Shape Your Future Victoria

Last fall, Victoria West residents of McCaskill Street and surrounds gathered to cut the ribbon on the beautiful mural depicted here. This group of neighbours came together and turned a bramble-covered, graffiti-laden concrete wall into a thing of beauty. How did they do it? Meeting neighbours they didn’t know, food, drink, conversation, collaboration. And a Shape Your Future Victoria grant! Do you want to bring your neighbours together and do a project in your neighbourhood? The 2014 Shape Your Future Grant Application Deadline is March 31st 2014

 

 

So I did some research, wrote a report and made a motion. And voila! Council passed it unanimously. The Parks Recreation and Culture Department created the new grant guidelines and application form, the residents of McCaskill street and surrounds applied for and got the first every Shape Your Future Victoria grant. For a very small sum of money, on the City’s part, and a many hours of labouring love, Victoria got great new public art. And in the process, neighbours got to know each other.

Sewage Treatment: CRD Residents Deserve a Better Plan

Two weeks ago, I was invited by Andrew Weaver to be part of a three-person panel at a Public Forum on Sewage Treatment. In front of a standing room only crowd at the Oak Bay Rec Centre, it was clear to me how much passion and anxiety there is about sewage treatment in the CRD. It was also clear, in the question and answer period, how sewage treatment seems to have becoming a polarizing issue for people who, for the most part, agree that we need to treat our sewage. The question that remains, and the divisive question, is how best do we do this?

Andrew asked me to discuss what local councils and elected officials can do to ensure that CRD residents get the best plan possible. Here’s what I said. 

1. Listen to Residents
I hear on a regular basis, “The public is apathetic. Voter turnout is low. People don’t really seem to be paying attention or care about municipal issues, etc.” But then, when a wide, and growing, sector of the public steps up and says, “Hold on CRD officials, we’re not convinced this is the best sewage treatment plan for the region,” when volunteers take the time and effort to propose an alternate plan (The R.I.T.E. Plan), when hundreds of people come to open houses, pack land use committee and council meetings, ask questions and speak up, they’re treated like a nuisance. There’s a sense that some CRD Directors and staff wish that these people would sit down, shut up, and just let the CRD get on with its plan. 

This is not an authentic way to engage the public. It does not welcome public participation or take public input into consideration in order to create the best possible sewage treatment plan, for the long term. And this is the goal – the best plan for the long term. As elected officials we have a responsibility to listen to what our residents are saying and to consider their input in our decision-making processes. It is the public who is paying for this project.

2. Extend the Timeline
I’m proud of my Victoria Council colleague and CRD Director
 Marianne Alto, who is putting forward a motion to ask the CRD board to ask the province to extend the timeline of the project to 2020. Extending the timeline will allow the CRD to bring the project up to date by considering again a distributed, tertiary sewage treatment system that incorporates technology dismissed five years ago as too expensive. 

As Andrew Weaver points out, the deadline is somewhat arbitrary. The CRD is currently required by the Province to treat its sewage by 2016. The Federal regulations set a deadline of 2020. Weaver said at the forum that the CRD will need to ask the Province to extend the deadline to at least 2018 because that’s when the proposed project is set to become operational. So why not ask for an extension to 2020 to align with the Federal requirements. Furthermore, and thankfully, Esquimalt Council has not approved the necessary zoning that the CRD would require to build the proposed plant. And no contract has been awarded for the construction of the plant. 

Residents and elected officials need to make the case that more time will result in a better plan, because the proposed plan is not good enough; I’ll say why in a moment. Alto’s motion will be debated at the February 12th CRD Board meeting which begins at 1:30pm in the CRD’s sixth floor board room (625 Fisgard St). Here’s a list of CRD Directors and their contact information. Whether you’re for or against extending the timeline, please take the time to write to CRD Directors and share your thoughts. When elected officials receive hundreds of emails from the public, we take note.

3. Move Beyond Sustainability and Design for Abundance
In The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability, Designing for Abundance, William McDonough and Michael Braungart make the case that sustainability is no longer a good enough aspiration. The authors ask us to, “Think about attempting to fall in love less wastefully. Or what about an efficient child or an efficient childhood? Terrible, right? Children, and childhood, can be – and we prefer them to be – full of richness, diverse enjoyments, fruitfulness, digressions, wanderings, imagination and creativity. Who would want a simply ‘sustainable’ marriage? Humans can certainly aspire to  more than that. In all of life, people can think big.”

Looking at sewage treatment through this lens is important both politically and economically. Politically, designing for abundance – which I’ll discuss in a moment – has the potential to bring key organizations on board for a better plan. The David Suzuki Foundation and the Georgia Strait Alliance have been key and vocal supporters of the CRD’s proposed plan and they are also champions of sustainability. But what if these organizations and others could begin to embrace the idea that sustainability – what McDonough and Braungart call “doing less bad” rather than “more good” – is no longer good enough. And what if they could begin to advocate for a plan that does even better than the sustainable treatment of sewage.

