Sunday, March 22, 2015

Balancing Risk with Reality

Last week's council meeting featured our decision on supporting three community events, using the previously budgeted $50,000.  I asked that the three requests be separated, but was refused, so I had to vote against all three, even though I only have serious reservations about the realistic prospects of one, the proposed Borealis Music Festival, which asked for, and received, $15,000 of the total amount, as well as $15,000 of in-kind support.

Of the three, only the baseball tournament actually managed to put in its proposal a year ahead of time, which is one of the prerequisites, but most other councillors were okay with approving all three.  The reasoning behind having groups submit proposals a year ahead of time is the recognition that a successful event of provincial or national scope cannot be pulled together in the space of a few months, but in this case, impatience ruled the day.

It was unfortunate that one councillor chose to respond to my questions with personal insults rather than reasoned debate, but I guess that's what you do when you don't have good answers.  Responding that way does no favours to either me, the rest of council, or the public, and it certainly doesn't provide the public with what they deserve - a council that shows it is thoughtful before spending tax payers' money.

My over-riding concern with the proposed music festival is that, while I'm sure the proponents are well-intentioned, they haven't done the required homework, and they're trying to be too big, too fast, before they know whether this is a good idea or not.  I know that you never know if something will work for sure before you try it, but I also know that most successful ventures didn't spring fully grown and massive their first year.

For example, the music festival has a projected attendance of 5,000 people a day.  That's a lot.  They compare themselves to other festivals, ignoring the fact that these festivals have long histories, and have built reputations and a client base over that time.  So while it might seem reasonable to feel that this festival would be comparable to Ness Creek, held near Big River, which has an annual attendance of around 4,000, the hard fact that has been ignored is that Ness Creek has been around for 25 years, has developed its brand of ecological awareness and home-grown music, and its attendance in the first year was around 200.  It grew over time, which is only reasonable.

The promoters have not identified the type of music that will be offered, saying that they don't want to tie themselves down.  Unfortunately, by not having a brand, they aren't likely to attract people who are unfamiliar with the specific bands that will be there.  If you like folk music, you may go to the Regina or Winnipeg Folk Festivals, even if you haven't heard of all of the musicians, because you know that music in a style that you like will be offered.  But if you don't even know the genre, why would you drop $50 (for one day) on the off-chance that you'll like the music.

The promoters are also thinking that transporting people in from the lakes will swell the crowds.  My gut feeling is that people who go to the lake on a long weekend do so because they want to be at the lake.  If the weather is good, why on earth would you be interested in coming back into the city?  If the weather is lousy, attending an open-air music festival isn't going to be a popular option.  And people are likely to be unwilling to depend on a bus to get them back and forth - people like the flexibility that having their own vehicle offers, even if there is totally inadequate parking.

Merchandising is a big part of their proposed business model, with projected beer sales of 2 per attendee, and the assumption that most attendees will spend money on a T shirt.  Again, if I've spent $50 just to get in the gate, I'm not going to be willing to spend that much again on beer and a T shirt, so perhaps testing the waters for demand in the first year would be prudent, rather than sinking money into merchandise.

And probably most crucial, this all has to be pulled together in four months.  That's not a lot of lead time when you still need to put together the organizational team, and sign enough acts for three days, especially when they say that they will be operating in multiple, undefined venues. Both Ness Creek and the Regina Folk Festival are advertising their line-ups now, and are selling passes.  The Borealis Music Festival web-site is still under construction, with only five acts listed.  The proponents haven't even set up the required registered non-profit group, but are operating through the Tourism and Marketing Board.

As I said, I got no answers to my questions, which isn't surprising.  It's not that I'm against Prince Albert doing what it can to attract people, but we shouldn't extrapolate numbers from other events, or other communities, and assume that the same results will occur here, for a product that hasn't been defined, on a long weekend.  Yes, people travel from outside the community for events at the Rawlinson Centre, but there aren't 5,000 of them at a time, and they aren't coming for a non-defined event.

