Tuesday, October 17, 2017

My advice to 'new' Calgary city council

Last night was the big night. One of the most exciting civic elections in my time here. Out of the 14 councillors, 10 ran, and 10 were re-elected, so there are 4 new faces on council. Nenshi was re-elected to the Mayor's chair by a convincing but not overwhelming margin. So essentially it's the same council that was widely derided as disfunctional, though how anyone that remembers the 'Bronco' council can think that is beyond me.

Where to begin?

By the standards of most people, you're all arrogant. Arrogant with a capital A, so don't be thinking some of you are better than the others. Put your ego on a leash, and get on with your job. Remember the lessons from kindergarten, play nice and share? Even though you are elected by people in one ward, you have to make decisions about what's good for the whole city. No, it isn't good for one part of the city to get all the gravy all the time, and another area the sharp end of the stick. Grow up, suck it up, recognize the value, and values you all bring to office.

Yes, it's a tough job, but you volunteered, and went through quite an ordeal to prove how badly you wanted the job. There is a long list of services the city currently provides and it has to be paid for, or make the decision to cut it. There is a huge list of additional things the city could spend money on, and you have to decide. Huge and expensive. Expand a water treatment plant and there's hundreds of millions of dollars. Each kilometre of new roads is more dollars, and then we get into bridges and complicated intersections and the money goes up and up. Equipment for cops and firefighters doesn't come cheap. I don't even know what all the city spends money on, but you'd better know.

Do not be fooled by outsourcing. Sure, they say, it's cheaper for a private company to collect garbage. Except we have a fleet of vehicles to deal with the several streams of waste, and people trained to operate them. Are you going to sell the vehicles and lay off the people? Then what do you do when the outsourcing company raises prices? As they will when they know they've got you by the short and curlies.

The overall operating budget is $3.5 Billion, and the capital budget is $5.8 Billion. Added and written out that's $9,300,000,000. That's a lot of zeros, and there's a lot of stuff that needs to fit into it. Maybe it sounds like a lot of room, but there's not. Focus on the big picture, not the stuff that is a rounding error, no matter how visible it is.

It's a constant struggle to find the best value. Sometimes it looks sensible to spend a little more now and save on the next phase of construction. Sometimes that turns out to be not the best idea in hindsight. Do we buy the bargain basement bid, and pay early maintenance costs, or the cadillac bid and write a big cheque up front?

So-called common sense is a poor tool. You need high quality data, and lots of it, and you'd better read it thoroughly. How much, exactly, do all the various options for a particular choice cost? We're talking many millions of dollars, potentially over decades for some choices. What are the benefits and drawbacks of each choice? Compare that to another choice, such as the various Green Line routing alternatives for the downtown core. Then another set of choices on another issue, again and again. Common sense is quickly overwhelmed. You need a system, not intuition, and certainly not an ideology. There's lots of times a solution is counter-intuitive, so check the numbers, but believe the data.

We've all seen a road paved, and a short time later it's torn up again for some other work. What a waste, we think. How hard can it be to coordinate that sort of work? Well, actually, it's enormously difficult. Calgary has 16,000 lane kilometres of paved roadways, and work could happen for any number of utilities on, under, or near the street. Such a coordinator would have to know all the street related work the city plans to do, plus all the city utility work such as water, and wastewater lines, plus work done by outside companies for natural gas and petroleum product pipelines, as well as electrical and data lines, and probably more that don't come to mind at the moment. Imagine knowing all that, or keeping track of all that in a database that would change every day, and then trying to make sense of it to schedule the work for all the different contractors for the various players, and trying to get it all done before the ground freezes again. They do try, but for short sighted politicians, work like that seems like it's easy to cut and not miss. There are any number of people working for the city that do work that produce value that might not be obvious. It's easy to cut staff and regret it later.

Calgary is in a crappy economic situation just now, everybody knows that. Everybody has advice for you. Some quick points:

  • Anybody tells you they can cut taxes and keep the same services without debt is lying to you or is a fool.
  • The low hanging fruit has already been picked.
  • Finding efficiencies is data driven. While an outsider might have the initial idea, it takes people with a deep knowledge of the current system to do a pilot test, and determine if it scales up. It isn't a quick process, and it will probably cost money. More balancing.
  • Finding efficiencies is often code for firing people. What happens to the work currently done by those people? The people around them already have too much to do, and no, the database system everybody thinks is the magic solution doesn't quite work that way yet.
  • Everybody has ideas to cut services, and oddly enough, it's always services they don't use. But somebody does use them, or it would have been cut long since. One doesn't cut services to become or stay a great place to live.
  • You have to do a better job of communicating why taxes are going up (because they are) and what we are getting for that money. We kept flat taxes during the Duerr era in the 90's, and got so far behind on infrastructure we're still catching up.
  • The arena deal. Stand firm! I say, not one thin dime of taxpayer money for this boondoggle. These NHL owners are shrewd and wealthy, and they didn't get that way putting their own money at needless risk. If they can con the taxpayers into putting up money, why not? All their other owner buddies have done it, so why not here? The question we have to ask ourselves is, how good of a deal can it be if they can't or won't put their own money or their banker's money into it? Let them sell bonds to those willing to buy.
  • The Olympics. Don't. Just don't. Once was nice, but we've been there and done that. The whole IOC is corrupt, and anybody dealing with them is tainted. It's a lot of money we don't have for nothing in return. Or do you mean facilities like the ski jumping towers that are now used as cell towers? Let's build facilities because we need them.
  • Secondary suites is the current toxic issue, just like fluoridation and cat licensing once were. Just deal with it and stop wasting our money and your time! Remember, you're responsible for a multi-billion dollar budget, why are you thinking about a measly reno job in a private home? Decide on a regulatory framework and delegate it to administration staff. Maybe the councillors that vote against a regulatory framework should have to deal with it, and the rest of council can do something more productive with their time.
  • Figure out what went wrong with the voting procedures this time, and fix it. A bit of a line up is expected, but that got out of hand.

It's easy for council to see only what's making noise. A few people yelling about some public art sculpture they don't like. Mercedes man screaming about public transit. People that don't like a decision calmly but doggedly wanting you to go back and revisit it, and cut taxes and services while you're about it. People that don't have all the facts, or that don't see how their choices would actually hurt people. There are all sorts of one-issue crackpots that bedevil your life and somehow you have to deal with them politely. Build a system and delegate, but keep an eye out in case one of those issues blows up.

We live in a great city, and I want that to continue. Taxes are how we pay for the services here, and there's no getting around that. While most people don't like paying taxes, they realize this, and want to know they're paying their fair share. Taxpayers want to see that we're getting good value for our tax dollar. You MUST communicate that better, and push back on the 'taxation is theft' lunatics. At the same time we shouldn't be spending a dollar to save a nickel.

Good luck with it all, and see you again in 4 years.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. Maybe you should run yourself, Keith. I'd vote for you for sure!


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