Sunday, August 23, 2015

Once Again, I'm the Resident Curmudgeon

A week or so ago, the local paper asked for my thoughts on the provision of money from the Special Events Fund for the recent Borealis Music Festival.  This fund is $50,000 that council sets aside each year, to be provided to local groups who want assistance in putting on events of provincial or national attraction.  I suggested to the reporter that we need to rethink our whole policy around providing money to events - maybe it's time to consider setting up a levy on hotels, as other communities do, with the levy going into a fund for these events, rather than council taking money out of tax revenues.  After all, hotels are the ones who benefit directly from people coming to these events - the city gains no revenues.

After Andrea read the article, I asked her if I came across as too curmudgeonly.  She laughed, and said that I was no worse than usual.  And then she said that it was too bad that it often seems that I'm the only curmudgeon on council - the only one who insists on asking questions when it comes to spending tax payers' money.  Which is funny, because I think that asking questions about how we spend people's money is a huge part of the job - we're not elected just to be automatic cheerleaders for every idea that comes forward, although that seems to be the perception of some of my colleagues.

It's not that I'm against events such as the Borealis Music Festival.  When the proposal came before council, I pointed out that it did not qualify under one of the basic criteria - applications for use of this fund are supposed to be submitted a year before the event.  That's because putting on an event of provincial or national attraction requires a lot of time to plan and execute.  The music festival was less than five months away.

At the time I identified several weak spots in their budget - their attendance projections (15,000 people), were wildly ambitious, and their estimates for revenue from beer and souvenir sales were also extremely high, and tied to the same proposed attendance.  They were going to transport people from Christopher, Emma and Candle Lakes, without considering that on a long weekend, someone who is at the lake is likely there because that's where they want to be, not back in Prince Albert.  And I questioned the wisdom of not branding the type of music that was going to be offered - most people like to know what they're buying before they shell out a significant amount of money.

I pointed these things out not to be  mean, or discouraging, but to increase their chances of holding an event that would be seen as a success, with the potential to grow in the future.  I understand the whole idea of dreaming big, but my responsibility is to try to make sure that tax dollars are spent with regard to the benefit of the community as a whole.

But my questions weren't answered - in fact one of my colleagues said at the meeting that such questions were ridiculous and a waste of time.  And seven members of council voted to give the music festival $15,000 from the Special Events Fund, and a equal amount of in-kind contributions - hanging banners, mowing grass, trimming trees, and other such services.  And we agreed to block off a large portion of Kinsmen Park for the duration, making it unavailable for local residents.

Now apparently the initial budget was revised over the next few months, as the organizers realized that they weren't attracting the numbers that they had hoped for.  I don't know how well they kept their other sponsors informed, but they didn't share these downward projections with council.  So it was rather a surprise to hear after the fact that they were quite pleased with their estimated attendance of 1,200, as being more than they expected.  Somewhere along the line, they realized that attendance was going to be only about ten per cent of what they had originally planned - the plan that they had used to persuade council that this was a worthy investment of $15,000 (plus an equal amount of in-kind contributions).  So each attendee was subsidized by more than ten dollars of tax dollars.

Now suppose that, in their first year, they had planned a smaller, one day event.  Fewer acts would have decreased their costs, and they could have put some kind of identifier on the kind of music.  Lower costs could have translated to a lower admission price - fifty dollars for a single day's admission translates to more than $100 for a couple - quite pricey if you're not sure of what's being offered.  And don't worry about bringing people in from the lakes - focus on how to make the event more attractive to the people who are here.  In that case, attracting a thousand people would be considered a success, and something to build on.

I understand that some of the people involved with the music festival resented my comments in the paper, which is unfortunate.  I think that using that energy to identify what didn't work, and what they are going to try differently would be more productive than blaming the guy who asks the questions.

And remember, as long as you're looking to spend tax dollars, I'm going to be asking hard questions about it.  That's my job.

"You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world.  But it takes people to make the dream a reality." - Walt Disney

Sunday, August 16, 2015

A Couple of Lessons I Hope We Learn from Last Week's Storm

Last Wednesday afternoon I was working on a broken lawnmower in my backyard when I noticed the sky to the north west getting dark, very quickly.  Then there was some thunder, and the wind rose.  And the rain started.  I ran into the house to close the windows that were all wide open because of the heat of the last couple of days.

Ten minutes later, the storm was over, and the sun came out again.  But those few minutes had made a real mess of the Midtown area.  The wind had been so strong that the umbrella on the deck had been lifted right out of the table and turned upside down.  The garbage and recycling bins were blown over.  The yard and deck were covered with small branches from the poplar and maple trees in the backyard.

