What’s on tap at #StCath Council, tonight, May 11th, 2015 – http://bit.ly/1K29hjA

After several meetings in a row that went past the curfew of 11pm, it looks like we may get in under the 4 hour mark tonight. A combination of fewer delegations, presentations, and controversial motions means that, hopefully, we can be hon in bed by the curfew hour.

On tap:

  • The new FOPAC rates and fees – that is, how much if you want to rent the place.
  • The St. Catharines Accessibility Plan and how we’re doing – bottom line, pretty good, but still a lot of work to make our community accessible.
  • The potential expansion of community gardens – I’m excited by this one, as it’s something I and Coun. Ip were championing last term. I’m hopeful a few community groups take quick advantage of the new opportunities and set up shop in some of the city’s under used lands.
  • Another update on the Port Dalhousie situation – things are improving, slowly. But better than they have been.
  • The costs associated with recording in-camera sessions – I’ll touch on that at the end.
  • The animal control report – whether to go along with a new 1 year contract with LCHS, ignoring last meeting’s 10-2 decision, or allow the contract to run out on October 29th and have a solution in place before that date. I imagine I don’t need to express my opinion on this one yet again.

In the Regular Agenda, we’ve got presentations regarding the Accessibility plan, the Niagara Regional Transportation Master Plan (finally), a Public Meeting about the FOPAC fees and the Kowalik’s, who are once again asking that their property be rezoned due to the damage that’s been done by the QEW as part of the Greenbelt Review.

Regarding the recording of in-camera sessions; I am fully in favour of recording what happens in-camera, and if I’m able to be in the 2016 Budget committee, I will endorse spending the $9000 that is associated with the lower cost option. Raising fears of ‘hacking’ of in-camera recordings seems ridiculous to me; at the end of the day, there is a principle involved that we, as elected officials, need to be accountable for what we say, and staff have the same burden of accountability. Recording these meetings will help to ensure this accountability.

I believe there are some issues that require confidentiality in the moment; having in-camera meetings makes logical sense. But there needs to be an unbiased record of what was said.

A very large #STCbudget post – what’s going on, and where we’re at in #StCath

Admittedly, it has been a while since I posted on the budget. The process has been long, and very difficult this year. It is also not done yet, but will hopefully be on its way to Council very soon.

The reality in this community is simple – residents don’t have extra money lying around the house to throw at a large property tax increase. With the increasing price of just about everything (thank goodness for a break at the pumps this year), the City has to keep its rate of increase as low as possible to lessen the burden on residents. This is difficult this year for two reasons:

  • The Meridian Centre and the Performing Arts Centre will both come online this year, which is a 1.75% increase to the tax rate by itself;
  • There is a very large, approximately $2.5 million dollar hole in our revenues, brought about by poor decision making by previous Councils.

These two items make a difficult year worse.

The simple reality is that St. Catharines City Council has done several things poorly over the last few decades. Rather than build up reserves, Council has depleted them to try and make tax increases smaller, so there is no cushion when unexpected issues arise (like the province decreasing it’s grant to the City by double the expected amount). There is no multi-year budgeting, so when snow control budgets go well over (like they did last year and are likely to do again this year) there is no way to deal with the bubble. Council has sat on a number of surplus or underused properties, with no plan on how to get rid of those properties so they can add to the tax base. There has been a general lack of transparency and accountability back to taxpayers. All of this came to a head when staff presented a budget, with projected revenues, that amounted to a tax increase approaching 10%.

Let me be clear. I will not present or endorse a budget that asks citizens of St. Catharines to pay an additional 10% in taxes.

At this stage, I still don’t know what the final budget will look like that the budget committee endorses. I do, however, have a few key commitments that I am making as budget chair:

I will not be satisfied until every possible option has been exhausted to get increases to our budget in line with inflationary growth;

I will be championing a new budget process that addresses the problems identified above. These issues won’t be able to alter the 2015 budget, but will help to ensure that St. Catharines’ finances get back on track.

