Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Lead Elephant in the Room

The local paper ran an opinion piece by one of its reporters this past week, in which he outlined his concerns about the continuing problem that the city has - that several hundred (at least) homes in the city still have lead water service connections, and that the assistance program that the city used to offer to help with their replacement is no longer available.  Then the next day, there was a letter from the councillor for the ward in which the reporter lives, which seemed to link street-oiling to lead water pipes (no connection), and suggested that the program had been dropped because my experience with it had been daunting.

So I thought that I would clarify my experience, and outline some things that the city should be doing, financial assistance or no financial assistance.

First, I agree with the premise of the column.  That this city still has unsafe water going to some of its residents is disgraceful and embarrassing.  That's bad enough, but the city does a terrible job of tracking this, or of informing residents of the problem, and what can be done about it.

Several years ago, when I first became aware of the problem, we were told that about a thousand homes were affected.  That's still the number that the city uses, and seven years have passed.  It would be helpful, and is totally within our capabilities, to keep a total of the number of houses that still have these connections, and track and report on when they are replaced.

When the pipes on a street are replaced, we fix the lead service connection on the city's side.  It is the homeowner's responsibility to replace the connections inside the house.  It would be simple matter to inform the residents on a street that this would be their opportunity to get their side fixed, but that doesn't happen, even though I have suggested this to administration.

We did have an assistance program several years ago that provided homeowners with $2000 to help with the costs of replacing the pipes on their property, and I was able to take advantage of that.  The worst part of getting the job done was finding a contractor willing to dig up just my yard - I found out about the lead service connection in 2008, the work was finally done in 2012.  But if an entire street was being done, perhaps that would make it more attractive to a contractor.

To me, this is the kind of thing that council should provide leadership on.  As a city council, we don't have control over much.  Our only source of revenue is property taxes.  And yet, there is much talk about plans to attract new business and industry, or new airlines.  How about instead we talk about how to improve the living conditions of the people who already live here - setting a plan to get all streets paved, and ensuring that all homes have safe drinking water - those things are totally within our control.  Instead, we think that building new and better recreational facilities that end up costing taxpayers more and more money is what will make this city great.

We're wrong.  We need to focus on the fundamentals, on what we can control.  That means keeping streets and sidewalks in good repair, providing safe drinking water, plowing streets in the winter, and ensuring that residents feel safe.

Oh, and if we wanted to bring back the assistance program for replacing lead water service connections?  At $2,000 per household, multiplied by the estimated 1000 homes - that's 2 million dollars - the same amount that one councillor is proposing that we spend on a new irrigation system for the golf course.  I know where my priorities are.  Sadly, I don't think that all members of council share these priorities.

"Excellence is achieved by the mastery of the fundamentals." - Vince Lombardi

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Need for Consistency

I'm continually surprised by the lack of consistency in the way that the city applies its various rules and regulations.  It's as though we think that people won't notice the differences in the way things are done, and ask questions.  As an example, apartment buildings are required to have their own commercial dumpsters.  However, the three apartment buildings across the alley from my house were allowed to use the large city dumpsters in the alleyway since the city first moved to that type of garbage pick-up - we're talking several years of having this benefit.  When council moved to have this block go to individual bins rather than the communal bins, one of the delays was apparently because administration was concerned about the change for the apartment buildings, overlooking the lack of consistency with the rules that had been allowed to go on for years.

Another example, from the recent snowfall.  Before the plows go out to a neighbourhood, the city posts no parking signs, so that the plows can clear the street without leaving those awkward piles of snow in the middle of the street caused by having to go around the cars left by the thoughtless or those unable to read.  We've had several years of pushing for ticketing and towing, with limited success.  This year we announced that we were serious, ticketing would happen.  It's a step, although I think that towing makes a better point, and I know that in past years some vehicles have been towed.  But I was surprised to find out that when the plows were going through my neighbourhood, cars left on some streets were ticketed, but cars left on other streets were not ticketed.  I don't know why, and neither did the people who called me to find out why they had received a ticket when others who had committed the same offence were left untouched.

