Miner improvements?

I went on a bit of a rant last week in Council on pedestrian crossings, and it is worth following up a bit here to expand sometimes on the things I rant about. In this case the subject was something we can all agree on – making pedestrian spaces safer in the City – but the details of the discussion outline how difficult it can sometimes be, even when everyone is on the same page. The hill on Richmond Street provides a great case in point about how we want to do things differently, but are stuck with a bad legacy to clean up. And that costs.

The Fraserview neighbourhood is somewhat unique in New Westminster. Most of our community is based on a well established and dense street grid that reflects how humans move around their communities – a layout that is “human scaled”. The Fraserview neighbourhood was developed out of the abandoned BC Pen site in the 1980s, which was the Canadian peak of auto-oriented suburb design. This is not the fault of the council or staff of the time, or of the people who live there now, but a result of where we were and how we valued space as a society in the 1980s.

The buildings on this map are coloured by the decade they were built. See Sapperton and Queens Park with a blend of ages and traditional dense street grids, Fraser View with 1980s houses (red) and 1990s condos (blue) with the suburban road scheme so sexy at the time.

At the time, New Westminster built this strange little auto-oriented suburb in the gap between two dense urban community centres. Since the primary built form was “house with a garage facing the street and a private yard in the back” (note this is a generally unusual built form in New West!), the streets were designed with the same exact mindset – they will be used to move cars between garages, and not much else.

This resulted in some road design ideas that were the opposite of current thinking. Instead of straight lines and a dense grid to connect pedestrians, we build a meandering “arterial” road connecting capillaries of culs-de-sac. Of course these are ostensibly “family neighbourhoods”, so we kept the speed down to 50km/h by putting up a sign, and left plenty of road space for road-side parking and car passage. The curvy hill part of Richmond has wide 20m right-of-way between property lines, but the road profile part (travel lanes and sidewalk) are a pretty typical 14.5m. This feels wider partly because the sidewalks are less than the 1.8-2m wide we would shoot for in 2019, there is no buffer space between the sidewalk and the road, and the parking spots along the road are unmarked and not very heavily used. Add this up, and you have no visual “friction” giving drivers cues to slow down. Wide roads tell people to drive fast, it is human nature.

This is how the road was built in the late 1980s:

I like to think if we were building the road today, it would more like this:

But that is just a representative cross section. There is another issue that makes the pedestrian experience even more uncomfortable. If you look at the intersection of Richmond and Miner, where staff were asked to evaluate placing a crosswalk, you see the corners are rounded off to facilitate higher turning speeds:

The technical term for this shape is “Corner Radius”. In this diagram you can see the curb follows a curve with a radius (blue) of about 8m, and the effective turning radius (tracing the track a vehicle would actually use for a right turn) is closer to 15m. By modern standards, this is a crazy wide corner, more suited for a race track than an urban area. Reading up on modern urban streets standards, curb radii smaller than 1m are not uncommon, and radii bigger than 5m (15 feet) fall under the category of “should be avoided”.

The impact of such a wide radius is bigger than just facilitating faster turns, it also creates a variety of sightline problems. See how far back the stop line is on this corner? How far around the corner can a driver practically see? This results in the confusing stop, creep forward, peek, make aggressive move intersection action that opens up opportunity for driver error. This is made worse when there is no clear demarcation of where the parking zone ends near the intersection. Our Street and Parking Bylaw says you can’t park within 6m of the nearest edge of an intersecting sidewalk or crosswalk, but it is less clear where that 6m buffer is when the sidewalk geometry is like this. moving the stop line further forward creates a conflict with pedestrians trying to cross the street at a rational place – where the curbs are closer.

