Sunday, September 14, 2014

Just What Is SCAN?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Looking Back at Summer, and Forward to Fall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Canadian Association of Police Governance Annual Meeting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Council Compensation - What's Fair?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 27, 2014

How Should We Deal with Boarded-Up Houses?

In some parts of the city, boarded-up houses don't exist.  For people who live in those areas, it's hardly a pressing problem.  But for those of us in areas where the income is below average, they are a problem, and one for which we don't have a satisfactory solution.

Houses get boarded up for a number of reasons.  The house may have been a rental house, which became unfit to be lived in - perhaps non-payment of water bills led to the water being turned off.  The home owner may have died, or simply left, and the house was unable to be sold.  Or a fire may have rendered the house uninhabitable.  Whatever the situation, the windows and doors have been boarded up, the yard is neglected and shows it, and it becomes a problem, not just for the neighbourhood, but for the city.

A boarded-up house can be the source of many problems.  Squatters may move in.  Young adults may find that it's a great place to party.  Fires get started.  At the very least, it becomes an eyesore in the neighbourhood, reducing property values.

These houses are occupying space that could be used to build good homes - homes that wouldn't require new infrastructure to be built, and whose residents would utilize current amenities like schools and playgrounds.  They are a waste of current city assets.  But instead of being used, they tend to remain empty, long past the time when they could be rehabilitated.

I can see a boarded-up house from my front yard.  It's a rental property that for several years was a drug house, with lots of short-term visitors at all hours of the day and night, and frequent backyard parties.  Fortunately, the police were responsive to complaints, and it's been empty for several years.  But it's an attractive nuisance to kids in the neighbourhood - more than once I've called police because I've seen kids starting to pry the boards off the back door or windows.  But there doesn't seem to be any action that can be taken to get the owners to take some responsibility in fixing it up so that it's habitable again, or knock it down and sell the lot to someone who will make use of it.

I've been looking for a solution to this problem for most of my time on council.  Too often, I've been told by bylaw enforcement that there's nothing that they can do.  So I've started having discussions with the city solicitor and other legal professionals, to find out what the options are, and what other cities do to solve the problem.  The next step will be to meet with bylaw enforcement staff, and the city solicitor, to find out exactly what roadblocks are stopping them from taking action sooner, or at all.  I think that it's important that we involve the people who are going to be involved in doing the work, to ensure that whatever new bylaw we come up with will work at the ground level.

Other communities have tried various options.  For example, some require owners to register any boarded-up houses, and have such houses be inspected for whatever needs to be repaired, and charge a fee for such inspection costs.  The inspection is done every year, and costs escalate if required repairs were not made.  Using the nuisance bylaw to address issues is another possibility.

The goal is not to punish the owners of these homes.  The goal is to encourage them to make the property habitable again, and if they don't, to make them pay the city for at least some of the costs that are being incurred by the extra work that such properties entail.

I realize that stuff happens, that sometimes, through no fault of their own, a home owner will have to board up a house.  But having a house in this state should be temporary, not long term, for the good of the neighbourhood and the city as a whole.

"An empty house is like a stray dog or a body from which life has departed."  Samuel Butler

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Paying for Alcohol - the Right Decision, for the Wrong Reason

I like red wine.  I have a glass of wine most evenings with dinner.  I like a cold beer on a hot day.  I enjoy a glass of Drambuie in the late evening, now and then.

That being said, I understand that for some, alcohol is an addiction, and a cause of great pain, both for addicts and their families, and for those innocent people that have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, when dealing with a drunk driver.

I also realize that Prince Albert has more than its share of people dealing with the problem of alcohol, for a wide range of reasons.  Some of those people cause very direct costs to the city, as most police calls are alcohol-related, and the police cells are full most evenings with people who have had too much to drink, and have nowhere else to go.  Others manage to keep their problems under control, or have the supports in place to help them do so.

It's a good thing that this problem is starting to be discussed more openly, but I think that dragging it into last week's council discussion about funding for a sports event was taking advantage of the situation to score political points.  To recap briefly - council had been asked to fund a local sports celebration to the tune of $2,500 specifically to sponsor a wine and cheese reception.  The councillor who spoke to the issue said that he objected because it sends the wrong message when our city has such problems with alcohol abuse.