However, compared to some places around the neighbourhood, we were only lightly touched.  Along the streets, large branches, mostly from overmature Manitoba maples, had come down on the street or were blocking the sidewalks.  In front of Ecole Valois, a maple tree had broken off right at the ground, and over on 9th Street, another maple tree had broken off at the ground.

I had a close look at the tree in front of the school - it was full of red rot.  Thirty years ago when we first moved into this house, there was a large Manitoba maple in the south west corner of the front yard that was showing signs of decay - large conks and dead branches.  Andrea diagnosed red rot, and when I cut it down, it proved to be the case.

That's the thing with trees - by the time they show outward signs of decay, it's probably far advanced, and the best thing to do is just take down the tree.  And you can walk along any street in Midtown, and see the symptoms of red rot on the maples that are planted along the boulevards (and in many yards, too).  Conks, dead branches, new growth sprouting up at the base of the tree.  All of these are symptoms of a tree that is rotten at the core.

Unfortunately, the city's response, when I try to bring their attention to the problem, is to send out a crew that usually just prunes off the dead branch.  This does not solve the problem, in fact, it makes it worse.  Not only is the tree further weakened, and a new opening made for infection, but the problem is still there.  Either more branches will start to die, bringing on more temporary fixes, or, as happened with last week's storm, branches or the tree itself will come down.  When that happens, at best crews have to go out to pick up the mess.  At worst, the tree damages private property, leaving the city liable for damages.

In any case, it doesn't take too much common sense to realize that fixing the problem by removing the dying tree the first time will save time, money, and potentially higher future costs, because the crew only has to make one trip.  Of course, replanting the tree should also be a no-brainer, although right now, the policy is that the city only plants a new tree if residents request it.  And far too often, the species that is planted is Manitoba maple, a tree that has a relatively short life span compared to ash or elm, the other trees that are commonly planted on the boulevard.

I've suggested on more than one occasion that the city needs to do a better job of managing its urban forest, but without much success.  It was small consolation last week when one of my councillor colleagues sent out an email after the storm - "I guess Atkinson was right about those trees."

I hope that administration takes the opportunity to rethink their strategy on dealing with dying trees.  It's not too complicated - if a tree is showing symptoms of rot, that means it's rotten.  Cut the tree down, plant one in its place, and we'll be well on the way to maintaining the health of our urban forest, which adds so much to the quality of life in a city.  Continue to think that cutting off dead branches is the solution, and watch the damage continue to increase.  The choice seems pretty simple to me.

"If you don't have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?" - John Wooden

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Public Consultation - How Can We Get the Best Bang for Our Buck?

This past Thursday I took a tour of Ward 3 with the Director of Planning and Development.  We were looking at the various recreational sites that the ward has to offer (not many), and also at some of the problem areas - vacant lots, abandoned houses - that are scattered throughout the area.

The director plans to hold public meetings in each ward to get a sense of the needs in each area on a wide array of topics - everything from crime to roads to garbage pick-up to recreational facilities.  The output of these meetings would then guide the development of the official community plan.

I understand the potential value of public meetings.  They give people a chance to voice their concerns about the issues where they live.  They give the people who are directly affected by the decisions being discussed some input into those decisions.  They provide a broader perspective, and in some cases, an under-represented perspective, to the people drafting the plans.  Although people don't like to acknowledge it, the unfortunate fact is that not many people in the higher levels at city hall live in Midtown or the East or West Flats, and likely have a bit of an unconscious bias about the actual wants and needs of the people who live there.  And finally, those people who feel that they have been a part of the process will also help to support it with the broader population.

However, there are those who discount the value of public meetings, pointing out that they tend to draw relatively small numbers.  Two recent meetings, about a splash park and playground equipment,one in the East Hill and one in the West Hill, had fewer than twenty people at each.  Considering the amount of time and effort that goes into organizing and running such meetings, that's a pretty high cost per participant.

So how do we get people out, and make sure that we get valuable input?  I think that giving the meeting focus helps.  On the other hand, you don't want too much focus.  Perhaps the splash park meeting was too focused - it might have given the impression that a decision had been made.  On the other hand, thinking that you're going to be able to have meaningful discussions on everything in one evening is being more than slightly ambitious.

I think that a more productive approach for the ward meetings that are being proposed for the fall would be to have a series of meetings, with a focus subject for each meeting.  Perhaps one to discuss safety concerns, another to discuss infrastructure issues, another for recreational opportunities.  An initial meeting could be held to gauge the interest in each topic, and subsequent meetings scheduled for topics with the greatest interest.  Another advantage of more focused meetings would be that only those administrative staff who are directly involved would have to attend.  This would also give people the opportunity to spread the word.  People in attendance at the first meeting could tell their friends and neighbours - "Hey, you've been concerned about the state of the tennis courts.  You should come to the meeting when they're going to talk about recreational opportunities in the ward."  As they say, word of  mouth is the best way to advertise.

