January 2013 edition

Getting a grip on spending at City Hall

Victoria City council has started budget-building with a target of no more than a 3.25 percent tax increase every year for the next three years. From watching the initial steps in the process, the public must imagine that they’re watching a B-movie train-wreck in slow motion.

We have seen a collection of unrelated decisions that won’t do a lot to help meet the target. And these have been followed by backtracking that must have most people scratching their heads.

VicPD removed one of the two officers they assigned to Greater Victoria’s high-risk domestic-violence unit (saying it was unaffordable)—but after public outcry, they clarified that the staffer would be reassigned to work in the City’s own Family Violence Unit. The city’s community associations were told that next year they would have to bid on contracts to do the work they already do—then came a flip-flop, and now they don’t have to. Some Freedom of Information requests were selectively denied, supposedly due to lack of staff to process them—then they were reinstated. The City’s housing initiatives were cut—then later uncut, when it was pointed out that $1 from the City levers up to $14 from other sources.

As a group of active community volunteers in Victoria, we have watched how City council considers budgets and oversees spending. Poor information and reporting systems mean that council’s oversight is weak to non existent and needs to be enhanced.

What are the problems?

First, budgets continue to go up every year, well past the rate of inflation. City spending topped $168 million in 2011—up $24 million since 2008—not including the police budget. And council’s unanimously-adopted 3.25 percent cap still means a 10 percent increase after three years. Few wage earners and fewer pensioners get raises like that. But at City Hall, the number of staff paid over $100,000 has gone from 18 to 57 over the same three years. The tax cap only touches the brake pedal, but the vehicle stays out of control.

Second, projects are poorly budgeted. Pandora Street’s landscaping project more than doubled, from $250,000 to over $500,000. Travellers Inns renovations started at $400,000 and went to $4 million. The Johnson Street Bridge project, pegged before the referendum at $77 million, continues its secret struggle to say below $92.8 million.

Third, council doesn’t get the information it needs on the City’s costly, budget-bending, high-priority projects. It took Freedom of Information requests to learn of the multimillion-dollar problems at the Crystal Pool and Fire Hall #1. A report on $34 million of seismic safety upgrades for City-owned buildings was kept from council and the public for 20 months. And council still waits for details on the cost of repairs to City-owned buildings, and for a plan to attack the $500-million-plus deficit for repairs to sewers, water mains and streets.

Finally, council and the public don’t learn about spending until months after the financial year-end, and spending reports don’t match up with departments or services. This makes it impossible to track spending from one year to the next, or to hold departments accountable for their budgets.

So, what can be done to fix this situation? 

We think that four things can be done right away to help council to get a grip on spending in 2013 and beyond:

• Bring the budget process out into the open—fast. A public process has been promised, but we understand there is a parallel process taking place in secret council meetings. Let the public (and City staff) know what is being considered, and why, and the steps in the process.

• Report each department’s budget, spending and revenues on a quarterly (three-month) basis. This way, all the numbers can be seen at once, questions asked, and corrections made if necessary. Make these reports easily understandable and available on the City website.

• Where the City charges for services (like parking, garbage and utilities), report their costs and revenues so that council and the public can see what they really cost and whether costs and benefits are in line.

• Give council extra help as financial overseers. Set up a financial committee made up of councillors, senior staff, and volunteer citizens who understand accounting and public finance. They would report on budgets and spending, project costs, financial priorities, and ways to achieve the big goal of keeping Victoria affordable for its citizens.

These are ideas for immediate action. For 2013, we hope that citizens take part in the consultation process that has been promised. We hope that this leads to more information and innovation, more citizen input into priorities, and more cost-sharing with other municipalities in our region. 

Ken Roueche, Irwin Henderson, Paul Brown, Sarah Malan

 

Pipeliners increase flow of BS

I have enjoyed reading most articles in Focus for years. Your investigative journalism and columns are great. However I must take exception to Briony Penn’s “Pipeliners increase flow of BS” article. For sheer negativity and opposition to the facts that pipelines are both safe and necessary in today’s world, for utter paranoia that the next spill or leak or additional tanker is going to be the tipping point that will send the entire West Coast environment into irreversible decline and indeed total collapse, this article takes the cake. 

The environmental movement is determined to put BC and its economy back into pre-contact medieval Dark Ages, or the innocent Garden of Eden, depending upon one’s perspective. Visions of Mad Max looking for gasoline tankers in a post-apocalyptic world also loom large. Legal challenges in opposition to proposed developments will continue to create massive uncertainty, and this will sound the death-knell of the economy, while we islanders complain about higher ferry fuel surcharges and the cost of lattes, and try to avoid Lord of the Flies scenarios…

We don’t need negative self-righteous fearful NIMBYs who are not prepared to listen and accommodate reasonably the views and plans of others. Being positive and creative is a much better way to go.

