Hard Decisions Ahead, Council Courage Required

Vic West Budget 

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. 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. 

Taking the Numbers to the People

 James Bay BudgetJames Bay Budget

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.

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.

Backgrounder

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.

Open Data – The City’s Budget

 Local BudgetOn 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 lisa@lisahelpsvictoria.ca and all councillors at councillors@victoria.ca.

City of Victoria – Open for Business

 Victoria City Hall

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.

Point Hope Shipyard

Point Hope Shipyard Turntable

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 lisa@lisahelpsvictoria.ca 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.

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.

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.

Royal Athletic Park

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. 

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. 

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.

Baseball or a Park for All

Royal Athletic Park 

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.