Partnering with groups in the area to spread the word is also something we should try.  I suggested to the director that, rather than have the Ward 3 meeting at Midtown Hall, we should have it at Riverside School instead.  The active parents' group there could give us a lot of help, both in publicizing the meeting and in providing us advice on when good times for meetings are.  And I'm a big fan of direct advertising through mail drops - not everybody is on social media or reads the paper.

Our responsibility is to be sure that we have the appropriate base line information at these meetings.  I'm not talking about what we think should happen, but more information about what we currently have, or know.  The focus of the meeting should be on listening, not on talking and presenting our ideas.

I think that public consultation is an excellent forum for communication.  It gives residents the opportunity to voice their concerns and give their ideas.  And it lets residents know that we don't have all the answers, but that together, we think that we can come up with better ideas than we can working on our own.

"Men often oppose a think merely because they have had no agency in planning it, or because it may have been planned by those whom they dislike." - Alexander Hamilton

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Another Big Screen TV on the Horizon

A few years ago I compared the way the city spent money to a household that spends its money impulsively on toys like big screen televisions, then is surprised when there is no money to fix the roof.  I was referring to our collective fondness to load up on recreational facilities at the expense of the boring and mundane business of maintaining basic infrastructure.

The last big example of this was the soccer centre - built without any idea of how much it would cost to run.  But we have other such facilities - the Rawlinson Centre, the waterslides, the Art Hauser Centre.  All of these are great facilities, I agree.  I also know that they cost the city ever-increasing amounts of money to run and maintain, and we have a reluctance to go into those potentially unpleasant details, not just in the deciding stage, but also after the fact.  Just think of how long it took to get reports of where and how much the Rawlinson Centre was costing us on an annual basis.

And then when we have a situation like we did last year, when the waterslides had to be closed because they hadn't been maintained, people are shocked, and expect council to wave some kind of a magic wand to make the necessary money appear.  We don't have a magic wand - we can only raise taxes, which isn't a popular move either.

So one of my constant refrains has been that before we decide to move ahead on any of these wonderful wants (not needs) we need to know what the long-term cost is going to be, and how it's going to be covered.  Hand in hand with that, we need to have a plan that sets out priorities for development, so that the framework for the decision is already there, making the process clear and defensible.

However, rumours are always out there, about the next great thing - I'm sure you've heard about the Olympic-sized swimming pool, or the new hockey rink.

Last week, we were presented with a proposal for a beach volleyball court.  The idea from the group of adults proposing this (yes, this time they won't be able to bring in a bunch of kids to sway our emotions), is that it would be located up by the soccer centre (able to take advantage of the free parking and the washrooms), and the city would, as always, pay for the ongoing operations and maintenance.  Apparently they've raised half the money for construction, but want the city to commit to this before they raise the other half.

I understand that it would be nice to have the city pick up the tab so that a group can indulge in their favourite summer time activity.  But, just as with the soccer centre, there's a tendency to overestimate the use this facility would get, and the potential benefit to the city as a whole.  I'm particularly wary of the hype about bringing in tournaments, since we were promised that with the soccer centre, but not a single tournament has occurred over the last five years.

Not only do we need to have priorities set, we need to decide, as a community, what our capacity is for maintaining recreational facilities.  We need to be realistic about the unfortunate fact that the costs of running things never seem to go down, but only up.  There needs to be some onus on the users of these facilities to contribute more to their upkeep - people seem to feel that it's sufficient to donate to build a new facility, but I haven't noticed too many fund-raising campaigns to pay to keep the lights on and the power running.

It's all a matter of living within our means, and part of that is identifying the whole cost of the opportunities that are presented to us - just like when you buy a house, it's not the purchase price that is the limitation, it's the ongoing maintenance.  Otherwise, you end up with a leaky roof.

"It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him."  J.R.R. Tolkien

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Things I'd Like People to Stop Saying about the Downtown

I was at a meeting a couple of weeks ago with the Downtown Business Improvement District people.  I came home from the meeting thinking that there are a few phrases that are repeated at every meeting, and I'd be quite happy if these could be avoided in the future, because the constant repetition isn't moving us forward, or helping find solutions.

