Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Blue Walls

The stage is being set for down the road when the true price of the new police station comes to light. We started with a $90 million dollar project and now the Police Chief is estimating $130 million. When the true price comes in the scenario will be that it is over $130 million, no doubt due to increased constructions costs, and the increase will be measured from the $130 million price tag rather than the original $90 million.

What annoys me further is the comparatives used - Calgary, Winnipeg and Edmonton. Not Regina.

Calgary is the third largest municipality in Canada with a population base of roughly 1 million citizens. Calgary is doing a purchase and renovation of 650,000 square feet for a total of $130 million. Saskatoon has a population base of roughly 202,000 citizens and wants a $130 million dollar 330,000 square foot facility.

Winnipeg is the 7th largest city in Canada with a population base of roughly 650,000 people and is doing a purchase and renovation for $135 million. Again, Saskatoon has a population base of roughly 202,000 citizens and was a $130 million dollar 330,000 square foot facility.

Edmonton is the 6th largest municipality in Canada with a population base of roughly 1 million people and has 365,000 square feet and uses division substations around its city. There are no plans for a new facility. Again, Saskatoon has a population base of roughly 202,000 citizens and wants a $130 million dollar 330,000 facility.

Regina is the 18th largest municipality in Canada with a population base of roughly 180,000 residents.

Saskatoon is considered the 17th largest municipality in Canada with a population base of roughly 202,000 residents.

I took the population numbers from the last census and acknowledge that these cities may have grown in size since the census. And I am only looking a the population base for the city proper as policing is only done within the city limits.

Why not use Regina as a comparative? Our population bases don't differ to the degree of the other cities used. Our demographics are about the same. We sit side by side on the scale for municipal size. I suspect Regina is left out because it would make our new police station look grandiose by comparison.

To be clear I am in support of providing our city police with the necessities to do their jobs and in as safe a manner as is possible for that profession. As the city grows, the police service should grow. But I do think the new station is overkill.

As for how the financing works (SP Mar. 31/11), come 2017 what happens then? The total cash accumulated to that point is stated to be $38 million. Where does the other $100 million plus interest come from?

And when the city starts deviating from its traditional 10 to 15 year repayment period and starts amortizing debt over 30 years, alarm bells should go off in the heads of taxpayers. Any good financial advisor will tell you to pay of your debt as quickly as possible because in your first years on a mortgage the bulk of your payment goes to interest.

And I don't think cities can go into bankruptcy.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Chop Shop?

I'm not talking pork or lamb here. I'm talking cars.

I support the city's proposed increase of impound fees. I think the total cost of the impound should be borne by the 'users' and not taxpayers.

The article in the SP (Mar. 30/11) was silent as to the revenue derived from the sale of scrap and vehicles that were unclaimed from the impound. Maybe the city should considering running its own "chop shop" and sell any usable parts of unclaimed vehicles before shipping them out for scrap.

I expect most of these cars would be junkers, but there may be car enthusiasts in our midst that are looking for parts to repair their older model vehicles that are in relatively good condition save for a part or two. It may be a good opportunity for a public/private partnership.

Anyone licking their chops at this opportunity?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Can you spare me a dime?

A busker is a street performer entertaining for donations. An panhandler is a beggar asking for alms. Business owners do not want panhandlers begging in front of their shops because it deters customers from entering their premises. Interestingly the only ban to date that the committee supported is a eight metre ban around liquor stores.

According to a report in the SP (Mar. 29/11) the city is gearing up to spend $50,000.00 for yet another report on this issue. How much in-house time and money has already been spent by the city on whether or not to ban panhandling? Didn't the Partnership provide information on this issue at its expense?

It seems to me that everything that happens in this city needs an outside consulting report. Yet we spend over a half a millions dollars a year on councillor remuneration/benefits for their wisdom and millions of dollars on city hall salaries for professional people to provide advice in various fields of expertise. And still we need a consulting report. Hypothetically speaking, if the average home in Saskatoon paid $1,500.00 in municipal taxes, 33 homes in Saskatoon would see this year's tax going to pay for this report.

Personally, I think the discomfort the public has with panhandling is having the poverty of some folks pushed in their faces. They would rather not be reminded that some of their fellow citizenry are possibly sleeping on the street and going without food - especially when buying their booze.

