Sunday, April 17, 2016

What's Missing in the Alcohol Strategy

After a couple of years of meetings, the alcohol strategy was released this past week.  Unfortunately, it's missing a rather crucial part - the strategy part.

You see, a strategy isn't just a list of every idea that came up during a brainstorming session.  I understand the value of brainstorming - of getting out ideas without being too concerned as to the practicality of such ideas.  But a strategy sets priorities for action, and recognizes that it isn't a single problem, but there are separate facets that may require different actions.  A strategy should set targets as well, otherwise there is no way to assess its success or lack of same.

It is a discussion document that includes some interesting statistics with regard to the cost of public intoxication, the proportion of high school students with binge-drinking experience, and the average amount of money that Prince Albert residents spend on alcohol compared to other communities in the province.  In all of these areas, Prince Albert scores considerably higher than elsewhere, and figuring out why is difficult.

And of course, part of the problem is that alcohol in and of itself is not the problem.  A glass or two of wine with dinner or a beer enjoyed on the deck on a hot summer afternoon is not a problem.  The problem is the misuse of alcohol, sometimes in a way that negatively affects others (public intoxication, drunk driving), and sometimes in the impact on individuals, and how it may affect them and their future relationship with alcohol.  A high school kid who binge drinks is probably going to suffer the most from his or her foolishness (as long as they don't get behind the wheel of a vehicle), but if that's seen to be the normal way of drinking, it's likely to lead to more serious problems in the future.  And of course, there are those individuals for whom a single drink is too much.

Also missing is an assessment of how some of our current initiatives are working.  For example, much was made a few years back about the setting up of a detox centre, so that rather than taking people who were found drunk to the cells, they could be taken to detox.  But it's not clear if this is working as a true detox centre, or just as a place where people can sleep it off, and then are put back on the street without any further support.  A couple of months ago, someone passed out in one of the chairs in the atrium of the Forest Centre.  When the security guard came back from his rounds, he wasn't able to wake the guy up, so he called the police.  When the police arrived, one officer said "Oh, Darrell.  And  you just got out of detox yesterday."  Anecdotes like that tell me that the detox centre has provided another place for drunks to sleep, but it hasn't done anything to solve the problem of public intoxication.

And I'm surprised that, with all the concern about high rates of teenage drinking, nobody proposed that the practice of having a "safe" grad, where grads drink with parental approval, is sending the wrong message.  After all, if teens who were surveyed said that they would like to see events where alcohol isn't allowed, and that they would like to get away from the idea that alcohol is not necessary to have a good time, this would seem to be the perfect opportunity for schools to lead the way.  But it's almost as though there are some traditions that are considered sacred, and we don't want to examine too closely any possible connection between that sort of condoned activity and the acceptance of binge drinking in high schools.

The strategy needs to include both actions to prevent problems in the future, as well as actions to address current problems.  Some organization to set priorities and identify first steps would be a good next step for the committee.  And why the report bothers to list ideas that are not within the power of anyone in the city to implement (legalizing marijuana has nothing to do with alcohol) only distracts from any realistic recommendations that may be in the report.

I sympathize with the committee - I'm sure that they felt pressured to come up with something after being in existence for almost four years.  But rather than make an announcement about what is at best a preliminary discussion document, they might have better spent their time actually setting some priorities and recommendations for actions that could actually be implemented - narrowing the scope of a huge problem.  As they say, the way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time - and there's no doubt that alcohol misuse in our community is a huge elephant.

"However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results." - Winston Churchill

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Borealis Bailout

The outstanding debt of the Borealis Music Festival came before council on Monday, with a request that we pay it off.  Now, this was not a city function.  It was nominally run by the Tourism Board, although they said at the time that was only a stop-gap measure, as the intent was to set up the festival itself as a non-profit organization.  As far as I know, that has yet to happen, although they certainly demonstrated that they know how not to make a profit.

The city funds the Tourism Board through a grant, similar to how the museum is funded, but it is not a city board, and none of the board employees are city employees.  This was their show from start to finish.

The only funding that the city provided was $15,000 from the special event reserve of $50,000 that is set in every budget.  This money is supposed to go to events of provincial or national scope, and be applied for a year in advance.  The application failed on both counts, but when it came to council a year ago, only two of us voted against it, not just because it didn't meet the criteria, but also because it was obviously not well thought out, and highly over-optimistic.  They were projecting attendance of 15,000 over three days; they had fewer than 700 paying attendees.  In fact, more people attended on free passes than paid to get in.  If I was one of the people who actually paid for my pass, I'd be ticked.

The city also provided $15,000 in in-kind services - trimming trees, that sort of thing - and blocked off a good part of Kinsmen Park for the August long weekend from city residents - you know, the ones who pay for its upkeep.

I voiced my concerns at the time, and was told by one councillor that my questions were ridiculous.  Apparently, we're just supposed to believe whatever we're told, no matter how far-fetched it may appear (and prove to be).

And now most of my colleagues have decided that we should pay the festival's outstanding bills.  Their logic on several counts is faulty.

First, one councillor said that this was just like the tax reduction we provided to Humpty's last month.  Not so.  The tax reduction was in recognition that a city project, which could have been more efficiently managed, made this business inaccessible to the public for almost four months, during their busiest season.  Had we had crews working long days from the start of the project, rather than doing that in the last few weeks when we were afraid of winter coming early, we would likely have been done a month earlier.  The city was responsible for that mismanagement, and as such felt that a small concession was appropriate.  We also put some boundaries in place so that this will only be an option when work continues for more than 100 days.  And if you want to look at magnitude of assistance, the tax reduction was $8,000 - less than one-tenth of the Borealis Bailout.

Another councillor said that it was just like the subsidy we provide to the Rawlinson Centre.  Again, not the same - we own that facility.  Now, I think that it could be run more efficiently, but so far most of the rest of council has not seen the potential value of actually tendering out the contract, rather than just renewing it, or having contract payments based on performance targets.  But it is a city facility, and we are ultimately responsible for paying the bills, just as we are for the soccer centre or the Art Hauser Centre.  I think that for all of these we could improve the funding models, but they are our facilities.

Some at council are trying to make it sound like this isn't really spending tax payers' money, because it comes from what is euphemistically called positive variances, money that was budgeted for other things but hasn't been spent (like snow removal, because it was such an unusual winter).  But it is tax payers' money, and it annoys me when I think of how we pare down potential expenditures during the budget process, only to hand money over to bail this group out, without any conditions attached.  If other councillors don't think that isn't a dangerous precedent, well, they probably believe that you can attract 15,000 people to an ill-defined music festival on the August long weekend.

There was much contrition from some council members, about how the original grant shouldn't have been approved because it didn't meet the criteria.  They knew it at the time, but still did it, and in fact have done it again, granting $25,000 to an arts festival that applied for the money six months ago, for an event next month, that doesn't meet the provincial/national scope either.  Let's hope that it doesn't lose money.

I know that it's hard to say no, but we keep forgetting that it's not our money.  Council has so little control over factors that cost us money - weather can increase your costs for snow plowing or removing damaged trees, dropping oil prices reduce some residents' disposable income to spend in city businesses, causing some to close, and we lose some of our tax base.  But how we spend our money on discretionary things is totally within our control, and I get angry when I see us doing this just to be nice.  And judging by the people that I've talked to, tax payers get angry about this wastefulness too.

"Nothing is easier than spending public money.  It does not appear to belong to anybody.  The temptation is to bestow it on somebody." - Calvin Coolidge