Sunday, April 13, 2014

Correcting a Misconception

For some people, when they get what they think is a good story, they'll keep repeating it, with embellishments, until they forget what the actual truth is.  That's how rumours get started, and grow.

There's one story about me that I hear occasionally, that I want to set the record straight on.  And I'm sure that I'll hear it again, even after I've set the record straight, but at least I'll know that the truth is out there.

The misconception that has been voiced more than once is that I've never, in all my fourteen years on council, voted in favour of an annual budget.  This is not true.  I have voted to support the budget three times, when I felt that the budget process had been fair and open, and that the result was fair to all city residents.  They weren't perfect budgets, but I felt that they did the best job possible of addressing the various issues of the day.

But I haven't supported several budgets, and always gave my reasons for doing so.  I did not vote to support, for example, the budget that took money from the road maintenance budget, and directed it towards Neat and Clean, the slush fund that was used for such things as painting light standards as high as the painter could reach, and no higher, and putting new furniture in the mayor's office and in council chambers.  I did not vote to support the budget that had a tax increase of 0%, because that resulted in our falling even further behind in infrastructure maintenance, and was only set because it was an election year - an extremely short-sighted and obvious tactic.

There are people on the current council that voted to support both of those budgets, but nobody ever asks them to explain why.  I find it interesting that, when people go along with the majority, it doesn't seem to get questioned, but those of us who aren't afraid to voice different opinions get questioned, and the implication is definitely made that we're not good team players.

This year, I think that the budget process was better than it has been for several years, although there still is much work to be done in questioning the status quo.  The difficulty that I have is with the continuation of the initial $60 flat tax, that was created four or five years ago so that the rate increase could be smaller, and then  immediately used to balance the budget.  I voted against that flat tax, and continue to do so.  When I objected last year, a commitment was made that this year, council would look at removing this undirected tax, as we had brought in the flat tax directed towards road repairs.  But that didn't happen, with no explanation.

I have less problem with taxes directed toward capital expenditures - last year's tax was set to cover the amount of work that we thought could be done, and we were trying to make up for several years of past neglect.  At some point, when we've caught up, I expect that tax to be removed.  As for the initial $60, undirected tax, I don't agree with the current proposal to direct half the $60 towards snow removal - that is an operational expense that varies widely from year to year, and we don't know if the $30 will be enough, or too much.  And it still leaves $30 undirected.

I'm surprised that so many members of this council support flat taxes, since they are considered regressive by  most cities.  Low and middle value homes proportionally pay more under a flat tax than higher value homes.  Most of us represent far more lower and middle income citizens, and yet, we're quite okay with an unfair tax for most of those who elected us.  It doesn't make sense to me.

The so-called flat tax is applied differently to commercial properties.  For those, it ranges from $300 to $3000.  Somehow, we recognize that a small business cannot afford to pay as large a tax as a large business, but we don't apply the same logic to small homes compared to large homes.  I'd love to hear a coherent explanation of that inconsistency.

I have a problem when people suggest that I should vote against my better judgement just so that council can appear to be united.  Council isn't some old boys' club, and being on council isn't a game.  We're each elected to represent our constituents and their interests, as well as consider the well-being of the city as a whole, and we can only move ahead and change if we're not afraid to question and at times disagree, not just with the status quo, but with each other.  And I will continue to vote in the way that I think is right.

"A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on." - Winston Churchill

Sunday, March 30, 2014

More Water Woes

Once again, past neglect of infrastructure maintenance and replacement is costing us far more than the investment in these basic responsibilities would have.  This long cold winter is causing problems with water - broken water mains and frozen water pipes mean that one of the basic requirements of life hasn't been available for some city residents for weeks.  It has also illustrated that our ways of dealing with these disruptions need to be revised.

We thought that it was bad two years ago when the whole city was under a boil water order for six weeks.  While the current problem doesn't affect the whole city, for those affected, it's much worse.  At least with the boil water order you could still flush your toilet and have a shower.  For homes with no water or sewer, all their routines, throughout their day, have to be adjusted.  And for seniors, or those housebound for reasons of poor health, it's even more difficult.