Add you own 10 cents.

Monday, March 28, 2011

I don't care if you don't like me . . .

vote for me anyway. In reading the report in the SP (Mar. 28/11) on the NDP convention this weekend, it would appear that is going to be one of Link's election mantras. I not sure whether his comments - "You may like me or you may not like me" "For me its not a popularity contest" - were for the party faithful or for the general voting public, but the reality is if the voters don't like you they are not voting for you regardless of what you claim you will do.

I think the premise of a royalty review may grow legs during the election period but the likableness of the leader is going to count.

This weekend, while talking to some eighty-something year olds, a traditional stronghold for the NDP, they aren't voting for Layton's team because they don't like Lingenfelter. Try as I may to sort out the difference between Layton and Lingenfelter they are all lumped into the same pot for these ladies. That and the fact that Layton is deemed to have forced a federal election at a cost of $300 million, which in their minds is money that should have gone to seniors. This is one of the pitfalls of running federal/provincial elections back-to-back.

Sadly, our elections are run on likability rather than ability.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Is the scale wrong?

The phrase "economy of scale" generally means the higher the volume the lower the cost.

Our province reportedly has hit a record high for population (SP Mar. 25/11.) Saskatoon is the fastest growing of the cities. Is it unreasonable to think that with more people sharing the tax burden of operating and developing the city that taxes should, if not go down, at least not go up?

On more than one occasion I have heard elected and city officials say that increased taxation is necessary due to the rapid growth of the city. Don't all these new taxpayers contribute to the tax purse? Shouldn't all this new tax money off-set the growing costs?

It can't be from the expansion of city limits and the infrastructure required for new neighbourhoods as the city's Land Bank operates by using the sales of previous lands to pay for the development of new lands. It is re-circulated money - unless of course the course that council has stripped those reserves.

Weigh in on these questions please.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Brad giveth, Don taketh

Regardless if this budget is deemed to be loaded with goodies for an election year, it is refreshing to see a government recognize the middle class taxpayer, the spine of the tax purse so to speak.

I was particularly pleased to see the Premier honouring his commitment to have the province pick up a larger share of funding for education and provide some relief to property tax bills, although I am unclear how much relief will be provided. This in itself may make it easier for young families to obtain housing, for seniors to maintain their residence and hopefully have landlords reduce rents accordingly.

My pleasure was short-lived when I read the Mayor's comments in the SP (Mar. 24/11) and he stated that monies may have to borrowed for the work on the Traffic Bridge if the federal and provincial governments don't ante up a one-third share each. New debt means higher taxation.

Perhaps Council should put a hold on a few other capital projects and divert those monies towards the bridge. The city's share of the new art gallery is, at last count, $40 million plus. Considering the old Mendel was only asking for, at the time, less than $20 million for renovation and expansion, maybe council should go back to the drawing board and reconsider this decision.

Anyway, thank you to Premier Wall for the feel-good however short-lived it appears to be.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Ottawashed and Overhalled

Anyone read Bronwyn Eyre column today (SP Mar. 23/11)? I can only say Ditto to the whole piece and that I feel less lonely in my thinking regarding civic government. Thank you Ms. Eyre.

On the Ottawashed side, it would appear that we going to the polls again and likely ending up with the same outcome that currently exists. I cringe at the thought of the radio and television ads and the mound of paper hitting my mailbox, the demon dialer that will interrupt my evening and the endless ask for cash from the candidates' worker bees.

Since Ignatieff has been hysteric in his rant for an election I can only assume he has some great plan and/or some real dirt to offer up to the electorate on Harper. Harper put just enough in his budget to bait Layton and he did bite.

So for a month or more we will all hear about ethics, integrity and transparency. And then go back to the new norm (being minority governments) for another year or two. By that time the Liberals can find themselves and new leader (possibly young Trudeau). Layton's hip will heal and he may get less of the sympathy vote, but his lip will keep him in the game.

An just how much do these bi-annual elections cost us taxpayers?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Glass ceilings

In my mind a roof is a building covering, be it peaked, sloped or flat. For those business with building space below city sidewalks, the sidewalk becomes your roof and it is up to you to maintain it to ensure safety of the public.