So what message are we sending with this inconsistency?  Well, one is that we're not really serious when we put out no parking signs - you might want to gamble and leave your car out, since enforcement is pretty hit and miss, and towing appears to not happen, judging by the piles of snow left by having the plows go around parked cars.  We also send the message that we're great at talking the big talk, but not so good at actual follow-up.  I find it funny that some councillors will talk tough at council, but when it comes to taking action, they back off, and privately mutter that "after all, it's an election year."

What's the solution?  Two things need to happen.  First, before we make bylaws, let's be sure that we have the intestinal fortitude to enforce them.  Second, administration needs to realize that enforcement isn't something that is done when you're in the mood, or when you have a grudge against the potential recipient, or when you figure that the recipient won't kick up a fuss - it's something that you apply consistently.   When this happens, less enforcement will be needed, because people will realize, for example, that when they don't pay their parking tickets, they will lose their vehicle.  I'm thinking that last week's action on a few of the worst offenders will scare more than a few offenders into paying what they owe.

And then we can  move on to expecting consistency in the way the city follows its own rules.  Businesses in the downtown are required to clear their walks within twenty-four hours of a snowfall - most get on it much quicker.  But when Andrea and I walked downtown on Saturday afternoon, nothing had been done on the walks in front of  and beside city hall, so we walked on the other side of the street.  Even though the Forest Centre was closed, the walks had been cleared.  Now, before you start complaining that clearing sidewalks on a weekend would cost extra overtime, let's think of the options.  If we're serious about making the downtown accessible and attractive, maybe it's time to move to contracting out this work, as the Forest Centre does.

Learning how to be consistent between what we say and what we do, no matter who we're dealing with or where in the city we are, has the potential to improve all kinds of things in our city.

"Success is neither magical nor mysterious.  Success is the natural consequence of consistently applying basic fundamentals." - Jim Rohn

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Changes at City Hall

The first week of the new year brought with it a surprise for many people - both the director and assistant director of finance at City Hall were let go.  I can't speak for every member of city council, but I'm reasonably sure that for most of us, we didn't see this coming.  I'm also aware that hiring and firing of staff is not the responsibility of council, except for the city manager - that's the only position that directly reports to council.  The city manager is responsible for the overall functioning of the city, and if he determined that this was the best solution, not just for administration, but for council and the city as a whole, then that was his decision to make.

I think that part of why I and others on council were so surprised by this, is because we just finished going through the main budget process, which appeared to go well by all accounts, and two of the people most responsible for this are now gone.  And we're not done the budget process - we still have to look at the sanitation budget, and have already had tomorrow's meeting to discuss that budget postponed.  Great - now we have to wait for someone else to get up to speed before we can get on with city business.

We're also the victim of the usual misconceptions and rumours - council is being blamed, by some of the usual opinionated yet misinformed anonymous individuals on the internet who would be so much better on council than the current incumbents (at least in their opinions) for taking this precipitous action that most of us found out about at the same time as everybody else.

So if this decision was not council's to make, what do I think could have been done differently?

Well, for starters, things work most smoothly if council and administration consider themselves as part of the same team, and in the interests of working as a team, letting us know that there were problems would have been a good start.  Perhaps it would have been an opportunity to discuss the various options that were out there - I've found that often other solutions come up during discussions that wouldn't be considered otherwise - as the old saying has it, none of us is as smart as all of us.  And I think that we might have suggested that, at this point in the budgeting process, the timing for losing experienced staff and bringing on relative newcomers with much more limited experience was not the best.

And I think that most council members would agree that we don't appreciate being blindsided by a decision that not only has serious financial implications, but that also affects workplace morale and functioning.  Knowing ahead of time would have given us the opportunity to process the information, and develop a plan for moving forward.  Now we're left trying to figure it out as we go along, and that doesn't bode well for good decision-making either.