For pedestrians, these big radius corners increase the crossing distances, expanding the time that someone (especially a young child or senior citizen, who travel slower) is exposed to traffic. Crossing Richmond Street at this intersection, the distance between curb cuts is almost 20m, where the sidewalks are only 11m apart a few meters outside of the intersection:

So what do we do? There are lots of useful guides like these great NATCO manuals that show how an intersection like this can be made safer for pedestrians. We can narrow the road at the intersection, paint new crosswalks, and reduce the turning radius through curb bulges:

But my bad painting skills here represent couple of hundred thousand dollars in concrete, road paint, asphalt, curbs, soil, planting and storm drain realignment (never mind a complete re-design of Richmond Street to pull it into the 2000s as I showed in the cross sections above; that would cost millions). And this is one intersection in a City with more than 1,000 intersections, some better designed than others, some more used than others, some with worse safety records than others. I want to change this specific intersection tomorrow, but who is going to come to Council and ask us to raise property taxes by 0.3% to do it? And why do it here and not at the intersection that bugs you in front of your house?

All this to say that some changes are going to be made to Richmond to improve pedestrian safety, and three other intersections (8th Street at 3rd Avenue, 12th Street at Queens, 6th Avenue at 11th Street) that have been prioritized for this year’s Pedestrian Crossing Improvement program, totaling about $200,000 in work. The work is, necessarily, incremental, and because of that it is never enough, and never fast enough.

Be safe out there folks.

Active Transportation

I know I haven’t blogged about this week’s Council meeting yet, I haven’t had time to edit and get the post up. It’s coming, I swear. In the meantime, I want to get this out, because it has been in my outbox for a little while and it has suddenly become time sensitive.

The Provincial Government is asking the public about active transportation. I have been known to criticize the Ministry of Transportation in the past about their approach to “cycling infrastructure”, but I am going to hope that this is the start of a new approach. You have until Monday to answer their questions!

If you are too busy to write your own thing, you can go to HUB and fill in their form letter, but as an elected person, I like to receive input that brings something new – a 1000-person petition is not as powerful as 100 personal letters that each bring different nuance. So I encourage you to take a few minutes and fill in the answers yourself. If you want some inspiration, here are my answers I will submit this weekend:

Question 1: What does active transportation mean to you and how does it fit into your life?
Active transportation means healthier, safer, happier communities where youth are safe to ride a bike to school and the elderly are comfortable walking to the grocery store. It is about replacing fossil fuel dependence with transportation independence. When we build the infrastructure to support active transportation, we give more people the freedom of choice in how they move around their community, reduce their reliance on volatile international oil markets, keep more of their money in the local economy, build resiliency in our communities and connections between neighbors.

Question 2: What are some of the challenges in your every day life that prevent you from moving towards using active transportation modes? What are some of your concerns about active transportation?
As an active transportation user, and a local government decision maker, the biggest challenge I face is addressing the “gaps” in our systems that make active transportation less safe and less comfortable. I am lucky to live in a compact, dense community where most services are a short walk or bike ride away, but so many of my neighbours still feel it is unsafe to make the journey unless surrounded by two tonnes of steel, which in turn reduces the perceived safety for other community members.

Too much of our active transportation infrastructure is developed as baubles attached to the side of new automobile infrastructure. Sidewalks, crosswalks, overpasses, cycling lanes, and transit supports are evaluated in how they support or hinder adequate “Levels of Service” for automobiles, while the high LOS goals (fast, uninterrupted vehicle travel) acts to make active transportation space less safe and less comfortable. An overpass over a busy road is seen as a pedestrian amenity, when it actually serves to provide more space for automobiles to have unrestricted travel. The trade-off is usually a longer more difficult journey for a pedestrian and introduction of a new barrier for people with mobility challenges. We need to see active transportation alternatives as a solution to community livability, not as a hindrance to the flow of traffic.

Even the language of “transportation” vs. “active transportation” reinforces the idea that using your feet and your own body to move around is somehow lesser than – a secondary consideration to – using an automobile. I have to explain to people that I use transit to get to work, I use a bike to run errands, I walk to City Hall, like that is some sort of radical action instead of a rational and normal way for a person to live in on a modern urban city. Let’s switch that default, for the good of our communities, the good of our budgets, and the good of our planet.

Question 3: What is the most important action that government could take to promote active transportation? What is unique in your community or region that needs to be considered?
Of course, funding. Local governments are straining to provide services as our infrastructure ages. We receive 8% of the tax revenue in Canada, yet own more than 50% of the infrastructure. This inequity is sharpest when it comes to transportation infrastructure. Billions flow for highways and bridges that direct automobiles into our communities (with, admittedly, the requisite active transportation baubles attached), but the local improvements to help us move around within our communities are tied to expectations about “Level of Service” for those automobiles. The cycle is vicious.

