Friday, April 28, 2023

Transparency, Travel among Budget Discussion Talking points from Monday session

The final few minutes of Budget Discussion for 2023 on Monday evening offered up some thoughts from the Council members on themes of Transparency and Travel, the topics coming up in the final push prior to adoption of the Financial Plan and 12.5% tax increase that comes with it.

Councillor Adey offered up the first of the commentary, his early focus on the relay of budget information that was delivered by city staff this year.

As the engagement process launched, staff provided for a range of material for review and to give them credit they did offer up a large volume of material to review as part of the process. 

From the presentations of the Council sessions from CFO Corinne Bomben, to the work of the Communications Manager Veronika Stewart through the Rupert Talks initiative,  the ability to access much in the way of info on the Budget has improved over the years.

But as was noted by Councillor Adey on Monday, there is some room for improvement.

That observation came by way of discussion of the civic debt and the threshold that the city is approaching towards its borrowing limit and asking if there was a way to give the public some further background towards that situation.

"I understand that given the current revenue pressures and despite continuing efforts to address them, we are approaching our borrowing limit under the regulations. And I note that the new request to borrow 20 million towards twinning the sewage and I understand the logic behind doing so.

We're told that this does get us towards our borrowing limit ... what I'm wondering is, is there a public facing way to provide information regarding specific debit items and costs on a sort of a total,or annual or month payment basis. 

Where we are in terms of when particular items are going to be paid off so that  space is created, the source of the funding for payment ... and then the hardest part, and I appreciate that nobody has a crystal ball, is there anything that is anticipated towards future items -- Councillor Nick Adey

Ms. Bomben's reply pointed to a number of reports and other streams of information that can be found by searching the archives of the city website.

Perhaps mindful that most resident's are not quite that savvy towards researching the labyrinth of the city website, the Councillor then asked for a more user friendly option towards more easily accessible information as something to consider.

"What you've done is you've referred to two or three different places, I guess what I'm asking about is whether there's a way to kind of pull that together into a simpler format that is more easily understood by people like myself who don't always know everything I need to know about accounting. I think there may be a benefit in terms of transparency with the public in finding a way to do that." --  Councillor Nick Adey

The Councillors observations made for a valid point that staff should take action on, expecting residents to do a deep dive into six or seven documents scattered around the city's website isn't the best way to promote transparency, with as the Councillor suggested a need for a much simpler and easily accessible option something that should become a regular feature for all civic engagement issues.

One area that may be worth a look is through another topic that made for much discussion on Monday that of the travel budget and how much travel is necessary for civic officials both elected and on staff.

That theme seemed to come from one of the comments provided to the Budget consultation report provided on the night  that noted of the cost of travel since 2018.

"City staff training,  travel and business expenses are +$200 K annually since 2018. If you want to keep cutting ribbons, cut costs!"-- From comment submissions to the consultation process for 2023

The theme of travel did make for some interesting observations and again it was Councillor Adey who took the lead on the discusison.

"I understand that there's a balance to be struck between maintaining an effective workforce and economizing as much as you can in the interest of doing so ... I'm wondering if you can offer some comment on any ongoing or new efforts to economize the incidental costs of work. 

So I'm thinking of things like travel costs, are we looking at identifying those trips that need to happen because there's a clear benefit to travelling and meeting with people in person, versus those that could be done remotely.

And still on the travel, are we prepared to look at perhaps changing the size of the delegations we send two people instead of three. Those kinds of things, materials, transport costs and so on.  

So I'm interested if there's kind of an ongoing attention paid to that"

From the city staff point of view, Ms. Bomben noted that staff is always working to reduce other costs in travel and other areas, noting of the use of distance communication in many instances.

"The short answer is yes, we are always looking for efficiencies in bulk ordering that sort of thing for materials, transportation if you can get everything all in one transport rather than multiple we are always looking for those opportunities.

And I think that's because our staff has been trained for many, many years back to the days when the current Mayor was the Mayor previously and we had a large downsizing in the community. 

So we've been trained well  in advance of many others that have had to start looking at these things.

But I will address the travel costs, ever since the pandemic I actually  ... have had a lot of Zoom meetings probably meet more now with people that are from outside the community than ever have and I know all of the other staff have been doing that as well.

We try to only travel when absolutely necessary, many of our staff now attend conferences virtually instead of going in person.

But then there is also other opportunities where the need to go ahead to meet in person is well worth the cost,  for instance the 65 million dollar grant we got from the province, that was not because we went and dd virtual meetings.

Doctor Buchan and Director Pucci worked very hard on that and the relationships built through personal interaction was huge, and so the ROI on those particular travel costs was worth it there. 

We definitely pay attention to that, cost of travelling goes up just like everything else so we have to pay particular attention and be selective"

Councillor Adey also observed that his comments on travel were valid for council members as well and that the same questions apply towards being more efficient.