I have received more phone calls about this problem than any other in recent memory.  Most people understand that with the number of breaks, the city can't fix them all at once (although there is the occasional caller who feels that they should be at the top of the list).  But most people would just like to know when they can hope to have water again.  If you know that it's going to be weeks, then maybe you'll make plans to move in with friends or family for the duration, but if it's only going to be a few days, perhaps you'll tough it out.  And the phone calls I'm getting are to see if perhaps I can find out how long it's going to be.  I'm not having much luck in finding that out, but when I checked on Friday, we were up to more than 90 homes without water.

While I appreciate that city crews and the extra contractors we've hired are doing their best to get the situation resolved, from an administrative perspective, I think we need to provide more support.  Finally, we have taken the step of providing residents with access to showers at the Kinsmen Arena (which also highlights the oversight in the design of the field house when showers weren't included).  Drinking water is being provided to homes without water, but rather sporadically, and not in very large quantities.  We need to have a set schedule for delivering water, so that people can arrange their lives to be there at the right times.  Or perhaps have cases of water available at City Hall for affected residents to pick up.

And we need to figure out an approximate timeline for when people will get this basic service back, so that they can plan how they will deal with the difficulties.  We should be able to estimate how long it's taking to fix each problem, then extrapolate from that to set out timelines.  It's a basic part of providing good customer service that we need to get better at.

I also think that we shouldn't be charging people for a service that they're not getting.  I know that it will be difficult to adjust the water bills of these residents, but I know that if I had gone without water for several weeks, I wouldn't expect to have to pay for a service that I didn't receive.  More than one resident has said that this adding insult to injury better not happen.

Going forward, I think that council has to take a similar approach as we started for road repairs last year, this time looking at our underground infrastructure.  Not surprisingly, the problems are in the east and west flats and midtown areas - those areas where improvements have not kept pace with the newer parts of the city.  Council's decision to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on picking up grass clippings, rather than investing that money in water pipe replacement so that people can rely on having drinking water - I know which one I think is more important, and I think that most people would agree.  And that's why I keep arguing every year, both during the budget process and after, that we need to look at everything that we spend money on, and make sure that we're covering the basics, before we spend money on the nice to haves.

It's just unfortunate that it takes things like the current water crisis to drive the point home.

"Water is the driving force in nature." - Leonardo da Vinci

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Saying Good-bye to a Good Man

Thursday marked the last day of Cliff Skauge's career with the city.  For about the last ten years he was the City Clerk; when I was first elected, he was the Assistant City Clerk.  It's hard to imagine what City Hall will be like without him - for most of us on council, he's always been there, guiding us through our agenda every week.

Cliff understood his job, and the responsibility that goes along with it.  He was the one who had to guide council through the correct procedures, so that whatever we did was done legally.  He understood the importance of following process, even though some members of council did not appreciate his assistance, preferring doing things their way rather than doing things right.  Explaining that when you are a democratically elected government, you have to follow rules that don't necessarily apply when you're running your own business, must have been something that he got tired of explaining, but he seemed to have infinite patience, even with veteran councillors who had heard the message over and over, but still thought that they could take short-cuts.

In fourteen years, I never heard Cliff raise his voice.  I've never seen him angry.  I have seen him get frustrated, usually when his repeated respectful reminders of the need to follow process were being ignored.  But he carried on, and was always willing to answer questions and accept suggestions.

For the last election, he coordinated the preparation of an excellent voters' guide that was distributed to all households in the city.  If you recall, the last election featured changes in ward boundaries that had to be explained, as well as changes in the requirements for voters, particularly the requirement to bring proper identification to the polls, and he put it all together in an easy to understand document.  He also coordinated the first ever election results on-line, so that people only had to log into the city web-site to find out the results.  These are background things that contributed greatly to the smooth running of the election, and I'm not sure that people truly appreciate how important these background things are.

What I will most remember about Cliff is how he treated all members of council with respect, both inside and outside council chambers, whether rookie or veteran.  Whenever he had to call me for a council matter, he always apologized for disturbing me at home, even though he had no other option.

