Sunday, February 27, 2011

A Late Winter Break

Andrea and I don't usually take winter holidays. Neither of us is a great fan of hot weather, or of lying on beaches working on a tan. But our train trip to Ontario last fall provided us with an incentive to take another train trip, which resulted in a late winter break to a slightly warmer clime.

I believe that I mentioned in my blog about our fall holiday to Ontario that our train trip didn't start well - the train was three hours late getting into Saskatoon, and the lateness of it only increased the further east that we got. And the final complication was the derailment of a freight train between us and Toronto, which meant that we had to finish the trip on a bus. By that point, I was ready to give up on train travel for ever, although our return trip a couple of weeks later went much more smoothly.

When we did finally arrive at Union Station in Toronto, we were told to line up for a refund for not getting a full night's sleep - a bonus available to us because we had been in a sleeper car. The VIA rail employee who was directing people to various line-ups also told us to ask about the late credit - available because the train was more than four hours late. When Andrea asked the woman who was coordinating the refunds (a direct refund to her credit card of $100 each, nothing to sneeze at) about the train credit, she was told that she would have to contact the VIA head office, but it would be a credit on a future trip.

We had tentatively planned on using it for another trip east this upcoming summer or fall, but when Andrea sent an email inquiry, the response was that it would have to be used within six months of our late trip - by the end of March, in other words. And the value would be half the price of an economy fare from Saskatoon to Toronto. When Andrea told me this, she was a bit dejected, since going east in winter wasn't something that we particularly wanted to do, but then I asked the fateful question - so where could we go? She suggested Vancouver, since going through the mountains on the train is supposed to be spectacular. And we picked late February, since train fares are half price in winter, and there are no council or executive meetings in late February, to accommodate the travel plans of other members of council.

So the Thursday after Valentine's Day we boarded the train in Saskatoon. The afore-mentioned travel credit didn't actually kick in until we picked up the tickets in Saskatoon, but it made it affordable for us to have a cabin for two, rather than an upper and lower berth. I slept much better in the cabin, I think because the beds are perpendicular to the way the train is going, so there's less rolling from side to side. Having a cabin also allows you to get dressed standing up, and there's a great deal more head clearance than in an upper berth. As on our previous trips, the food was great, and there was even entertainment on board - musicians who get to travel free in return for putting on a couple of shows each day. On the way west, it was two guys who played a variety of instruments (violin, harmonica, banjo, guitar), providing old-style musical entertainment. On the return trip, it was a young girl who sang and accompanied herself on the guitar. Both added something to an already relaxing and enjoyable trip. As promised, the mountains were spectacular, and we saw moose, elk, and mountain sheep.

In Vancouver, we stayed at the Barclay House Bed and Breakfast, which was extremely comfortable, and had huge breakfasts which kept us well-fueled until supper time. It was just a couple of blocks off of Robson Street, and five blocks from Stanley Park - very conveniently located. We walked all over the downtown area, seeing Gastown and Chinatown on our first day, Stanley Park and Granville Island on our second day, the Science Centre, the Olympic Village, and more of downtown on our third day, and back to Stanley Park and walking along the sea wall on our last day, before leaving Tuesday evening. It was hard to realize that it was still February, when crocuses were blooming, lawns were being fertilized, and people were barbecuing. We were also very lucky in the weather - Monday afternoon there was a bit of rain mixed with snow, but other than that we enjoyed sunny days.

I found a few surprises in Vancouver. One was the lack of a visible police presence in the downtown. The most police we saw was on the Sunday, when a street was blocked off for a film shoot. Other than that, even when we were walking in Stanley Park, we didn't see police. Lots of people though - walking, running, biking, or just sitting on benches enjoying the sun. I can only imagine how crowded it would be in spring or summer. The streets were very clean, and we didn't see a single needle. We did see what appeared to be homeless people, wearing high-visibility vests, picking up garbage, particularly in Chinatown, which was probably the sketchiest area, with the most visibly poor people, that we visited.

We took the Skytrain to the Science Centre. We were given directions at the tourism information centre, but were quite surprised when we got to the station - only machines to purchase tickets from, no people. Another commuter helped us with the machine (although we probably could have figured it out by ourselves), and showed us the way to the platform, but there was no place to turn in your ticket. And there is no driver on the train. Ah, we thought, you must have to turn it in when you leave. But no. It acts as a transfer, and we could have have used it anywhere within the first zone over a time period of ninety minutes, even returning to our starting point. Very efficient, and I'll be looking for members of Vancouver's city council at the FCM convention, to find out what their cost savings are versus losses to people abusing the system. It would also be interesting to find out how costly it is to have automated ticket purchasing - if feasible, we could provide transit ticket machines in more locations around the city, rather than having tickets only available at a few locations.

At the information centre, they had a booth where half-price tickets could be purchased for various plays, concerts, and other entertainment, as well as information about other things going on that they didn't have tickets for. We got half-price tickets for an evening of improv theatre on Granville Island that was a good evening of fun - what they called rookie night, so it was the first performance for these young people, and they were remarkably good. It got me thinking - what if visitors to Prince Albert could buy tickets to various events at our Tourism Centre - whether to a performance at the Rawlinson Centre, or dinner theatre, or to a hockey game - that might help people access the various forms of entertainment we have here.

We got back Thursday morning, and it was a bit of a shock to get off the train into -32 weather. But we are well-rested. I was glad to see the city manager quoted in the local paper as saying that, because so many members of council are on vacation, city hall staff will have ample time to prepare for our upcoming meetings in March, including the budget meetings. I trust that means that they will be providing the information that I have requested on, for example, how much the custom-made Christmas cards cost, how much the Positive Attitude pins and related material cost, what cuts could be made in discretionary spending, what further staffing cuts or freezes could be made, the Rawlinson Centre financial reports, the operating costs of the soccer centre, and more - I have made numerous requests for information on these and related matters going back several months, years in some cases, so I'm hopeful that staff will have made their way to the bottom of the proverbial pile, and we'll have some answers.