The first is that downtown is the heart of the city.  That may have been true once, but it isn't any more.  To me, the heart of a community is a place where most people go, and I know that there are many people who rarely go downtown, and more who go downtown only because they work there.  You can get by very well without setting foot on Central Avenue north of Fifteenth Street - most shopping and banking is now located elsewhere.  Thirty years ago Central Avenue had three grocery stores and five banks.  Today there is one bank, and no grocery stores.  It doesn't mean that downtown can't thrive - you don't have to be the heart of a city to still be pretty nice.

Another thing that is often said is that we need to have some kind of attraction downtown that will cause people coming from Saskatoon and heading to the lakes to take a detour.  In fact, this idea is often refined to specify that we need to have some kind of water-type attraction.  I'm not sure that this will ever work, for a couple of reasons.  When we were at FCM in Niagara Falls last year, it was quite clear that one of the most amazing water attractions in the world wasn't enough to give that town a thriving downtown.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  The Fallsview area of town was full of people, but the downtown had the same problems that most small town downtowns have - empty storefronts, vacant lots, and not many people.

As for getting people heading to the lakes to stop - they do.  I see recreational vehicles and boats in tow in the Safeway parking lot every Friday morning in the summer.  I see people fueling their vehicles at several gas stations along Second Avenue West.  People stop for their needs, but their objective is getting to the lake as quickly as possible - they're not interested in detours.  I wish that we would focus more on getting the people who live here to come downtown - despite the oft-repeated misconception that there's no sense in trying to do anything in the summer, since everybody goes to the lakes.  I'm one that doesn't, and I think that we should cultivate opportunities for the residents that don't have the wherewithal or desire to go elsewhere in the summer.  There's a potential market with a greater chance of success.

And finally, I think that we look at downtown through too narrow a lens.  It's often said that we need more people living downtown, and those who say that are looking just at Central Avenue.  I prefer to think of downtown as including the surrounding neighbourhoods - to Sixth Avenue on the east and Second Avenue on the west.  If we broaden our lens to include this larger area, all of a sudden we see that there are a lot of people who live downtown.  Instead of focusing improvements on Central Avenue, how much more attractive would these neighbourhoods be if we started improving their amenities - paving streets, fixing sidewalks, adding more green space.  Face it - new light standards on Central Avenue don't make a bit of difference to the people that we want to head there instead of somewhere else.

But if we look at making this larger area more attractive, you will get more people living here, and people living closer to downtown businesses will be more likely to patronize those businesses.  More people being active and visible in an area will result in the area becoming more attractive to others, and feeling safer when they're there.

Improvement to the downtown area isn't going to happen by trying to go backwards, and bringing back all of the businesses that used to be there.  It isn't going to happen by finding a single magic bullet that will suddenly bring hordes of people to the downtown, who will then be so inspired that they will spend all their money there, and change their vacation plans.  But if we make the downtown a more attractive place for the people who live there, the changes that we're looking for will happen incrementally.

There are, of course, no guarantees.  We also need to look at taking more risks, trying new things.  Any real change requires risk, of course.  The irony is that we're far more prone to trying to bring back ideas that worked in the past, even though all the evidence shows that the risk of failure from that sort of approach is higher than trying new things.

So I'm proposing to follow the advice Don Draper gave on Mad Men - if you don't like what people are saying, change the conversation.  Let's change the way we talk about improving the downtown, and maybe we'll start to see the first small signs of change.

"Tradition is a guide, and not a jailer." - W. Somerset Maugham




Sunday, June 28, 2015

Some Thoughts on the Latest Park Proposal

One of the items at last week's meeting was a proposal from the Anavets to develop the space at the southeast corner of 11th Street and Central Avenue.  This spot, which has been vacant for several years since a fire destroyed the building on the site, has been used for a number of things in the intervening years - a hot dog stand, an ice cream stand, and the occasional barbecue.  For the last several years, it's been unused and unmaintained.

It belongs to the city.  A few years ago, we had a couple of people show interest in developing the lot, but unfortunately the selected bidder never followed through with his proposal, and there's been no interest since, although I'm not sure if we've put much effort into advertising the opportunity.

Enter the Anavets, who are thinking about putting in a funding request to the federal government for a special projects grant to develop a park to honour veterans in the space.  I'm not sure how much of a grant they are requesting, but they have suggested that the city could donate the land, valued at $42,000.

It's always difficult to be critical of these proposals - parks are positive things, veterans deserve to be honoured, we need more ideas about how to beautify the downtown - all of these factors can make it difficult to speak up about the potential downside of such proposals.  But that makes it all the more important to do so at an early stage.

