Friday, December 16, 2016

Council to start collecting the cash in January; address the particulars later.

Wednesday's Special Council session pushed forward with City Council's latest fees increases, with Prince Rupert residents facing extra charges over the next four years for their utility fees along with the cost of sending our family members off to their final journey.

With the groundwork in place and outlined during Monday's Council session, along with the first, second and third reading for the increases to water, sewer, land fill and cemetery fees, Council reviewed its plans to create separate funds to address the city's asset management planning.

As the clock ticked down towards the December 31st deadline, Council put the final stamp on the process for 2016 at its twenty minute Wednesday session. An approval of the bylaw motions which clears the way for the increases to take effect in January.

As was explained at the Monday Council session, the increases will be set at five percent, with three percent to be directed to the assorted fee increases on regular operations, while the additional two percent collected from those fees to be allocated to the asset management planning ahead.

As part of the Special session, Council members once again recounted some of their concerns heard at the Monday evening meeting.

Councillor Randhawa reiterated his concerns that the recommended fees were still too high, while Councillor Mirau who was absent for Monday's Session, shared some of his thoughts related to new development and how he did not want to see existing residents subsidizing any new development.

Councillor Thorkelson also returned to some of her themes from the Monday session, detailing how she believes the city should approach infrastructure issues particularly in regard to the limited reserves that they currently have in place.

She also added that while she was in support of dedicating the two percent received through the utility fees into an asset management fund, she noted that she also wanted the City to put in place a number of resolutions to attach to the asset management plans, so that council has a set of rules in place as to how it can be used.

The Mayor observed that as part of the discussion from Monday part of the resolution was that over the next two to three months Council would come up with some kind of guidelines, a concept which was something he agreed with.

Councillor Cunningham returned to his concerns over the language of the bylaws and how he would like to see Council review those clauses that could in his opinion be mis-used.

Councillor Niesh noted that some of those clauses are in place to protect the city, stating that he didn't want to handcuff staff, observing that any public complaints would make their way to Council to be addressed.

Councillor Thorkelson offered up a potential solution for Mr. Cunningham's concerns on the nature of language when it comes to the bylaw provisions, calling for a Sub-Committee of council to review any bylaws which may have obsolete language or address issues that may be of concern.

It was determined that Councillors Cunningham, Niesh, Randhawa and Mirau would serve on that committee.

The discussion related to the adoption of the fee increases can be found from the City's Video Archive of Wednesday's Special Council session.

As we noted earlier this week, the discussion related to the proposed fee increases and the plan to create an asset management plan provided for a number of themes at Monday's Council session.

From the Monday gathering Councillor Niesh provided one key take away when it comes to their dilemma that caught our interest. That moment arriving when he made note as to how the current council came to be left in such a position at this time, owing to the lack of action on the issue by the previous council's that came before 2014.

Something which is a valid point, considering the lack of attention to the concerns of the past.  But it was an observation that also seemed to deflect the fact that the current council has been in place for two years now and like those Councils of the past, the solution that they have taken on is to take a bit more money from residents, three percent, here, two percent there.

And while those amounts may seem small each year at this time and go relatively un-noticed arriving in the midst of the busy holiday period, after more than a few years of similar increases, it all adds up year after year after year, becoming a larger and larger burden for those that have to pay the fees.

The discussion of this week on the need for an asset management plan was a topic which had more or less fallen off the radar for the public from earlier in the year, when the idea of creating some form of savings instrument for asset management was first explained during the Spring Budget process.

Since that March gathering at the Lester Centre, there has been little public discussion of the topic in public council sessions, even though as it has been presented this month, the topic is seemingly an issue of great concern.

Not that there weren't opportunities to review the topic, in November council hosted a short thirty minute session a meeting which other than what turned into a public comment forum on the city's current discussions with Pacific NorthWest LNG, had no other items on the Council Agenda for discussion

Since the remainder of the Agenda for that meeting was empty anyways, it perhaps was a lost opportunity where Council members could have provided for a bit more expansion on the proposed plans.

As well it could have offered a chance for Council to further explain how the decision to increase the rate fees, which as Councillor Thorkelson has noted in the past is really nothing more than a flat tax, was the only way to address the issue.

Had Council wanted to put the topic to public discussion over the last six months or so, we might have heard if any of the council members had raised any alternatives to what now seems like a time honoured tradition of adding to another round of fee increases delivered in a mad dash to a December 31st deadline.

Now perhaps Council has discussed some alternatives in one of the eighteen closed council sessions held in the last year, but a review of the public sessions held through 2016, doesn't seem to deliver much in the way of background when it comes to any extensive overview of how to approach the financing aspects for the asset management plan.

Some areas that residents might want to know more about, could include whether the Council members might have tested the financial waters to sell city assets such as CityWest, using any revenue  gained from such a sale towards some of the utility fund plans.

Likewise Council members might made some time for a public review of how they have handled the Legacy Fund revenue stream, something which we haven't heard very much about since it was created a bit over two years.

It would be instructive for the city's residents to know if Council has revisited the way that they have directed those funds. Part of that process could come by cutting back on the growing stream of vision plans and long range studies that have marked these first two years, and instead take a more direct use of those Legacy funds towards such things as an asset management fund, an approach which might resonate well with public.

Council members might also want to offer up a review for the public when it comes to some of the spending that has been generated in the two years since the 2014 election.

Since Council took office they have increased salaries of not only the Mayor, but a number of city staff members. At the same time, the City has embarked on a bit of a hiring spree over the last two years, filing some long standing vacancies while creating new positions.

And while a case could be made that some of those positions clearly needed to be filled, when it comes to some of the newly created job opportunities, the one thing that stands out is that there was no public discussion by Council members as to whether they were required at this time. Particularly in an era where the city continues to try and find its financial footing and clearly has concerns about its aging infrastructure issues.

As with any new council, the early days were heady ones where the council members looked to find room for some of their priorities and launch ambitious ideas that look to the future.

However, those too perhaps could have made for a public conversation around the Council chamber offering residents a bit more background on some of those plans, and whether Council perhaps might have wanted to scale back on those ambitions and redirect some of their tight resources towards the immediate concerns such as those related to infrastructure and asset management.

Most residents will understand that the city can't go on ignoring infrastructure issues, those that own their own homes no doubt have their own household budgets, a process which addresses those kinds of worrisome issues, so they would get the idea of putting money aside for potential problems.

However, unlike the City, most of us don't have the ability to just increase a revenue stream in the last two weeks of the year, instead the taxpayer with a home has to put aside some of the long range dreams and concentrate on the more immediate concerns.

Serving on council is a tough task, there are obviously tough decisions to make, but there has to be a balance as well, and not just a default to another rate fee increase, or tax hike.

The Mayor noted that while Council wanted to ensure that the bylaws and the fees that go with them were in place by the end of this month, while Council could then work out the details for the asset funds through the start of the New Year.

As they do, perhaps when the settle into that task in the New Year, they can give some thought to exploring other ways to finance their programs, rather than what has in recent years been a never ending parade to the mailboxes of the city's residents, who of late it seems mainly perform the role of an ATM for the City.

Maybe they could consult with the public, seeking to learn what our priorities may be and to hear our thoughts on the kind of decisions that they should be making at City Council when it comes to how they look to address the growing list of issues that they face.

More notes on City Council Taxation issues can be found here, our notes on Council Sessions through the year can be reviewed on our Council Archive page.

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