Our latest City Council meeting (February 27th) was full of a lot of weighty decisions, but not much “street appeal”. If you love numbers, and care passionately about the state of our city’s finances, this was the meeting for you. However, if you’re looking for light reading, or news about quirky decision items, you might want to skip this report! Some of it will be repetitive since I’ve reported on many of these decisions in earlier postings. However, since they effect the bottom line (that is, they have an impact on your property tax dollars) I figured they were worth repeating.
So with that warning, here’s my pick of the Top Ten Council Decision Items from Feb. 27th.:
1. Another budgetary surplus!: For the third year in a row, Saskatoon posted a year-end surplus- this time just a tad over $3 Million on a total budget of over $675 Million. I realize that is probably a miniscule percentage amount, but considering all the bad weather we had in 2011, and the dramatic increase in fuel prices, it’s still a pretty good performance by our civic staff. Consider the wet spring and the water rationing we all went through, as well as all the extra work that had to be carried out to repair failed roads and sidewalks, not to mention all the potholes that opened up after the snow melted. It’s actually quite amazing that the city didn’t end the year in a deficit position. As a city, we are extremely reliant on fuel and oil-based products like asphalt (think garbage collection, transit, and all the constant road and water main repairs and construction programs that go along with an aging but growing city). We have no control over fuel prices. Simply deciding not to run the buses when the price of gas goes up isn’t an option. So hat’s off to the civic staff for bringing in a surplus. I wish I could get them to help me out with my own household budget.
2. Transit news: Transit items featured in several reports at our last Council meeting. Together, Transit and Access Transit posted almost a million dollars in deficit for 2011. Half of that was due to those pesky fuel price increases. On a more positive note, we approved another five year lease for Transit’s Customer Service Centre at the downtown bus mall. In case you’re interested, as well as being able to provide better service to customers and bus drivers alike, the space also includes a public washroom. Finally, due to concerns about bus advertisements that some people may consider to be morally offensive or in bad taste, we decided to require any sponsoring organization of advocacy advertising to be upfront and to self-identify on the advertisement. Because of the freedom of expression enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, we can’t refuse ads that some people might consider objectionable, but we can at least make sure that you know who to direct your complaint to. Examples of the kinds of ads that have raised peoples’ objections in the past are those opposing abortion, or those promoting atheism. We also decided to continue our past policy of not accepting ads for alcohol or tobacco. Since we never have accepted these sorts of ads, we are well within our rights to continue refusing to place them.
3. Water Treatment Plant contract awarded: The planned two-year shut-down of the Avenue H and 11th Street intersection is getting closer and closer. Expect that intersection to be closed by the end of March. We awarded the contract for the much-needed expansion and modernization of the water treatment plant to Graham Construction for a little over $45 Million. This was a bit higher than the pre-tender estimate (apparently a buoyant economy means higher prices) so we removed a couple of items. One was a nice-to-have but not totally-necessary “cementious” waterproofing (I learn new words and new concepts almost every Council meeting!). The other item removed is an additional generator so that we always have solid assurance that we can pump drinking water in case of an electrical break-down. I asked if we could negotiate with Graham to hold the price and add the generator back into the project if the construction contingency is unused. The answer was yes.
4. Expansion of the Leaves and Grass Program: By now most of you may know that we have purchased an additional 600 green bins. A a few more lucky households will be able to sign up for the bi-weekly grass and leaves pick-up service that the city has been operating for a few years. Applications for the new bins opens on March 12th, so please hurry down to City Hall if you want your yard waste hauled away to the compost site every two weeks from May through to November. It’s only $50 for the service. I have been a subscriber for five years now, and it has certainly simplified my life. The only complaint I have is that the service stops too soon for the stubborn 80 foot tall poplar trees in my backyard- they hang on to their leaves long after the first snowfall of the season, and I always have a messy clean-up job in the spring.
5. Mendel Building Re-use: An issue that continues to generate considerable public controversy is the relocation and re-building of Saskatoon’s art gallery. I was the only councillor who voted against the proposal. However, the financing is figured out, and the drawings are ready, not to mention the extremely generous and historically huge donation by Ellen Remai. So I think it is time to accept that Saskatoon is building an art gallery for the future needs of this city, and move on. Council took another major step towards this by endorsing the notion that the Children’s Discovery Museum will be the new tenant in the old Mendel building. These sorts of museums are extremely popular and provide a wealth of educational and inspirational opportunities for young people. I think it will be a great fit for the building, especially with the nearby Kinsmen Park and rides. The one question I had was the ultimate fate of that wonderful bronze statue of a girl in a rocking horse. Over the years, that’s the first thing most people saw when they visited the Mendel. I think it would be neat if it stayed there to greet visitors to the Children’s Discovery Museum. Your thoughts?
