Sunday, March 29, 2015

Flood Worries

Back in the 1970s, the provincial government established guidelines for floodways and 100 year flood zones.  This was well before my time living here, let alone being on council, and I'm not sure if it was ever adopted by the city, or factored into any decisions, since building has subsequently occurred within that zone without any restrictions.  More recently, in the time of the previous mayor, more restrictive zoning, to allow for a 500 year flood zone, was established by the province.  Flood zones are merely a way of assessing risk, that at some point within the specified time frame, it is more than 90% likely that a flood will occur which extends to the area within the zone.

It is, of course, a difficult prediction, with the accuracy of the prediction being reduced the longer it's extended.  And climate change makes it even more difficult to make accurate predictions.  Nevertheless, the province has set a new 500 year flood zone, which council has not yet adopted.  Our new city planner has suggested that we do so, to enable us to move forward with a new community plan.

Thursday evening we held a community meeting, and we will hold another meeting in May.  Not surprisingly, the couple of hundred people in attendance had many questions, and unfortunately we don't have a lot of answers.  But starting with questions is a good first step, although we're in a bit of a difficult spot - the province has set the rule, and we can't fight it or opt out, we just have to figure out how to move forward.  I think having these meetings is a good first step in doing that.

What most people want to know is what difference this will make moving forward.  The rules for new house construction are clear - the lack of clarity comes with how current home owners and their properties are affected.  For example, are they required to flood-proof their residences?  Apparently, this is not  mandatory, but it isn't clear what would happen if you don't take those steps, and then are affected by a flood.  Will there be areas that are off-limits for any new construction, no matter what adaptations are made?

Not surprisingly, most of the questions that came at the meeting related to the effect that these new guidelines will have on current property values.  Will there be a caveat attached to properties in the event of resale?  I think that anyone can understand the concern that people have when what is probably their greatest financial asset may no longer be valued at what it might have been, but it is also true that the value of a property can't be definitively set until it is sold.

Change is a constant in everyone's lives - our best recourse is to determine the range of potential effects, and try to mitigate them whenever possible.  We can't guarantee that those whose homes lie within the new flood zone guidelines will not have to deal with some change, but the more questions we can find answers for, and the more information that we can provide, either through meetings, reports, or one-on-one conversations, the better prepared we will be for whatever lies ahead.

"It wasn't raining when Noah built the ark." - Howard Ruff

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