Since the "roof" contains prism glass that can be classified as a heritage feature (SP Mar. 22/11), those building owners should apply for a heritage grant under the existing program and proceed with repairs necessary. Othewise the city should barricade that portion of the sidewalk to prevent any potential injury to the using public, do the necessary work and charge the cost of same to the building owner.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Name that ***hole!

Recently, on an evening out with the ladies, the main topic of conversation seemed to be the horrid condition of Saskatoon roadways. Everyone seemed to be competing for whose street was the worst. There was the usual bitching about suing the city for damage to undercarriages and wheels on their vehicles. Or that you needed an tank to drive safely on certain streets.

It got me thinking that the city names special places, i.e streets, bridges, parks, etc. for those individuals who have contributed to our society in one form or another, exempting of course the biggies where the naming rights are sold.

In that spirit I am today creating a contest to name your biggest and best POThole find after an elected and/or city official. By example, driving east on 42nd street is a massive crater that is causing traffic the swerve out of the lane. This could be Bev's Black Hole. There is another on 8th street that has traffic merging from the inside to the outside lane - Penner's Pit. Get creative and use first and last names. More than one honour can be bestowed on any individual.

Alas I have no substantial prize to offer other than a gold star for the winner and perhaps some fun for the participants.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Best practices lost in transaction

I am truly sorry, but not very surprised, that the Ecovillage project died. I thought the concept of live/work space was great and one of the selling points at conception was to have eyes and ears in River Landing on a 24/7 basis.

What I don't understand is why funding could not be secured if 60 of the 65 units were pre-sold, which I assume they were based on the fact that 60 people put deposits down. I can only guess that the cost of building to a LEEDS platinum standard were astronomical and that the units could not be constructed for the pre-sold estimates.

What causes me further concern is that the city allowed this property to be tied up on this project for years without any diligence testing on the developer or without penalty for not proceeding with the purchase.

Deposits on real estate offers are generally required to show good faith on the part of the purchaser and conditions generally have tight time lines in order to prevent the prospective purchasers from tying up property on lost ventures. In fact this developer secured the property at 2008 prices and didn't have to put any money down until they requested the extension last year. Clearly conditions where is place that allowed the developer to recover the deposit thus having nothing to lose if they dragged their feet. In essence the developer had nothing to lose and much to gain. Very strange.

Although as taxpayers we lost potential revenue from this land for years, the up side is that the value of the land has increased by several million dollars - assuming of course that council will now sell the land for its current value. That may be a big assumption on my part.

On the down side we could have another publicly funded project and get nothing but debt and increased taxation. Ah, I digress. Just last week the Mayor said budgets were now being driven on a strictly needs basis.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

What's the message?

I am stymied by the dichotomy of the advice given by the city's traffic engineers and decision by council regarding signage and reduced speed limits in zones that may have children at risk. In today's SP (Mar. 16/11) the request to council for a policy providing for cautionary signs and reduced speed limits in areas flagged having children with disabilities was denied. Perhaps rightfully so. But it was the reasoning behind the decision that had me scratching my head.

In this article it states that the city report says "There is (no) evidence to indicate that installation of the signs have had any effect in improving pedestrian safety or driver awareness." "In fact, the city's traffic engineers say the signs can cause a false sense of security" and thus "create more danger." Further, the traffic planners say that signs don't reduce collisions. If that is the case, why do we have signage and reduced speed limits in school zones?

According to the article, Regina does have a policy for signage and reduced speed limits when requested, but the speed limits are advisory and are not enforceable.

Given this information, should our city now look at changing its school zone policy to mirror that of our sister city. - advisory but not enforceable?

I'm twisted on this one.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Do you flush this with the big button or the little one?

When Saskatoon's Environmental Advisory Committee submits its report to council on water conservation, it should also submit Pavlov's theory on conditioned behaviour.

Asking the public to engage in water conservation, while at the same time continually increasing water rates, is not an incentive to participate.

