10/25/13

How to Break Your Election Promises



Taxman: I was thinking of this Beatles’ song, recently, after council received the pre-budget report from the treasurer at last Monday’s council meeting. It’s dated, the song that is, but still eerily appropriate (I will have to learn to play it on my ukulele).

Last election, all of us who got elected ran on a platform of keeping costs and taxes low. Okay, that’s a fairly blithe promise; few candidates run on a platform of raising taxes and expenses, and fewer actually ever win a seat in any level of government.

It doesn’t matter if everyone knows taxes will go up after the election, or if there are seriously pressing needs to raise taxes. You don’t run on that platform.  Unless, of course, it’s to tax the rich – that seems a rather popular theme these days. Except, of course, among the rich. The 99% of us kind of like the idea… but I digress

This council has consistently attempted to cut costs, rein in spending and keep taxes low. That’s never easy, and often it’s very challenging, but we’ve managed to do so fairly well. In fact, the most recent auditor’s report (an independent audit) showed we have done it very well, in the past three budgets. The deputy mayor has cracked the whip and staff have pulled the oars. So far, the local ship of state has rowed in unison, avoiding the shoals of debt and taxation.

But it’s difficult to maintain a flat tax line. The world doesn’t work that way. Economies are always on the move.

Prices go up, costs go up, fee go up, old things need maintenance or replacement, new things need to be bought, collective agreements have built-in increases. Keeping a zero-percent increase is like the Red Queen’s race in Alice in Wonderland: you run as fast as you can just to stay in the same place:

Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”
“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

We don’t have the money or the tax base to run twice as fast. But at some point, we have to have some increases if nothing more than to play catch-up with out expenses.

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09/17/13

$35 Million Costs Confirmed in Report


GossipI was told recently that the $35 million projected capital costs  for the Central Park redevelopment had been called a “red herring.” That’s verifiably untrue.

The actual total amount shown in the final report is $35,251,965.11.

This isn’t a made up number, an inflated number or an imaginary number. It isn’t a council number, either. In fact the two council PRC representatives did not even attend those steering committee meetings that came up with that figure.

Thirty-five million dollars is what the steering committee calculated and approved themselves, working in conjunction with several consultants, planners, architects and engineers over more than a year – and at a cost to taxpayers of more than $42,000 in fees to those professionals – to come up with that total.*

The Central Park Redevelopment final report, presented to Council by the steering committee in March, 2012, shows the full projected costs on page 37.

That page is reproduced here:

Page 37

You can see that the proposed cost in the steering committee’s final report was more than $35 million plus HST. That’s fact. Read it above. You can download a PDF of the page here.

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09/14/13

In Wildness is the Preservation of the World


Walking quoteThe title of this post is a quote from Henry David Thoreau’s essay, Walking, published posthumously in 1862, but which he wrote and rewrote during the 1850s. I was thinking of that line this week when Council officially opened the new Black Ash Creek Park, in the northeast of the Georgian Meadows subdivision.*

I was thinking of it not in terms of the park – a pleasant, family-oriented, structured space with playground equipment, a small pavilion, basketball court and a chess table – but rather about the untamed green spaces around the park. It is this small patch of wildness that delights me, not the carefully manicured grass or artfully curved sidewalk that borders it.

I’m sure kids – the older ones – will see those woods, the trail, the fields as a magnet for play. I’d hate to think we live in such a paranoid, dangerous world that children can’t be free to explore such spaces, to discover for themselves the magic of the woods. Maybe I’m naive, but I want to believe children can still play outside the confines adults build for them. At the very least, I hope parents take their children for walks into those woods: teach them to love, appreciate and respect the wild, to care for it, to protect and defend it.

Not all unbuilt space should be clear-cut for a housing development. Some wild space has to be retained for our collective enjoyment, and sanity. We need, as Thoreau wrote, wildness to complete ourselves.

