at city hall
In my role as Councillor, I feel it's important to give updates on what's happening at City Hall and the decisions I'm making. I also feel it's important that you know how I make decisions. Of course I bring my principles and values, past experiences and view of the world to the table. But I also come with an open mind, willing to listen and wanting to receive as much information as possible. I look at the big picture and with a long term perspective about what's best for the city and its citizens. And then I decide. Once decided, I'm firm, focused, and ready to turn that decision into action.
- » May 19 2013 -- Permissive Tax Exemption Policy -- This Thursday May 23rd, Victoria City Council will be making a decision with regard to permissive tax exemptions. Here's my take. Please feel free to share.
In 2004 Council created a policy that all new applications for permissive tax exemptions that provided regional services would a get 50% permissive tax exemption; all regional organizations that already had permissive tax status at the time were grandfathered in at 100%. The proposal on the table now is to move current grandfathered organizations deemed regional in nature to 50% exempt status over the next 10 years. I think this is a good idea.
First of all, we must confront reality and realize that while the organizations in question provide amazing services to Victoria and the region, so do the very large number of other charities and non-profits that don't own property and therefore don't have the ability to benefit at all from the City's tax exemption policy. In other words, there is already an unequal playing field. Property-owning non-profits and charities benefit disproportionately over those that haven’t had the ability/fortune/luck to have purchased properties or had them donated. It makes sense to me to bring all organizations which receive property tax exemptions in line with Council’s 2004 policy.
Second of all, I work in the sector. I founded and run a small non-profit society which is just moving out of start-up mode and has only a small budget and three part-time staff. We don’t own property but we do have our space donated to us by a generous landlord. Market rent at Community Micro Lending’s Gathering Place on Douglas St is $1800 a month, that’s $21,600 a year. If our landlord decided he needed the rental income and asked to charge us I would say, “Thank you very much for your generosity these past three years.” And I would find a way to make that space work, or find another, team up with another organization, etc. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: I think the non-profit sector needs to become more enterprising, more resilient, not primarily dependent on grants and exemptions but more creative and more collaborative.
My vote on Thursday will reflect this perspective. And my vote has nothing to do with how much I value the goods and services provided by the grandfathered properties. I do value them, very much. And I appreciate the richness they add to the social fabric of our city and region.
- » March 3 -- On Deep Sustainability -- I received an email this week from someone working on economic development and entrepreneurship in the region. His work shows that the general public wants to see a more socially inclusive and clean economy. He wrote to me concerned that I'm being perceived as 'anti-sustainability' in the eyes of some people who are vocal about sustainability in the region. Allegedly, I'm being grouped in with people who would sell the region's resources and its future. It seems an explanation of my approach to sustainability is required.
I'll begin with a story. It was the mid 1980s. I was thirteen years old. A group of friends and I were tired of seeing garbage on the roadside as we biked back and forth between each other's houses. So we bought plain white t-shirts and fabric markers and founded T.I.M.E. - Teens Interested in Maintaining the Environment. We never did more than pick up garbage. Yet from that early age, the sustainability of the planet and its people has been one of my core commitments.
Sustainability for me is a common sense way of life. It's why I convinced my landlord to let me dig up the entire front lawn to grow food. It's why I travel by bicycle. It's why I keep backyard chickens. It's why I help to create a strong local economy as the founder and Executive Director of Community Micro Lending. It's why I started a backyard business - The Backyard Project - with a friend. And it's why I've worked as a facilitator with Lifecycles Project Society, the Good Food Box Society, the Moss Street Market and other organizations to help focus their visions and actions.
The problem that the people who think I'm anti-sustainability have is that I've been advocating to do away with the City's Sustainability Department since I was elected. I just don't think having a sustainability silo alongside all the other silos is the way to go. But, I had a conversation recently with a young local change-maker, Jill Doucette of Synergy Enterprises. She sang the praises of the Sustainability Department and pointed out what an important point of contact it is for her and others working on green economy initiatives. Others in the community working on green economy and other sustainability initiatives laud the Sustainability Department for taking leadership on these issues.
I appreciate the leadership of the Sustainability Department. And I'm starting to realize that maybe we're just not sustainable enough yet and a stand-alone sustainability department is necessary. (An internal City E-Bulletin a few weeks ago noted that the Department of Legislative Services is now accepting reports printed on two-sides of the paper!) So let me be clear: I'm not against sustainability; I think sustainability must be interwoven into the practices of each and every department. I think that each decision request that comes to Council should outline how the proposed project furthers the sustainability goals - financial, social and environmental - of the City. I think the City of Victoria itself should be the department of sustainability, all departments working interdependently to achieve the vision laid out in the City's Official Community Plan.
If the City and its residents and businesses are to achieve this aspirational vision, the goal of the Sustainability Department should be to embed sustainability in every nook and cranny of the City and to work itself out of existence.
- » December 18 -- Citizens' Budget Workshops - Report Out -- Preliminary Budget Feedback from Residents (PDF) -- In the election a year ago, citizens were concerned about their taxes and the escalating costs of living in Victoria. As a new councilor, I learned that the City has many built-in costs that escalate year after year. Bringing these under control will need continuous hard work at City Hall and engagement with residents and businesses about priorities.
To start this off, in April I introduced a motion to move to a three-year budget cycle, with a maximum increase of 3.25% per year, instead of the 4+% that had been proposed by staff. Council unanimously passed this motion, which also included a third clause re: engaging the public on the budget.