I'm sure that the reason that I didn't get answers to my questions is because the organizers don't have them yet.  Part of that may be because they've rushed into this, without realizing the time, people and research required to reduce the risks and increase the odds of success.  It's a shame that, because they're in such a rush to do something this year, they may reduce the chance of building something that would last.  And that will make it harder to get support in the future - a big price to pay for not doing the research up front.

"Sometimes questions are more important than answers." - Nancy Willard

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Problem with Discretionary Spending

You may not be aware that, every year, the city has earmarked in its budget $50,000 to help fund community events.  Why I suggest that you may not be aware, is because this is a budget item that we don't discuss specifically.  It was set in 2009, I believe, and there are some guidelines around it, but we don't review it at budget time, to assess if it is enough, not enough or too much, or if the way it's been used is within the current policy, or if that needs to be revised.

The current guidelines are that it is supposed to be used for national or provincial events, but not for conferences.  In the past it has been used mostly for athletic events, with part of the justification being that the upgrading that happens to facilities then benefits the whole community.  However, when the vast majority of it ($48,500) was used a few years ago to help pay for the golf club's hundredth anniversary, some of the money was used to pay for participant gifts and refreshments - hardly spending that had any long term benefits to the average tax payer.

We currently have two events that are looking to use this money - another air show, and a proposed music festival to be held the long weekend in August.  Already, one of the main criteria for application has been missed for both of these events - application is supposed to be made a year in advance.  And both applications don't have the kind of detail that I would expect  - there should be an explanation of exactly what the money will be used for (gifts and refreshments are not appropriate uses), and what other financial arrangements have been made.  What often seems to be forgotten is that when city facilities are used, the tax payer is already providing support through in-kind provision of services, both with the facility itself as well as with staff time and equipment in both preparation and clean-up.

As far as I'm concerned, our allocation of this money should be as diligent as for any other budget expenditure - is this appropriate use of the money, that will benefit the city as a whole.  Have the applicants done their homework, or do they just see this as money for the asking.  Does this meet the policy requirement of being a national or provincial event, with the potential to bring people into the city who are going to spend more money.  In fact, I would question the current restriction against providing funding to help with conferences - I'm not sure why we don't realize that someone coming to the community to attend a conference is just as likely to spend money on meals and hotel rooms as someone coming here for a baseball tournament.

We also need to make the process of allocating these funds more open and fair.  Right now, it almost depends on having friends in the right places, who can help move the process forward.  That means that other, perhaps more worthy events, are left out in the cold.  Having an open process would accomplish a couple of things - it would spread the money around better, so that more functions would benefit, and it would help to remove the image that Prince Albert has - of being an old boys' club, where if you know the right people, doors open more easily.  As well, a more open process would remove the current perception of unfairness, and likely result in broader benefits to the city as a whole - something that we need to get better at making sure happens.

"After the government takes enough to balance the budget, the taxpayer has the job of budgeting the balance." - Unknown

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Problem with Boarded Up Houses

On Friday, along with several fellow councillors and some city staff, I went on a tour of boarded up houses.  We saw about thirty properties, places where houses are still standing, in various states of repair, but for whatever reason are not occupied, and in some cases, have been vacant for years.  We saw properties in Wards 1, 2 and 3, which is where most of these properties are located, although there are some boarded up properties in other wards, generally in the older areas of the city.

Boarded up houses are a problem for Prince Albert in several ways.  First, and probably most serious, is that they are places that attract squatters - people who will move in, or use the place for parties - and thus become a risk for fires, as well as being a location for illegal activities.  They affect the neighbourhood, bringing down property values, being a source of noxious weeds, leaving stretches of unshoveled sidewalks after a snow storm, and providing an attractive nuisance to children.