Recently council was advised by administration to strip out the infrastructure reserve. a reserve established for maintenance and repair of water and sewer lines, to off-set the operating deficit due to low water consumption last summer. In 2009 council approved water rate increases of 7.5% for each of the years 2011, 2011 and 2012. We are being conditioned to believe that low water consumption equates to higher water rate increases.

I invested in low-flow toilets. My water bill goes up. I invested in a water efficient washing machine and reduced the number of washing loads. My bill went up. I run my dishwater about every three days. My water bill goes up. To the chagrin of my neighbours, I leave lawn watering to Mother Nature. My bill goes up. Recently I invested in a state-of-the-art energy efficient heating system. My bill has not gone down.

Most of us who invest in conservation practices be it low-flow toilets and shower heads, water efficient washing machines, energy efficient heating systems and reduced yard watering, expect to see some return on our investment. It goes against the human psyche to invest in something that appears to give no return benefit.

I know the esoteric argument is saving the planet and minimizing future rate increases, but we are conditioned to believe that these conservation investments will show a return on our living costs.

A $50.00 rebate reward on a higher cost toilet is not going to cut it with the average canine. You can only ring that bell so many times without rewarding the dogs before they quit responding the the ding-dong.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Hold your nose

I like Councillor Heidt. During my term on council I quickly learned that if Heidt gave you his word he was good for it. He wouldn't blind side you. So it pains me to trash him on the issue of the super sized police station. His comment in the Saturday's SP (March 12/11) was absurd, that being "There will be ample room to discuss it after we award the contract." What's left to discuss after the contract has been awarded? Only how much our taxes will go up to pay for it.

And why was the issue of increasing the scope of the project done in committee? From what has been reported, this item does not meet the criteria established for committee discussion. Credit has to be given to Hill for bringing this to the public eye. But where are the rest of the councillors on this matter? There are some long serving councillors that are well-acquainted with committee rules that need to explain themselves.

I personally think the station should be built to meet the needs for the reasonably foreseeable future with provision made for expansion if and when the need arises. Although we are a rapidly growing city, we are still years away from a population of 325,000.00. Perhaps police enforcement tactics will change over the next few decades and the police force of the future will require something totally different that what is being designed today.

In today's SP (March 14/11) in commenting on the viability of the weir project, the Mayor said "It's a question of wants and needs" "Our budgets are becoming more and more strictly matters of need."

It is time for council to publicly discuss the police station project needs. The public in general is supportive of police needs. If the increasing size of police station project is a need, then let the public know those needs and council may garner support.

As it currently stands, this whole thing just stinks!

Friday, March 11, 2011

A good man is a good man regardless of the politics

I was pleased to read in today's SP (Mar. 11/11) that the USSU honoured Roy Romanow by renaming a space in his honour. I think too often we quickly forget about people who have served our society and wait until they have passed on before recognizing their contributions.

I think it would be an understatement to say that I am not a supporter of Roy's political party. However I think all of the parties have good and not-so-good members. I believe all of the parties make some good and not-so-good decisions. Although I didn't always agree with decisions he made during his tenure, I didn't always disagree with him. People of the right wing persuasion thought he was too left thinking. Left wing supporters thought he was too right in his views. Sometimes I thought of him as an appeaser. Maybe he was just centered. But to my mind, Roy was one of the good guys. And whatever any of us think about him individually, no one can deny that he gave many decades of service to our society.

I remember Roy when he was a baby lawyer with the now defunct law firm of Walker, Romanow, Ching. He was a good lawyer. I was not one of the many that seemed to enjoy his fall in the election of 1982 to the relatively unknown Joanne Zaselenchuk (sp.), although at the time I was happy for a change of government. After that election Roy could have gone on to make a pile of money practising law, but instead came back to a life in public service.

I hope some of our civic, provincial or federal leaders see fit to set partisan politics aside and follow the lead of the USSU. Perhaps he should be considered in the naming game for the new South bridge.

I will end with "Thank you Roy for your service."

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The cake is getting stale

It would appear from today's article in the SP (Mar 10/11) that the public opinion elicited at meeting on the "fix" for the intersection at Attridge and Central is extremely varied. The comment that caught my attention was "They're putting 40 to 50,000 people over in the Northeast and they're acting like they're not trying to move a small city through that intersection every day."