"Take rest; a field that has rested gives a bountiful crop." - Ovid

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Spending Decisions - How to Choose, How to Choose

At last week's Executive Meeting, we had our first discussions about where we should spend the Northern Lights Development Corporation funding this year. A few years ago, NLDC made a five year commitment to donate $250,000 to the city annually, to be used for projects that would enhance or rejuvenate Prince Albert. Of the total, $50,000 is used to fund a golf tournament and a powwow for NLDC, the remainder is spent by council, with no real limitations on how the money should be spent. We're about at the half-way point in the term of this funding. In past years, it's been used to pay for such things as the new garbage containers downtown, a new splash park in the east end, and to do maintenance painting at the Kinsmen Waterpark.

Unfortunately, we don't solicit the public for ideas for the use of this funding. Councillors have brought forward ideas, there hasn't been much discussion, and the decisions are made. Last year the entire amount went on the downtown garbage cans and the east end splash park - several smaller projects didn't even get into the discussion stage.

As well as opening the process up to the general public, I wish that we would establish some clear and fair guidelines for how the allocation decisions are made, with need trumping nice-to-have. For example, in the past, community groups funded and paid for splash parks in their own playgrounds - now, we appear to be giving them away (at a price tag of $160,000 each), while those groups who paid for their own have been unable to access lesser funds to replace aging equipment. Another guideline should be that the city doesn't use these funds to pay for their own responsibilities (such as maintenance of city-owned facilities). And we should limit our ongoing liability - if we fund playground equipment at a school, the school then is responsible for maintenance. If we fund playground equipment along the Rotary Trail, we've just added an additional ongoing maintenance responsibility to ourselves.

We should also be asking the groups that bring forward proposals what other funding arrangements they have made, whether it's approaching other funding organizations (like the Lottery Corporation), or an internal fund-raising program. I'm more comfortable if these funds are used to augment a group's efforts, rather than replace them.

The list of requests for this year totals $642,678, including new splash parks in Crescent Heights and the West Hill, new vans for a couple of groups, new playground equipment in a couple of different areas, a new skate-tying room in the Crescent Heights Arena, new chairs for Midtown Hall, and the SPCA Spay and Neuter program, among others. The total is actually now higher, since one councillor added one to the list last week - a new sound system for the Kinsmen Park amphitheatre. These are only the requests brought forth by councillors, and there may be more urgent needs out there that we don't know about.

Eventually, (maybe as soon as Monday's council meeting), we'll have to make decisions about this funding. It would certainly help the process if we agreed on the rules ahead of time.

On another topic, we're now officially into the I-pad age, and I'm not that impressed. It's much more time consuming to move back and forth through the agenda, as the screen goes blank quite often, so you don't know where you are. It takes time for a document to load; I can turn pages faster than that. And we can't print out the material, so for someone like me, who's used to marking up my document with a highlighter, to point out areas that I want to ask questions in, or to mark inconsistencies, it's not working well. There is a highlighter function, but it's hard finding the page that you want to highlight. Also, I used to chuck the promotional stuff that is included - press releases, that sort of thing - now I can't get rid of it. Once a page is up there, it is quite legible, but then, so were the paper documents that I had. But for those on council or in administration who wanted the latest gadget, I'm sure it's satisfied that itch for them.

"Vanity asks the question - is it popular? Conscience asks the question - is it right?" - Martin Luther King Jr.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Doing is Better than Talking

On Friday evening, Andrea and I went to the Citizen of the Year Banquet to help in honouring Frank Moore. I've known Frank for about ten years, since my time on the Habitat for Humanity Board, when he was still president of that board. He was the driving force behind bringing Habitat to Prince Albert, and spent several years just getting the organization going, before any houses could be built. The surprising thing is that it's taken this long for him to be recognized by the city for his efforts.

A few things crossed my mind as I listened to the various tributes to Frank. First was that he didn't rush into anything. He certainly believed that Habitat was an organization that could help Prince Albert, but he made sure that the necessary groundwork of setting up the organization and ensuring that it would succeed, was solid and complete before taking the first visible step of starting the construction of the first house. He made sure that we walked before we tried to run.

Second, he made it very clear that it was the organization that was the reason for the success, not just him. He pointed out others in the audience who were at the initial meeting to discuss the concept, and was very gracious in sharing the credit for all that Habitat has accomplished. It's no wonder that so many people, including me, enjoy working with Frank - he's a very quiet and humble guy who refuses to take all the credit, even though it was quite evident that it was his vision and determination that have made Habitat what it is.

Third, he did this to make Prince Albert a better place to live for less fortunate people, by figuring out a way that more people can own their own homes, a basic necessity of life. So often it seems that the focus of the city is on the extras that make life nicer for a few. Frank put his energy into making changes that didn't benefit him personally, but that made life better for people who have faced challenges that most of us have been fortunate enough never to have to deal with.

It's humbling, really, to realize that, through his work with Habitat, Frank has made a bigger difference in tackling housing issues than city council, despite all our committees and conferences. He's done it, not by talking and studying and drafting reports, but by organizing and recruiting an ever-expanding group of people to take action, and by being part of that action. So far, that's resulted in eight houses, I believe. Obviously, we still have housing issues in the city - it was mentioned that more than sixty families have applied for the next house - but it's eight more families in their own homes than would otherwise be the case.

Frank more than deserved this award. What a great example he provides for the rest of us.

"Action speaks louder than words, but not nearly as often." - Mark Twain