Just as I think we should have a goal of having all streets in the city paved, I think that having a goal of having no abandoned properties anywhere in the city would add immeasurably to the quality of life for all residents.  I can't help but think that if a property were boarded up in some of the newer, higher income areas of the city, the neighbours would raise such holy hell that the situation wouldn't last.  In contrast, in my ward, there is a property that was placarded as being unfit to live in in 2012.  Three years later, bylaw enforcement is only starting to talk about starting the prosecution process - imagine how pleasant it would be to have lived next door to this property for the last few years.

So what's the problem?  Part of it I alluded to in the previous paragraph - bylaw enforcement don't appear to be in any rush to act, and often seem to be extremely lenient with the landlords, rather than thinking of things from the perspective of the neighbours.  As far as I'm concerned, our sympathy should be with the neighbours, not with a landlord, who often doesn't even live in the city, who can't be bothered to bring his property up to a livable standard.  At least the process has improved so that if there's a fire in one of these buildings, the fire department informs bylaw enforcement, so that they can do an inspection immediately to see if the building is salvageable - before they would often wait for a complaint before taking any kind of action.  Rather than being complaint driven, they need to become more proactive, and follow-up quickly and firmly on addresses that are already on their files.

Another problem is that we tax empty lots at a higher rate than lots with derelict buildings on them, so there's actually a disincentive to knocking down these buildings.  I think that a more reasonable approach would be to provide tax incentives to people who build on empty lots, encouraging them to take these buildings down, and build new ones, improving the neighbourhood and adding to the available decent housing in the city.

I think that adding a surcharge to landlords that are repeat offenders - whether they need repeated warnings to take action, or whether the remedial action that they take doesn't last, and the building gets back on the list.  That would show landlords that we take these problems seriously, and they can either fix them or get out of the business.  We have to stop letting things slide.

This is an example of broken window syndrome - where it's been proven that if you take care of the maintenance of buildings in a area, the crime rate goes down as the livability of the area goes up.  As such, I think that abandoned buildings are something that council and administration should put higher on the priority list.  It may seem that it affects only the older, lower income parts of the city, but improving those areas will improve the whole city - and that's the job that we've all signed up for.

"You can't improve a neighbourhood unless you bring everyone along with you" - Marcus Samuelson

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The New Executive Committee Meeting Structure - The First Meeting

Last Monday marked the inaugural Executive Committee Meeting under the new structure.  From my perspective, I found it very useful, although, as always, the first run-through shows some areas for improvement.

Executive meetings have now been structured to be focused on more in-depth presentations from various departments, rather than merely running through the decision items for the actual council meeting.  At this first meeting, we had five presentations, which is probably why the meeting ran rather long.  It was also followed by an in camera session  - I'm going to suggest to the city clerk that in future, that part of the meeting should be held first, rather than making the individuals involved wait until the end of the meeting.

As deputy mayor for the next few weeks, I chaired the entire meeting.  Because the meeting is less structured, I found that as chair, one really has to keep on top of things, to avoid people going off on tangents.  But it's nice to chair a less formal meeting - speakers still have to be recognized by the chair, but no longer have to stand when speaking.  The less formal structure also seemed to be conducive to better information exchange.

Discussion on each topic kept fairly focused, and I can see that one of the benefits will be earlier heads-up of where departments are planning to go.  This will give council earlier opportunity to shape the direction of where things go - better synchronization with administration, which should lead to better discussion of options at earlier stages, and better decisions in the long run.

The actual Council Meeting will now be chaired in its entirety by the mayor.  In the past, the deputy mayor would chair part of the meeting, so the awkward changing of seats mid-meeting will now be avoided.

To outsiders, these changes may not seem significant.  But I see major improvements, largely in the areas of more and better information exchange, and better use of everyone's time - both members of council and staff.  I'm hoping that with continual refinement of the process, and as everyone gets more comfortable with the changes, that the improvements will be evident to everyone.