Tony Beckett

 

Kudos to Briony Penn for so succinctly stating the position of so many of BC citizens. Her article is right on! The world is on the edge of environmental disaster, and the Harper government is intent on aiding in Canada’s participation to line the pockets of the greedy corporate industrialists to speed the rush to the end.

It’s time for common sense to prevail. Stop sending raw logs, tar sand oil, and poisoning our land with chemicals just to appease the greed of these corporate thieves. No means No! We don’t want their pipelines at any price. Just look at their advertising and you can see they will stoop to anything to get their way. You can be sure that if these intrusions come to fruition, and a disaster does occur, they will bow their corporate heads and say “sorry” on the way to the bank. Be firm, fellow BC citizens, stand your ground. This precious province is not for sale. No amount of money will buy back the incredible environment we presently enjoy.

John Waters

I think it is important that the public be made aware that pipelines are the safest and most efficient method of moving hydrocarbons. In fact, BC is criss-crossed with thousands of kilometres of pipelines operating today, shipping everything from natural gas to crude oil, to jet fuel and gasoline all over the province. Pipelines are in fact much less intrusive on nature than roads and power transmission lines. Pipelines cross many of British Columbia’s rivers, wetlands, mountains, forests, and through many urban centres and most people are not aware of their presence. Once installed, people and animals go back to their business: fish spawn, ungulates migrate and humans garden, unaware of the material flowing beneath them.

As an Islander, I certainly care about the environment, but am also mindful that people need jobs and industry to support all of the infrastructure and social programs we all enjoy. Maybe we need to discuss how these projects can move forward with the highest possible safety, construction and operating standards rather than rejecting them out of hand, as suggested by the author. I do agree with the author that we need to cut the BS; we need to make decisions based on a balanced view of the facts.

Shaun Paterson

 

Can Victoria afford itself?

It takes a marginalized nitwit to destroy a village. But it takes a full-on group of idiots to destroy a city. Victoria city’s council and bureaucratic elites are a somnambulant bunch, slouching toward municipal financial oblivion.

These wasted souls aren’t alone. They are joined by legions of their cohorts from throughout the failing industrialized world, all with endless lists of infrastructure decrepitude.

Hobbled by demands of grifting special interests, and unable to effectively communicate because language has been so poisoned by the Institute of Political Correctness, of course only idiots would seek to occupy such seats of power.

Worse, they are elected by the insane, people who keep voting in the same gaggle of geese while expecting a different outcome! We voters will not be getting what we want, but what we so richly deserve: Dross.

We are so screwed, as Gene Miller so beautifully opines. Too many future projects, and not enough loot—borrowed or stolen through usurious taxation—to pay for these toys: new blue bridge, new poop plant, new this ’n’ that.

Who’s gonna pay for all that new stuff? Thanks for the warning, Mr Miller.

John Stanton

 

The argument for LRT to Langford

Larry Wartel’s letter raises some valid points. If we want to reduce auto-dependency, electric trolley buses on routes like the #6 Quadra/Esquimalt route would be terrific. 

However, some of Wartel’s arguments are absurd. What he calls the rail-building “frenzy” in Los Angeles has put back at most 10 percent of the rail transit the city had in 1940. 

Wartel wrings his hands about the carbon footprint of actually building LRT. Um, one minute, let’s look at the environmental impact of that 10-lane monstrosity called the Port Mann Bridge: 157,000 cubic meters of concrete, 28,000 tonnes of rebar, 13,000 tonnes of structural steel and 25,000 tonnes of deck asphalt! Victoria could build 100 kilometres of tramway without coming close to matching that…

Finally, Wartel is wrong when he says “LRT has no appreciable impact on getting people out of their cars.” The proof is just over the Rockies. Transit ridership has grown by more than 80 percent in Calgary since 1990, while in Ottawa it’s been stagnant in spite of a huge bus rapid transit system.

There needs to be a lot more public discussion about how much light rail in Victoria should cost, and buses will always be an important part of any transit system, but LRT is not a “developers’ toy”; it’s an integral part of a well-used and efficient transit system.

Louis Guilbault

 

A new supporting subscriber

Thank-you for what is demonstrably and consistently the best print journalism in British Columbia. Month after month your writers inform, inspire, and incite.

Thanks too to your advertisers who make your excellent work available to us.

As for Gene Miller’s self-indulgent essays on whatever happens to catch his interest or bug him recently, keep ’em coming: it’s easily as much my selfish indulgence to be able to read them. Please add me to your growing list of grateful subscribers.

Arthur Caldicott