As the months passed, citizens became more concerned as they saw: the Johnson Street Bridge price continue to escalate; the projected costs of a regional sewage treatment facility; the release of the Public Bodies report which showed the number of City staff paid more than $100K and $150K; and FOI requests that revealed the fact that City properties would require over $34 million in upgrades to be seismically sound.
Against this backdrop, between July and October, I held five community workshops in James Bay, Fernwood, Fairfield and Vic West in which a total of 185 people participated. The purpose was to gain citizen input at the beginning of the City’s budget process, so that this could feed into decisions I’d be making at the Council table in the fall. There was an average attendance of 35-40 at people each gathering. And it was an inspiring and informative process, as neighbours talked with neighbours and shared ideas.
I posted the detailed input on my website and I sent it to my fellow councilors as well to help inform the budget discussions we had in the fall. As we begin a City-led round of budget engagement sessions in January, I felt it would be worthwhile summarizing the detailed results and sharing them with a wider public. The link at the top of this post contains both the summary and the detailed results. Note that this summary reflects both the range of ideas and the importance that the citizens assigned to them.
- » November 4 2012 -- Community Conversation, Housing Solution -- After all the conversations on Facebook, over email and in coffee shops last week, I have a proposal that will continue or even increase funding to the City of Victoria’s Housing Trust Fund at the same time as working to meet the property tax cap that Council set unanimously in April. I've built affordable housing in this City as a volunteer at Fernwood NRG and I know it's important. I also know the importance of keeping property taxes low, not for the mere sake of doing so, but because continual sharp tax hikes increase the cost of living for those least able to pay, namely seniors, young families and many people who rent.
I thank all of you who have contributed to the conversation and to this proposal. Drafting public policy through Facebook and Twitter conversations, via email exchanges and in coffee shops is a radical departure from the status quo. And it’s a necessary departure if we are to re-create together a functional and vibrant democracy.
A few weeks ago a resident sent me a link to this Ted talk, Why Democracy Matters, by British MP Rory Stewart. He says, "If local democracy is to flourish it is about the active and informed engagement of every citizen. If democracy is to be rebuilt, if it is to become again vigorous and vibrant, it is not just necessary for the public to trust their politicians, but for the politicians to learn to trust the public." This past week in Victoria we have seen this process in action.
Here's the motion I'll be bringing to Council this Thursday evening:
WHEREAS the City is committed to ending homelessness and leveraging the monies in its Housing Trust Fund to help ensure the creation of affordable housing in the City;
AND WHEREAS a year-over-year contribution of tax dollars to the Housing Trust Fund is not sustainable for the City or its taxpayers, concerned about the increasing cost of living for all its residents;
AND WHEREAS the City has recently passed its Official Community Plan, which is based on a Village Centre Land Use plan which anticipates density in village centres outside of the boundaries of the Downtown Core Area Plan;
AND WHEREAS the City already has a Density Bonus program in place;
THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the City create a Bonus Density policy to be implemented January 1st 2014 for all areas of the City outside those described in the Downtown Core Area plan whereby 75% of Bonus Density monies accrued by the City’s Bonus Density Program be allocated to the City’s Housing Trust Fund and 25% of monies be allocated to improve public realm elements in areas outside those described in the Downtown Core Area Plan;
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED when the monies accrued from the City’s new Bonus Density Policy meet or exceed $150,000 per year, the City cease its yearly transfer of $150,000 in taxpayer dollars to the Housing Trust Fund. Until then, the City continue its $150,000 per year contribution.
- » October 30 2012 -- City of Victoria Housing Trust Fund – Building It Another Way -- There is a really good, informative, and for the most part respectful community conversation taking place on Facebook. People are voicing their opinions and sharing information with regard to the City’s proposal to reduce its contribution to ending homelessness from $600,000 to $500,000 per year for the next three years. What’s thrilling to me is that this discourse among citizens is generating new ideas. Or at least it has generated one new idea for me.
I’ve spoken with the City’s Assistant Director of Finance and the City’s Director of Planning and Development and I’ve got some new information. And then I have an idea I’d like to share. It's an alternate proposal for continuing to build the City's Housing Trust Fund at the same time as honouring the unanimous budget decision that Council made in April. I will endeavour to draft this idea into a policy for Council’s consideration.
First, here’s some information about the Housing Trust Fund: Between 2006 and 2012, Council granted a total of $2,854,727 from the Fund to build affordable housing. Council has committed a further $1,830,000 to projects now underway. After the committed funds are spent, there will be $529,000 left in the Fund. The City's Housing Trust Fund has been built by the City's regular yearly contributions of $250,000. In addition, the City’s Assistant Director of Finance told me today that developers have also contributed about $1 million to the City's Housing Trust Fund through the Density Bonus program, as directed by Council on a development-by-development basis.
So I called the City’s Director of Planning and Development to find out more about how this Density Bonus program works. When developers want to build more densely (more people living per square foot) on a site than the zoning allows for, they are subject to what is called the City’s Density Bonus program. Developers must provide something to the City in exchange for the increased density.
In 2010, as part of the City’s Downtown Core Area Plan, Council adopted a policy, where 75% of density bonus monies from development downtown would go to a fund to improve public realm elements downtown (parks and green spaces for example) and 25% would go to a fund to seismically upgrade heritage buildings. This means that when developers build inside the Downtown Core Area, their density bonus monies are used in the downtown.
This is where it gets good! There is no policy for the density bonus monies that the City gets from developers who build outside the Downtown Core Area. And, importantly, the final decision about how to spend all monies that come to the City as a Density Bonus from developers always rests with Council.