I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements. You may safely say, A penny for your thoughts, or a thousand pounds. When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shopkeepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them—as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon—I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago. I, who cannot stay in my chamber for a single day without acquiring some rust, and when sometimes I have stolen forth for a walk at the eleventh hour, or four o’clock in the afternoon, too late to redeem the day, when the shades of night were already beginning to be mingled with the daylight, have felt as if I had committed some sin to be atoned for—I confess that I am astonished at the power of endurance, to say nothing of the moral insensibility, of my neighbors who confine themselves to shops and offices the whole day for weeks and months, aye, and years almost together.

Walking defined Thoreau’s philosophy of nature, described through his experiences while walking into the nearby woods; like Buddhist walking meditations on our role in nature and civilization. It later became one of the key essays in the American Transcendentalist-environmentalist movement of the mid-late 19th century. It still has resonance today.

I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.

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09/10/13

An Indoor Year-Round Rec Facility for Seniors and More


Indoor Lawn BowlingMonday night, I asked for a staff report on covering our lawn bowling rinks, and making it into a year-round facility for Collingwood.

This facility would provide recreational opportunities for seniors and older adults. It could include other sports like horseshoes, shuffleboard and croquet. Perhaps badminton and a walking area (since we will lose our mall and its opportunities for indoor walking).

The pitch would use an artificial turf developed for the sport. I believe this was developed in Australia, where, as I understand it, indoor lawn bowling on artificial turf was pioneered. Wherever it was developed, it has spread worldwide.

Right now, our lawn bowling site is dependent on the weather, and vulnerable to inclement changes, rain, heat, etc. The grass requires considerable maintenance and care to meet the sport’s standards, too. Covering it and moving to artificial turf would make the sport available all year, in all kinds of weather, as well as create a new venue for events and activities.

The new facility could be managed in conjunction with the current lawn bowling club, and perhaps other organizations, especially if we create more recreational opportunities inside. The model could be like the cooperative one we already have with the Curling Club. It could be a very popular facility.

Indoor lawn bowlingAs one Australian newspaper announced:

The Pattaya / Banglamung district now has at its disposal a new indoor lawn bowls arena with a synthetic Astra turf surface. It is my belief that this is probably the first full artificial indoor bowls facility in Thailand. It is officially being opened with a private party on the 15th July.

There is also indoor lawn bowling in the UK. I’m not sure from the photos if they are using natural or artificial turf, but I suspect the latter. The lawnbowls.com site notes:

You have to come to the UK to see the lawn bowls game played in full size permanent Indoor greens of anything from one to 12 rinks, the norm being 6 or 8. Although these larger Indoor’s are beginning to be erected all over the World, there are 333 at the time of writing in the UK.

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09/8/13

Reflecting on our successes this term


Collingwood CouncilWith just over a year left to go in this term, I’d like to take a few minutes to consider all the accomplishments of this council over the past three years. They are not inconsiderable, and worth celebrating, I think you’ll agree.

Most recent are the two new state-of-the-art recreational facilities; jewels in our community. Centennial Pool Aquatic Centre is now open, to the public’s delight and great excitement. If you haven’t seen it, stop by and look inside. Everyone who does is impressed. It certainly exceeded expectations. Bring your bathing suit and come for a swim.

It proved to be a good choice – and not merely economically – that the whole community can take pride in. It has a full-sized, FINA-endorsed, 25m, six-lane competition pool, with touch pads and starting blocks, as well as a separate warm-water (94F) therapeutic pool residents can use every day (cost to swim is a mere $3; we are looking into options for passes or memberships).

Centennial PoolPlus we can now host those aquatic competitions that are so important to the swimming community. That will prove a benefit to the whole community, economically and in public relations. The Collingwood Clippers held their open house at the new pool, Sept. 5, and presented the town with the anticipated donation cheque for the pool upgrades: $158,000. Thank you, Clippers!

The new (as yet unnamed) arena in Central Park will open this fall. We will have enough ice available to allow groups time that previously we could not accommodate. Women’s and girls’ hockey, and sledge hockey come to mind. Figure skating, too.

It will have a viewing area-mezzanine (with kitchenette for catering), which groups can rent for events – an economic bonus.

Both facilities offer something else, perhaps even more important: safety and time. Local kids and adults can play and practice here in town, and not have to drive to other communities for ice or swim time.