The budget process in St. Catharines can no longer be a once a year endeavour. The city budget is too large at over $105 million in operating expenses per year, and Council needs to recognize this and meet regularly to tackle the issues that plague us. With that in mind, I offer the following issues that I intend to pursue as part of our budget reform:

1) Improve accountability and transparency.

At present, we deal with budgets once a year; not nearly often enough when you’re dealing with a $100+ million corporation. We need to see budgetary updates at least twice a year, with Actuals included, to allow Council to know how our budgetary priorities are progressing, and what issues have crept up that require new attention. We will know on July 1st a lot more about what the year in tree removal and winter control will/have looked like than we did in January when we looked at the budget the first time; let’s use that information to make better decisions.

In addition, we need to make the budget transparent. More than one resident has complained that the budget is almost impossible to read properly – the ability to understand how we spend money shouldn’t be reserved for accountants and financial analysts in the city. We need to find best practices in other communities that properly lay out spending plans, and allow residents to compare how this year compares to previous years, while also laying out a path for future years.

If we want taxpayers to participate in the process and be more financial literate, we have a responsibility to provide them with appropriate information and tools.

2) We need to address the absence of sufficient reserve funds – both globally and within key programs that fluctuate over multi-year periods.

Something I have pointed out for several years is our lack of reserves and reserve funds. If our city were to undergo a significant infrastructure event, we are unprepared to deal with the financial hit that event would cause. The damage that this winter has done to our roads and water lines is a perfect example; the money that is needed to fix these problems will come from general revenues, which will mean reductions in service in other areas. If we had been contributing over the last decade to a working reserve, those increased costs could have been mitigated. This is similar to the Ash Borer infestation which is currently killing our ash trees – again, we’ve had to go to taxpayers to make up the gap.

The City reserve should grow over time, and Council may be tempted to use those funds for special projects or to support capital programs. In some cases, these decisions may be appropriate, but reserves should not be depleted to the point where they fail to serve their intended purpose. We need a specific bylaw that mandates reserves must be built up to and then kept at an appropriate level, based on best practices in other corporations (both municipal and private), to provide appropriate insurance for taxpayers.

Additionally, there are certain programs that we know are very difficult to budget for in any given year, but generally equalize over a longer period of time – like snow removal services. When we set the budget for this program, we have no way of knowing what the following winter will deliver other than by making an educated guess based on history. To combat the wide fluctuation in spending for programs like these, a separate reserve fund should be built to absorb these financial pressures in peak years. In a mild winter, we should bank the money that wasn’t spent and apply it when it is needed during an abnormally harsh winter. Setting budgets for these programs based on a five-year rolling average would help to flatten the impact of spikes from year to year and provide greater financial stability for both the City and the taxpayer.

3) We need to address the sale of surplus property.

Finally, we need to finally address the number of buildings and properties that the City currently owns. While Council has talked about selling these properties, we have made virtually no progress. This has led to long term drains on our budget as we pay to maintain building that are under-utilized. We need to now take a very close at the properties (or in some case, services) and ask:

  • Does it provide us with any residual value?
  • Do taxpayers benefit from the property (service)?
  • Can the private sector make better use of the property (or improve the service)?
  • Can we realize any financial gains from sale (or privatizing / ceasing the service)?

We need to answer these questions and make financially responsible decisions. It makes no sense to continue to increase property taxes year after year simply because we are servicing property that provides no value or delivering services that taxpayers do not need or want. When we sell a property or realize a one-time financial gain from these decisions, the funds should not be put into general operating revenue, but should be earmarked for the reserve fund that I alluded to earlier.

It is clear to me that there are many challenges ahead in dealing with our City finances. Unfortunately, many solutions will not be in place for the 2015 year. I am disappointed that we are at this point, but I am committed to working day and night with my colleagues on Council and city staff to ensure taxpayers are represented fairly and not punished with double-digit tax increases.

I am also committed to dealing with the root cause of our financial failures. We do not have the luxury of letting this drag on until the next election. We have to meet these challenges head on and fundamentally change the way we do business in St. Catharines – starting today.