6. Approval of our “fiscal agency”: More money stuff. The city deals daily with multi-million dollar investments. We need to be extremely prudent about the marketing, timing and pricing of debenture issues. We advertised for formal proposals from companies to provide this sort of financial expertise and advice. We decided to approve RBC Capital Markets as the Lead Fiscal Agency Manager, and National Bank Financial as Co-Manager. We don’t pay a monthly fee or retainer to these companies but we do incur borrowing costs when and if we issue debentures. There is a standardized commission structure for municipal borrowers in Canada.
All of this matters because we can’t possibly pay cash for all municipal projects up-front, nor should we. Many, if not all, municipal projects are things that will benefit people today, and well into the future. It only makes sense to spread out the cost. A clear example of this is the new Police Headquarters. This building will serve policing needs for many years to come. Just like the old Police Building was built using a combination of saved money and borrowed money, so, too will the new Police Building be financed by both current and future generations. We actually approved borrowing $55 Million for the Police Building at our February 27th Council meeting. It was an interesting example of the importance of having a fiscal agency. Our original financing plan for the building would have had us borrowing money on a 30 year term. Instead, we are using something called a “Borrowing and Swap Transaction”, with an amortization term of 20 years and an all-in cost of borrowing of 3.08%. The net result is that we will save almost ten million dollars in borrowing costs over the life-time of the financing of the project.
And once again, just for the record, Saskatoon has a Triple A Positive Credit rating. This is a very rare accomplishment amongst Canadian cities. The rating agency praised our strong financial management and planning.
7. BID Budgets: Saskatoon is extremely lucky to have groups of businesses in many of our commercial districts working together to enhance their districts. These areas are called Business Improvement Districts (BIDs). We have BIDs in the downtown area, Riversdale, Broadway and Sutherland. The business owners pay an extra levy on top of their property taxes, and the money goes directly to help finance various improvements in their areas. We approved their overall budgets at the last Council meeting. So now when you see people out sweeping the sidewalks downtown or in Riversdale, or you admire the pots of flowers at the street corners that they’ve lobbied for, you’ll know how those extra benefits came about to make the business area a lot more attractive.
One of the issues that the BID Board I am involved with (Riversdale BID) feels very strongly about is the concentration of social support agencies and soup kitchens along the commercial corridor. They are not saying that any existing agencies should move off 20th Street. But they do feel the area is about more than social support. They are working to revitalize Riversdale and to bring back many of the thriving, bustling businesses and services that used to be on 20th Street. For instance, I used to be able to do all my grocery shopping, including buying fancy imported Dutch cheese and specially-butchered meat, right there. Now there are over 70 social support agencies and property-tax exempt groups concentrated within a square mile of the 20th Street commercial corridor. Too much concentration of anything, no matter how good and well-intentioned it is, can lead to unintended problems. For that reason, I submitted a Formal Council Enquiry asking for a review of the impact of over-concentration of social support services in Riversdale and Pleasant Hill.
The Local Area Plans for both communities, which are plans developed by and with local residents, call for a de-concentration of social agencies in these neighbourhoods. I support them in this initiative, and feel that a further concentration of social agencies along 20th Street would run counter to such valuable revitalization efforts as the Pleasant Hill Village, for instance, or the Knights of Columbus senior citizens centre currently under construction. I know some people may take issue with me and counter that social support agencies should go where the people are. To that I would respond by saying that the last census clearly showed that there’s over double the number of people earning under $30,000 a year living in Wildwood than in Riversdale!
8. Planning for Future Growth: We received a report from our Land Bank Committee on the supply of single-family and multi-family building lots for the upcoming year. Planners estimate that there will be 2.4 people per dwelling unit on a single-family lot, and 1.8 people per dwelling unit for multi-unit developments. Based on the supply we currently have (both public and private) , there is an inventory of over 1600 single-family lots and 4000 possible multi-family dwelling units in Saskatoon. The Land Bank Committee called that a “healthy supply” (I agree). The inventory they are calling more than adequate for Saskatoon’s immediate future growth needs includes lots in areas such as Stonebridge, Hampton Village, Evergreen, Willowgrove, and Rosewood. It does not include the proposed multi-unit development on the land north of 11th Street in the Montgomery neighbourhood. This is a very controversial and extremely dense development proposal. I expect that many residents from Montgomery will be attending the March 12th City Council meeting at 6:00 pm to express their feelings about this possible development.
9. Safe Streets: What started out as a fairly straight-forward inquiry by me- “Can we have a by-law to stop pan-handling right in front of liquor stores?”- has now morphed into so much more. From an initial focus on panhandling, a study evolved focussing on broader issues like gang activity, public drunkenness, loitering, drug trafficking and street fights. The study looked at both problems and solutions. After significant consultation with a broad range of community workers and advocates, Council decided on a two-fold strategy. First, five civilian uniformed Community Support Officers will do out-reach work. They will ensure that people are not on the street just because they have nowhere else to go. These Officers will work for at least two years and we will then evaluate their effectiveness. This is similar to a strategy that worked very successfully in Calgary. It resulted in a significant decrease in homelessness.