Parents no longer have to get up well before dawn to drive their kids to a distant rink or pool in the early hours of a winter morning, risking whiteouts, rough driving conditions and bad visibility to get their kids to and from a far-away site. Our community’s children and their parents will be much safer, and will have more time to spend together at home or in play, rather than on the road.

That’s worth celebrating.

That we did it all without having to increase taxes is just icing on the cake.

This new arena will allow us to upgrade and enhance the venerable and much-loved Eddie Bush Arena next year. We will be able to use it for other purposes in the non-hockey season: car shows, conventions, entertainment, indoor soccer and lacrosse – the possibilities are great. We will use it to expand our local events and activities, which turn will draw more visitors and improve business. This opens all sorts of possibility for economic development.

Fiscal responsibility has been the watchword for us this term. We have kept the town’s portion of your property taxes from rising for three straight years, while still maintaining services and infrastructure. We have an excellent staff which has been galvanized to hold their budgets by council’s determination and our forward thinking approach to financial responsibility. We plan to continue that trend through 2014.

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09/3/13

What is a councillor’s role?


A question was asked of me recently about the appropriateness of the Deputy Mayor being at a meeting last summer to discuss the possible purchase of the new recreational facility structures. From the question I inferred that the asker did not approve of a politician being there.

I disagree, and made my point that it was appropriate. It was hardly a secret meeting – it included numerous staff, plus the acting CAO. And the DM was invited to attend by staff, not the other way around.

First,  the DM is both chair of the budget process and council’s liaison with the Works Department. Who on council would be more appropriate to have at that meeting?

The DM would know and understand the fiscal challenges and opportunities better than any other member because of his history guiding the budget process every year. Plus as Works liaison, he knows what other projects are underway and being contemplated – and how they have to be coordinated with staff in planning and parks, recreation and culture, what services and resources are necessary and available.

The DM alone can’t direct staff – it takes a majority (usually at least at least five members) of council to do that. The proposal as staff determined it had to come to council for approval and confirmation. The DM could hear the arguments pro and con, and raise questions and concerns so that at least the presenters might be able to prepare for possible questions or objections from the table. Staff can make sure these salient points get included in any presentation.

In that way, council might avoid the sort of hour-long round-robin discussion we had about the proposed dog park (much of which seemed to revolve around questions about the choice of base material in the park). That meandering debate ended up going nowhere because staff were unprepared to answer the questions raised at the table.

Having someone to suggest possible objections or questions can streamline the process and make it more efficient. We have no need to return to the often indecisive and divisive five- and six-hour meetings of last term.

Second, as the council member who asked staff to look into the structures, the DM would be the one to present any motion to the table. Isn’t it appropriate that he learn all the sides, all the issues, understand the costs and the complexities, before presenting it to the table? You can’t defend what you don’t understand (or at least you shouldn’t try to). See the notes from the Municipal Act, below.

Third, politicians are elected to lead. Not to rubber stamp staff’s ideas or proposals. We should be meeting with staff, with the private sector, with residents, looking for ideas, opportunities and challenges trying to uncover solutions, partnerships and innovations. We have a larger role outside the table than is seen in our Monday night meetings. Our work at the table is only the tip of the iceberg of work we do. Or should do.

We are not elected to sit at home, in some cocoon, avoiding any contact with the outside world. We need to be active and engaged, if we are to champion or challenge issues. A good politician is one who is actively engaged, not just passive.  We are part of the process, not separate from it.  We are expected to use our own judgment in these situations.

To be able to do our job properly and effectively, we need to get all the input we can garner, to hear people’s ideas and concerns, discuss their projects, discuss the implications with staff. As long as there is no overriding legal issue – such as a potential breach of confidentiality or a liability concern – not to meet with our constituents and with staff is a failure to perform our roles.

Politicians have to get involved, get their feet wet. We can’t sit on the sidelines. But we are not dictators who rule by autocratic decree. We need input from the people who have to implement our decisions in order to accomplish our goals – and the way to get that input is to meet with them.

So, yes, it was appropriate. It’s almost always appropriate that council meet with staff and the public to discuss upcoming issues, motions, initiatives and projects because we were elected to represent the populace and we can’t do it without being engaged.

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