Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Council's Spring Update outlines plans for spending and growth, adding a few surprises along the way

Prince Rupert Mayor Lee Brain
provided an overview of the
City's spring update for 2015
There was a sense of deja vu in reading the Spring 2015 update from Mayor Lee Brain yesterday, as the city's top elected official provided a list of initiatives that his Council plans to move forward during the course of the years ahead.

Our theme of we think we've heard some of this before, isn't so much related to the nature of the many ways that the city plans to spend money in the years ahead, but rather in the way that the new blue print was designed and put into place.

A fair portion of it apparently done in closed sessions of Council, the news delivered post fact, as part of the six page overview from Monday, delivered to the city's website and the Mayor's social media options late in the day.

The outline of what the city plans for 2015 and beyond, takes us back to this time almost to the day in 2013, when the City in much the same kind of financial situation as today, held a number of public consultation sessions to gauge the concerns of the city's residents and take suggestions from the public on how to approach their budget situation.

Upon completion of that string of public consultation of the time, there was some surprise to be found as the city council of May 2013 then delivered a previously unknown initiative as the final word on the budget process, a new proposal listed as Option Four.

That one, cobbled together in closed sessions away from public review, delivered a complete shift in focus to the city's financial plan of the year, none of it discussed in public session. The details never really expanded on in the months to follow.

While times may have changed in two years and Monday's document is somewhat different in scope, there are some strong similarities from the past when it comes to the approach to decision making through the most recent announcements from City Council.

As it was in 2013, while Council provided the obligatory public sessions of engagement on budget issues of February and March of this year, it would seem that with that nod to public engagement complete, they then closed the doors so to speak and got down to the real work ahead.

That of finding ways to spend the some of the money from Prince Rupert Legacy Incorporated, the wholly owned City of Prince Rupert company better known around town as the Legacy Corporation.

Allocating a portion of that financial account towards a number of civic goals and proposals, some of which it appears to have been considered outside of the regular public sessions of council.

The eye catcher from Monday's information package of course will be the announcement of Council's support for the Mayor to take on his position in a full time capacity and at a full time salary, with the additional $17,000 per year to be claimed through funding out of the Planning for Major Projects Budget allotment.

That will make for an additional 68,000 dollar increase to the Mayoralty payout over the four years of his term, additional money beyond his current base salary of $42,274 per year.

The boost in income for the position, will also provide a sunset clause at the end of this council's time in 2018. Seemingly leaving it to the next elected council to decide on an appropriate rate of pay for the Mayor's position past this current term.

The use of the Major Projects Budget monies, makes for a process that appears to have provided for the Mayor's raise without much in the way of a public discussion or review, nor indication if the Council decision was unanimous in nature.

And while the Mayor's salary bump will make for a fair amount of discussion in the coffee shops around town, there were other issues of interest from the document.

Infrastructure issues will be addressed over the spring and summer and the growing list of road paving and sidewalk projects will surely be greeted with appreciation from the community, the testimony to the movement on that file found around the city this week as paving crews tackle numerous projects.

Of all their initiatives in their ambitious update, the road remediation program probably will be the one that few in the city will find a quarrel with and in fact should generate the most support for Council's work.

However, there are other areas where some concerns at the approach Council is taking may be found from Monday's statement.

A breakdown on spending under major Projects was provided
on Monday as part of a six page information release from the City

Adding to the City's payroll also seems to be a focus of the update, with residents directed to the topic of what is called speculative growth for the City, something that will apparently require additional staffing increases. With the city appearing to be making plans for a number of positions to be created over the months to come (though no hard numbers are provided through the update) many of which apparently will also carry a sunset clause, should no LNG activity take place.

Of the 1.3 million dollars allocated to Major projects for 2015-19, 600,000 dollars will be dedicated towards additional and existing staff positions.

That proposed increase in staffing levels is certainly not something that has received much of an overview or discussion in public sessions in recent months, with only the occasional comment during council meetings as to the increased burden on city staff when it comes to the work load mentioned from time to time.

Council makes note of the lack of public engagement on the various items related to the Major Projects budget, including discussions on staffing; advising the city's residents through the statement that the plan was passed in a closed session of Council due to sensitive discussions around topics of land, legal and labour.

That again is something that residents might have concerns over, with Council arbitrarily deciding to increase staffing levels without any public discussion, or consultation as to the nature of those requirements.

Let alone making an effort to seek out information from residents as to what they might believe is the best use of the funding available.

The information package of Monday also highlighted some of the work that Council is engaged in when it comes to Housing, as well the document provided updates regarding Reports on Infrastructure Deficits and Preparing for anticipated growth.

Though little new information was provided on those topics, other than material that has previously been reviewed over the last few months.

Also mentioned is the City's LNG Go Plan, a document that the Mayor has been providing snippets of information about of late, mostly to media outlets.

Mr. Brain also shared some of the details of the plan with officials in Ottawa as part of his recent trip to the nation's capital, a visit that was celebrated in the weekly paper in April.

For the moment however, a full review of the proposal is still very much of a mystery for local residents.

The status of that project was also noted in the media release of Monday, highlighted by the advisory that the Plan currently is in a draft stage, with an indication that it will be made available to the public once it is completed.

Hopefully, whenever that stage is reached, the full report and the cost elements related for it will be provided to the city's website.  Providing the opportunity for the city's residents to have a chance to see the what the plan is all about and get a better sense as to what the City Council members and some in the media seem so excited about.

As part of the conclusion to the report, the City makes mention of how the wholly owned subsidiary Legacy Incorporated will be working through the process ahead, contributing to the additional cost with no impact to the taxpayers over the planned four year time frame in place for the Planning for Major Projects Budget.

Still, the money from Legacy Inc.  it would appear is not being allocated towards many of those items that at the moment continue to rely on the taxpayers.

A group which once again this year, will be expected to contribute more revenue to the city, through another year of increased taxation.

On that theme of revenue generation, the conclusion to the Spring update adds that normal operations are continuing with the passing of the 2015 budget, to be funded normally until the financial landscape of the community changes.

When it comes to the recently adopted 2015 City budget, many of those decisions came following public sessions and with at least some discussion in Council chambers, as the process should work.

The same it should be noted, cannot be said about some of the major announcements from Monday's information review.

In a way, this council's decisions as outlined through the Monday overview, remind us of that moment two years ago, when something called Plan Four became somewhat of a controversial topic.

One that indicated a bit of a shift in direction away from the goal of transparency, a theme that was noted in the weekly newspaper at the time.

Suddenly, as they say, everything old, is new again.

The Mayor's outline on some of the themes of the Spring 2015 Update can be reviewed by way of the City's You Tube page, that presentation can be found below:

The full print version of the Spring Update presentation can be found here,

As well a link to the January report from accountants KPMG which outlines a number of items of interest related to planning for growth over the years ahead can be accessed here.

For more items related to City Council discussions and developments see our discussion page here.

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