The rapid growth in the northeast end of the city over the last 10 to 15 years has put stress of the rest of the city. I recall the demand of these residents for several new schools even through the division truly did not need more space. They would not have their kids transported to existing facilities outside of their neighbourhood. There was demand for recreation facilities, services, branch libraries, roadways, parks, shopping malls, etc. Everything every other neighbourhood wanted but couldn't get. I recall attending meetings were the attitude was "too bad for them" - us first - we pay more taxes. The difference between the upscale neighbourhoods in the northeast vis-a-vis some of the inner city or westend neighbourhoods, was their ability to effectively lobby the elected officials of the day. Although I may not agree with these residents, I do stand in awe of their tenacity and ability to achieve their goals.

However, it left me feeling that this area of the city viewed itself as a "bedroom community" of Saskatoon rather than a part of the whole, so the comment on a "small city" hit home with me. Perhaps that what it is and should be.

Not surprisingly, Councillor Dubois initiated the salvo that the city would need to leverage funds from the provincial and/or federal governments in order fix the problem.

Generally speaking, the cities are responsible for roadways within their limits. The higher level of governments provide some infrastructure funding to municipalites, but leave it to the civic governments to determine how to spend it. If a city elects to spend its dollars on swimming pools, over-priced art galleries and football fields, then they should not be looking to put the problem of fixing poor roadway engineering at the feet of other governments.

We know there is to be a provincial election this year. There is a good likelihood of a federal election this year. This area is very effective at political lobbying. I'm betting that the city will get additional monies for this fix from one or both senior levels of government.

The rest of the city can "eat cake."

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Roadways to heaven and hell

A friend of mine, who is a transplant to our city, has always complained that Saskatoon must have the worst roadway engineers in the country. One of her complainants is signage.

Regretfully it took a fatality a Attridge and Central, aside from the other 350 collisions, to catch the city's attention (SP Mar. 8/11.) I have driven that stretch of road and watched vehicles hesitate or recklessly lane change to get to their exit. I suspect its because, like many others, they were unsure of what exist to take to get to the Preston Crossing Mall site. A simple overhead sign saying "Preston Crossing Mall next right" may have avoided many of those accidents.

Some years back the intersection of Clarence and Circle was the most dangerous corner. Everyone complained about the intersection, but it took the deaths of two prominent citizens to spur the city into action and install a controlled light.

The relatively new 42nd Street bridge had to be widened due to poor planning. The list of questionable roadway planning and poor signage could go on and on.

Worse yet is the city stating that the fund to build the necessary (?) interchange is empty. No doubt this lack of funds will be attributed to some other level of governments failure to provide infrastructure funding rather than city management. This takes us back to priorities in spending and over spending. Now when we need money the account is empty.

Couple this with the financial wizards stripping the light and water infrastructure capital fund to off set operating costs and it makes for a scary future. If sewer and/or water lines collapse, the account will be empty.

Steal yourselves for a very high tax increase this year.

And before we add $25 million plus to our debt, try some good signage and see if it makes a difference to the collision rate.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The new Alberta?

In Saturday's SP (Mar. 5/11) it was published that the provincial revenues jumped by $311 million. The NDP accused the Sask Party of being on pre-election spending spree. The Sask Party stated they were simply putting money into priorities that were put off due to earlier fiscal constraints. For a change they are both right.

My personal preference would be to use the excess revenue is to pay down the debt. In the long run it would be to our greatest benefit. However, that is not going to happen in an election year. That being said I would like the government to keep its promise on removing education tax from the property tax bill.

I recently had occasion to review a few real estate listings from Calgary. I was truly dumbfounded to discover that their property taxes were literally half of what we pay. Subsequent to that I was advised that it was because Alberta does not have education tax on its property bills.

Removal of this tax would go a long way to helping new homeowners and seniors to remain in their homes. Rents may even drop if landlords see that expense removed.

It would appear that all Wall has to do is keep his head down in order to win the November election. Although he doesn't have to keep this promise to win, it would go a long way to restoring public confidence in politicians and their election rhetoric.

Friday, March 4, 2011

This practice is called . . ..