So how about this: Council adopts a policy where all monies generated from the City’s Density Bonus system outside the downtown go to the City of Victoria’s Housing Trust Fund. That way – in addition to its own annual contribution – the City is creating a sustainable long-term revenue source to fund affordable housing. At the same time, we are listening very clearly to a majority of residents surveyed in the Victoria Foundation’s Vital Signs report, who for two years in a row now have listed ‘cost of living’ above homelessness as the key issue facing the region.
- » October 28 2012 -- A City Where Everyone Will Thrive -- In this video I elaborate on the post below and discuss the difficult decisions that lie ahead for Council when deliberating the 2013-2015 budget. I urge our Council to have the courage to make these hard decisions in the short term with the goal of creating in the long term a sustainable, thriving city.
I mention the Portland Housing Corporation (actually called the Portland Housing Bureau). I read their strategic plan with interest including “Adopt a long-range plan to create sustainable funding to meet local housing needs.” I also mention Ingredients Health Food and Apple Café on Wharf Street. If you haven’t checked them out yet, it’s worth the trip to the edge of downtown. Feel free to email me at email@example.com to share your thoughts.
- » October 24 2012 -- Hard Decisions Ahead, Council Courage Required -- Budget discussions are underway at City Hall. And the first reports are hitting the newspapers: Victoria’s Budget Reduction Plan targets Housing. At Governance and Priorities Committee meeting last week, a slim majority voted to reduce the City’s yearly contribution to affordable housing from $600,000 to $500,000. I voted with the majority and I’ll say more about why below.
First I want to say how difficult Council’s budget deliberations and decisions on the 2013-2015 budget will be. And that this Council will need to have the courage to make those decisions. Between July and October, I met with 185 people in five citizen budget workshops where I asked for ideas and input about how the City of Victoria could spend less money while still providing quality services. Detailed raw data can be found here. A majority of participants lauded Council for voting unanimously in April to cap property taxes at an increase of no more than 3.25% per year over the next three years.
But as one senior in James Bay said, “3.25% per year, that’s great. But what am I supposed to do? My pension won’t increase by 10% over the next three years.” This is Council’s conundrum and it is what lies at the heart of our job: How can we make decisions that contribute to creating an affordable city for everyone, a city where everyone can thrive?
Now moving onto the housing decision. There were three separate votes. One, I voted to increase Victoria's contribution to the Capital Regional Housing Trust Fund from $250,000 to $350,000 so that Victoria can be a leader in that regard and encourage other municipalities to contribute more to the Regional Housing Trust Fund. Two, I voted to keep Victoria's contribution to the Coalition to End Homelessness at $100,000. And three, I voted to reduce the amount that Victoria contributes to its own Housing Trust Fund by $100,000. This is why:
1. By adding money to the CRD Housing Trust Fund, housing is more evenly spread throughout the CRD and much-needed housing projects and a variety of housing types for a variety of people can be built.
2. As I said in the Governance and Priorities Committee meeting where the discussion took place, if this were 2007, I would certainly not have voted the way I did. But it is five years later. The Coalition to End Homelessness is doing good work. The City of Victoria has done good work. And the housing situation is getting better.
3. The vacancy rate is better in Victoria than it has been for years; there is more rental housing opening up and more rental housing being built.
4. Finally, keeping the cost of living in Victoria affordable for everyone is part of what I see as a key part of my job. The City has been spending too much money on too many things over the past 10-20 years. The City's main source of revenue is property taxes. And property taxes are paid by people who live in Victoria, 65% of whom are renters. If we continue to raise property taxes, landlords will continue to raise rents to cover their property tax bill. This makes all housing less affordable.
There are difficult decisions ahead. And not all of them have to do with how the City will save money. We need to get more creative and also have the will to look at new sources of revenue. I have the wisdom of conversations and ideas from the Citizens’ Budget Workshops I held over the summer, the wisdom that keeps pouring in from citizens and local business owners, and a vision of a city where everyone is thriving as my guide.
- » August 14 2012 -- Taking the Numbers to the People -- On a sunny Wednesday afternoon in July, 106 people came out to James Bay New Horizons Community Centre to share their ideas with each other and with me about how the City of Victoria can spend less in the coming years while still providing quality services to its citizens and businesses.
The gathering was the first of many public budget workshops I'll be holding over the coming months to seek ideas for the City's 2013-15 budget. And the best thing is, these workshops are citizen-driven and organized. And they're fun. I show up with $196 of Monopoly money to represent the $196 million that is the City's current budget. I present some basic information and then listen as people set to work with their neighbours to find savings. Spurred on by the turnout in James Bay, Ken Roueche of Fairfield pulled together a committee, organized a workshop (Wednesday August 29, 7-9pm, Garry Oak Room on Thurlow St) and even got Bubby Roses Bakery to donate baked goods for the event.
Why are citizens so eager to comment on the City's budget? As a follow up to Councillor Marianne Alto's work to keep the property tax lift to 3.25% in 2012, on April 19th, I brought a motion to the Council table that passed unanimously. This motion did three important things. First, the motion moved the City to a three-year budgeting cycle. In the past, every July Council gave direction to staff about what the property tax rate should be for the following year. Staff went away and did some work, and in December, budget deliberations begin. It was only in March of this year that Council passed the 2012 budget. This seemed odd to me, that we'd be a quarter of a way through the year with no approved budget. So now, it's the summer and Council and staff are already working on the 2013-15 budget.