And there was a time, with previous councils, when I was not exactly in the inner circle, as it were.  I used to joke that if I dropped into a staff member's office with a question, they would probably get in trouble for talking to me.  During this time, Andrea and I were at a fund-raising pancake breakfast, as were other members of council.  Andrea and I were sitting alone; Cliff came over and asked if he could join us, and we had a very enjoyable breakfast together.  This small gesture of kindness when I was reminded frequently by the actions of my colleagues that I was an outsider, speaks volumes about the kind of man that he was.

All of us who work for the city, in whatever capacity, would do well to emulate his practice of working hard, understanding his job, and treating people with respect and kindness.  He led by example, in the truest sense of the word, and I will miss seeing him set that example every Monday evening.

"People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." - Maya Angelou

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Budget Meeting

Council spent four hours Thursday evening and all day Friday reviewing the budget.  This year's budget review was much easier than previous years - I must commend administration for setting things out in an easily understandable way.  It was also much more pleasant to work through - the chair went through the budget item by item, and questions and comments on each item were encouraged.  This is a marked change from previous years, when it seemed as though the point was to rush through as fast as possible, and entire pages were dismissed without time being made for a single question.  Even though we took the full time allocated, I think that the result was well worth it, and I think that most councillors would admit that they have a better understanding of what is actually in the budget now.

Part of that understanding is because of the detailed meetings we had with each department in the fall, which focused on where our status quo spending is.  I still think that we have quite a bit of room to move in challenging some of that status quo spending in future years.  For instance, we haven't made much effort to reduce staffing levels, and some positions created in the past several years don't have much rationalization for their existence.  That's something that I'll be pushing for over the next year.

I'd also like to see better coordination between departments, as a way to increase efficiency and reduce costs.  For example, I think that water main repairs need to be better coordinated with the people in Parks, who are responsible for rehabilitating the boulevards that are torn up.  Often, the boulevards are left for quite some time after being torn up, allowing weeds to get a good foothold, and spread to surrounding yards.

Probably the biggest change that I felt this year was a sense of better cooperation from administrative staff.  Questions were answered fully and clearly, without the defensive attitude that used to prevail, and I got the feeling that administration understand that it is council's job to set direction and make decisions, based on the information that administration provides.  For the first time in a long time, I feel as though both sides understand their roles and responsibilities, and it's certainly a good feeling.

I also realize that there is a certain faction of the public that will complain mightily about any increase - you know, the anonymous commenters that are convinced that everyone on council is an idiot, even though we're the ones who operate and make decisions quite publicly.  The reality is that costs for everything increase, and we have to develop a budget that recognizes this.  Do I think that we've missed some opportunities for efficiencies?  Of course, we can always do better, but I believe that we're trying to improve things.  The process was better this year than last, which was miles better than the year before that.  I'm sure that, as we continue to work together, next year's budget will be even better.

"The politics of constant conflict may be good, but what is good politics does not necessarily work in the real world.  What works in the real world is cooperation." - Bill Clinton

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Setting the Budget and the Perils of Lifestyle Inflation

This upcoming week will feature budget meetings - first, the opportunity for public input on Monday after our regular meeting, then the formal budget review on Thursday and Friday.  As I've said many times before, this is the most important work that we do as a council - the budget should reflect our priorities, and recognize the need to weight our expenditures in favour of need rather than want, and for those things that benefit all residents rather than those things that benefit only a few.

We also need to guard against what might be considered as decisions that are going to result in lifestyle inflation.  That's the term that is used to describe how quickly people get used to having more than they used to have, and start to consider such things as necessities, rather than nice-to-have options.  We've all succumbed to this - as an example, when I was growing up, most families only had one vehicle.  Somehow, people managed to arrange their lives around this - carpooling, walking, taking the bus.  In the small town that I grew up in, kids walked to school.  Kids from surrounding farms took the school bus.  A few kids in higher grades might have their own vehicle, but they were in the minority.  Compare that to today, when very few kids walk to school, high school parking lots are crammed with cars and trucks, and the entry way to the school is full of parents dropping off their kids.  And most families have at least one vehicle per licensed driver, often more.