To start with, we already have a park to honour veterans downtown.  It's right in front of City Hall, and it's why that area is called Memorial Square.  I think that it could use some improvements, but to me it makes more sense to coordinate efforts and to focus on improving this area, which could include adding whatever elements the Anavets are proposing.  The benches that were removed from around the fountain a few years ago, at the time the western premiers were meeting in the city (presumably so that they wouldn't have to look out on people using the area) are still in the City Yards, and could be reinstalled.  The idea of having additional flagstaffs so that flags could be lowered at the association's discretion could certainly be accommodated within this space.

Parks are costly to maintain.  I only have to give the example of the difficulty that we have in maintaining Kinsmen Park to demonstrate that.  And while I'm sure that the Anavets have the best of intentions to take care of their proposed park, I know that it can be difficult to keep up the level of maintenance required when you rely on volunteer help.

The city cannot afford to give away land.  It sets a dangerous precedent, and we have to remember that we are only the stewards of city assets, not the owners.  Far better if this land is redeveloped as a business that would generate taxes, than left as an open green space that, unfortunately, is likely to become a repository for garbage and needles.

I appreciate the interest of the Anavets in increasing our awareness of the importance of honouring our veterans.  However, I would rather see our efforts concentrated on improving the space and amenities that are currently dedicated for that purpose, and working on increasing viable business opportunities where it makes sense.

"Parks are idealizations of nature, but nature in fact is not a condition of the ideal." - Robert Smithson

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Tax That Never Seems to End

Several years ago, when I was first on council, one of the separate taxes in the tax bill was called the Debt Elimination Levy.  Its purpose was just as it said - to eliminate outstanding city debt.  That was three mayors ago.

Two mayors ago, once the debt was eliminated, the levy morphed to pay for the improvements to the Art Hauser Centre - remember Bring Back the Magic?  That's the problem with those campaigns where the public is asked to pledge money - while the money is being collected, which is some cases happens over years, the work is started, and somebody has to pay.  Of course, that somebody is the city, being used like a credit card so that we can buy now and pay later.

Then came another mayor, and the soccer centre.  Before the Art Hauser payments were complete, the purpose of the levy was changed again, this time to pay the construction costs for the soccer centre.  At least at this point, 2008, I convinced the other members of council that the levy should be identified as such, so that it appears on your tax notice as Capital Projects - Fieldhouse and Wellness Centre. Again, it was like a loan, so that those members of the public who had pledged money could take years to pay it off, but in the meantime, the facility would be built.

And now we come to today, and another mayor.  And apparently, the construction of the soccer centre is now completely paid for.  And yet, the levy lingers on - although not at council's direction.  Apparently, we're just continuing to collect the money, without identifying why.

I'm quite surprised at the lack of information surrounding the use of this money.  Administration has not been able to tell me exactly when the levy changed from being for the soccer centre to just being for Capital Projects. Nor do they seem to know how much of the project ended up actually being paid for by those who pledged money, since a proportion of those who pledge money often end up not being able to fulfil those pledges.  That kind of information would be very useful, especially if we decide to go down this path of building new facilities in the future.

So that's why I made a bit of a stink about it at last week's meeting.  It is not administration's job to decide the continuation of taxes - that enviable job belongs with council.  It is not administration's job to decide where that money should go - that too belongs with council.  It is administration's job to track the ins and outs of the money, just as with anyone's normal budget - you know what bills are due when, and you certainly know when you've finished paying off  a big debt.  I expect no less of administration.

The idea of setting aside money before you start a project is a sound one.  I do have a bit of a concern about setting aside money without knowing why.  I'm sure that it wouldn't take long before someone thought that it would be a great idea to spend $2 million on a new sprinkler system for the golf course.  Or the Raiders would think that a new arena would be the best use for the money.  Or the swim club would think that an Olympic-sized pool was just what the city needed.  You get the idea - when there's a pool of money sitting there, it's really tempting to use it for whatever the interest may be, even if it isn't the best thing for the whole city.

Although we have no end of interest groups telling us what the city needs, I think that if you asked the average tax payer what they think we need, they might start by saying "Lower taxes."  They might think that spending on needs first would be a great idea - how about if, before we invest in another recreational facility, we think about setting a goal to have all city streets paved, and all lead service water connections replaced.  How about we continue catching up on the basic infrastructure backlog that we got ourselves into, partly by building new facilities that can't support themselves.

In any event, let's not start taking tax payers' money at a certain level just because we've gotten into the habit.  That's not in line with all the nice words that we've been saying about transparency.  Let's be more open about the money coming in, and the money going out.  And before we make any major decisions about spending money on new  facilities that only serve a portion of the population, let's ask the people who are going to pay for it if they think that it's a good idea.

"There is no such thing as a good tax." - Winston Churchill