This is made possible by the second part of the April 19th motion which is, to set the property tax rate for the next three years and to freeze the property tax lift to no more than 3.25% per year. This is spurring citizens to action. A property tax freeze of 3.25% means that the City will have to spend at least $6 million less than planned over the next three years. It's this key question that I want to hear from people on: Where should the City make cuts and at the same time continue to provide quality services.
The third part of the motion is that the City undertake some kind of public engagement process on the 2013-15 budget so that citizens and businesses - who pay for the City's services through their taxes - have a say in how their monies are spent. So the City will have some form of budget workshops later this fall with some different cost-saving scenarios presented for comment. But I wanted to get a head start and begin to gather ideas early so these ideas could feed into the City-run process. I look forward to seeing you at an upcoming workshop. If you'd like to host one in your neighbourhood, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- July 14 2012 -- City Manager Contract - An In Depth Response -- I've had lots of response to this post because it's striking a chord. As always, the responses are varied. I'm motivated to give more details. See backgrounder below for the wider context.
City Council recently passed a motion to extend the City Manager's current contract to 2017. I made a motion to rise and report so that this decision could be brought into the public realm as soon as possible. Council renewed the City Manger's contract on its current terms and conditions. I voted in favour of renewing this contract.
This is why. It's a pragmatic decision. Job searches and hiring cost a lot of money and time. And then there's the transition time and learning curve for whoever would be hired. If we do what we say we're going to do - get the City's (read citizens) financial house in better order, we need to be fully focused on that, not on a job search. Having the same City Manager throughout this process who is empowered by Council and responsible to Council to carry out our decisions is extremely important.
In his article on the contract renewal, Bill Cleverly noted that Council didn't have a copy of the contract in front of us. It's ridiculous to think that we had no information in front of us as we made a decision. Council had all the pertinent information: The general terms of the contract are a salary of $231,452 per year plus up to $1000 per month for expenses. The City Manager's manager's salary - like those of all other people who aren't in the union - is set at a base rate. There is an annual rate of increase based on a formula that includes consideration of the raises given to CUPE, Fire and Police.
It's not pragmatic to consider possible short-term savings. The long-term solution is for Council to work at a policy level and to change the salary formula and to bring what City of Victoria employees are paid in line with with other municipalities. I recognize that it's residents and businesses through their property taxes that pay these salaries.
As noted in the post below, Council's number one priority for the 2013-2015 budget - as we've determined thus far - is "Reduce operating budget". When Council unanimously passed the motion that I brought to the table in April to freeze property tax increases to no more than 3.25% per year, we mandated a decrease in spending of at least $6 million over the next three years. The 2011 Public Bodies Report released last month reveals that there are 224 City employees who make more than $75,000 many of these are management, not union employees. Clearly council must turn its attention to the City's administrative costs, including staff salaries and benefits.
- June 20 2012 -- Open Data - The City's Budget -- On Monday City Council met for the day in open session to discuss the City's priorities for the next three years. On April 26, Council unanimously passed a motion I brought forward, limiting tax increases to no more than 3.25% per year over the next three years. This translates into a cut to the City's budget of $6 million. This is the point from which our discussions began on Monday. We're limiting tax increases because we realize that residents and businesses are already paying what they can. In the interests of fiscal prudence and building a sustainable city for the long term, we're getting our house in order now.
I asked staff for a quick turn around on our priority ranking because Gregor Cragie invited me to come On the Island this morning to speak about the session; I wanted to have the actual results, not just my memory of them. So here, for your consideration, is the raw data from our session on Monday. This document, Preliminary Priorities Ranking is where we ended up. And this document and Preliminary Priorities Scoring System is how we got there.
At the beginning of the day we had almost 100 items before us to rank. Each Councillor was given enough sticky notes to distribute across the priorities. We were asked to rank each initiative by whether we thought it was 'an immediate priority' (5 points) 'within our three year term' (4 points) 'when resources are available' (3 points) 'defer to next council term' (2 points) and 'not to be considered at this time' (1 point). The scores were then totaled, and the priorities ranked by total score.
Next steps are for City staff to cost out the priorities and bring them back for consideration by Council and the public. What are you willing to pay for? What are you willing to let go? What is your long term vision for the City and how do we act prudently and wisely now in order to steer the ship in the right direction and get the City there? Share your thoughts by emailing email@example.com and all councillors at firstname.lastname@example.org
- May 22 2012 -- City of Victoria - Open for Business -- Today the City of Victoria releases its Customer Service Action Plan. A long time in the making, this plan will open up city hall and make it a user-friendly place for residents to do renos, small business to open smoothly, and for small and large-scale developers to get timely assistance.
I've been meeting with developers and small business owners since being elected last November and I've heard an endless string of frustration about how hard it sometimes is to open a business or build a building in the City. I'm optimistic that the implementation of the Customer Service Action Plan will change this. And I'm hopeful that Victoria - in particular our village centres and our downtown - will once again become thriving bustling and welcoming places. I'm willing and wanting to do what I can to make this so.
- May 1 2012 -- Point Hope Shipyard -- The City lands on which Point Hope Shipyard operates are not sold. And the negotiations are not being conducted secretly. I voted with the majority to rise and report on Council's willingness to consider an offer from Ralmax so that we could discuss this potential land sale with residents in advance of any decision.
Here's where I stand. To say the City should never sell public lands, ever, under any circumstance is too simplistic. The issue is far more complicated; each situation in which the City considers the sale of public lands is unique and needs to be treated as such, weighing the benefits and the costs. In this case, there are many questions to be answered, which I'll outline in a moment.
