The high cost of affordability

Affordable housing is crucial to the economic and social vitality of every municipality. Without it, people cannot afford to live here, which means they will look for jobs in places they can afford. Young people, especially, will move to places they can afford better.

Collingwood is especially vulnerable to housing issues.* Given that the growth trend in our area is in low-paying (minimum wage), and part-time employment, finding affordable housing has become increasingly difficult for many people. Simcoe County itself estimates that a “single individual on Ontario Works would need to spend 108% of his/her monthly income to afford to live in the County.”

And as the Simcoe County housing strategy continues:

The Southern Georgian Bay area, while home to a thriving tourism industry, is also experiencing an aging population, high market rental rates, and a higher incidence of low income in private households.

Skyrocketing real estate costs contribute to the devaluation of a community. They push up taxes, living costs, rent, and utility bills. It takes a mature, wise and compassionate council to find ways to counter rising taxes and keep their community affordable. **

As the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing notes on its website,

Decent housing is more than shelter; it provides stability, security and dignity. It plays a key role in reducing poverty and building strong, inclusive communities.

But housing is a complex, challenging issue for municipalities and municipal politicians. Solutions are often very expensive; more than a small community can afford.

Councils have no direct control over real estate values (a problem compounded by the out-of-control Municipal Property Assessment Corp – MPAC – which raises property values across the province by computer formula, from its ivory tower offices, without conversations with local officials).

Municipalities also lack the legal muscle to demand private-sector development of lower-cost housing and much-needed rental properties like apartments (few young people can afford to buy homes, especially in a community that offers predominantly low wage job opportunities, so a supply of affordable rentals is critical).

On top of that, jurisdiction for affordable housing usually lies with a higher-tier government. In Collingwood’s case, it falls under the authority of Simcoe County. There are already 4,113 social housing units in Simcoe County, including approximately 3,035 rent-geared-to-income units. The County provides rent subsidies to 28 housing providers for 2,878 non-profit units, 60% rent-geared-to-income and 40% market rent. The county has already invested $3.4 million in maintaining its housing assets.

Before we go further, let’s dismiss some emotional – and inaccurate – impressions. Affordable housing doesn’t mean subsidized housing (although subsidized housing is also affordable). It represents a range of housing types. As the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) defines it, it’s an economic condition:

Affordable housing generally means a housing unit that can be owned or rented by a household with shelter costs that are less than 30 per cent of its gross income.

Last Tuesday, Simcoe County Council heard a presentation on the county’s long-term plan for affordable housing. Given its importance, it’s unfortunate neither of our own council reps were there to hear it.

I, however, had the fortune of being there for what proved an eye opener.
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Apps are making us criminals

Uber protestAlmost every week you read in the news about another taxi driver protest against Uber and its drivers. Taxi drivers go on strike, some rage against Uber and attack the drivers or damage their cars.

Similar protests – albeit not yet as violent or large – have been made against Airbnb for its effects on local property values and changing social conditions like the loss of rental properties.

These are just two of the apps whose effect on our society and culture are challenging laws and policies. There are others now that attempt to clone the success of their competitors with similar service (like Lyft and Homeaway – but I’ll concentrate on these two as examples of what can and does happen).

And in the process making criminals of its users.

That’s right: using these apps, both as a service provider for the companies and a user of those services often breaks existing laws, such as zoning or licensing. Renting your home for short-term rentals through Airbnb, for example, is illegal in many Ontario municipalities – including Collingwood – because zoning bylaws prohibit short-term rentals in residential areas.

Municipalities worldwide are increasingly challenged by these and similar programs that function counter to municipal bylaws, policies and operations. And they eventually cost taxpayers money.

It’s not a small deal. These can hurt our economy, kill jobs, and put people and property at risk. The corporations that operate them don’t give a shit. They’re too busy laughing all the way to the bank every time you use them.

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The Hidden Agenda in the Strategic Plan

Hidden agendaMy final comment for the next while on the town’s committee-based wishlist (the so-called community-based strategic plan, of which it is neither) has to do with biased and partisan comments made in the document’s introduction.

This material was presented to council in the recent versions (approved by a 7-1 vote, as expected, with one councillor absent) but not included in all earlier draft versions. I believe it represents the influence of the former VOTE (Voters Opposed To Everything) special interest group and their later followers in the deputy mayor’s special interest group, known locally (and humorously) as Better If I’m Elected, Collingwood.

