Post #STCBudget meeting update from Nov. 23rd meeting #StCath

An eventful budget meeting on Monday, with the committee receiving information regarding winter control programs, the asset management plan and the budget night process.

With respect to Winter Control, the committee voted unanimously to maintain the level of service in the downtown with respect to sidewalk snow shovelling; staff had put forward a plan at the request of some Councillors  and residents about shovelling all sidewalks in the downtown, which is not currently done. Store owners and residents are currently expected to meet the same shovelling requirements as businesses and residents in the rest of the City. The committee felt that maintaining this practice was prudent, as the addition of streets not currently dealt with by the City would be upwards of $160,000 (obviously dependent on the severity of the winter we get). As it currently stands, the procedures around snow-clearing currently used would ensure that the new City facilities would be clear of snow already, without any additional cost.

The report regarding the Asset Management Plan was illuminating, specifically for Councillors who were not a part of the creation of the plan two years ago. As I pointed out last year, there are significant infrastructure challenges that the City will need to meet in the upcoming years, and maintaining as low a tax rate as possible is a requirement of this Council as we find a way to deal with these (expensive) issues. 

Indeed, as part of the Strategic Planning process earlier this year, there was near-unanimity from Councillors that the tax rate needs to be brought down to at or below the rate of inflation. The challenges Council will face with respect to roads, water and sewers, recreation facilities and trees are large and they’re not improving. It was reported last night that Council has not increased its contribution to maintaining road infrastructure over the last 5 years, and in fact, as a percentage of sustainable funding levels it has actually decreased its contribution. This can’t be allowed to continue, and the Committee will be tasked with finding savings in non-priority areas at City Hall to make sure the core services of the City are properly maintained.

As an addendum to the infrastructure conversation, staff will be bringing forward a report regarding Infrastructure Levies, which are being imposed in other communities to try and deal with the problems all municipalities are currently facing. For an example of a municipality that is looking  at an infrastructure levy, check out this article regarding Windsor’s current debate on exactly this topic. Windsor is often held up as a model community in terms of wise municipal spending, so it’s interesting to see what solutions they are seeking to their own infrastructure woes.

Finally – the committee is looking at ways to change the actual Budget Night process, to make things more streamlined and avoid the decision-making at 1:30AM problem we encountered last year. My hope is that Councillors will bring amendments to the table earlier in the process so that staff can detail for Council exactly how much their additions or deletions to the budget will cost/save the City. This has been an issue in the past several years, with some Councillors claiming massive savings that simply did not exist from their proposed changes.

As always – if residents have any questions, comments or concerns, feel free to email me at msiscoe@stcatharines.ca, email the budget committee at budget@stcatharines.ca, or tweet using the hashtag #STCbudget to get your opinion across.

And a reminder that the next budget meeting will be Wednesday November 25th in the afternoon, 3:30 at City Hall. The agenda for tomorrow night’s meeting can be found here.

Two #STCBudget meetings this week; what are your thoughts, #StCath?

Just a quick note to remind folks of the upcoming budget meetings coming up today, November 23rd in Council chamber at 4:30, and Wednesday November 25th at 3:30pm in the same place. There are a number of important topics being discussed in both of these meetings.

On the 23rd, the agenda includes:

  • Discussions with the Commissioner of Operations regarding the proposed Winter Control reserve budget, sidewalk snow removal for seniors and enhanced removal in the downtown and reports that have come to Council regarding Asset Management;
  • Proposed changes to the Budget night process itself – the proposal is to change to a two night process, where the budget would be presented and any amendments to the budget dealt with on night one, along with public comment on the budget, and the second night given over to debate of amendments and the budget itself, allowing staff time to explain the implications of any proposed amendments;
  • And timeline information related to the work plan of the Standing Budget Committee.

On the 25th, we’re looking at the following:

  • Changes made stemming from the November 3rd meeting on the Schedule of Rates and Fees;
  • And other issues held over from the 3rd.

If residents have questions, comments or concerns related to the budget, feel free to tweet them with #STCbudget, or email the committee at budget@stcatharines.ca. If you have any comments directed at me, I can be reached at msiscoe@stcatharines.ca.