I voted in favour of entertaining an offer from Ralmax to buy the lands at Harbour Road that have been used for ship building for the last 100 years or so. I didn't vote to sell the lands. As a responsible steward of the City's assets I want to gather as much information as possible to make a good decision. To me a good decision is one that considers the best long-term benefit to the City and its residents.
These are some things I'm considering:
- » I want to know what the anchor tenant, who has made significant ($17 million) leasehold improvements, is willing to pay for the land.
- » I want to assess whether it's of long-term financial benefit to the City to lease the land or to sell it now and re-invest money from the sale into other much-needed capital improvements such as a new swimming pool, a new library or any other of the $193,000,000 in unfunded capital projects.
- » I want to know what the environmental remediation costs to the City would be in 2045 when the current lease with Ralmax expires after the lands had been used for shipbuilding for some 150 years.
- » I want to assess whether the staff time and resources that the City, as landlord, puts into the lands at Harbour Road are worth the benefits of retaining a long-term lease.
- » I want citizens to have a say and give input before I decide anything. Please email me at email@example.com with your thoughts.
I'll be at the event Councillors Gudgeon and Isitt are hosting on Wednesday May 9 from 7-9pm at the Fairfield Community Centre. And I'll come with an open mind, keeping in mind the complexities of the issue and wanting to consider the best possible way to use the City's assets to create the greatest, long-term public good.
- March 18 2012, VICTORIA, B.C. -- The Johnson Street Bridge -- The big news around town this past week - at least for those concerned with Victoria's climbing infrastructure costs in the midst of budgeting season - was the $15.7 million increase in the estimate for the Johnson Street Bridge replacement.
At Governance and Priorities Committee on Thursday, Council voted to move forward with a bridge procurement process that would seek three qualified teams to compete in a process to build the bridge that reflects the current design and to bring the project in on time and on budget. It was further resolved that staff report to Council in June 2012 as to whether there are significant cost or design deviations. This last bit of the motion was my attempt to ensure that council keeps control over the project. This motion passed 7-1 with Councillor Young voting against.
The next motion was to cap the bridge spending at $92,800,000 and to put this into the City's 20 year capital budget. This passed 5-3 with councillors Young, Isitt and myself voting against. I like the process we agreed to and that I helped to craft, especially the part about retaining Council's control. But I don't like embedding a $92,800,000 expense in the 20-year capital plan when there are so many other unfunded capital projects. My hope is that the bids come back under estimate (though my worry goes the other way!) and that we revise the capital budget to reflect this. Stay tuned here an on my Facebook page for updates and discussions about the bridge project as it unfolds and potential revenue generating opportunities on the horizon.
- » Mar 4 2012 -- Annual Housing Report and Victoria's New Civic Investment Strategy -- After being away at the Local Government Leadership Academy last week, it felt good to be back at the Council table, making big-picture long-term decisions for the city.
Thursday's Governance and Priorities Committee (GPC) began with a presentation of the City's Annual Housing Report for 2011. The news? Not good at all. In order to buy a home in the city you need an annual household income of $120,000 and a $30,000 downpayment. That's out of reach for many Victorians, with the average annual income in the City sitting around $38,000 (the lowest in the region).
But unaffordable home ownership is just part of the problem. The second part is the very low rate of rental housing construction. According to the City's report, in 1997 there were 1071 new units of rental housing built. In 2011, 173. The vacancy rate was 1.8% in 2011, below the national average of 2.2%. It's not a 'good investment' to build rental housing, according to Roy Brooke (Director of Sustainability), because you don't see the return on your investment until at least five years out - not nearly as lucrative as the condo market.
So, people living on limited incomes in Victoria (which is lots of us!) can't afford to buy homes and can't find apartments to rent. Thank goodness for citizen innovation! The Community Social Planning Council and others are working to create a Community Investment Fund which can be used to address community needs, including the building of rental housing. Community Investment Funds are community controlled pools of capital which will offer investors a mid- to long-term return. Patient capital it's called, slow capital, community capital!
Next up and occupying a great deal of our time was the Sustainability Department's proposed Civic Investment Strategy. In short, the strategy is an overhaul of the City's grants program. The City currently administers 19 grants programs through five different City departments. The purpose of the grants is to fund delivery of services on behalf of the City, complement or extend the reach of City services, and met evolving corporate and community priorities. Some grants are awarded through a competitive process, others are handed out to organizations simply because, well, they always have been.
The courageous Civic Investment Strategy proposed by the Sustainability Department substantially disrupts the status quo. I strongly support this. The Strategy proposes that all grants - including those to Community and Seniors' centres - go through a competitive process. That may be going a bit too far. But the point is that if the City is going to be granting taxpayers dollars, we need to be sure that we are getting the best value for those grants. We need to move towards 'results-based granting' where we measure the impact that grantee organizations have on the community. How are the grant dollars leveraged? What innovation and lasting legacies do they help to create in our community?
The Strategy proposes streamlining the 19 grant categories into four: Project Grants, Operating Grants, Fee for Service, Capital Grants. I suggested adding a fifth category (but not more money!) 'Shape Your Future Victoria' Citizen's Grants. After an hour of discussion Council passed a motion supporting the Civic Investment Strategy in principle and directing staff to refine the document based on our discussion. It will take courage to move this document forward and move this policy into practice. Courage is necessary for creating much needed and lasting change.
- » February 19 2012 -- Of Gulls, Garbage Woes and Rail Bridges -- The Governance and Priorities Committee meeting of Thursday February 16 began at 10am and ended at 6pm. Here's my take on some of what we covered in those eight hours.