The decision has been made, though, and we are moving forward.  As part of the moving forward, I will be advocating strongly that we do a thorough search for the best possible replacements for those key positions.  Let's not just take the most expedient route.  Let's not rush into decisions that we may regret, and that may put us in the same position in the near future.

"Change is not progress." - H.L. Mencken

Sunday, December 20, 2015

An Adventure with Garbage

Last spring, garbage collection in my block of Ward 3 was changed to roll-out bins rather than the big bins in the alley.  I had made the motion at council after enduring years of having the bins filled by people not from the neighbourhood using them as free places to dump their garbage, of finding garbage spread around the bins and through the alley, and of finding piles of hundreds of discarded needles next to the bins.

The change has been remarkable - there is much less garbage lying about.  It is a bit of a hassle to remember which day is garbage day versus which day is recycling day, but fortunately for me, Andrea is the early riser in the house, and usually has the appropriate bin out by the alley before I've finished my coffee.  Just so you don't think I'm a total slacker, I usually manage to get the empty bin back to the yard before she comes home from work.

So no more problems with finding the big  garbage bins full with non-resident garbage, or the recycling contaminated with garbage.  We find that every other week pick-up is sufficient for both garbage and recycling for our household - if anything, the recycling bin fills more quickly.

The change meant that the apartment bins behind us had to move to large commercial bins, and unfortunately, non-residents who feel that it's okay for other people to pay for their garbage disposal still take advantage and feel that it's their right to fill these bins.  Just yesterday, Andrea came in from filling the bird feeder to say that there was a truck pulled up to the dumpster of the building behind us, and she was pretty sure that it had Manitoba plates.

I went out to investigate, and asked the couple if they lived in the building, because otherwise they shouldn't be dumping their garbage there.  Not too surprisingly, I was told to mind my own business and not be so nosy - with a few colourful adjectives thrown in, of course.  I told them that it was my business, as councillor for the area,and got the licence number of the truck, which was a Manitoba plate.  With a few more insults and expletives tossed my way, they got into their truck and drove away, while I called by-law enforcement to report the incident and provide what information I could.

This isn't an unusual occurrence.  I've observed at least four different trucks do the same thing, and the building owner has dropped by to complain about the situation.  I appreciate his frustration - he's paying for a bin for his tenants, not for thoughtless people, just as I would get annoyed when my sanitation fees were paying for other people's garbage disposal, often at the expense of my own.

I think that one of the solutions, for the city costs at least, is to move all residents to roll-out bins. Right now a small majority of residents (maybe 60%) have roll-out service.  I know that they are a bit more work for residents, but they help to ensure that the garbage that goes to the landfill has been paid for, either through sanitation bills or by the people bringing their garbage directly to the dump.  It would remove some of the ease with which non-residents can cruise down a back alley and get rid of their garbage for free.

As for my apartment neighbours, I'll continue to be nosy and not mind my own business, and call by-law when I see a suspicious truck.  And maybe I'll suggest to the building owner that he see if the bin can be moved to a less easily accessible spot.  And at council, I'll be pushing for more roll-out bins - they do reduce the amount of garbage in the area, which makes for a nicer neighbourhood.

"Garbage is, always.  We will die, civilization will crumble, life as we know it will cease to exist, but trash will endure." - Robin Nagle

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Setting This Year's Tax Increase

It took two council meetings, but council passed this year's tax rate this past week - an increase of 1%.  I supported this budget, because the proposed loan to the Tourism Board was removed from the budget, where it didn't belong, since it isn't part of the actual budget.  Council will vote on the loan at a future meeting.

While the budget process is still not where I would like it to be, since we only look at proposed new expenditures, not on where our current spending could be trimmed, I think that council did a good job of taking out non-essential increases.  I keep hoping that some year, we'll do a more thorough job, but at least this council looked at the budget before deciding what the increase would be - I've been on past councils where a target rate increase was set before we even looked at the budget, based on how much of an increase was thought to be bearable to residents - that's doing things backward, in my opinion.  I think that the budget should be based on what work needs to be done, and how much can be done within a year, rather than setting an artificial target.