Upcoming individual meetings with Councillors regarding the #STCbudget

Earlier this week, city staff sent out an email on my behalf asking Councillors to meet with me individually next week to speak about budget priorities. I am hopeful that these individual meetings will allow Councillors to let me know what their priorities look like for the upcoming budget cycle, and to ensure that their voices are heard before the budget is brought to Council. While I recognize there will be debate on budget night, and I welcome additional input, I am hopeful that we can do some of the legwork of crafting a more agreeable budget before we get to Council.

If you have any questions, comments or concerns regarding the budget, I encourage you to email the budget committee at budget@stcatharines.ca, or tweet using the hashtag #STCbudget. Additionally, you can email your individual Councillor in the lead-up to the meetings taking place on Tuesday and Thursday of next week, and ask them to bring their concerns to individual meetings.

Starting the 2015 #StCath budget process #STCbudget

Monday night at City Hall myself, Mayor Sendzik, Deputy Mayor Phillips, Councillors Harris, Britton and Haywood, along with members of city staff began the process of crafting the 2015 City Budget.

Let me start by saying that I’m honoured my colleagues appointed me as the Budget Chair for this year. I am looking forward to a big challenge in this budget cycle; with two major projects coming online in the Performing Arts Centre and the Meridian Centre, there are budgetary obstacles that we need to deal with head-on. I believe that we can do this, while ensuring we don’t overburden taxpayers; a balance must be struck between these two competing interests, and I believe our group will be able to strike that balance.

With respect to last night’s meeting, a great deal of work was done, although not related specifically to the expenditure budget. We as a committee did approve and forward to Council the Rates and Fees for 2015, a book outlining the costs associated with some of the services offered by the City. This will go to a public meeting for comment on the 9th of February. While not a lot of changes were made, the committee did ask for a number of items to be reported back on regarding the rates and fees structure, including comparisons to other municipalities, and ideas for who to better utilize under-utilized city facilities through incentivized pricing. Not a lot of movement will be made on this issue this year, but this is part of the process of ‘setting the table’ for future year’s budget discussions. The impetus for these reports is to find ways to ensure the City is maximizing the use of city assets as revenue generators, while ensuring that the demands placed on those paying the fees is not too burdensome.

Also on the agenda last night was the process of public outreach we will be undertaking. In the past, our attempts at public outreach have been what I would describe as ‘standard issue’; hold several public meetings make a presentation, and ask residents to provide feedback on sheets of paper, to be duly noted by the committee and Council. While this is the way we’ve always done it, the results of a process like this have been generally dismal; only a fraction of the community is engaged in the process, and when a contentious issue comes up, the public comment portion of the committee’s work can be skewed in one direction or another by a well organized group.

We will still be organizing 2 public meetings during the budget process, but we will also be trying something new this time around – a telephone tele-forum, where several thousand residents are called, at random, to participate in the ‘town hall’. Residents can ask questions of the budget committee, provide feedback via polls during the town hall, listen to the questions and answers of others, and leaves further feedback from the comfort of their home. My goal, as chair, and the goal of the committee, is to try and reach as many people in the community as possible, and to make the process as open, transparent and accessible as it has ever been in St. Catharines. As more details are finalized, I look forward to sharing this information with residents through the media and through this blog, as well as social media.

I will also ensure that relevant documents are linked to here through various posts, and if you have any questions, comments or concerns, please don’t hesitate to email at budget@stcatharines.ca. Feel free to tweet using the hashtag #STCbudget to also share your feelings.

In terms of upcoming dates of interest – the Draft Expenditure budget (the overview of how departments will spend their money, located here) will be tabled at the Council meeting on Monday night, and the next meeting of the budget committee will be on Monday, February 2nd in the third floor Burgoyne Room at City Hall. The full preliminary meeting schedule is here.

Links: Ad-hoc Budget Committee info

#StCath arena on-time, on-budget #VoteSTC

Great news after a touch of miscommunication on Wednesday; the downtown Meridian Centre project is indeed on-time and on-budget. Full kudos should go out to Rick Lane and his team at the City, as well as Ball-Rankin construction for their work in making sure the building is ready for the open houses in October and the first big acts. A kudos to the Ice Dogs as well, for being quick on the ball to set the record straight.

We’re blessed in Niagara to have some awesome community partners that are committed to the task of revitalizing the Region. Ball-Rankin and the Ice Dogs are two of those community partners, and they’re helping to transform downtown. Here’s to looking forward to their success!