There's a dozen reasons why we rationalize that this is a necessity, but it's more that we're used to the convenience, and would rather consider it a need, rather than a want.  I'm as guilty as anyone - our family has three functioning cars, even though both Andrea and Guthrie walk (or in Guthrie's case, run) to work, and I should choose the walking to work option more often than I actually do.

So how does this become something to consider when we're reviewing the budget?  Well, first, we need to be very careful when we add services without charging a user fee for those services, because such services quickly become engrained in some people's expectations.  As an example, the city picks up grass clippings from residents, at a cost of more than $100,000 per year.  This is one of our more inefficient expenditures, as there's no set pick-up schedule, and not every home uses this service, so it seems that trucks just cruise the back alleys, looking for those elusive plastic bags, which then have to be cut open so that the contents can be composted.

When I suggested last year that this is a service that could be eliminated, others on council objected, fearing that they would get phone calls from people who were upset at this service being removed.  I think that a feasible option would be to have this as a subscription service - if you want this convenience, be prepared to pay for it.  That would provide a real sense of how many people see this as a need only if it's "free" (because, of course, we're all paying through our taxes) - they might change their minds if the actual cost is charged only to those who use the service.

The situation is similar for every one of our city recreational facilities.  We like to have the best, we underestimate what it will cost and overestimate what the actual usage by paying customers will be, so end up adding a half million here and a half million there to our operational costs.  The Art Hauser Centre, the Rawlinson Centre, the soccer centre, the waterslides - all heavily subsidized by taxpayers.  But imagine the outcry if, for example, we decided to shut down the waterslides.  Built when such things were the flavour of the month, with the initial cost a fund-raising project of a well-meaning organization, then given to the city, it's a white elephant used for three months of the year, with ongoing maintenance, repair and liability issues.  There's a reason why you don't see outdoor waterslides around - they don't pay for themselves and are a nightmare to maintain.

Even the golf course, which claims to cover its costs, doesn't include the cost of water usage to maintain the greens, and council has yet to decide that all costs should be covered by the minority of residents that actually benefit from having such a facility.

We have to scrutinize every request to spend new money.  Even harder is changing services, either by increasing user fees to reduce the cost to all tax-payers, or by stopping services or closing facilities.  But these are the hard decisions that need to be made.  Saying yes to budget requests is the easy path to follow - you're saying yes to this or that interest group, and hoping that the resulting good feelings will overshadow the inevitable crankiness that happens when taxes go up to pay for all of this agreeableness.  But the costs that are incurred will last long past the initial elation at having yet another wonderful facility, when future citizens wonder what on earth we were thinking.

"A budget tells us what we can't afford, but it doesn't keep us from buying it." - William Feather

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Alcohol Paradox

You may have heard that Prince Albert was the only municipality in Saskatchewan that did not take advantage of the offer from the Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Commission to allow bars to open at 6 a.m. today for the Olympic gold medal hockey game.  Council didn't actually make that decision; the opportunity came far too late in the week for council to have the opportunity to discuss it, so it was more a matter of not making a decision, rather than making the decision not to allow it.  But if it had come to council, I don't think that I would have supported it.

Don't get me wrong.  I drink alcohol.  I enjoy a glass of red wine with dinner most evenings, I enjoy trying new types of wine, and I make my own wine, although I use kits, rather than making wine from real grapes or other fruit.  In the summer, drinking a cold beer on the deck is one of the joys of life.

On the other hand, I know the damage that alcohol can do.  Both Andrea and I know the pain of having alcoholics within the family, and the helpless feeling that it brings.

And I have recently been to meetings where community groups have discussed the need to develop an alcohol strategy for Prince Albert.   The statistics provided at these meetings are startling, and scary.  The amount spent annually per capita on alcohol in Prince Albert is $1,249, more than $400 more than the per capita rate in Saskatoon, and more than $500 more per capita than Moose Jaw and the provincial average.  More than $2 million of the police budget between 2009 and 2012 was spent on dealing with public intoxication.

Some of the statistics related to youth drinking are equally scary - more than two-thirds of Grade 10 students reported binge drinking - the national average is less than half.

And there are more alarming statistics related to drunk driving, violent crime, and social services.

