Sunday, May 1, 2016

Another Levy with No Clear Purpose

Last Monday, council approved a new bylaw that will allow the city to charge hotels a Destination Marketing Levy, with the levy varying based on the value of the property.  This is not to be confused with the former voluntary destination marketing fee that had no connection to the city, but which was paid to the Destination Marketing Board, which was intertwined with the Tourism Board and the Borealis Music Festival in ways that were never made completely public - that voluntary fee no longer exists, and of course, the money in that fund is long gone.

This levy is, of course, just a new tax with a different name.  I have a few problems with this new tax.  For one thing, I don't think that adequate consultation was done, either with the businesses affected or with council as a whole.  If we're as transparent as we said we were going to be four years ago, then there should have been much more open discussion about the options before it came to council for a decision.

Another problem that I have is that we have no real plan for the money.  It will just go into a special fund, allegedly for attracting large events.  As if this wasn't vague enough, the actual use will be decided, according to the city manager, by a special committee established for that purpose.  Who will be on that committee, and what its parameters will be, has not been determined, or if it has, it hasn't been shared with council as a whole.  It joins another levy, this one paid for by all residents through their taxes, that started out to pay for the construction of the soccer centre.  That use is done, but the money is still being collected and saved, for no apparent purpose.

My preference would be, when we set up these special funds, that they're identified as being for a specific purpose, and when that purpose is met, we stop collecting the money.  My fear is that, once a significant amount has accumulated in one of these special funds, one or more special interest groups will come to council, crowd the chambers, and we'll end up putting the money towards another facility that in the long run, will cost the city far more in ongoing operating and maintenance costs, whether it be a new arena, swimming pool, golf course improvement, or some other structure that some people think will be the magic bullet that will attract new businesses and residents to the city, but will just be added to the list of facilities that can't pay their own way, and that the city is expected to make up any shortfalls.

You would think that we would learn from past mistakes.  But it seems that every time, we go down the same path, and are surprised when taxpayers are annoyed by our inability to change our ways.  As well they should, since it's their money that we're so fast to find different ways of collecting and spending.

"When a new source of taxation is found, it never means, in practice, that the old source is abandoned.  It merely means that the politicians have two ways of milking the taxpayer where they had one before." - H. L. Mencken

Sunday, April 17, 2016

What's Missing in the Alcohol Strategy

After a couple of years of meetings, the alcohol strategy was released this past week.  Unfortunately, it's missing a rather crucial part - the strategy part.

You see, a strategy isn't just a list of every idea that came up during a brainstorming session.  I understand the value of brainstorming - of getting out ideas without being too concerned as to the practicality of such ideas.  But a strategy sets priorities for action, and recognizes that it isn't a single problem, but there are separate facets that may require different actions.  A strategy should set targets as well, otherwise there is no way to assess its success or lack of same.

It is a discussion document that includes some interesting statistics with regard to the cost of public intoxication, the proportion of high school students with binge-drinking experience, and the average amount of money that Prince Albert residents spend on alcohol compared to other communities in the province.  In all of these areas, Prince Albert scores considerably higher than elsewhere, and figuring out why is difficult.

And of course, part of the problem is that alcohol in and of itself is not the problem.  A glass or two of wine with dinner or a beer enjoyed on the deck on a hot summer afternoon is not a problem.  The problem is the misuse of alcohol, sometimes in a way that negatively affects others (public intoxication, drunk driving), and sometimes in the impact on individuals, and how it may affect them and their future relationship with alcohol.  A high school kid who binge drinks is probably going to suffer the most from his or her foolishness (as long as they don't get behind the wheel of a vehicle), but if that's seen to be the normal way of drinking, it's likely to lead to more serious problems in the future.  And of course, there are those individuals for whom a single drink is too much.

