to facilities then benefits the whole community.  However, when the vast majority of it ($48,500) was used a few years ago to help pay for the golf club's hundredth anniversary, some of the money was used to pay for participant gifts and refreshments - hardly spending that had any long term benefits to the average tax payer.

We currently have two events that are looking to use this money - another air show, and a proposed music festival to be held the long weekend in August.  Already, one of the main criteria for application has been missed for both of these events - application is supposed to be made a year in advance.  And both applications don't have the kind of detail that I would expect  - there should be an explanation of exactly what the money will be used for (gifts and refreshments are not appropriate uses), and what other financial arrangements have been made.  What often seems to be forgotten is that when city facilities are used, the tax payer is already providing support through in-kind provision of services, both with the facility itself as well as with staff time and equipment in both preparation and clean-up.

As far as I'm concerned, our allocation of this money should be as diligent as for any other budget expenditure - is this appropriate use of the money, that will benefit the city as a whole.  Have the applicants done their homework, or do they just see this as money for the asking.  Does this meet the policy requirement of being a national or provincial event, with the potential to bring people into the city who are going to spend more money.  In fact, I would question the current restriction against providing funding to help with conferences - I'm not sure why we don't realize that someone coming to the community to attend a conference is just as likely to spend money on meals and hotel rooms as someone coming here for a baseball tournament.

We also need to make the process of allocating these funds more open and fair.  Right now, it almost depends on having friends in the right places, who can help move the process forward.  That means that other, perhaps more worthy events, are left out in the cold.  Having an open process would accomplish a couple of things - it would spread the money around better, so that more functions would benefit, and it would help to remove the image that Prince Albert has - of being an old boys' club, where if you know the right people, doors open more easily.  As well, a more open process would remove the current perception of unfairness, and likely result in broader benefits to the city as a whole - something that we need to get better at making sure happens.

"After the government takes enough to balance the budget, the taxpayer has the job of budgeting the balance." - Unknown

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