Other comments on travel came from Councillor Barry Cunningham, how noted of how travel is important for city officials and has delivered some results for the community.

"I want to reiterate that sometimes travel looks a little expensive but you know Director Bomben sort of covered it. Like we had the Mayor and two staff go down and meet with the Premier several times and of that we got 65 million dollars. 

So  you know when you look at the travel versus the result I don't think there's any argument there at all and I know there's going to be more travel on that. Hopefully with the Federal Government and hopefully we get the same results.

You know I don't wan't people thinking people are travelling just for the sake of travelling we're definitely getting some results from this travel and we're also are looking at lots of other options to cut costs right now"

When it comes to travel, residents for the most part have little knowledge of when civic officials are out of town, other than a social media shout out from the Mayor, or a City Council session that features a volume of the participants participating remotely. 

Some communities handle the issue of travel by noting when officials are out of town on their website, a form of online version of the IN/OUT of the office board of old. Others go even further with a frequently updated listing  of the travel expenses taken on as part of those trips out of town.

If transparency is a goal, Travel might be a good starting point, keeping residents up to date through the civic website.

They can put that concept to a test drive next month, when the North Central Local Government Association meets in the Dawson Creek, offering the public with a list for review of who are attending on behalf of the city, and at some point when all the receipts come in, how much was spent on the journey.

A few other areas where more easily accessible and broader explanations could come in useful would be in explaining such instruments as the Legacy Inc funding and that of the financial returns from Watson Island, both of which were often cited by Council members these last few months  as instrumental towards their financial planning this year.

The working of the Legacy Funding made for some interesting observations on Monday, as Councillor Gurvinder Randhaawa, as he has in a number of years past, asked for a bit of the Legacy money to try to reduce the 12.5% tax bite demand of city residents.

An answer from City Manager Dr, Robert Buchan noted that was not possible.

"We did visit that question with the Legacy Board and the answer is No. There has been an extraordinary amount provided this year which has saved, I'm not sure a 15, 16 % of a tax increase with the contribution this year. But what's remaining in Legacy now needs to be there for its other purposes at this point"

As one reader of the blog noted earlier as part of conversation of our Budget Review story this week, the Legacy Board is made up of senior staff members of the City.

That observation is prominent on the City's Legacy Info page, a rather sparse outpost on the city website.

Considering that the Legacy trio were were all participating in Monday's session,  a more expansive explanation as to just why it wasn't possible would have been informative.

As it is, the Legacy project as well as how the City is managing its Watson site continues to make use of rules that few in the community are aware of, or have much information towards.

Updates are few and far between and for the most part it's probably safe to say that most residents don't have a clue as to how the City uses either.

The same it seems could be said for the City's relationship with its own communication company CityWest, an area which much more information for the public should be provided.

When you start to open up the Transparency Chest at City Hall, there are clearly a few areas where much more is required and where the bare minimums of information relay of today have shortcomings.

More on Monday's  Council Session can be reviewed from our Archive page here.

A wider overview of the full Budget process is available here.


  1. 2012 City Hall Expenses - $27,409,496 Total
    2021 City Hall Expenses - $37,113,903 Total

    2012 +$75k earners at City Hall - $4,560,846 Total
    2021 +$75k earners at City Hall - $9,829,190 Total

    Source SOFI documents

  2. Here is an example,

    Grant funded city logo redesign, which is great and long overdue.
    City Staff requested city council to support applying to a UBCM award.
    Prince Rupert was nominated, so more staff went to UBCM due to that nomination.

    When you hear "grant funded" taxpayers pay for it.

    In time, city staff being away from their core responsibilities and in money, travel expenses.

    1. One person can accept an award. No one at the city seems to concerned about travel.

    2. You guys are griping about a couple $500 plane trips to Vancouver to represent our city where the power lies (Victoria) when the PRPA is making tens of millions and asking taxpayers to continuing subsidizing them???

      Stop with the red herrings. As Herb pond refuses to say, let’s actually point fingers where the problem lies. It makes no sense for the third largest port in Canada to look like a post apocalyptic wasteland

    3. You manage your penny’s the dollars look after themselves. The city is very bad at managing. Look at the 700 block of 3rd West. Get on the plane and travel after you have done your work.

    4. Resource Benefits Alliance (RBA) is another great example.

      Seven years to sign an MOU, two years to socialize ideas through trips and travel. Meanwhile, Dawson Creek actually closed a similar deal where they get a $15 million government lollipop every year.

      Move on PILT pouters, #closetheRBA

    5. Zoom meetings work for the private sector.!.

    6. I’m sorry but the PRPA spends millions a year jetting their executives and staff off to Florida, Texas, China, Japan, etc etc etc

      Use some of those millions to pay their fair share!

    7. Wow, millions you say. Tell us more without providing background sources, like financials.

      Comments like the one above just goes to show that Tall Poppy Syndrome lives in Prince Rupert.