Also missing is an assessment of how some of our current initiatives are working.  For example, much was made a few years back about the setting up of a detox centre, so that rather than taking people who were found drunk to the cells, they could be taken to detox.  But it's not clear if this is working as a true detox centre, or just as a place where people can sleep it off, and then are put back on the street without any further support.  A couple of months ago, someone passed out in one of the chairs in the atrium of the Forest Centre.  When the security guard came back from his rounds, he wasn't able to wake the guy up, so he called the police.  When the police arrived, one officer said "Oh, Darrell.  And  you just got out of detox yesterday."  Anecdotes like that tell me that the detox centre has provided another place for drunks to sleep, but it hasn't done anything to solve the problem of public intoxication.

And I'm surprised that, with all the concern about high rates of teenage drinking, nobody proposed that the practice of having a "safe" grad, where grads drink with parental approval, is sending the wrong message.  After all, if teens who were surveyed said that they would like to see events where alcohol isn't allowed, and that they would like to get away from the idea that alcohol is not necessary to have a good time, this would seem to be the perfect opportunity for schools to lead the way.  But it's almost as though there are some traditions that are considered sacred, and we don't want to examine too closely any possible connection between that sort of condoned activity and the acceptance of binge drinking in high schools.

The strategy needs to include both actions to prevent problems in the future, as well as actions to address current problems.  Some organization to set priorities and identify first steps would be a good next step for the committee.  And why the report bothers to list ideas that are not within the power of anyone in the city to implement (legalizing marijuana has nothing to do with alcohol) only distracts from any realistic recommendations that may be in the report.

I sympathize with the committee - I'm sure that they felt pressured to come up with something after being in existence for almost four years.  But rather than make an announcement about what is at best a preliminary discussion document, they might have better spent their time actually setting some priorities and recommendations for actions that could actually be implemented - narrowing the scope of a huge problem.  As they say, the way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time - and there's no doubt that alcohol misuse in our community is a huge elephant.

"However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results." - Winston Churchill

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Borealis Bailout

The outstanding debt of the Borealis Music Festival came before council on Monday, with a request that we pay it off.  Now, this was not a city function.  It was nominally run by the Tourism Board, although they said at the time that was only a stop-gap measure, as the intent was to set up the festival itself as a non-profit organization.  As far as I know, that has yet to happen, although they certainly demonstrated that they know how not to make a profit.

The city funds the Tourism Board through a grant, similar to how the museum is funded, but it is not a city board, and none of the board employees are city employees.  This was their show from start to finish.

The only funding that the city provided was $15,000 from the special event reserve of $50,000 that is set in every budget.  This money is supposed to go to events of provincial or national scope, and be applied for a year in advance.  The application failed on both counts, but when it came to council a year ago, only two of us voted against it, not just because it didn't meet the criteria, but also because it was obviously not well thought out, and highly over-optimistic.  They were projecting attendance of 15,000 over three days; they had fewer than 700 paying attendees.  In fact, more people attended on free passes than paid to get in.  If I was one of the people who actually paid for my pass, I'd be ticked.

The city also provided $15,000 in in-kind services - trimming trees, that sort of thing - and blocked off a good part of Kinsmen Park for the August long weekend from city residents - you know, the ones who pay for its upkeep.

I voiced my concerns at the time, and was told by one councillor that my questions were ridiculous.  Apparently, we're just supposed to believe whatever we're told, no matter how far-fetched it may appear (and prove to be).

And now most of my colleagues have decided that we should pay the festival's outstanding bills.  Their logic on several counts is faulty.

First, one councillor said that this was just like the tax reduction we provided to Humpty's last month.  Not so.  The tax reduction was in recognition that a city project, which could have been more efficiently managed, made this business inaccessible to the public for almost four months, during their busiest season.  Had we had crews working long days from the start of the project, rather than doing that in the last few weeks when we were afraid of winter coming early, we would likely have been done a month earlier.  The city was responsible for that mismanagement, and as such felt that a small concession was appropriate.  We also put some boundaries in place so that this will only be an option when work continues for more than 100 days.  And if you want to look at magnitude of assistance, the tax reduction was $8,000 - less than one-tenth of the Borealis Bailout.