As a final thought, I will give credit where credit is due and give a kudos to Doug Herod – he has captured the overall picture of this year’s budget quite well here and here.

Rundown of #StCath Council for 150223

A few highlights from Council on the 23rd:

  • Council endorsed setting up a task force to start implementing an open data initiative at City Hall. Kudos to Trevor Twining, Laura Ip and everyone else who was involved in putting together an excellent presentation, and helping to drive the City towards open data. I am hopeful that our steps in this direction will lead to better service for residents and more engagement by citizens in our community;
  • Several changes were made to the city’s procedural bylaw, which explains how we govern ourselves. One of the biggest was my request that in-camera meetings be recorded so that there was an actual record of what is said in-camera. The number of $25,000 for a recording system is, in my estimation, massively inflated. There is no requirement for an expensive recording audio system; two digital audio recorders could be purchased for less than a thousand dollars (and those would be high-end audio recorders). In addition to that, I asked that staff remove the ability for in-camera meetings related to ‘training and education’. I don’t see any need for in-camera meetings of that sort, and Council agreed;
  • Council passed the changes to the Open Air fires and Barbecue bylaw, as well as the Rates and Fees for 2015;
  • I had the opportunity to thank the members of the Mayor’s Advisory Committee on Black History for their service over the last 4 years, which culminated last night with their report to City Council. The report will be used by Museum staff as they finish their strategic planning and look at how to incorporate Black History programming into the Lock 3 Museum, so that the stories of black history in Niagara can continue to be told.

Coming up at #StCath Council for February 23rd

After a bit of a hiatus, dealing with Budget and Rec Master Plan (both of which are conspiring to take up the vast majority of my life right now), I figured I should throw down a post relating to what’s on tap at Council on Monday.

The excitement is as follows:

  • The Open Air fire bylaw comes back after a bit of a delay to be dealt with. No changes have been made since it was originally brought to Council in December.
  • The open data initiative report will be considered, after being deferred in January. I am extremely hopeful Council will endorse a timeline to implement an open data philosophy at city hall.
  • The Rates and Fees public meeting will occur, and hopefully the Rates and Fees for 2015 will be passed.
  • The Procedural Bylaw (how we govern Council) will be debated.
  • A noise bylaw amendment to deal with issues in the downtown.
  •  An MOU with the St. Catharines hospital regarding displaying artifacts and displays at the hospital.
  • A report on the ODRAP program.
  • The final report of the Black History Committee will come forward.
  • The development charge fund will be reported on.
  • The Hulse and English Memorial Forest Reserve Fund will be reported on.
  • The Folk Arts Funding agreement will be presented to Council for approval.

In addition to hose, there will also be presentations regarding the Black History Committee’s work, the Folk Arts festival and the Open Data initiative, as well as a Motion declaring Vegfest an event of Municipal Significance. The General agenda for the evening is here, and the Regular agenda is here (for those unsure of the difference, technically two meetings happen every Council night – both agendas are relevant to figuring out what we’re doing ).

For interested parties – the #STCbudget committee will also be meeting on Monday night from 5-6pm in the Burgoyne Room at City Hall (formerly Committee Room 1, 3rd floor).

What happened at last night’s #STCbudget meeting #StCath

A busy night at Budget Committee yesterday, as we got back on track after a missed meeting due to Monday’s snow storm. A few items of note (over and above the article in today’s Standard):

We received presentations from the Operations Commission, which includes Transportation and Environmental Services (TES), as well as Parks, Culture and Recreation Services (PRCS). Together, these two departments make up almost 40% of the City’s budget, and PRCS is also responsible for the new facilities that are being brought online in the Meridian Centre and the Performing Arts Centre (PAC).