My community has one of the highest active transportation mode shares in the province. New Westminster is a transit city, it is an easy city to walk in and the revolution in electric assist bicycles means that residents no longer need to be athletes to manage our hills. We have some of the lowest car ownership rates in Canada. This is not an accident, the City has a dense urban fabric that puts most services near where people live, we are concentrating our growth around these transit hubs and working to make our pedestrian spaces safer and fully accessible. Yet we are choked by through-traffic that makes all of our active transportation spaces less safe and comfortable. This load means we need to spend millions of dollars every year in maintaining our asphalt to provide the level of service through-traffic expects, while struggling to find the thousands of dollars to build better cycling, pedestrian, and transit-supporting infrastructure.

We need help making our transportation system work better for our community, but as long as that transportation funding is tied to our ability to get cars moving, to provide high automobile “levels of service”, we are putting out fires with gasoline.

(draft) Budget 2019

I guess we knew this was going to be a tight budget year for New Westminster, as it is for most Cities in the lower mainland. The shift in MSP / employer health tax has impacted many municipalities hard, which I will talk more about below. Combine that with our aggressive capital plan, regular inflationary increases in costs, and constant demand for new services, and the tax increase is higher than some would have liked this year. That said, I actually would vote to make it a little bit higher, and indicated so to Council. Here is my rationale.

The current proposal is for a 5.28% increase in property taxes. That is about a $117/year increase for the “average” household. For perspective, the “average” household in New West is a $1.2M house that went up in value over the last year by 9%, or about $100,000. Condos went up a little more than houses overall, so the tax increase for condo owners will be proportionally higher than for detached house owners. The City has no control over that, it is just how the market works.

For the purpose of explanation, it is helpful to break that 5.28% into component parts. The numbers below are my back-of-the envelope estimates drawn from the kinda complex budget documents (you can see a staff report here), and of course the budget has not been passed yet, so the numbers may change. All that to say nothing below represents official numbers or communications, but this is close enough to an accurate breakdown to foster conversation:

1.8% is directly attributable to the shift in the MSP and employer health tax. This could be viewed as downloading: increased local government costs that will be funding something that should be paid from provincial and federal coffers. However, I generally reserve that for when we shift the burden for a service to local governments, not just the cost – an oft-mentioned (by me!) example is underfunding the provincially-funded ambulance service so that our locally-funded Fire and Rescue staff need to cover the load. regardless of what you call it ,the effect is the same. We and other cities have challenged the province to not apply this to local governments, and we lost that fight. So here we are, and need to budget for it.

If you want to take a more positive look at (spin of?) this tax increase, remember that it is a result of phasing out of the MSP system. That means the $40 or so that this 1.8% costs the “average” household is easily offset by the $1,500 the “average” New West household saves in reduced MSP fees. If that is no help, then at least recognize this is a one-time event, and that there will actually be a slight reduction in City costs next year as the final MSP phase-out occurs. That means we will be starting the 2020 budget year ahead of the game by about $300,000.

4.23% is direct growth and inflationary pressure – increased wage and supply costs related to just doing what we do every day. This goes up both because of because of inflation, and because the population City is growing at a rate of about 1.6% per year, so we need to do about 1.6% more stuff. Add to this inflation a little above the 2.0% projected CPI increase (don’t get me on a rant about how the CPI “basket of goods” does not fairly reflect the inflation of running a municipal government) and the projected 2.5 % wage growth across the region. Much of this increase is locked up in contracts with our staff, which have annual increases built into them. Of course budget time usually results in some on-line trolling of City workers. For the record, I no not think our staff is underworked or overpaid. Wages in New West are a little below the regional average for municipal governments for people in comparative roles, and our ratio of exempt staff to union staff is about 13%, which is slightly below the average of comparable sized municipalities (a fact that is directly counter to the rhetoric used by some during the recent election).