As I mentioned, the process did take two meetings.  This is because allowing three readings of a bylaw at one meeting requires unanimous consent of all council members, and one councillor wasn't prepared to do that.  I have no problem with that - those are the rules, and it's every councillor's right to ask for a delay.  The reason that he gave was that the police budget has not yet been confirmed, as council refused to accept the proposed budget, and that led to some confused discussion around police budget approval.

So, to try to clear up the process: the police commission submits a budget request to council.  Unlike with other parts of the budget, council cannot tinker with the police budget.  The only options are to approve or not.  Council cannot, for example, say that we aren't approving a specific expenditure.  So if the police submit a budget that includes a set amount to buy new police cars, council cannot say that we will approve only half the number of cars, and reduce the budget accordingly.  What has happened so far is that the police budget has been submitted, and council has returned it to the police commission, saying that we will only allocate an amount that is $200,000 less than their proposed budget.  The police commission then has two choices, to rework and resubmit the budget so that it fits, or not rework the budget, but work throughout the year to manage on the reduced allocation.  The result is the same - they will get $200,000 less than they requested.

We could have avoided this situation by not having the budget vote until after the next police commission meeting, which is tomorrow, at which point the commission will decide how they are going to proceed.  But for whatever reason, it was brought forward before that happened, leading to the potential that someone would object to the process being off-kilter, and someone did.  As I said, well within his rights, and I've done the same more than once, but his concern over the lack of a police budget didn't stop the budget getting unanimous approval the next day, at a special council meeting.  Again, the special meeting wasn't required, as we have another council meeting in a couple of weeks, but special meetings for third readings are a bad habit that the previous mayor started, and maybe some members of council have forgotten that we don't need to be in a hurry all the time - especially about the budget.

Once we had voted, I did not see the need to delay the final vote - the result will be the same whether voted on now or in two weeks.  But the resultant focus of the media not on the budget, but on the delay, is probably a good thing to remember in the future, if we want to ensure that people are aware of the important things, not the red herrings.

"A budget is like a mythical bean bag.  (Council) votes mythical beans into it, then reaches in and tries to pull real ones out." - Will Rogers

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Second Round of Community Meetings

We're now about halfway through the second round of community meetings.  These are the meetings organized and run by the Director of Planning and Development, in which residents of each ward gather to discuss the issues affecting their ward, and perhaps generate some ideas of how the city could deal with these issues.

The second meeting for Ward 3 was held last Tuesday evening.  Unlike the last meeting, for which residents had same day notice, at least this one was advertised well in advance, although I do find it rather inexplicable that the notice in the paper didn't give either the date, time or location, but rather referred readers to the city web-page or facebook page for further information - an extra step that residents shouldn't have to go through.

About 20 residents were at this meeting - a drop from about 30 at the first meeting.  Some of that might have been because this meeting was just to report on what was said at the first meeting, so there was no real opportunity to move forward.  Once again, issues raised weren't anything that I haven't raised at council many times - the need for more visible police presence, concerns about boarded up houses, and concerns about infrastructure maintenance, largely roads and sidewalks.  Unfortunately, no other city staff were there to provide substantive answers.

There will be another round of meetings in the new year, where it is planned for the appropriate city staff to attend.  I hope that these meetings will provide some of the answers that residents should have, and not just result in the same old issues being raised.

I do think that there is value to having these meetings, but they need to be structured to provide more useful information about what the current situation is, and identify opportunities for improvement.  That would give some sense that the city plans on addressing these issues, not just providing an opportunity to vent.  I think that those running the meetings also need to be aware of some of the things that have been tried in the past, not suggest things like Community Watch as though Midtown residents haven't already been there, done that.