Part of ‘thinking big’ about sewage treatment is to look at sewage as a source of nutrients and income rather than as a liability and cost. Here’s where the economics come in, and the ‘upcycling’ of waste into money.

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Without going into too many details, here’s one way (and there are more) that the CRD could recover nutrients and earn revenue, by treating our sewage. Everyone who grows food knows that phosphate is one of the key ingredients in soil health. What may be less well known is that there is a huge demand on the world market for slow-release phosphate. According to McDonough and Braungart – and as illustrated in this diagram from The Upcycle – nutrient-recovery from sewage is one way to meet this demand.

There is a technology (developed in Vancouver!) available for recovering phosphate from sewage. And, this technology is already part of the CRD’s plan. But because the plan proposes only secondary treatment, which captures the sludge but releases the majority of the ‘waste water’ back into the ocean rather than treating it, there is a huge loss of potential revenue through phosphate recovery. At the Clover Point and McCaulay Point Pump stations combined, 264 tonnes of phosphorous go back into the ocean each year, and will continue to do so with the CRD’s proposed sewage treatment plan. That is a lot of potential revenue being flushed out to sea.

So, finally, how do we begin to design for abundance? We begin with a clear statement of intention that will guide a project from conception to implementation. If we look at what proponents of the current CRD plan are saying we might guess that the statement of intention around the project from the outset went something like this:

“We have to treat our sewage because upper levels of government told us to do it and it’s the right thing to do for the environment and we need to do it in a way that will cost taxpayers as little money as possible in the short term.” 

Compare that against this: “Let’s design and build a sewage treatment / nutrient recovery system that generates revenue and an abundance of useable energy and water for the short, medium and long term.”

If not now, then when? We are building this key piece of infrastructure for the long term, for the next generations. We need to get it right. Our children and their children deserve it.

City of Victoria Stormwater Utility – A Primer

In 2014 the City of Victoria will be rolling out its new Stormwater Utility. Modeled in part on a similar utility in Kitchener-Waterloo, the utility will remove the portion of money that comes to the City from residents and businesses from the property tax bill (about $4.5 million per year). Instead, people will receive a utility bill based primarily on the percentage of non-permeable surfaces on a property. The good news? This is a user-pay system, you pay for what you use. And, it’s possible to get up to a 40% credit on your stormwater bill by implementing rainwater cachement solutions on your property. The bad news? It’s all a little bit complicated to understand! This blog post is meant to provide some resources to help.

A few weeks ago, City staff updated Council on the roll out of the proposed Stormwater Utility. This powerpoint presentation contains a great deal of detail, including a list of solutions that property owners can implement to get a rebate on their bill. This CBC interview I did with Jo-Ann Roberts on All Points West explains in a bit more detail how the utility will work. And this Times Colonist article has a helpful infographic that details what people can expect based on the class of property they own.

To be clear, and to clear up some more confusion around the issue, the Stormwater Utility isn’t a new tax. The City will charge $4.5 million less in property taxes in 2014; this is the amount that the City currently spends on the storm water system. Instead the City will charge residents, businesses and institutions for the portion of the storm water system they actually use. It’s more fair that way. Right now, large institutions, like the provincial government for example don’t pay any property taxes or any grants in lieu of taxes but there is still stormwater runoff that comes from their properties. Currently, everyone who pays property taxes is subsidizing this.

Finally, the Stormwater Utility is something that makes the City of Victoria a leader in Canada. It’s innovative because it encourages people, at the level of their own properities, to take responsibility and leadership for creating solutions – like rain barrels, cisterns, raingardens, bioswales – that are good for the planet and good for the City’s stormwater system.

In the twentieth century we put lots of pipes in the ground to deal with the City’s stormwater runoff. In the 21st century we are implementing smaller-scale solutions. In the long-term, this will produce a savings for the City and taxpayers. If property owners, from single-family dwellers to large developers embrace the rainwater management techniques outlined in this powerpoint presentation, in the long-run we will have more above-ground infrastructure which is less expensive to build and maintain, mimics what the earth already does, and can also be really beautiful (check on the raingarden at Fisherman’s Wharf Park) and enhance public and private spaces.

Stay tuned at the City’s stormwater site for more information including information sessions.

The Future of Crystal Pool

An article in today’s Times Colonist outlines Councillor Ben Isitt’s vision for Crystal Pool. Tonight he’s bringing his vision to Council in a motion calling on city council to affirm the “public ownership and operation” of any Crystal Pool replacement. His touchstone is a motion made by the previous council in October 2011 that “supports retention of a public pool and fitness centre in Victoria.”