What sort of strategic plan contains politically-charged and clearly partisan statements about former councils? The comments in the introduction expose the hidden agenda behind the wish list, and for council watchers this helps identify the shadowy players who pull council’s strings behind the scenes. This was less a community project than one manipulated by special interest groups.

For example, the document notes:

There have been in recent years, however, some challenges in the manner that Collingwood has managed its financial obligations and communication with Town (sic) residents. This has resulted in cynicism and a loss of faith in local politics within the public-at-large (sic).

This, or course, is complete malarky. There has been NO loss of faith was among the public at large (what survey, or what community-wide poll showed this?).

The small group of naysayers who worked their followers into a froth of vituperation and anger over the previous council do not represent the public at large. This small group never lost faith because they had none to start with, and was cynical from the very start.

Their raison d’etre is and has always been negativity towards anything they alone did not conceive, plan, or accomplish. True, they managed to garner a biased media’s support for their agenda later in the term, but the media ceased to represent the community, and instead represented the special interests – the point being made when the outgoing editor/reporter personally endorsed the current deputy mayor during the election campaign.

The facts about financial management are quite different. Last term, council was able to pay down its inherited debt by $8 million with only a single year of increased taxes (less than 1% blended rate), while building reserves, and constructing two beautiful, efficient recreational facilities without adding to the debt.

The financial management last term was superb – better in fact than any council I was part of previously and better than any I reported on as a reported and editor since 1991. What is there to challenge? That it was done so well, and so efficiently? This council’s first major act was to RAISE taxes in order to give itself a pay hike.

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Trivial Pursuits

Dilbert

Now that the draft version of the so-called “community-based strategic plan” has been presented to council, I felt it appropriate to comment on this latest version. I have already posted several pieces on the earlier draft. If you haven’t read them, you should start with there:

Strategic Planning, Part One: The Woo-Hoo Factor
Strat Plan Part 2: The Shuffle Game
Strat Plan Part 3: The Waterfront
Strat Plan Part 4: Economic Vitality
Strat Plan Part 5: Healthy Lifestyle
Strat Plan Part 6: Culture and the Arts
Strat Plan Wrap Up: Addintional Comments

All the comments and criticisms made in these earlier posts still have relevance in this latest draft.

I say the document is so-called because it’s not really community-based: it’s committee-based, and it’s just a wishlist, not a plan. It doesn’t even adumbrate a plan.

A proper plan should have measurable actions, a detailed timeline, specific costs and budget laid out. This has none of that. It has some vague time frames listed a S-M-L (short, medium and long terms) but these are 1-3, 3-5 and 5-10 years, respectively. Nothing to aim at as an immediate goal.  And no priorities are identified among the wishlist items.

Given that no council can bind a subsequent one, and there is but three years left in this council’s term, and equally that after five years, almost every plan or policy is out of date and needs revision, planning beyond the short term for most of these wishes is pointless. Not to mention that there is no indication who will pay for these wishes, or how.

First let me say that the new draft is very pretty. It looks attractive in the way that every other generic, bland strategic plan of this ilk does. However, style cannot top substance, and no matter how much of the former is present, the document lacks the latter. So let’s look at the presentation while we measure the content.

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17 Pages of Blather

Snake oilZero point zero zero zero three eight. That’s the percentage of the population of Collingwood who made the effort to comment on council’s much-touted, revised, 17-page code of conduct before it was approved, Monday night. That’s 0.00038%, based on an estimated 21,000 residents. In other words: eight people.

Only eight people out of 21,000 cared enough about council’s efforts to pump the bureaucracy to comment on the proposed code.

Eight people. I hope they were all residents. One, I’m told, was a member of council, so if you take that person out of the equation because that’s what he or she was elected to do, that leaves a mere seven residents commenting. That’s only 0.00033% of the population.

Hardly a tsunami of public engagement.

The rest, I suppose, were more concerned about things that actually matter: taxes, water rates (both of which this council raised), roads, sewers, sidewalks, potholes, parks and so on. These things are, however, not nearly as important to council which prefers to waste its time on grandstanding initiatives like revising the code of conduct.

For eight people it was stirring stuff.

The other 99.962% of us  – 20,992-plus residents – clearly couldn’t give a damn.

Apparently this low response was such an embarrassment that the actual number of respondents is not mentioned anywhere in the staff report. The public just didn’t care. But around the council table, backs were patted and laudatory, saccharine statements were made for having accomplished such another landmark in governance ennui.