Animal Control Bylaw Amendments occupied the first bit our our time. 'The deer problem' as it's come to be known seemed like the key motivating factor for a recommended bylaw change that would see a $350 fine for feeding deer, squirrels, racoons, feral rabbits, pigeons, crows or gulls. The feeding of ducks (perhaps because this is a tourist activity?) remained legal.
Recognizing the 'pleasure factor' of feeding gulls pieces of leftover sandwiches during a picnic at Dallas Rd for example, but also the nuisance that gulls and other birds cause to downtown businesses, I suggested that the feeding of birds be illegal downtown but not otherwise. The whole discussion left me with a sour taste in my mouth because while I understand the importance of wildlife control within city limits, I wonder at the thought of bylaw officers roaming around fining and ticketing people for an age-old pass time of feeding the birds.
An angry voter called me soon after to say how could I be so out of it and did I not know the salt content and bad ingredients in the bread people feed to pigeons and seagulls and that there is enough good food in nature for them to eat. The caller claimed that my stand on this was way 'off track.' I appreciate the feedback and input. At the same time, my aim is to make sure that taxpayers dollars are well spent. I think we need a balance between the perhaps necessary policing of citizen interaction with wildlife on one hand, especially in the case of deer, and the best possible allocation of the city's limited bylaw enforcement personnel.
The Department of Engineering and CUPE 50, respectively, both presented once again to GPC to try and resolve the garbage stalemate. Councillor Gudgeon - previously advocating a compromise - came to the table with one in hand: That Council direct staff and the union to come to a solution that would entail weekly garbage and kitchen scraps collection and sideyard pickup. Sideyard pickup was not included as as an option in any of the choices in the City's December 2011 survey. Councillor Gudgeon's motion was replaced with Councillor Alto's "Option B" motion which includes backyard biweekly kitchen scraps and garbage pickup with a savings to users of $41 per year from the current status quo. The motion passed with Councillors Coleman, Young and the mayor opposed.
The garbage debate revolved around whether we were bound by choosing the top option that survey respondents chose Option C - curbside pick up (48%) - or some combination of Option B - backyard pick up biweekly (35%) - and option A - backyard pickup weekly (13%). Councillors at the table at the time of the survey felt they'd promised to implement whatever survey respondents choose. Councillor Gudgeon pointed out that councillors are elected because of our ability to see shades of grey. We are elected to make complex decisions. In this case, what to do when 48% say they want curbside pick up and 48% say they want backyard pick up. See my recent blog post 'Big Picture Long Term' for more.
And finally, to rail on the Johnson Street Bridge. Councillor Isitt put forward a motion that he and other councillors including myself had helped craft. The motion was, in essence, to ask for a simpler more cost effective, 'bridge for the future', that would be built to engineering standards to accommodate rail. The motion was defeated with Councillors Alto, Coleman, Young, Thornton-Joe, Madoff and the Mayor opposing it. Councillors Gudgeon, Isitt and myself voted in favour.
In the interest of keeping the bridge project on time and on budget as it proceeds, I made the following motion, which was also crafted with a number of councillors and which passed unanimously:
Be it resolved that staff present to Council a status report on the Project Charter timeline, indicating the progress of each item on the timeline by March 15th, in a format similar to the Corporate Strategic Plan reports that are given quarterly;
Be it further resolved that staff present to Council information with regard to the 'Unit Price for Steel' as outlined in the Project Charter to be completed as of Fall 2011 by March 15th;
Be it further resolved that staff present to Council a total detailed project budget including details regarding the cost of building the bascule portion of the bridge at the March 15th meeting;
Be it further resolved that staff present to Council a risk matrix and risk management plan which takes into consideration the External Dependencies and Assumptions outlined in the Project Charter, specific plans made to manage them, and an assessment of the 'residual' risks that can't be managed away.
- » February 12 2012 -- Baseball or a Park for All -- Two key items at City Hall last Thursday night. I'll start with the one that took us to 11pm then backtrack to talk about garbage collection.
At Governance and Priorities Committee (GPC) on January 26th council passed a motion - in closed session - "That Council authorize the Director of Parks and Recreation to enter into a non-binding Memorandum of Understanding with regard to the summer use of the Royal Athletic Park in a form satisfactory to the City Solicitor." I voted in favour of this motion. And, I made a motion to rise and report so we could bring this into the public realm.
But, when Council had this motion before it for ratification on Thursday night (in open session) there was something no longer sitting well with me. So I raised it. I don't think it's a good decision to hand over the keys to the Royal Athletic Park for 10 weeks in the summer to an outside entity. Even if the MOU that the Department of Parks head negotiated left room for other uses in addition to a semi-professional baseball team, the team owner not the city would likely determine the timing of other uses. And this would all revolve around the baseball schedule.
Councillor Young said we need a baseball team because we are the capital city and it will help retain our function as such. The mayor said something similar and he also said that the baseball team is part of an economic development strategy. I said that I don't think a team coming here and generating economic activity for 10 weeks out of the year is a sustainable mode of economic development. Especially if it means giving over the use of a public facility for a private interest.
When I spoke against the motion, I said for me this is not about whether I like baseball or not. I agreed with Councillor Thornton-Joe's comments that it is good for young people to have role models and inspiration and that semi-professional baseball players can certainly be part of this. And it's not about ideology. It's about considering the best possible use for the city's only stadium over the summer months. And that best possible use is, in my opinion, a diversity of festivals, sports activities and other innovative uses Victorians will come up with ... if we hold onto the keys.
