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