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Fortuna: Why Plans Fail

Niccolo Machiavelli used two words in his book, The Prince, to describe the factors that influenced events. In English these are virtue or character (virtu), fortune or chance (fortuna). Only virtue is internal – our nature – and although it manifests as voluntary action, it can only be somewhat, but not entirely controlled.*

The other – chance or fortune – can make the best-laid plans of mice and men go aft agley, as Robert Browning wrote, regardless of our efforts to the contrary.

In Chapter 25 of The Prince (What Fortune Can Effect In Human Affairs And How To Withstand Her), Machiavelli tried to explain why a leader with free will, with all the means, the desire and resources at his disposal would not always succeed in his endeavours. Virtue alone cannot always win. Luck – chance, fortune, randomness – often simply threw a monkey wrench into the gears.

Machiavelli describes fortune in two metaphors. First as a river that can overflow its banks, treacherously destroying the countryside. That river can be carefully managed by planning for the inevitable flood. Today we would call them worst-case scenarios:

I compare her to one of those raging rivers, which when in flood overflows the plains, sweeping away trees and buildings, bearing away the soil from place to place; everything flies before it, all yield to its violence, without being able in any way to withstand it; and yet, though its nature be such, it does not follow therefore that men, when the weather becomes fair, shall not make provision, both with defences and barriers, in such a manner that, rising again, the waters may pass away by canal, and their force be neither so unrestrained nor so dangerous. So it happens with fortune, who shows her power where valour has not prepared to resist her, and thither she turns her forces where she knows that barriers and defences have not been raised to constrain her.

Machiavelli is saying rather simply: plan for disaster. Prepare for the downturn, the recession, the changing politics, the loss of funding, the changing market. Have alternatives and contingencies ready. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket – for example, don’t base your budget or economic forecasts on the price of oil alone.

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Team Assessment

Five Dysfunctions of a TeamFollowing my last piece on the relevance of Patrick Lencioni’s book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, to Collingwood Council, I felt I should explore some of Lencioni’s ideas, as well as look at how a team’s performance is assessed.

Teams (or groups) can be assessed several ways: the best way is internally (by their own members). The second is by a professional outsider who has the competence to do so after observing their behaviour in meetings. The third is by outsiders whose role is merely to watch them (as we watch council online or on TV).

The three methods are not exclusive, and those truly committed to the team would accept outside analysis as well as internal, and try to figure out how to best improve their public performance and the perception of it. That’ll happen with Collingwood Council once Hell freezes over. The idea of building a team to work together towards common goals is alien to this group because their ideology forbids it. The keyword being “commitment.”

I might point out that last term, council met twice to prioritize our collective goals and lay out a plan for the term. Staff were involved to provide guidance. Regardless of ideologies, we worked towards accomplishing them. The second meeting was to reiterate those goals mid-term and determine what had been achieved and what remained. That was a real strategic plan: measurable and definite, not a woo-hoo exercise by outsiders, as is the current effort.

In the back section of the book is a 15-statement quiz (p. 192-193) to assess the performance of a team. Three questions each relate to the five areas of dysfunction and they are answered with a point system. Participants assign a score to each statement according to how well they see them as being acted upon in the team. Answering usually gets three points, sometimes gets two, and rarely one. The lower the score in any area, the worse the dysfunction.

Fifteen questions is not a comprehensive method for analysing psychological behaviour, however. On the Table Group website, it offers an online assessment that extends the concepts found in the book. The sample team assessment report suggests there are 38 questions in the online assessment: eight for trust; eight for conflict; seven for commitment; seven for accountability and eight for results.

The statements in the two tests do not directly correlate with one another. For example, in the book, statement one is “Team members are passionate and unguarded in their discussion of issues.” This is actually statement two in the online test, and statement one is, instead, “Team members admit their mistakes.” Question 15 in the book is 25 online, and so on. However, the statements in the shorter test seem to be included in the longer.

The other difference appears to be in the scoring. In the online analysis, there are five ratings: never, rarely. sometimes, usually and always. It isn’t clear in the sample report exactly how the scoring works, but from reading it I suggest it is scored from 1 to 5, respectively, with 1 as worst and 5 as highest score. I gather that the results in each category are added and then averaged by the number of participants.

I decided to rate Collingwood Council based on this understanding, using the questions in the analysis. I tried my best to be honest in my assessment. I’ve added some slides of the key concepts to reiterate the concepts.

