Sunday, July 29, 2012

Trying a Carrot Rather Than a Stick

As a council, too often when we have a problem, we try solving it through punishment rather than through incentives.  I'm not sure why - perhaps because it's easier.  But it's only the first step that's easier - for example, passing a bylaw that will punish a certain behaviour.  In order for this to even start to have an impact, of course, a whole structure for implementation needs to be put into action, and that is often where the whole punishment idea falls flat.  That's why, for example, even though we may have an anti-spitting (and other disgusting habits) bylaw, people still spit on the streets.

Harder to do, but more effective in the long run, is using incentives to get people to change their behaviour, or even to prevent them from choosing wrong behaviours in the first place.  This is something that we can see happening in the school system.  When I was in grade school, misbehaviour frequently resulted in a student being sent to the principal's office to be given the strap - and, yes, I made more than one of those trips.  Today, the strap is a relic of the past, and at the same school where I was often being punished, my sister, who is now an educational assistant there, tells me that good behaviour is rewarded, when students who are caught behaving appropriately are given tokens which can be redeemed for small rewards.  And it's been found to be a much more effective way of getting students to behave in acceptable ways.

Now, I have no brilliant ideas on how we could use this approach to get people to stop spitting in public, or even the less disgusting but still anti-social and costly habit of littering.  And that might be why we continue to pass bylaws that we know will be difficult to enforce - at least we can be seen to be doing something.  But there are areas where I think that the carrot approach might work better than our current stick attempts.

One of the problems that Prince Albert has, particularly in older neighbourhoods, is vacant lots.  I'm speaking of the vacant lots where a house (or houses) once stood, but no longer.  They quickly become weed-covered, which causes problems for neighbouring yards, and can even become a place where less-desirable types gather.  In general, they just bring the neighbourhood down.

In an attempt to get the owners of these eyesores to take action, council decided to double the tax rate on vacant lots.  I think that the thought was that the punishment of the extra taxes would encourage the owners to take some kind of action - preferably to build a house, or sell the property to someone who would build a house on the lot.  Unfortunately, the punishment of the extra taxes hasn't had the desired result - I don't know of any vacant lots whose owners have been encouraged by this action to build.

So, if the stick hasn't worked, what sort of a carrot could we as council offer?  How about an incentive for someone wanting to build on these lots - maybe a tax reduction for a few years?  These are lots with a great deal to offer - the infrastructure of water, power and sewer is already in place, and services like roads, sidewalks, and parks are there too.  Providing new housing in older neighbourhoods helps with revitalization.  While tax revenue would be lower for the years of tax reduction, in the long run, tax revenues would be higher for a house than for a vacant lot.  Such a solution could be a win-win, with everyone, including the city, ending up better off than we are now.

Who knows - if we started looking at every problem this way, we might even be able to solve the spitting and littering problem.

"A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty." - Anonymous


Cory said...

Actually, I don't that is the solution either. I agree your insight that there is many vacant lots in this city. I agree that more revunue could be made by providing incentive to build housing. I also see a few other things as well. I see a a city struggling with an aging infrastructure. The bridge is an issue. Replacement of sewer etc to Saskpen. Aging roads. Generally a city that needs a lot of coin to put it current.
This is one of the many angles that a city needs to get ahead. I feel there needs to many things developed as well. Why would a person "choose" to build here. The first thing I think of is employment. There does not seem like a lot of choices other than service or Government jobs. The loss of the mill and the forestry industry was a blow to this community. I am not sure why nobody ever tries to attract industries such as manufacturing. There must be a something Prince Albert can offer? There must be a way to attract investment by the business community. Many cities have ran into this issue and there is a different solution to each one. I just would hope that council and the people of Prince Albert can think of solutions outside of the box.

Maxpower said...

In Regina I can think of a few areas where new homes were built in older run down areas... the "carrot" Regina used was a 5 year tax abatement. This abatement applied to the property, so when the home was sold the new homeowner would also get the benefit of no property tax for the remainder of the tax abatement period.

This was only available on certain lots, not on new developments.