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.

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.