I asked the committee last night to send the Directors of both departments back to their departments to find ways to get their overall increases within the rate of inflation, with a few caveats. PRCS was asked to remove the Meridian Centre and PAC lines from their overall rejig of the numbers, and to bring the rest of their budget down to below a 2% increase. This was done for a simple reason – new facilities require appropriate funding, and that funding increase will have to be outside of the 2% growth rate. The Mayor also asked that, as part of that process of cutting the budget increase to a more appropriate level, PRCS look at the buildings that are currently being maintained by the City, and finally find ways to divest itself (that is, sell off) of properties that the City is not using but which cost significant amounts to maintain. This likely spells the end of the West Park pool, in addition to other identified properties. We are also looking at forming a partnership with another entity, like the NPCS, to maintain and potentially own the Morningstar Mills building.

On the TES side of things, the same request was made, and passed by the committee. Staff are to return with a below 2% increase for the department, excluding the line item for trees, which requires more than a 2% increase to deal with the Emerald Ash Borer problem the City is facing. This is due in part because some on Council last year decided to (in my opinion, inappropriately) take money from the Hydro reserves that were being set aside for Shickluna to create a one year artificial bump to pay for increased tree expenditures. As I and a few others at Council pointed out last year, this was an election-year ploy to make the budget increase more palatable. The mess that was created from these decreased revenues is left to us to clean up this year. With that said, TES has been instructed to come back with a 2% increase, and I have full confidence that they will.

As some additional background information – one of the other things the Committee asked of staff, and received yesterday, was information pertaining to the 3 year Actual spending for City departments. This has been incredibly informative, and I am hopeful that City budgets will come to resemble the actual spending that is done in the near future. That more accurate picture also showed that the TES spending has increased almost 16% over the last 3 years, and PRCS has increased almost 20%. While PRCS has grown considerably with the addition of the Meridian Centre, the PAC and the new Kiwanis Aquatic Centre, TES’ increase is harder to understand; hence, the expectation that it brought down under 2%.

As always – any questions, comments, concerns, feel free to email at budget@stcatharines.ca, or tweet using #STCbudget. Our first budget Open House is tonight at 6pm at the Kiwanis Aquatic Centre, and all are welcome. There will also be a post upcoming on the Telephone Townhall that we’ll be using next week to better engage residents.

What’s on tap at #StCath Council for Monday, February 9th.

A quick rundown for what is coming up in General Committee of Council next Monday. The highlights are as follows:

  • Amendments to the Procedural bylaw will be coming forward (I am one of the few who would call this a highlight, I am sure);
  • A Planning report on the background regarding Port Place development;
  • A report awarding the contract for Parking Enforcement to the Canadian Corps of Commissionaires;
  • A PRCS report on how special events are handled in Montebello Park;
  • A request for staff to submit the Rec Facilities and Programming Master Plan draft report for public input (the consultation will be February 18th);
  • Procedural reports regarding the Monthly Investment Report, Council Correspondence, the Cheque Register and a proposed street name change for a part of Disher St to become Arsenault Lane.

The full General Committee Agenda can be found here. If you have questions, comments or concerns regarding an agenda item, feel free to email me at msiscoe@stcatharines.ca.

Cleaning up after a nice snow dump in #StCath

So . . . taking a peak out my window this morning, it looks like my street is plowed, which usually means almost everyone else has been done as well. I now has a mound of snow to shoverl before I head to work, but that is a far sight better than the alternative. If your street has been missed, however, call 905.934.4600 – that’s the City Hall Winter Control Information Line – and someone there will be able to give you the low-down on what’s happening in your neighbourhood.

Yesterday’s canceled Budget meeting puts us a little bit behind schedule for this week, but I’ve got meetings scheduled today and Thursday with my fellow Councillors to discuss their opinions on this year’s spending plans, as well as departmental presentations tomorrow evening at City Hall, where we’re going to try and get through the scheduled presentations as well as the ones we missed yesterday. All of this is in anticipation of Thursday’s Public Open House at the Kiwanis Aquatic Centre, scheduled from 6 until 7pm.

If you have nay questions, comments or concerns regarding this year’s budget, please email them to budget@stcatharines.ca, or tweet using the hashtag #STCbudget. (EDIT: Almost forgot – the Draft Budget can be found here – it’s not a particularly readable format, so if you’ve got suggestions on how to improve how people read the darn thing, let me know)

Enjoy the Tuesday, St. Catharines!