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