Another councillor said that it was just like the subsidy we provide to the Rawlinson Centre.  Again, not the same - we own that facility.  Now, I think that it could be run more efficiently, but so far most of the rest of council has not seen the potential value of actually tendering out the contract, rather than just renewing it, or having contract payments based on performance targets.  But it is a city facility, and we are ultimately responsible for paying the bills, just as we are for the soccer centre or the Art Hauser Centre.  I think that for all of these we could improve the funding models, but they are our facilities.

Some at council are trying to make it sound like this isn't really spending tax payers' money, because it comes from what is euphemistically called positive variances, money that was budgeted for other things but hasn't been spent (like snow removal, because it was such an unusual winter).  But it is tax payers' money, and it annoys me when I think of how we pare down potential expenditures during the budget process, only to hand money over to bail this group out, without any conditions attached.  If other councillors don't think that isn't a dangerous precedent, well, they probably believe that you can attract 15,000 people to an ill-defined music festival on the August long weekend.

There was much contrition from some council members, about how the original grant shouldn't have been approved because it didn't meet the criteria.  They knew it at the time, but still did it, and in fact have done it again, granting $25,000 to an arts festival that applied for the money six months ago, for an event next month, that doesn't meet the provincial/national scope either.  Let's hope that it doesn't lose money.

I know that it's hard to say no, but we keep forgetting that it's not our money.  Council has so little control over factors that cost us money - weather can increase your costs for snow plowing or removing damaged trees, dropping oil prices reduce some residents' disposable income to spend in city businesses, causing some to close, and we lose some of our tax base.  But how we spend our money on discretionary things is totally within our control, and I get angry when I see us doing this just to be nice.  And judging by the people that I've talked to, tax payers get angry about this wastefulness too.

"Nothing is easier than spending public money.  It does not appear to belong to anybody.  The temptation is to bestow it on somebody." - Calvin Coolidge

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Saying Yes and Saying No

Part of the job of being on City Council is making decisions.  Sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes the answer is no.  Usually what happens is a proposal comes to council, through administration, for a decision.  It surprises me when some members of council see themselves as merely a rubber stamp for whatever administration has recommended.  We aren't.  We are responsible for taking the information they provide, reviewing it, and then making up our own minds.  That is because, ultimately, council is responsible for the decision, not administration.

Two good examples came forward this week that illustrate council taking the responsibility for its own decisions.

The first was the request from Humpty's Restaurant for a reduction in their taxes for this year, due to the fact that Second Avenue, where their business is, was under construction for the Big Dig, for almost four months, costing them a great deal of money.  This was the second summer that their business took a big hit - the summer that the bridge was closed was also costly for them.  I thought that their argument was reasonable; administration's recommendation was that we grant no concessions.

We are a council with a history of offering tax breaks and concessions to try to attract new business, but when it comes to giving a break to a business that has been in the community for several years, we become much less generous.  We bear some of the responsibility for the excessive time of the project, as we did not complete the work as quickly as we could.  It was only toward the end of the project that we started having crews work longer days.  I'm not sure why we didn't do this right from the start - at least once a week I would get a call or a comment from someone asking why we weren't taking advantage of the long summer days to get the work done faster.

While some members of council worried about setting a precedent, others were agreeable to putting a time limit for when such requests will be considered.  When it came time for the vote, the decision was unanimous, even though a couple of fence sitters didn't have the courage of their convictions to vote the way they said they felt - something that I don't understand.  In any case, we now have some structure around when we will consider similar cases - 100 days - and that should give administration some extra impetus to manage these projects more efficiently.

We said no, however, to a recommendation from the new housing committee.  They were asking for money to hire a consultant to make recommendations on how to deal with housing problems in the city.  The members on this committee are relatively new - I think that they've only met twice - and it might seem to them that the first thing to do was get some advice from consultants.  Housing is one of my major concerns, and has been in all the time that I've been on council, so why would I vote no on this?

Simple - we have housing reports from consultants (and staff) up the wazoo.  Why not pull some of those reports off the shelf and see what recommendations were made, then recommend some actions.  The problem is that it's much easier to get advice than it is to follow it, but some people feel that getting a report is taking action - it isn't.  It's like we spend all our time aiming, but never firing to see if we're actually anywhere close to the target.