"Those who initiate change will have a better opportunity to manage the change that is inevitable." - William Pollard

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Pros and Cons of SUMA

I spent four days last week in Saskatoon, attending the annual meeting of the Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association, or SUMA.  This happens every year during the first week of February, alternating between Regina and Saskatoon.  The time is spent mostly in educational sessions, both large and small, as well as in group sessions where various resolutions are proposed and voted on, and winds up with a question and answer session with members of the provincial government.

The greatest value that I've found from SUMA over the years is the time spent networking with colleagues - informal sharing of mutual problems and possible solutions.  Listening to the real-life experiences of other councillors provides ideas that tend to be much more practical than the information provided in the formal program sessions.

One of the problems with SUMA is that its members include everyone from tiny villages to the two big cities.  The problems in a small community that has maybe two stop signs are going to have very little in common with a city like Saskatoon.  The result of this broad range of needs is that the educational sessions tend to be very basic, in order to appeal to as many delegates as possible.

I think that a more practical solution would be to have different associations for the different sizes of communities.  Having one for mid-sized cities would be ideal for Prince Albert - Regina and Saskatoon are at a different scale, and could just meet with each other.  Then the small municipalities - the towns and villages - could be another.  Each could then focus on problems appropriate to their size.

I also don't get much out of the bear-pit session with the provincial politicians.  Anyone who thinks that the politicians available are going to provide some new surprising revelation in response to questions from the floor is rather naive.  In fact, this year, the premier responded to a surprising number of questions that were directed at different ministers, which suggested to me that we were going to be sure to hear the party line.

Prince Albert did get unanimous support for its resolution on mandatory bike helmets, suggesting that most communities understand that provincial legislation is required in order to move forward on matters of this type.  However, we've gotten similar support in the past, without any resulting action from the province, so I would caution against any hope that we'll see legislative change soon.

As I said, I enjoyed the time spent meeting old friends and making new ones, in the time between formal sessions.  And even if the other parts of the meeting could be better, I've found there's always something useful to take away.  The job of city council isn't one where there are a whole lot of learning opportunities out there, so I try to take advantage of all that I can.

"An investment in knowledge pays the best interest." - Ben Franklin

Sunday, January 25, 2015

A Change is as Good as a Rest

The annual meeting of the Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association (SUMA) starts next weekend, and after that, we'll be starting our new council meeting process.  What this means is that we'll have fewer meetings (every other week rather than every week), but there will be less repetition between Executive and Council meetings, meaning less wasted time for both council and administration.

The current meeting format, Council meetings every other week, with Executive the week between, hasn't been in place for that long - only since my second term on council, so that means for about ten years.  Before I was on council, meetings were biweekly, and in between there were committee meetings.  So the council of the day got rid of committees such as Finance and Works and Planning, and replaced those committees with Executive, so that all members of council, in effect, were on those committees, and matters relating to those committees were discussed with all of council, rather than having committees meet, then report to council.

However, over the years, Executive Committee became almost a dress rehearsal for council, with the agenda becoming merely what was going to be coming before council the following week. In fact, it had gotten to the point where council meeting almost seemed to be a rubber stamp of what had been discussed the previous week, so motions would pass without any discussion at the meeting itself.  For several years I've been agitating for some sort of change, to make meetings less repetitious, and with the help of administration, we've managed to do that.

So starting in February, Executive meetings will be for the discussion of new initiatives, brought forth either by council or administration, or for the discussion of new or amended bylaws.  It will also be the time for approving routine expenditures that are already within the approved budget.  I'm hoping that the discussion at these meetings will be a less formal and more open exploration of options, ideas and possibilities than happens at council meetings.  The first Executive meeting will be February 9th.   Then two weeks later, on February 23rd, we'll have the first Council meeting, which will feature the standard array of motions and bylaws.

We hope that this structure will result in more efficiency, with less time spent in meetings by both council and administration.  Not only will we have half as many meetings, but administration won't have to be at all Council meetings, as they are now.  They'll only have to be present if matters related to their departments are going to be the subject of discussion.