Dear #StCath cyclists – which is better? A token 570m of bike lane, or KM’s of a new bike network?

An interesting night at St. Catharines City Council, as always. The biggest issue for me tonight was a report detailing spending $350,000 on bike lanes on McGuire St, in front of the new Meridian Centre and the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts.

The issue, of course, is not whether we should be installing bike lanes or not. I’m in full agreement that we should be putting in bike lanes, wherever feasible, to make it easier for anyone in this city who wants to ride their bike to be able to do so safely.

The issue here is . . . if you’re going to spend $350,000 of taxpayer dollars on bike lanes, would it not make sense to get as big a bang for your buck as possible?

What Council approved (I voted against, but I was the lone voice against) was to spend $350,000 on approximately 570m of bike lanes in front of the new facilities in the lower level. While some tried to argue that it was an economic driver, I would point out that these bike lanes will actually allow people to completely bypass the new and improved downtown; they will actually take people away from the private sector investment.

I suggested that maybe directing lanes through the new facilities and their parking areas might be a much less expensive alternative than building an addition to the road on the bank, but was told that no, absolutely not, they had to be on the road (never mind that some communities have embraced off-road cycling infrastructure – Ottawa, in particular, has a fantastic bike path network that isn’t on a roadway).

What Council could/should have done was use that $350,000 to make a real difference for cyclists. What kind of a bike-friendly community would that $350K have made? With it, we could have hired a consultant to look at our roads, determine the best routes to create an integrated network, AND paved who-knows-how-many kilometres of new bike lanes!

As an aside – earlier in the night we approved putting in bike lanes on part of Eastchester at a cost $2/m. The bike lanes on McGuire? $600/m + (give or take a few bucks per metre).

Tonight Council made a short-sighted decision. While some may want to try and rally cyclists to their cause, the reality is that cyclists lost tonight. There was $350,000 worth of bike lanes to be built, and Council chose the flashy bike lanes in front of the shiny new facilities, instead of the significant bike lanes that could have been built running north-south, east-west, into and out of our downtown.

Another example of hard-earned taxpayer dollars being spent very poorly. Remember this when election day comes in October.

ADDENDUM: I should also point out that the money ear-marked for this comes from the 2015 Capital budget. So not only are we spending our money poorly, we’re spending the next Council’s mney poorly as well.

My thinking on Sustainability as an Economic Priority

This article only tells part of the story from last night’s Council meeting.

I’ve had the pleasure of sitting on the Sustainability committee in St. Catharines for the last 6 months.  One of the things that has become a major priority of the committee, in the wake of the Sustainability report (which I can’t find on the city website, or I’d link to it), is an anti-shelving policy; that is, don’t just look at the pretty report and ignore it, actually implement it.  One problem for Councillors has been the lack of tangible projects we can embark on right now – many projects would cost a great deal of money, and are hard to understand in terms of how they will make things better.

The point I made last night, however, should be clear and tangible to everyone.  Our infrastructure deficit is growing, and we’re not being proactive in making sure funding is available to replace, rebuild and maintain our infrastructure at current funding levels.  A tangible example: it is the City’s stated goal to maintain our city-controlled roads at a PCR (Pavement Condition Rating) of at least 75 (on a scale of 1 to 100).  We are currently sitting at a PCR of 72 – not quite there, but hopefully on the way . . . except that, by maintaining the current level of expenditure, we’ll see our PCR deteriorate to 68.5 over 10 years.

Another tangible example: we should be budgeting for 2% of the total value of the watermains in the city to maintain sustainability, approximately 8.96 million dollars.  We’ve budgeted, however, 1.08% of the value, or 5.5 million dollars.

Neither of these makes sense.

If we want a city that doesn’t fall apart at the seams, we need to replace key infrastructure when the need arises.  To do that, we need to ensure that the appropriate money is budgeted to take care of the infrastructure.  If facilities were maintained properly, multi-million dollar replacements might be spaced otu a little more realistically.  When infrastructure reaches the end of its useful life, it needs to be replaced.  It’s not complicated.

With that in mind, I’ve asked Financial Management Services to report back on how we’re going to reach sustainable levels of funding for key infrastructure in a timely manner.  I have a lot of faith that our staff will find a way to get us there.  I look forward to getting that report back within the next 6 months.