-2.46% That’s right, this is a negative. The growth part of above means that there are more properties / people to pay taxes and more services bought from the City. The taxes from new construction and increased other revenues allow us to actually reduce the overall tax rate by about 2.5%.

1.2% is related to new spending. This is all new staff positions and operational and capital costs related to things we do now that we didn’t do in the past. This is “discretionary spending”, the money we get to haggle over at this point in the budget cycle. And haggle we did.

The reality for us on Council is that people rarely ask us to do less. Every week, people come to Council asking the City to do something more, be it paint more crosswalks or plant more trees or give more to a local group to help run a festival or provide homelessness outreach. Nine times out of ten, we want to do it, and often I see the strained look in staff’s eyes as they are the first to recognize that we don’t have the capacity in our budgets or room in staff work plans to do this, and they are going to have to come back to Council with hat in hand, asking for the resources to fund what Council has already said we want them to do, or to ask us which of the existing programs or services we should cut. It is only the week of budget that everyone asks us to spend less, but aside from “finding efficiencies”, I never hear specific programs that people want us to cut.

The “nice to haves” in the budget reporting this year added up to more than $2 Million, and would have put us well over a 7% tax increase. This means we did not fund some of the things I would have loved see happen this year in the City.

To give you an idea of what kind of new spending we did approve, here are a few line items from the report:
• $122,000 (equal to 0.15% tax increase) to hire two new staff to ramp up the tree maintenance and planting program as we move forward with Urban Forest Management Program;
• $80,000 (0.10%) to bring in some expertise to guide us through our Truth and Reconciliation process;
• $225,000 (0.28%) to run the QtoQ ferry service year-round;
• $54,000 (0.07%)for a part-time Facilities Project Manager to help us make budget and timing on a couple of our bigger capital projects;
• $100,000 (0.13%) for a full time program coordinator to carry the Intelligent City program forward for one more year;
• $65,000 (0.08%) for a Special Events program coordinator to help for community partners to run events like Fridays on Front.

0.5% The final piece of the budget increase this year is the Capital Levy. We introduced this special line item last year as a buffer for our increasingly extensive capital plan. The big item is, of course, the replacement of the Canada Games Pool and the Centennial Community Centre, which will blow a $100 Million hole in our budget. This is a big enough story, and this is already a long enough blog, that I am going to hold off commenting more on the Capital Plan until a follow-up blog. Short version: I think we should be putting more into this Capital Levy and keep it at 1% this year, but the majority of Council did not agree.

What we have now is a proposed budget framework, subject to some last-minute number crunching and adjustments by finance staff. There will be a budget bylaw (and new 5-year financial plan) prepared, which will come to Council for deliberation, though the real debate happened in workshop last week (see the video here). Of course, we always invite public comment and delegations to come speak to the budget and let us know how much they appreciate the hard work staff and Council do to manage the City’s finances responsibly. Alternate opinions are also welcomed.

Bullies

I’m on vacation, I’ll be back next week. However, this letter to the editor of the Burnaby Now entered my social media feed, and much to MsNWimby’s lament, I had to take a few minutes to pen a retort. I thought of sending it to the Burnaby Now, but I thought it would look weird for a New West City Councillor to get something like this published in a Burnaby newspaper, so instead I’ll just post it here.

Letter: Why can’t bullied kids just get with the program?

Editor: Last weeks’s Burnaby NOW had a letter from Diane Gillis raising important questions about why pedestrians don’t work harder to protect themselves from getting hit by cars. I think it provides a great platform to offer similar safety tips for youth suffering from another well-identified danger in today’s society: schoolyard bullying.

It does not matter who is right and who is wrong in schoolyard bullying – it is the bullied child who is at greatest risk of injury or psychological trauma.

Sadly, there are too many children who do not understand or know of what they can do to avoid bullying. I chair the communications subcommittee of my local Concerned Parents of Athletic and Cool Children chapter, and we coordinate anti-bullying messaging for our children, and those who do not qualify. At the November CPACC meeting, we discussed ways to reduce bullying.

All children should consider these anti-bullying safety tips.