So there's two examples of votes, and why I made the decisions that I made.  As a councillor, I'm responsible for reviewing the information provided, and the reasons for the recommendations.  But when it comes down to the final decision, my responsibility is to make the one that I think is best for the city, according to my judgement, not on what somebody else may think.

"Trust that when the answer is no, there's a better yes down the road." - Anonymous

Sunday, March 6, 2016

It Takes More Than a New Idea to Effect Change

A few individuals have started to declare their interest in running for council in October.  One of the consistent themes that they put forward is the need for new ideas.  They don't actually talk about what their new ideas might be, but they understand that new ideas are needed.

I've had some experience in proposing new ideas at council, and I wish that it were that simple.  I'm reminded of a quote from the author Arthur C. Clarke about the three stages of new ideas.

  1. It can't be done.
  2. It probably can be done, but it's not worth doing.
  3. I knew it was a good idea all along!
What seems to happen with new ideas that are brought to council is that they usually end at step 1.  If you're lucky, you might get to step 2 before the whole idea is scuttled, because your council colleagues don't see any value in the proposed change.  And there have been times when council has made it to step 3, and endorsed a new way of doing things, but administration has then gone back to step 1.  While I understand that figuring out how to change things is more work than just keeping on doing the same thing, the responsibility of both council and administration is not to make sure that things are convenient for ourselves, but rather that we are doing things as efficiently and effectively as possible for the residents of Prince Albert, because they are the ones who are paying the bills.

Tuesday's meeting to discuss the outstanding budgets was a good example of this.  Just like the main budget that was passed in the fall, these proposed budgets were just status quo with new things added on.  There was no attempt to find ways of doing things more efficiently, or to identify areas of spending where cutbacks could be made.  Suggestions that have been made at previous discussions have not been adopted, even if vague commitments were made to look at these suggestions.  One might almost think that administration has figured that if they delay things long enough a new council will come in, who won't remember, or care, that, for example, the previous council voted to move to monthly billing for sanitation and water, and things can go on just as before.

If I were a new candidate for council, I would attend a few council meetings to see just how complicated the process can be.  I would also not just make vague promises for new ideas - I would have a few solid examples of new ideas, and how to make them saleable to both your hoped-for colleagues and administration.  And work on developing your stamina - as one who has been there, done that, I know that you need to develop patience and a thick skin to keep fighting for the same ideas until they get adopted.

A new idea is just the start of the process.  Implementation - that's the difficult part of the job.

"The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as escaping from old ones." - John Maynard Keynes

Sunday, February 28, 2016

More Budget Fun

On Tuesday council has a full day of budget discussions planned.  This may come as a surprise to those who think that we passed the budget before Christmas, but this is a separate piece.  Or three pieces, to be more accurate.  We'll be discussing the water, sanitation and airport budgets.  These are kept separate because some of their funding doesn't come from tax revenues, but from direct fees - things like the sanitation fees on your water bill, landfill charges, and airport fees.

The original plan was to meet to discuss these budgets in January, but the departure of the director and assistant director of finance meant that the meeting had to be delayed for several weeks.

Regrettably, council never seems to want to dig into these budgets too deeply, or to see where efficiencies could be found.  Similarly, administration has been reluctant to make any changes to what is brought before council - when I raise possible changes, the usual response is that they will look at my suggestion, but somehow, the next year, things remain the same.

For example, for several years now I have suggested that we change the way that we pick up yard waste.  Right now, there is a special truck that requires three guys who then drive up and down back alleys and streets looking for clear plastic bags, on no set schedule.  In fact, this past year, they got so far behind that they had to go out on a weekend to make their pick-ups - on overtime, of course.  I have suggested that we move to a service that would use the same trucks as are used for garbage and recycling.  People who want this service could then subscribe, routes could be developed, and the single use truck that requires three guys could be sold.  By doing this, a service that right now costs about $150,000 a year could pay for itself, by having the users pay, not be subsidized by everybody else.  Saskatoon has adopted this exact way of dealing with yard waste.