I'm very appreciative of the efforts of the City Clerk, Sherry Person, and her staff, to take the various ideas proposed by council, and develop the new meeting structure in such a way that the legal requirements of the Cities Act are met.  Instead of spending time telling council why change was impossible, or would take years, they figured out how to make change happen.  That's the kind of initiative that I hope sets a good example for the rest of administration, which sometimes seems to spend more time coming up with excuses to avoid change, rather than figuring out how to help change happen.

I don't know if the new system will be perfect, but I've agreed to be Deputy Mayor for the first few meetings.  That means that I'll be the guinea pig in chairing the new format, but I don't mind experimenting for the sake of improvement.  After all, if I'm going to complain about the current situation, I figure I'd better be willing to step up and help to make it better.

"Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything." - George Bernard Shaw

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Myth of Choosing Your Neighbours

We have three group homes coming before council, with the public hearing piece at this week's meeting. While the opposition so far isn't as orchestrated as the protests against the proposal for Mahon Drive last fall, we've received a few emails outlining the usual fears of allowing such homes into a neighbourhood.

The proposals are for new group homes in three wards - one in Ward Three, one in Ward Five, and one in Ward Six.  One is the same proposal that was made for Mahon Drive - a supervised home for four adolescent girls, all of whom attend school and none of whom has ever been in trouble with the law.  One is for mentally challenged adults.  And one is for seniors.  I'm willing to bet that every person in Prince Albert knows at least one person who would fit in each of those groups, if they don't belong to one themselves, and I'm quite sure that they wouldn't dream of telling those individuals that they're not welcome to live in their neighbourhood. But somehow, putting the phrase group home into the equation makes it objectionable.

The standard argument made is that allowing a group home into a neighbourhood will decrease property values.  While this is said every time, it's really just a red herring - there isn't a single instance of anywhere in the city where a group home has resulted in property values decreasing.  I think that the real, unspoken reason is that people are afraid of people different from them moving in.

Many people live with the illusion that the ideal life is one where you are surrounded by people exactly like you - the ideal demographic of married couples with 2.1 children, who share your values and tastes in everything.  And yet, as soon as you read that, you realized that you know plenty of perfectly nice families that don't fit that demographic, probably including your own family, and that even your nearest and dearest don't necessarily share your values, or your likes and dislikes.  And probably your current neighbours have some habits that you wish they didn't.

Of course, an individual or family can buy a  house without having to clear it with the neighbours.  And while your current neighbours might be just dandy, they could be replaced by a family whose teen-age son is learning how to play the drums, and practises in the garage with the door open, or by a family who likes to have fire-pit parties late into the night, or by a family whose income is derived from dealing drugs, or by members of a motorcycle gang.

I'll admit - I haven't always been thrilled with some of  my neighbours' activities.  And I'm quite sure that there are probably times when they have found some of my family's activities annoying (Guthrie's junior high antics come to  mind).  But I also remember that when I was stranded up on the roof a few years ago, after a wind blew over the ladder, it was a neighbour who came to the rescue, and I'm hoping that another former neighbour still remembers when I called the police when I heard her home being broken into.

Because that's what neighbours do - they lend a hand, or help out in a pinch.  They're not necessarily people that you socialize with, but they say hi over the fence, and keep their eyes open when you're away for the weekend.  And I can't think why group home residents would be any different - if anything, it's an advantage knowing ahead of time what the neighbours will be like.

As members of council, we have to remember one basic fact - group homes exist only because there is a need.  The people who, for whatever reason, need to live in these kinds of homes are city residents with the same rights as the mythical two parent family with 2.1 children.  And we shouldn't let our knowledge of the right thing be swayed yet again by people who think that they have the right to control who their neighbours are.

"You cannot subvert your neighbour's rights without striking a dangerous blow at your own." - Carl Schurz