Here’s my take. I support the retention of a public pool and fitness centre in Victoria. And, to be perfectly clear, I support this facility being operated by the City and staffed by our terrific, competent and very capable workers. I’ve spent hours at Crystal Pool over the years. The most fun I’ve had is with a now ten-year-old. We’d be jumping and playing with those wonderful big mats and then all of a sudden she’d be interested in joining the seniors in their aquafit class so we’d join in, just like that and be welcomed by the instructor!

What is really really important to me as the City goes out to the public in the new year to do a comprehensive public engagement process with regard to Crystal Pool is that we keep our options (and our ears) open with regard to ownership of the facility should we decide to rebuild not to refurbish.

As noted in the video in my last blog post, the City has three key underfunded projects to tend to over the next five years: Firehall Number 1, the Crystal Pool and the Bay Street bridge. In addition to applying to upper levels of governments for grants, we’ve got to be creative and think outside the box and about new possibilities and options for funding these projects.

In the 1980s when times were tough, the Province partnered with a developer to build new office buildings. The developer retained ownership of the buildings and leased them back to the province which then operated the buildings/used them publicly, for government purposes. And, a key part of the deal was that if the developer was ever going to sell the buildings, the Province had the right of first refusal. 

I’m not saying this is the way to go with Crystal Pool. I am saying that City Council needs to be open to a number of options with regard to ownership of the pool should we determine that building a new pool is necessary. And, as we go out to the public to do public engagement with regard to the pool this winter, we need to be open to the creative, innovative ideas that come to us through the public engagement process. As I see it, passing Councillor Isitt’s motion tonight closes down, rather than opens up possibilities for having a public pool in the City of Victoria.

Under Funded Capital Projects

In this video I talk briefly about three of the City of Victoria’s underfunded capital projects – Fire Hall No. 1, the Bay Street Bridge, and the Crystal Pool. Last Thursday at Council we received an updated report on the City’s 20 Year Capital Plan. We learned that these key pieces of city infrastructure need to be addressed over the next five years but the City doesn’t have enough funding to undertake any of them.

The report details some funding options, including grants and partnerships. As I say in the video, key for me, is that a.) the public has all this information available when we embark on the public engagement with regard to the Crystal Pool in the new year and b.) that we are all open to creative new ideas for funding these projects. I look forward to the engagement process.

Public Art and the Johnson Street Bridge

I stopped in to see John the singing grocer, as he’s affectionately known, in Cook Street Village today. The first words that crossed his lips, “So, what do you think of the public art proposed for the Johnson Street bridge?” I asked him his thoughts. He said that good welcoming landscaping could take the place of art. We should create a place for people to be and to mill about.

Here’s the context for his question: Last Thursday Council, sitting as Governance and Priorities Committee received an update on the Johnson Street Bridge project. The good news is that at this early stage in the game, the project appears to be on time and on budget. The staff report laid out a revised budget ($300,000 more added to the contingency budget because of savings found through design optimization) and timeline.

After thanking staff for their work, we spent the next hour deliberating about whether to spend $250,000 (already approved as part of the project budget) on public art to accompany the bridge. A motion was put forward to spend the money. Then an amendment was made to reduce the amount to $100,000. Then the majority of Council moved to postpone consideration of the decision until the new year in order to have more information about the site and landscape plans for the approaches to the bridge. I was in the minority who thought we should make a decision that day and move on.

On the evening news, I said that I’m all for public art, but how about we wait until the end of the project and see if we do come in under budget. If yes, then maybe we could consider adding an element of art to public space near the bridge. To me that’s a practical approach. I also feel, as the Times Colonist reported, that the bridge itself is a piece of art. And, my final thought is that we’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on landscaping, lighting, the creation of public plaza spaces for people to gather. Art is great and it plays a hugely importantly role in shaping public spaces. But it is also people that make public spaces come alive. And, as one CFAX caller said, “The art is our harbour; it is a moving picture.” 

My take away from the media attention around this issue and the public response is that there’s a tension between two of Council’s key responsibilities. We are called to be stewards of the City’s public spaces and stewards of the public purse. Standard practice in North America seems to be that one per cent of large public infrastructure projects is spent on art to accompany the project. I understand this. But in the case of the Johnson Street Bridge, which has already risen from an original $77 million budget to $92.8 million, I favour a wait and see approach. It would be heartbreaking to commit $250,000 to public art at this point and then, because of rising steel costs, unanticipated archaeological delays, etc, see the bridge come in over budget. It may seem that $250,000 is ‘nothing’ in the face of a $92.8 million project. But it’s not nothing to me. It’s money entrusted to us by people through their property taxes. And I want to spend that money with care.

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.

Why?

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.

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.

Citizens’ Budget Workshops – Report Out

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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. 

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 lisa@lisahelpsvictoria.ca.