After several years of making this suggestion, nobody at administration has told me that it won't work.  One councillor has told me that you can't take away services, but that's just so much bull puckey.  Many of us have had the way we get our mail delivered changed just this past year, and survived, and garbage pick-up has evolved over the years from individual cans to back alley dumpsters to individual roll-out bins to separating garbage and recycling.  No way of delivering a city service is set in stone, and we should always be looking at ways to improve our efficiency.

And it isn't just suggestions that have been ignored - this council made a motion three years ago that water billing be done monthly.  It was supposed to happen in 2014.  It hasn't happened yet.  Nobody on administration has bothered to tell us why they are ignoring a direction from council, and I can't help but feel that isn't how it should work.

I look at every budget as an opportunity to plan for the future.  For instance, why aren't we planning to replace all back alley dumpsters with individual bins for each family, and setting out a schedule and required budget to do this?  Both council and administration need to be less satisfied with the status quo - heaven knows one of the things everyone who runs for council talks about is the need for change, but once on council, the urgency for change seems to fade.  It shouldn't - it's the only way to move forward.

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

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Cultural Conversations

I spent this past Thursday in Saskatoon, attending the Municipal Cultural Planning Workshop.  I thought that this was a good use of my time, since Prince Albert is currently in the process of trying to develop a cultural plan, and this day offered not just theories on how to do this from a consultant, but actual case histories from Maple Creek and Humboldt.

The premise of cultural planning is that culture is an integral part of a community, and is essential in building healthy, attractive communities.  We also have to recognize that a healthy culture doesn't just happen - as a city, planning and development has to consider the impacts of decisions, both good and bad, on a community's culture.

When we think about culture, we often think in terms of the arts - concerts, art galleries, theatre.  But this workshop emphasized that culture is much broader than that - culture includes not just those traditional concepts, but also includes recreational and entertainment opportunities, social gathering opportunities, open and accessible public spaces, and even safe, affordable housing options.  Using that perspective, one can see that Prince Albert already has a very diverse culture, with a good variety of sports facilities, art galleries, concert and theatre venues, and parks.  What we need to do now is look at a couple of things - more equitable distribution of these cultural opportunities, and how to ensure that the city is spending its money most efficiently and effectively.

The consultant that conducted the workshop was probably one of the worst public speakers that I've ever heard, but fortunately the case studies were well-presented, and I found the one from Humboldt the most informative part of the session, and probably the example with the best potential to be applied to Prince Albert.

What Humboldt has done is to list all of the services that the city provides - everything from street paving and water treatment to sports facility subsidies, and ranked them according to how valuable they are to the community.  They then use this ranking to set priorities for funding.  This seems fairly straight forward - some things are legislated requirements, like zoning or record-keeping, but some things are more optional, so setting their value is more subjective.  This is how they're starting their new budget process - everything is looked at, and has a value attached to it.

I'm not saying that this kind of decision-making is easy.  If you have a very vocal minority that is willing to speak up and complain if their favourite activity is going to be reduced, or have the user fees increased, that can certainly complicate the process.  But I think that setting core values for what the community should provide helps to make those decisions.

I've been advocating for this kind of budgeting for years - it's quite different from our practice of assuming that we continue with whatever we're doing, then add new things.  Rarely do we evaluate what we're currently doing, and make changes there.  You may recall the fuss a few years ago when I asked what we were spending on floral decorations, because the assumption from administration was that we would just continue to spend what turned out to have been $40,000 annually, for a total of $240,000 over the previous six years.  We could instead have put that money into waterslide maintenance, saving the community from a year without waterslides - that's what happens when you don't look at the whole picture when setting priorities, and when you assume that just because you're doing something now, you have to continue doing it forever.

I will once again be pushing for this kind of budgeting, and I would expect each department to look at their spending not from the perspective of what more can we spend money on, but from the perspective of what is the value to the community of what we're spending money on.  And we have to look at the community as a whole, not just certain segments that have enjoyed more services over the years.  For a community to have a healthy cultural component, everyone has to benefit, not just a select few.

"Culture is the interaction of people and life itself.  It's how we deal with life, love, death, birth, disappointment...all of that is expressed in culture." - Wendell Pierce