  • Wear more attractive / fashionable clothing so the cool kids will not notice your lack of flair. If wearing professional-sports-team-branded clothing, be especially aware of the sports franchises preferred by the local cool kids.
  • Don’t go to places where bullies hang out, like malls, schools, or outside.
    If you have to go to those places, look out for bullies.
  • If you see a bully, run away really fast.
  • Don’t make eye contact with bullies.
  • Don’t use your phone and/or headphones, or carry anything of value while walking where bullies might spot you.
  • If a bully approaches you, hand them your lunch money and beg for mercy.
  • Wear a helmet.

Something I think is telling. Yesterday afternoon at about 3:30 p.m. – just after school gets out and when most kids were playing sports or hitting the Mall – as I was driving past a schoolyard in Burnaby, I saw a skinny, nerdy kid getting taunted by a group of pretty cool-looking kids.

When I saw his Minnesota Wild t-shirt, his last-year’s Walmart Nikes, wire-rim glasses and his clarinet case, it was all I could do to stop from yelling “Hey Nerd!” and slapping the little loser myself.

There is a lot more to the concerns of many of us regarding keeping all kids safe from bullying. And as long as we can continue to blame the victim, none of us will ever have to recognize our own personal responsibility to keep our community safe for all, or even acknowledge what the real dangers are.

Utilities 2018 (Part 2)

In my previous utilities post, I talked about revenues and expenses in our utilities, and readers of our financial spreadsheets would see that we make more money in revenues than we spend operating the utility – we make a “profit” every year. So what happens to that money? And if we make a profit already, why are rates going up?

I feel I have to caveat a bunch of this stuff, probably should have in the last post as well – I’m not a finance professional, or even a decent bookkeeper. I need to simplify what are sometimes pretty complex finance rules and practices to understand them myself, never mind try to explain them. So everything here needs to be read in that context – I may get some of this a little wrong in a way that causes a Chartered Accountant to chuckle, but hey, at least it is them laughing at me for a change instead of the other way around. This is also why I am tempted to put scare quotes around a bunch of terms like “profits”, because I realize I am using the terms colloquially, not strictly. So maybe assume any word below that is not used in a way that strictly fits the definition as having scare quotes.

The short answer to that question is that all of the profit from utilities is re-invested into the utilities through their respective capital budget. Looking at the 2019 Water budget that looks like this:

One would be tempted to interpret this as:
Our Revenues are projected to be:  $13.4 Million
Our Expenses are projected to be:  $  8.4 Million
So the “profit” is                                  $  5.0 Million.

However, this is a simplification of our actual 2019 budget, because it only considers our operating budget, not the way we support our reserves and capital costs. This is why the numbers you see here will be a little different than the ones in my previous post – I am going to try to meld together our operational and capital budgets in a way that makes sense. A better way to look at these spreadsheets for people not that into spreadsheets is a flow diagram:

On the left are all of our “inputs”, and the right are out “outputs”, and all of the vertical bars are to scale (numbers are thousands of dollars). You can see most of the income of the utility is in Rates (about $13M of $14M). Of that money, about $6.5M goes to Metro Vancouver to pay for water, about $2M goes to salaries and other operational costs, and about $5.4M ultimately contributes to Capital costs. Most of that Capital spending is on paying for infrastructure repairs and replacements (actual pipes in the ground, valves, pumps, and such), though some goes to equipment (trucks, wrenches, computers) used to keep the infrastructure operating.

Keen eyes will note that the Reserves bar has a gap at the bottom left – we are budgeting to take about $280K more out of reserves in 2019 than we put in. Not shown on this diagram is the ~$4.3 Million we have stored in our reserves at the end of 2018, and how that will be reduced to ~$4.0 Million by the end of 2019. I will talk more about that later.

I created a similar flow diagram for the 2019 Sewers budget:Immediately, you will notice we are spending much more money (proportionally) on infrastructure here than in the water utility. This is largely due to the ongoing sewer separation work that New Westminster has to deal with. You can see it is almost all spent on actual infrastructure ($13 Million!). You will note also that the gap between what we are putting into reserves and taking out is large – about $2.7 Million in 2019. We are also expected to receive another $865K in grants to help pay close that gap. Again, more on this later.