Although the initial vote at GPC had been 8-1 with only Councillor Isitt opposing, we ended up not voting on Thursday evening because councillors needed 'more information' to make a decision and referred the issue back to GPC.
Garbage collection also came to us for decision on Thursday evening. CUPE president John Burrows and other citizens made compelling presentations that called into question some of the surveys findings. Mr. Burrows claimed that although the City said 56% of people had responded that cost was the most important factor he had counted only 30.3%. We received a memo Friday morning noting that he likely only had a portion of the survey results. City staff are doing a recount.
Councillor Gudgeon asked Mr. Burrows if the union was willing to compromise - to come to a garbage collection agreement that would benefit Victorians who still want backyard pickup, those who want to save money, and the union, which wants to preserve jobs. I am hopeful that a compromise is possible. Council referred this decision back to GPC as well. The mayor said that we have surveyed people and asked a particular question and they had answered it. He also said that there is a difference between advocacy and governance and that we were elected to govern. I want to think more about this last statement.
- » February 5, 2012 -- Garbage, Work and Garden Suites -- The agenda item that consumed most of council's open session time on Thursday was the future of garbage and kitchen scraps pick up. What to do and how to proceed when survey results can be interpreted in a number of ways?
Another key though short discussion (for now!) was the idea which I put on the table to extend the Secondary Suite Incentive Program to cover building garden suites. I gave 'notice of motion' to add Garden Suites to this program. Stay tuned for the February 16 Governance and Priorities Committee.
In the last term, Council decided to survey residents to ask about garbage and kitchen scraps pick up. Citizens were give three options and maintaining the status quo (once a week garbage pick up from the backyard) was not one of them. The results are in. 48% (2073) voted for bi-weekly curbside collection of garbage and kitchen scraps, 35.3% (1523) for bi-weekly backyard collection of garbage and kitchen scraps and 13.3% (574) voted for alternate weeks kitchen scraps/garbage, backyard collection. City staff recommended - based on Council's promise to citizens - that we go with the most popular option.
But up next was John Burrows, president of CUPE 50, representing the workers who would lose jobs/hours if we go with the most popular option. He interpreted the survey results differently. More people, he argued (1523 + 574) voted to keep backyard collection. Additionally, if you look at all the comments (which he had done) even some of those who voted for the biweekly collection or who chose no option but commented said they'd like to keep backyard collection. What to do?
City staff said that the survey results also indicated that the most important factor for citizens was cost. And thus, most chose the cheapest option. Balance this against the workers who will be displaced at the lower end of the 'spareboard' as those currently involved in garbage pick up lose regular hours and move back to the top of the spareboard based on seniority.
Council decided (8-1) to keep its promise to citizens and go with the option they chose. I voted in favour of this. We will still need to vote on this at the Council meeting this Thursday Feb 9. We also directed staff to look into the possibility of taking over Blue Box pickup from the CRD when that contract expires in 2014. Finally, we asked to know more about the impact on the CUPE workers before making a final decision. I will wait to make my final decision until all the information is in.
This is one of those challenging situations where the City is both the employer, responsible to its employees, and the service provider, responsible to its customers. This is one of those situations where - in my mind - the good of the many must be considered over the good for the few. These are hard and important choices.
- » January 30, 2012 -- Rise and Report -- Last Thursday was a very long day at City Hall. In part because we're still finding our way as a working group - balancing the nine strong voices at the table, ensuring that everyone has an equal opportunity to be heard. In part because there were three items that took a lot of time to get through - two in open session, one in closed. Because I now know 'rise and report', I can discuss all three here and would love your input on the third. Read on.
Shannon Craig (Corporate Policy Analyst) and Rob Woodland (Director of Legislative Services) presented a detailed report requesting changes to the "Vehicles for Hire Bylaw". On the table was everything from how many pedicab licenses they City should issue to how much weight should horses be allowed to pull. Councillor Isitt aimed to amend motions to include the public in discussion. Councillors Madoff and Colemen also pointed to the need for a more complete understanding of how the proposed changes affect not only the businesses in question, but also the public and the public realm. I agree. Because these are bylaw changes, they will require a public hearing and likely some consultation before that. This is a good thing.
My intervention was to make a motion to increase the number of pedicab licenses from 28 to 75. I put this forward on the basis that pedicabs provide an opportunity for small-scale entrepreneurship, they are human-powered and create zero emissions, they increase the vibrancy of the public realm, and with more licenses approved than are necessary (we were told there are no more than 50 people right now wanting licenses) there is no drain on staff resources to administer a bidding or lottery process needed for allocating limited licenses. The motion carried.
The next item of significant business was a decision to move the Reliance Properties proposal for the Northern Junk site forward to Heritage Advisory Committee, Advisory Design panel and a third party economic analysis. The Times Colonist reported that Northern Junk plan divides city council. However, what was clear at the table was not 'division' but that rather that there's room for a diversity of opinion. And once the motion had passed, even those councillors opposed chimed in to give direction to Deb Day (Director of Planning) and her staff about the kinds of issues they'd like considered.
In the Northern Junk discussion, Councillor Isitt introduced a motion to delay approval of the staff recommendation until we receive an update on the possibility of rail crossing the new Johnson Street bridge. A decision was made by the last council that there would be no rail bridge. There are a number of us who want to know what the load rating of the new bridge is, in case sometime in the next 100 years or so street cars might once again become a critical piece of the city's transportation infrastructure. This motion was defeated. I voted against it because while I believe the potential for rail on the bridge is imperative, I don't think it is fair to tie it to whether this development moves forward or not. Councillor Isitt introduced a subsequent notice of motion asking for a report on rail on the bridge. This is a good thing!