So we have a problem that costs tax-payers big money, reduces the time that police have to deal with other issues, and has devastating effects on families.  The effects are felt across all income levels, as tempting as it is to assume that it is a problem that only belongs to certain segments of society.

I don't know what the solution is.  Part of the difficulty in coming up with such a strategy is the paradox of alcohol - for some people, and at a certain level of use, alcohol is merely a pleasant diversion in life.  But for some, after a certain point, it brings only grief.  And that grief doesn't stop at the individual - think of the innocent victims of drunk drivers.

Having these discussions about the problem is a good step.  Recognizing the broad range of related problems, while it doesn't make finding solutions any easier, at least shows us that the strategy will have to be multi-faceted.

Part of the solution has to be recognizing that perhaps, how we look at alcohol use has to change.  So many of our celebrations include alcohol as an integral part of things - just look at the different approaches high schools use in their graduation celebrations.

I look at opening bars to watch the gold medal game in the same way.  Why does watching a hockey game require drinking at 6 a.m.?  It doesn't, of course, judging by the quiet celebrating that Guthrie and a few of his friends had in our TV room this morning.  But I know that there are those who will argue that this was an exceptional event, so it should have been allowed, since it wasn't forcing people to drink, but providing them with the opportunity to gather together to celebrate.

But I think that, in a city which has finally acknowledged that we need to act as a community to look at the broader problem of how we deal with alcohol, allowing bars to open would be sending a message that we don't take the problem seriously - and we have to start matching what we do with what we say.

"Alcohol gives you infinite patience with stupidity." - Sammy Davis Jr.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Start of Tax Season

The first draft of the city budget is now available (you can download it from the city web-site), and a proposed budget increase has been floated out.  The actual budget still has to go through a detailed review with council, of course, which I think will be helped by the fact that we've gone through the various aspects of the base budget in great detail, in several focused meetings with the appropriate city departments - an educational process that was valuable to all of us.  Understanding the starting point for our spending is an important first step in budgeting that we haven't done often enough over the past few years, so looking at the detail, while time-consuming, is a major improvement to the process.

Just as with your household budget, even when you know the starting point, it only makes sense to look at that starting point, and see where efficiencies can be made, and I expect administrative staff to do exactly that - where can we cut current spending, while maintaining the same level of service, by finding operational efficiencies?  What are we still doing that we could stop doing, without any noticeable reduction in service?

Because, of course, after the base budget, we then have to make decisions on the various requests to do more, to fund more services, to increase programming, to build new facilities, to improve infrastructure.  This is where it helps to keep in mind what are city responsibilities, and focus our energies on those.  Our mandate is not to be all things to all people, but to choose those things which fall within our bailiwick.  There are many worthy causes and activities out there, but we aren't set up to solve all the problems.  We've gotten into trouble in the past by trying to duplicate services that are provincial or federal responsibilities - we just can't afford those sorts of well-meaning efforts.

I'm always surprised by the people who get upset over any tax increase.  They must think that the city operates in some magical parallel universe where costs for things like electricity, natural gas and fuel don't increase in price.  The cost of gas at the fuel pump goes up - the cost of keeping police and fire vehicles on the road goes up too.  Increases for electricity and natural gas  - we have to keep buildings lit up and warm.  And the cost of staff increases over time as well - even if we don't increase the number of staff, salaries and benefits go up.

I think that it's reasonable for taxes to go up every year, because the cost of living goes up every year.  I also think that we're in a situation where additional increases are needed to make up for past neglect of our basic responsibilities.  Where the discussion tends to get interesting and passionate is when we're thinking of going beyond the basics, of investing in new services or facilities that are going to increase the overall cost of running the city, in the long term.  How do we balance the very real needs that we have, with the understandable wishes for improvements that may not benefit the entire city.

This is where it gets difficult, because there is no one right answer - it's where city governance becomes more of an art than a science.  What I hope is that, no matter what our individual positions may be on any specific budget detail or proposal, we take the time to discuss the pros and cons thoroughly, and remember that everyone's viewpoint deserves to be heard with respect.  If we can do that, then our work on the budget and the resulting tax increase, will have been time well spent.

"Be wary of strong drink.  It can make you shoot at tax collectors...and miss." - Robert A. Heinlein