I, on the other hand, did not support it because I don't think that the city should give money for non-essentials, particularly to a group that can certainly afford to buy their own wine.  It's rather ironic that the motion ended up passing, for the same $2,500, simply by removing the direct reference to sponsoring the wine and cheese reception.  In other words, we gave the same amount of money, the wine and cheese reception went ahead, and the organizing committee just had to adjust their book-keeping a bit.  But for some members of council, it gave the opportunity to look as though they're taking the high moral ground against something, even though no actual action was taken to address the underlying problem.

Too bad the same outcry didn't happen a few years ago, when we gave $48,000 to a golf celebration, a considerable amount of which was ear-marked specifically for wine and beer.  Then-councillor Williams and I were the only ones to vote against that expenditure, for the same reason - the tax payer shouldn't be paying for alcohol, because it is a non-essential.

And where was this moralizing a few years ago, when the motion for a drive-through off-sale passed with a comfortable majority of council supporting it?  How we could support making it even easier for people to access alcohol is beyond me, but again I was in the minority in opposing this, which has indirectly led to a recent court challenge - something that wouldn't have been necessary had we only done the right thing a few years ago.

The problem of alcohol abuse is a complex one, and one that the city has very few tools to deal with.  City residents can decry the people drinking on benches in Memorial Square, but at the same time ignore the message that traditions like Safe Grad send to young people, despite the statistics that tell us that binge drinking by high school students is at scarily high levels.

If council is going to, as some say, take a stand against alcohol, what will we do the next time a request for a special occasion permit comes to us?  In the past, such events, endorsed by council, have caused extra problems for police, but somehow don't raise public indignation to the same levels as do people passed out on the riverbank.

Alcohol is one of those vexing problems for which there is no clear solution that works for everyone.  I don't know what the right answer, or combination of answers is.  All I can do is continue to make decisions based on what I feel is best for the tax payer, and try to avoid making moral judgements that don't really change anything.

"Here's to alcohol: the cause of, and answer to, all of life's problems." - Matt Groening


Sunday, July 13, 2014

Dealing with the Inevitability of Emergencies

One of the fundamental truths of life seems to be that, no matter what, no matter how well you've planned, unexpected problems will leap up and bite you.  In your personal life, you might have an emergency fund for such things.  You'll get into trouble if you define emergency too loosely, or if you use the fund to pay for things that you could have anticipated.  For example, there's a big difference between the emergency caused because your car was broadsided in an accident, and the emergency when your car breaks down because you haven't been doing regular maintenance.  The second, of course, isn't a real emergency - you could have minimized the risks by thinking ahead.

With the city, we've been most recently hit by the unexpected repair bill for the soccer centre roof - money that wasn't in the budget, of course.  It's a familiar quandary - we set our plans for the year in the budget, make tough decisions like the one not to fully fund the waterslide repairs, but stuff always comes up that we have to find emergency money for.

Of course, as with your own budget, there are always things that come in under budget, and these savings can be used to cover the unexpected problems.  But we can't rely on that, and it doesn't mean that we shouldn't have a better emergency fund than we do.  The inadequacy of our emergency reserves is not because we've had more than our share of emergencies, but more because of foolish actions by past councils, which drained reserves for non-emergency expenses.  Building it back up is slow, hard slogging, not made easier by the never-ending requests for funding of this and that.

An example of an additional funding request is the most recent one - to keep the ice in the Art Hauser Centre for extra weeks next spring, for the benefit of figure skaters.  In no way can this be considered an essential - it's providing a convenience for a relatively few number of people, who currently have to drive all the way out to Buckland for extended season ice time.  And yet, the familiar chorus - "It's for the children" - has already been sounded, making those of us who try to take an objective look at spending look like big meanies.  I would have absolutely no problem agreeing to this, if the special interest groups involved would agree to pay the additional costs - but of course, they consider the $10,000 cost too onerous for them, but a perfectly reasonable request to make of the taxpayer, via the city.

I'm not sure where the reasonable line is, but I do think that when we set user fees we shouldn't be looking at just the operating costs of the facilities - we should also be building in a reasonable cost for ongoing maintenance and repair work.  We should think of user fees the same way as a landlord thinks of rent - the landlord has to consider the inevitable costs of keeping the building functional in the long run, not just of covering the current operating costs.  These additional fees should be put directly into reserves, not left in the general operating budget - it's just to easy to spend it when it's there.

In the meantime, we'll have to figure out how to pay for a major repair in a four-year old building - most likely by pushing another, older building further back in line, and hope that its roof holds out.

"Where is the politician who has not promised to fight for lower taxes - and who has not proceeded to vote for the very spending projects that make tax cuts impossible." - Barry Goldwater