In the afternoon, we moved into closed session - for the reasons outlined in the agenda thanks to a process that I helped to institute last week, stating the reasons for going in camera. The Vic News found this simple innovation newsworthy! Victoria city council to publish reason for closing meeting. In closed session, I made a motion to rise and report on a motion we passed: "That Council authorize the Director of Parks and Recreation to enter into a non-binding Memorandum of Understanding with regard to the summer use of the Royal Athletic Park in a form satisfactory to the City Solicitor." And now my question to you: What are your priorities for summer use of the Royal Athletic Park? Should any group have exclusive use of the park or should any agreement include a commitment to mixed use? Email me your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org
- » January 21, 2012 -- Rise and Report -- I learned a new tool at city hall this week called 'rise and report'. This is the mechanism to bring decisions that were made in closed session into the public realm. I used it. Please read on; this is important even if you're not concerned about the Northern Junk lands per se.
Many people are aware of the proposed development by Reliance Properties of the Northern Junk buildings at Pandora and Wharf. People have written to me both in support of and opposed to the development. This proposed development is far from the public hearing stage - that's the time and place for the developer to present the project to the public and for the public to speak. On December 15th, the Governance and Priorities Committee of Council asked for more information before deciding whether to move the project along to the next phase - an analysis of economic benefits to the city, and to Advisory Design Panel and Heritage Advisory Committee. This information will be provided on January 26th.
Here's the kicker. Many of the folks opposed to the project are opposed on the basis that public lands will be sold to the developer. Some claim that public lands should not be sold without going on the open market. Others claim that the boulevard in question is valuable public green space and shouldn't be removed at any cost. It is too late. In closed session on January 14, 2010, Councillor Lucas moved and Councillor Luton seconded that Council:
1. Grant permission for the developer to submit a rezoning application for the City-owned land as shown on Map 1, attached to the report dated December 17, 2009, recognizing that this would not fetter their discretion on considering the rezoning and that Council's expectation is that any rezoning proposal would:
a.) Be consistent with the height regulations contained in the CA-3C Zone (Old Town District)
b.) Be consistent with the Old Town Design Guidelines.
c.) Include a pathway connecting the bridge and Wharf St, the design of which acknowledges the public importance of this space and link.
2. Enter into an agreement of purchase and sale for the above noted property, at fair market value, once (my emphasis) any Official Community Plan and zoning amendments are complete and necessary development controls have been established.
Council passed this motion and committed public lands for sale to the developer, two years ago. I thought it important to 'rise and report' on this issue because it provides the full context in which we must all consider the proposed development.
- » January 17, 2012 -- Planning and Land Use, Governance and Priorities, and Council Meeting this Thursday. On Friday, 9am-1pm we begin our Governance Orientation in a special Governance and Priorities Committee meeting. Please head here to download relevant agendas; use the sidebar on the left to navigate your way to the desired folder. Look for a report here on the weekend about what transpires on Thursday and Friday.
- » December 16, 2011 -- Busy day at City Hall yesterday. Running off to meetings this morning then away overnight but will give brief update about what happened, how I voted, and why.
Significant items included the Northern Junk building proposal at Wharf. Reliance Properties proposes to restore two heritage buildings, build another building and create public amenities. Staff recommended moving this forward to Heritage, Design and undertaking a third party economic analysis as to whether the amenities provided were adequate for the zoning and changes required.
There was significant discussion at the table as to whether this is the best use of waterfront lands and how this fits into the plans for the new Johnson Street Bridge. Ultimately, the proposal is moving along with staff to come back to Governance and Priorities Committee (that's council meeting as a whole every second Thursday morning - important policy decisions made here, meetings begin at 10:00am) with drawings of the new Johnson Street Bridge incorporated into the plans. I supported moving the proposal along and getting more information about how it will benefit the city and the public realm.
Other matters discussed include: re-opening the Chander-Gonzales Pathway - I'm in support. And approving Festival Grants for 2012 ($156,000) - I'm in support and was astounded to find that these grants combined with the operating budgets of festival organizers provide over 8 million dollars in local economic spinoffs. I like this principle of small investments by the city, combined with the efforts of citizens, creating great benefits to all. There was a budget update and request to transfer monies from contingency to operating.
- » December 11, 2011 -- I wanted to let everyone know about an extra council meeting this week - Tuesday from 2-3pm. I can't seem to find the agenda online to put a link to it (nor one to Thursday's regular council meeting - perhaps these go up Monday?) to post here. The purpose of Tuesday's special meeting is to slightly increase the user fees beginning January 1 2012 for Garbage Pickup, Sewer, and Water. Proposed changes include Garbage and Recycling Fee increase per Single Family Dwelling per year from $195.12 to $202.92.
The increase reflects increased labour and benefit costs, increased equipment costs, increased costs for operating the Saturday Residential Yard and Garden Waste drop off facility, and the cost of preparing for the new Organics and Garbage Collection Program. Sewer consumption fee proposed to go from $1.58 to $1.74 and Frontage Service Charge from $2.26 to $2.51. The Water Consumption Fee to increase from $2.74 to $3.00 (still very low compared to much of rest of CRD) Meter Service Charge to increase by an average of 10% (Staff reports detail what this all means; come to City Hall Tuesday to grab a copy if you're interested).