I knew the city had a problem in assessing and budgeting for capital projects as nary a one has come in on budget. But it would appear from the article in the SP (Mar. 4/11) that the problem of budget development is deeper.

Each month I pay $15.55, that being $186.55 annually, for infrastructure charges on my city light and water bill. In essence that is additional taxation to my property tax bill. It is targeted money for infrastructure upgrades and repair, which many areas in the city need and have not received. It is a capital reserve fund.

Each year the city adds budget surplus monies to the stabilization fund to cover off unexpected costs in the operating budget.

It is a sign of serious trouble when council starts using capital reserves to off set operating deficits.

I understand why the water department has a deficit due to the weather of last summer. What I don't understand is how, when preparing the budget projections, a reserve was not in place for off years. We have all been encouraged to practice water conservation. That in itself, coupled by increasing water usage charges, should indicate that revenues may decline.

What is offensive were the comments made by city finance manager Tarasoff. "These (projects) are going to be rethought. This is money that's been allocated and they're returning it to the bank account and we're saying, 'You can ask for it again in the future.' "

Does this mean that next month I will not have a infrastructure charge of $15.55 on my light and water bill? Or was he saying that this is a well that will never run dry?

. . . robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Zoned out

It would appear that the city planning department is hell bent on destroying centre city neighbourhoods. The change in zoning to allow for garage suites (SP Mar. 3/11) will attract speculators to buy and convert existing residential homes into multi-dwelling rentals. Residents in areas already affected by a preponderance of rentals will attest to the harm done to the character of their residential neighbourhood and their use and enjoyment of their home.

Those chomping at the bit for this change are the folks that want to make a lot of money from their property before vacating the area. The young people wanting it see it as an avenue to help pay the mortgage - they haven't yet experienced the joy of having a tenant skip out on the rent or destroy the suite.

The greatest irritant is buying a home under one set of zoning bylaws only to have the city alter the zoning. You think you've invested in a family home in a nice quiet residential neighbourhood only to find out your neighbourhood is about to become a shack tent mecca. But it will be affordable housing for some that have nothing more to invest than a month's rent.

I can only hope that they will throw us city centre residents a bone by legislating the home with the suite must be owner occupied. And that the owner must convert their backyard to a parking lot to provide on site parking. Then again, the city will not enforce this bylaw anymore than they enforce the existence of illegal suites under the current bylaw.

Somewhere down a road a future city council will struggle with the rejuvenation and redevelopment of Nutana much like this council is trying to do with Riversdale today. So much for learning from past mistakes.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Maple Leaf Forever?

I heard on the news yesterday that federal NDP leader Jack Layton is calling for a national referendum on whether or not to keep the Senate. Save the tax payers some money. The response will be yes.

At the same time, perhaps we should review the whole parliamentary system. Increasingly provinces are creating their own political entities, e.g. Wild Rose Party in Alberta, Sask Party here, the Bloc in Quebec, and the provincial arms of the parent federal bodies are waning. Our provinces and territories are so diverse and as they evolve the national parties are unable to effectively represent all those diverse needs.

What should the role of a federal government be? Republics come with a whole new set of problems. Perhaps a hybrid, made in Canada system should be brought to the front burner.

Your thoughts?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

We have lift off - and hopefully a landing

I was pleased to read in today's SP (Mar. 1/11) that a new taxpayer is being located on River Landing - assuming of course they have not received tax concessions for constructing a LEEDS standard building on Saskatoon's Crown Jewel. This certainly puts a few feathers back in the Mayor's electoral nest. Now, if Atch can only get the Eco-Village off the ground we may get some tax load off our backs for maintaining River Landing. Pipe dreams do come true.

As for Councillor Paulsen's theory on the Ecopass (SP Mar. 1/11), that being reducing the number of employees to qualify for the tax-funded subsidized bus pass in order for small business to qualify, I suspect once again council is missing the mark. Its not about the cost, but the service. As for small business jumping on the bandwagon, most of those small commercial businesses in downtown don't have three full time employees. They are owner operated using part time help. Of course she may intend to include business offices which would have a full-time employee component, such as her law firm. This is a time for her to lead by example and see how many of the lawyers and support staff in her office will buy into the program. Perhaps her pipe dream will come true as well.