Secondly, we will create a working group, called the Safe Streets Commission. They will work pro-actively on strategies to increase the perception of safety on Saskatoon streets and to foster investment from the business community and the community-at-large to support projects to achieve this. I think this is a good approach. One very interesting result of the research is that the best results will be achieved by actual community work aimed at specific goals. Experts from other cities who have worked to improve the real and perceived safety on their streets cautioned us that simply bringing existing programs together under one roof will not be effective in the long run. Experience shows that partner agencies end up competing for funds with other programs. A goal and results-oriented strategy is better than simply bringing agencies together in one building.
10. Finally, a couple of general interest items: Councillor Ann Iwanchuk asked when the lines on the streets will be painted. The response was May for downtown and the major streets, and June for all other streets. They will also be re-painted in the fall. Councillor Dubois questioned why there was so much gravel on the streets (answer- it’s put down when the temperature hovers at or above minus 10 to deal with slippery driving conditions- the “downside” of the mild winter we had this year). And I asked the administration to get more specific plans and commitments from the Wake Ride organizers so that there will not be so much noise and public drunkenness when they hold their event again this summer. I received many calls of complaints about this event last year. I’m still waiting for a response to my request for a Special Events By-law. We need to set standards for security at large public events, and also to do some cost -recovery where appropriate.
That’s it for my Top Ten. Council meets again on Monday, March 12th. At the bottom of this email is a quick summary of upcoming agenda items for the March 12th Council meeting.
Please feel free to call me if you have any questions or comments. Have a great week-end. It looks like it’s almost sunscreen time!
Pat Pat Lorje
Council Agenda in Brief for March 12, 2012
Proposed Amendment to the Official Community Plan – Phase II to Phase I
3130 – 11th Street West – RM4 Zoning District
Montgomery Place Neighbourhood
Council will be asked:
· To consider proposed Bylaw No. 9007 – a recommendation to amend the community plan bylaw. The proposed amendment would allow the development of land on the northeast corner of Montgomery Place, to accommodate multiple-unit residential development in accordance with the existing RM4 Zoning.
Capital Project 787 – Traffic Bridge
Post Budget Approval
Engineering Services Agreement
Design Build Replacement – Traffic Bridge
Council will be asked:
· To increase the $1,534,516 (plus G.S.T. and applicable P.S.T.) contract for a design build replacement of the Traffic Bridge, by $300,000 (plus G.S.T. and applicable P.S.T.), to include all works to load test one of the piers.
· To direct the Administration to move ahead with the demolition and removal of Span 1 of the Traffic Bridge as soon as possible after pier load tests are completed.
· To approve post budget spending of $925,000 for Capital Project 787 – Traffic Bridge and that the post budget approval be interim funded from the Property Realized Reserve, and repaid when the Capital Project is funded.
The Remai Art Gallery of Saskatchewan:
a) Construction Tender
b) Business Plan: 2015 to 2017
Council will be asked:
· To receive the Remai Art Gallery of Saskatchewan Business Plan: 2015 to 2017.
· To approve the phased implementation of The Remai Art Gallery of Saskatchewan Business Plan: 2015 to 2017, on an annual basis through the Corporate Business Plan and Budget review process.
· To authorize the Administration to prepare the tender package for The Remai Art Gallery of Saskatchewan and shared River Landing parkade.
· To ensure further information be provided on financing prior to issuing the construction tender.
Street Activity Steering Committee
Council will be asked:
· To consider a draft two-year contract between the City and The Partnership to deliver the Community Support Program as outlined in a report dated February 29, 2012.
· To consider a draft bylaw to establish the Street Activity Steering Committee for a two-year period, reporting to Administration and Finance Committee.
· To authorize the Street Activity Steering Committee to spend $35,000 from the money set aside in the Streetscape Reserve for the Community Support Program, to hire Insightrix Research Inc. to do a follow-up street activity survey, to be delivered to Administration and Finance Committee no later than November 12, 2013.
Proposed Adult Services Licensing Bylaw
Council will be asked:
· To consider Bylaw No. 9011.
· Adult services exist in Saskatoon as legal businesses, but they operate with little or no regulation.
· The Saskatoon Police Service is concerned that with the extensive use of the Internet, people under the age of 18 years are getting involved in this industry.
· At the urging of the Police Chief and through Council, the Solicitor’s Office drafted a bylaw to regulate and licence adult services in Saskatoon. The purpose is to protect young people and victims of human trafficking from being employed in this industry in our City.
Saskatoon Food Charter
Council will be asked:
· To receive as information the report on the Saskatoon Food Charter.
· The report outlines City efforts since September 2002 to research and address issues of food security in Saskatoon. Among the initiatives are various arrangements made for urban gardening; support for the Saskatoon Farmers Market; funding for community-based food providing organizations; land use policy; and tax breaks for Station 20 West.
Code of Conduct
Council will be asked:
· To approve a Code of Conduct for members of City Council.