Absence of trust

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The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

The ModelYou can’t help but think, when you read that title, of five block-thinking, dysfunctional members of Collingwood Council. But, relevant as that description may appear in our political sphere, it is actually the title of a book by Patrick Lencioni, about how teams fail to coalesce and work together. I found it at a local bookstore this week and read it in a single night. Unlike many of the self-help books on management and leadership I’ve read over the years, this one actually made sense and explained itself well.

As I read it, I realized quickly that Lencioni’s model of team dysfunction applies equally well to politics as to business. And, of course, it applies to Collingwood council as much as to any management team in the private sector. Everyone but the sycophant bloggers observing this council recognize that ours is a highly dysfunctional council. It is not a team, as much as it is a collection of angry, inept ideologues. And it suffers greatly from the dysfunctions Lencioni has outlined.

Now, I’ve long said that in non-partisan municipal politics, we elect a group of individuals, not a team. A team is built, not elected or appointed. Creating a team takes work and commitment, neither of which is in great quantity at council, with a couple of notable exceptions who had some previous experience on council.

As much as the groupthink slate of candidates tried in the campaign to present a coherent platform, all they really offered was ideological opposition to everything the former council stood for. Those who gained a seat in the election have proven both calamitously unable to collectively articulate – let alone implement – a vision for the community, or practice any sort of leadership. They flail, they flounder, they bluster. They have no common, shared vision. They do not function as a team.

Back in 2007, I wrote on my old blog comments that have relevance today:

There’s no real sense of teamwork here because we weren’t elected as a team. Personally, a municipal team at the table is the pig’s ear while the individual freethinkers is the silk purse.
Despite what some special interest groups imagined they were getting when they promoted a slate of what they assumed were their pet candidates, they didn’t get a team. Personal agendas, private goals, independent visions all come into play to make this more like a nine-person tug-of-war. Sure, sometimes we all tug in the same direction, but that’s not necessarily a sign we’re a team, merely that we collectively agree at that moment that the direction is the most appropriate.

Management consultants often like to raise the metaphor of a sports team when trying to build a team from a group such as our council. In Collingwood’s case, imagine if you will its members each wearing the gear of a different sport – one in hockey gear, another in football, one in cricket, one with an oar, another with a bat… then put blindfolds on them all, put them in a room full of balls, pucks, nets, hoops, bases, trampolines and wickets, and tell them to figure out what the rules are. The winner is the last one standing.

That’s the sort of “team” we have in this council. Most of them still haven’t learned the basic rules of procedure yet and blunder about, doing more damage to our municipality than good.

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The Horns of a Dilemma

The BorgPoor Borg. One almost feels pity for their confusion. The members of Collingwood Council’s block-thinking collective were faced with a difficult dilemma on Monday: should they stick to their pettifogging ideology or break from it and support one of their own? Dogma versus friendship and loyalty.

Monday night, another report from the Integrity Commissioner bashed the behaviour of one of the politburo. The purpose of the IC is to examine public complaints about whether members of council acted in an ethical, moral or even appropriate manner. This time the target was Councillor Tim Fryer. Read the report here (page 157).

More principled people would have stuck by their friend and rejected the report. Instead, the Borg threw their buddy, Tim, under the bus.

Dogma won. It had to, because their whole, nasty, little ideology is built on sand. Had they not chosen it, it would have crashed to ruin about them for all to see. Had they refused to accept it, they would have been saying that accepting the complaint against the former Deputy Mayor was wrong. They never admit mistakes.

But their ideology states everything about the former council was bad, evil, malicious and corrupt and their political masters insist they toe the line.

Oh, the sharp horns of that dilemma!

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Tourism and Collingwood

Tourism is the world’s fifth fastest-growing industry and growing at five percent per year. A recent story on CBC Radio this week suggests growth has been even higher for Canada, thanks to our lower Loonie: at least six percent.

According to the Tourism Association of Canada, in 2013, Canada’s tourism industry:

  • Represented more of Canada’s GDP than agriculture, forestry and fisheries combined
  • Generated $88.5 billion in economic activity
  • Was responsible for more than $17.2 billion in export revenue despite a growing travel deficit
  • Generated $9.6 billion in federal government revenue
  • Fostered 628 000 jobs across the country, spread across all 308 ridings

Tourism is BIG. Ontario’s festivals, events and attractions generate $28 billion and support 347,000 jobs each year. Festivals and events alone generate $2.3 billion in Ontario and support almost 50,000 jobs – and generate approximately $1 billion in taxes.