The Solid Waste budget looks a little different:Two things stand out here: the capital budget is much smaller (it is all equipment), and both salaries and Charges is much bigger. This has to do with the nature of the work, collecting garbage requires people, and I suspect the largest “charges” expense is fuel to keep the garbage trucks rolling.

So that is where we are in 2019, but what will change as we increase rates every year?

This graph shows how the main Water Utility cost drivers are going to change over the 5-year plan. The rates we pay to Metro for water going up steadily, capital spending increasing at a lower rate, and the trend for our reserves is moving from a small annual loss (remember the gap in the flow chart above) to an increase, then trending back to even. You can see by the green bars that our reserves are currently just over $4 Million, with the goal of them settling in at just under $10 million.

The same graph for the Sewer Utility shows Metro rates steadily increasing, capital spending going down, and our reserve contributions again going from negative to a more sustainable level.

Finally, our Solid Waste accounts show Metro rates only increasing moderately, and our capital spending going down for a few years while the trend for reserves will hopefully go from a deficit position to a small positive reserve.

In summary, the current plan will get our utility reserves back into a place where they can support the long-term financial sustainability of the utilities, and constrain our local capital spending a bit to buffer this. The part we have less control over is the Metro Rates, and this topic is something that is making waves across the region. I’ll write more about this in a future blog post.

Utilities 2018 (Part 1)

I read this headline, and my best reply is: Yep, I share your frustration.

I hear the concern expressed by residents in New Westminster when they see utility costs are going up at rates much greater than inflation. However, I am challenged in trying to find an alternative approach that balances operational costs while planning for long-term sustainability of the utilities. Its not from a lack of concern or empathy for the impact of rate increases, it is more about responsible management of the budget in a way that doesn’t threaten the financial sustainability of the utilities.

A 7% annual increase (adding up to a 40% increase over 5 years) sounds like a lot, and is clearly well above CPI, which is predicted to be between 2% and 2.5% for the next few years. However, the cost to operate our utilities is also increasing much faster than CPI. The best I can do here is unpack some of the details.

Let’s put aside the electrical utility for a bit, because Council sent those proposed changes back to staff for some more work, and we will be having (I suspect) a deeper conversation about those rates in a future meeting. That leaves the three utilities every City deals with: Water, Sewer, and Solid Waste. Here are the changes as proposed:

All the numbers I use in this post are from the utilities report we received last Council meeting. You can read it all here, starting on page 19.

Note the “Average Single Family Household” cost is an average, and your experience will likely be different. Many people in multi-family have their own commercial solid waste services, so pay nothing to the City for that. The sewer and water rates are flat rates to Single Family detached houses, but metered charges to multi-family dwellings. This is an estimate of the impact to the average household, not your exact bill.

Still, next year this average household will likely pay on the order of $100 more for utilities, and by 2023 pay $600 more a year than they pay now – that is $50 extra a month.

To get a sense of why the rates are going up, here is where the City spends that utility money:

In all three utilities, the majority of the cost is what I slightly misleadingly labelled “Metro Charges” – the money we pay to other agencies to supply the water or to take away and responsibly manage our waste streams. Metro Vancouver provides clean, treated, and pressurized water and charges us per cubic metre delivered. Similarly, Metro Vancouver takes our waste water and sends it to the treatment plant at Annacis Island, where it is treated to be safe for disposal into the Fraser River, again charging us per cubic metre. Solid waste is slightly more complicated because organics, recyclables, and “garbage” go to three different streams, and some of those are costing us more than others.

The other costs are related to how we deliver those utilities. Salaries are pretty clear – that is what we pay people to do everything from performing repairs to pipes to processing your bills. Contractors also do similar tasks, but are usually related to projects like replacing a length of watermain under a street or designing a new billing system. You may note that Solid Waste has proportionally much more salary cost because we need people to drive around in trucks and empty your bins – Solid Waste is inherently more of a “service” delivered by people than one relying on capital sitting in the ground in the form of pipes. Supplies are the paperclips, toner fluid, and rubber gloves that staff need to do the jobs above. Note this category is limited to things that are consumed, as opposed to things like trucks and new pipes that are capitalized and included with our Amortization, but let’s not dig too deeply into the capital budget right now (I’ll talk about it more later) .