I think that the first two meetings had reasonable turnout, but people will not continue to come to meetings if they don't see that their issues are being addressed and their ideas are given consideration.  Their time is more valuable than that.  People have many good ideas on how to improve their neighbourhood; it's up to the city to take action to make improvements happen.

"I think there needs to be a meeting to set an agenda for more meetings about meetings." - Jonah Goldberg

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Whittling Away at 4% of the Budget

Council spent Thursday evening and all day Friday going through administration's proposed additions to the budget.  Once again, we don't look at what we're currently spending money on, and figure out ways of finding efficiencies there.  We only look at the proposed increases, which to my mind is missing a great opportunity for change - finding programs that are no longer required, and redeploying positions to new priorities.  I know that this kind of budget would be much more work, but I think that it would give us a much better result.

However, the day and a half was well spent, in that we managed to whittle down the proposed 4% increase to somewhere around 1%.  I found it entertaining that one veteran councillor wondered if having an increase of only 1% the year before an election might be considered as doing this for purely political purposes, obviously forgetting his actions of a few years ago, when he fully supported a zero per cent increase, also the year before an election.  The difference this time is that we went through the proposed expenditures before announcing the increase, unlike a few years ago when the zero per cent was announced before we started budget deliberations.  I think there's also a recognition by most members of council that more money does not always result in getting more work done - there's only so much work that can be done in the available time with the available resources of equipment, people and weather.

In any case, we made the decreases largely by rejecting the new positions and expenditures proposed by administration.  My reason for turning them down has two parts.  For one, the business case for adding the new positions was not clear.  Nobody took the time in the proposal to explain clearly how making these investments would save money - the argument put forward that other cities have made these investments just isn't a good enough reason.  The second is that I don't believe that new positions are required - this city has an extremely bad habit of adding positions, but never deleting any.  The population of the city has certainly not increased proportionally nearly as much as the staffing levels at city hall.  Just as pegging the tax increase to the cost of living increase is a good guideline, I think that matching staff levels to population levels is probably a good rule of thumb.

I'd hoped that administration would look internally to figure out where redundancies are, and propose reallocating staff resources.  If they aren't willing to make that effort, then I'm not willing to have tax payers fund new positions while still paying for staff that may not be needed in their current positions.  For instance, the mayor no longer has two secretaries, but those positions were just moved - now the city manager has two secretaries.  Several years ago, a new position was created to track the donations for the new soccer centre - that position is still in the mix, somewhere, although getting a clear answer out of management on these matters is extremely difficult.

It wasn't all cutting, of course.  In some cases we identified areas where more work, and thus spending, is needed - sidewalk repairs being one, as a complaint that has been raised at several of the ward meetings over the fall.

Unfortunately, close to the end of our discussions, the loan to bail out the Borealis Music Festival was added to the mix.  I'm not sure why it was included as part of the budget, since it was presented as a loan that would thus be revenue neutral, and not affect tax rates.  I think that it was added in the hopes that it would be hidden, sort of like in an omnibus bill, and accepted by council, rather than being presented as a separate motion on its own.  Why some members of council feel that we should bail out the Prince Albert Tourism and Marketing Board, which is its own entity, is a mystery to me.  This board is not a committee of council, but a separately incorporated group, on which two members of council sit.  But we are not responsible for paying their bills.  I feel badly for the local businesses that have not been paid, but I feel worse for the tax payers who are now expected to further subsidize this event.  And I'm also concerned about the precedent that this proposed bailout would set - other functions that the city may agree to give money to may then come and expect the city to cover their losses.

The final vote on the budget will be at a future council meeting.  While, as always, I think that we could improve the process by digging deeper into current spending to find opportunities to cut, I do think that we've done a reasonable job in getting the proposed increases down.  With the exception of the inexplicably added music festival loan, this is a budget that I could support.

"A budget is not just a collection of numbers, but an expression of our values and aspirations." - Jacob Lew