For Collingwood and the region, tourism and our hospitality sector are not merely important to our economic vitality: they are crucial. So what do Collingwood’s five proposed vision statements say about tourism, events, hospitality and recreation as growth drivers and employers? What do they say about the economic importance of tourism? Here it is:

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Pretty profound, wouldn’t you say? Perhaps it’s a Zen-like statement and we are supposed to infer meaningful content from the very emptiness. Or perhaps the committee just forgot all about tourism in the region. Or maybe they couldn’t find a sufficiently saccharine adjective to pair with it.

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Stop Whining, Elvis Haters

DilbertDon’t people who hate Collingwood’s Elvis Festival ever get tired of whining and bitching about it? I guess not. There’s another whining letter about it in this week’s Connection. More than twenty years the festival has been running successfully and they still haven’t figured it out yet.

Just because you don’t like the event, doesn’t mean others don’t. In fact, tens of thousands of people really enjoy it and come from all over the province, from nearby US states and even from overseas to attend it. We cannot all like the same things and we certainly cannot all like what little lightens your narrow little world. Let others enjoy themselves even if you don’t.

Just because you can’t see the great economic value of the event doesn’t mean others don’t. The restaurants and hotels are full, so are a lot of shops. Open your eyes: this event brings in money for the town’s businesses. No, it doesn’t benefit everyone: no event on the planet will do that. But it benefits a great number of local businesses who employ people. Let them enjoy the trade and the customers even if you don’t.

Just because you don’t want to make the effort to see what it’s all about, to enjoy a day downtown with the crowd doesn’t mean it should stop. Sit at home in your darkened room if you must. Wiser, less curmudgeonly folk accept that for three or four days a lot of other folk are going to have fun here, so they join them. or not: but stop bitching about those who do.

I get so tired hearing people whinge about Elvis, whinge about other people enjoying themselves. Whinge about an event that is good for the town but because they don’t like it, they don’t want it here. No one can have fun when they don’t want to. What a selfish, narrow-minded attitude.

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Strat Plan Wrap Up: Addintional Comments

Mao's red book
The Plan is presented to council.

Yes, the web page really does call for “Addintional Comments.” Well, I suppose consultants aren’t hired for their spelling or grammar. Otherwise there wouldn’t be all that bizarre capitalization or the missing punctuation. But you’re here to read my summation of the Collingwood’s fledgling strategic plan, not my editorial critique.

Which is pretty simple: woo-hoo. I reiterate that a strategic plan can be either practical and pragmatic, or woo-hoo. This one is woo-hoo.

By which I mean it is airy fairy collection of generalities, seasoned with ignorance, ideology and irrelevancies and very little actual direction. Well, most woo-hoo plans are. They aren’t meant as a guide to actual accomplishments: they’re meant to make people feel like they accomplished something without having to do the heavy lifting.

It’s not a “strategic plan” – it’s merely a feel-good exercise by people who didn’t want to ask questions in case the facts spoil their recommendations (like finding our your action item was done last term or there has been a corridor to the waterfront for several years now…).

Peter Drucker, author of Management Tasks and Responsibilities (1973) listed four misconceptions about the term “strategic planning” that you can see plague Collingwood’s proposed plan:

  1. Strategic planning is not a box of tricks, a bundle of techniques.
  2. Strategic planning is not forecasting.
  3. Strategic planning does not deal with future decisions.
  4. Strategic planning is not an attempt to eliminate risk.

What strategic planning is, Drucker said, is:

…the continuous process of making present entrepreneurial (risk-taking) decisions systematically and with the greatest knowledge of their futurity; organizing systematically the efforts needed to carry out these decisions; and measuring the results of these decisions against the expectations through organized, systematic feedback.

Get that? It’s a continual process, not a one-time effort. And it’s measurable. Collingwood’s “plan” is nothing more than a bundle of wishful thinking tied up with buzzwords.

It really doesn’t matter that the town is already doing much of what the plan recommends, nor that the previous council accomplished so many of the things identified as action items. These facts get in the way of those dancing around this May pole, so they will be ignored. “The common people,” Confucius said, “can be made to follow a path but not to understand it.” (Analects, Book VIII, 9)*

This is the vaunted “plan” for our future as promised by now-Deputy Mayor Saunderson during the election campaign within 90 days of being elected. It will be presented on the 287th day, only late by half a year. It won’t be counted as an accomplishment, merely as a waste of taxpayers’ money.

As a “plan,” it’s as useful as comprehensive, insightful and focused guide to the town’s present and future as a fishing pole is to planting corn.

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