It is telling that 83% (water), 80% (sewer) and 62% (solid waste) of our expenses for these utilities are external, and for the two big ones, are going up much faster than the rate increases we are anticipating for the next 5 years:

If we extend the pie charts above over the 5 years of the financial plan, we can see that not only are those external costs the largest portion of our costs, they are increasing at a much greater rate than the other expenses:

So utility rates are going up, because the main cost driver for the utilities are going up. What we can do about it?

Inevitably, someone is going to raise the issue of salary costs – it is unavoidable when talking about government. CUPE contracts that provide decent wages and work conditions, along with decent CPI-level wage increases won through collective bargaining, seems to elicit anger in some members of the public. However, public service wages are not a significant cost driver here, because they make up less than 10% of the cost for delivering utility service in the City. If we were somehow able to cut all salaries in half (those orange areas in the chart above), your utility costs would go down less than 6%. Such a drastic move would not even offset a single year of utility increases, and we would be back to regular increases in year two, with a much less effective utility due to the lengthy labour dispute and loss of staff.

Some will note that our “revenue” for utilities is much higher than our “expenses” for Utilities, and this is where we get to the other part of the equation: the capital budget. This is the money we need to re-invest into the utilities every year to keep them functioning, and to build towards sustainability. In the larger scheme, it is capital investment that explains why those Metro Vancouver rates are going up so much.

But that will have to wait until the next blog post…

How I’m voting on how we vote

Finishing up my own electoral stuff, it is time to move on to the referendum. It seems just yesterday that I was stumping for a Yes vote on a referendum plebiscite from my City Council bully pulpit – how did that one work out?

Nonetheless, I was asked about the Electoral System Referendum a few times during the election and I told people I didn’t want to get distracted while involved in my own campaign, but I would write something about it when the ballots come out. A ballot package is currently sitting on my counter, so here we go.

I am voting for proportional representation (PR) over first past the post (FPTP). The reasons for this are plentiful, and I have done a significant amount of research on this over the last few years, including during the aborted Trudeau campaign to change the federal electoral system. To keep this from expanding into a book-length blog, I am going to simplify a bit on a few key points.

The primary pro-FPTP argument that PR will bring extremists into power is a heaping pile of logical fallacy. In recent FPTP elections we have seen Doug Ford given 100% of the power to invoke the notwithstanding clause to punish his former City Council political enemies with only 40% of the vote. He says he was elected to cut taxes and slash public services when 60% of Ontario Voters voted for the exact opposite. Shortly after, the CAQ were given 100% of the power in Quebec to invoke the notwithstanding clause to pursue their anti-immigration and anti-free-expression campaign after garnering 38% of the vote. These are extremist views for Canada. A PR system may allow these voices into legislatures, but there is significantly less chance they would earn enough votes to achieve the power needed to shift policy towards those views.

Despite FPTP-supporter arguments, you will always have a locally-accountable MLA under any of the PR systems. Every system has you voting for a direct MLA representative as you do now, the difference is that all systems will give you at least one more second MLA who is also representing you. It is also likely this second MLA will be from a different party than your first MLA. Remember how during the Teacher’s Strike, all of those BC Liberal MLAs locked their office doors and refused to meet their constituents? Too often in an artificial FPTP majority, the job of that MLA is to represent the party’s interest to the community, not vice versa. When a government policy impacts your life negatively, it is important that you have someone in your community who can assure that your concern is carried to the legislature. PR provides this much better than FPTP.

Jurisdictions that use PR are more successful by almost any measure of good governance. There is a significant body of evidence from around the world about the results of different systems. Among OCED democracies, those that use some form of PR have consistently higher Human Development Index scores, have less income inequality, have stronger environmental regulation and are leading the world on addressing greenhouse gas reduction. The quality of life for their residents is higher and their electoral participation levels are higher. It is almost as if these two things go hand-in hand. This is why the PR argument is so much about “making your vote count” – it results in governments adopting policies that appeal to a broader range of voters. Who could possibly be against that?

These arguments aside, I was caused to step back and look at this situation in a different way a few months ago when I was chatting with MLA Bowinn Ma on a SkyTrain trip. Memory being what it is and she being much more nuanced and eloquent than I, we can call this a paraphrase. She pointed out that every argument for FPTP was about who would take power after the election, while every argument for PR was about how we can make more votes count. This is a simple but profound difference in vision for what we are trying to achieve through democracy. I believe the latter is a better, more hopeful vision, which is probably why I find their arguments more compelling. I hope this referendum will give us an opportunity to reach for that better vision.

The second question asks which of the three proposed PR systems I would prefer. Here is where it gets tougher. I am going to list in order of my preference, but recognize that no one system is perfect (but none are as imperfect as the current FPTP system).

Mixed Member Proportional – This is the most tried-and-true proportional representation system. In BC, it would mean our ridings would grow a little in size, and every riding would have an MLA elected by FPTP like they are today. However, ridings would be clumped together into small regions of several ridings that would have regional MLAs. You would be able to vote on that regional representatives, but the persons serving that role would not be elected by straight FPTP, but allocated to make party representation across the province match that of the overall vote. The ballot can be simple, the change in our ridings is minor, and PR is achieved. This wins in the balancing simple and easy to understand while also giving you an opportunity to vote for a great local candidate who may not be with the party of the Premier you want to see elected.

Dual Member Proportional– This is a system modified for Canada, where most ridings are merged into two ridings, with on MLA elected on the current FPTP system, and a second appointed based on electoral results in order to balance party representation across the province. This seems to be intended to simplify the ballot (you only vote once), but otherwise has no advantages I can find over MMP. You lose the ability to vote for Party A but an outstanding local candidate for Party B like you get from MMP – in other words, this forces you to choose a great local rep OR a party affiliation, but not necessarily both.

Rural-Urban Proportional– This hybrid system mixes Single Transferable Vote for the “urban” parts of BC, expanding ridings to 4-7 MLAs and a ranked ballot to allow you to vote for as many or as few as you might like, and a Mixed Member Proportional system (top) for rural ridings. I can see where this idea appears – it provides sophisticated urban political nerds like me an appealing ranked ballot, but also assures the rural ridings of the province won’t feel like they are losing their disproportional representation in Victoria. I dislike it for both of those reasons, and it being the most complicated system, I don’t think it will really be embraced by the voting public.

So put me down for Yes and MMP. I honestly would be happier with any of the three options than I am with FPTP, so the second question is really rather…uh… secondary. But please fill it out, because it is fun to fill our ranked ballots, and because I want to do everything I can to support the government having the political will to make this change.

UBCM 2018

Apologies to regular readers (Hi Mom!) that I have not been putting a lot of content on this blog recently. The campaign is in full swing, we are still doing our regular City Council stuff, and I have another job that keeps me occupied. Hopefully back to regular programming in later October. In the meantime, I am talking more about campaign stuff on my campaign Facebook page, and on the my campaign website and trying to keep this page about City stuff that isn’t campaigning.

However, I thought it apropos to provide a quick update on the annual Union of BC Municipalities meeting. I was not able to attend this year, mostly due to work and Council commitments. I did go up there on September 10th (disclosure: on the City’s dime) to attend the BC Municipal Climate Leadership Council quarterly meeting, and the Minister’s breakfast that is hosted by that Council (of which I am a member). It was a productive meeting, and we were able to discuss the BCMCLC’s response to the Province’s Clean Growth Intentions Paper, which was both supportive of the work the province wants to do, and suggestive of some further steps the province could take to support local governments in reaching the aggressive greenhouse gas reduction goals that are required to meet Canada’s Paris targets.

I then returned to Whistler on Wednesday (not on the City’s dime this time) to attend the Lower Mainland LGA meeting (I am a vice president) and to present the annual Community Energy Association awards to communities taking exceptional efforts to reduce their energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. In my role as Chair of the CEA, it was my honour to share the awarding duties with the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy. I also had the opportunity to give one of the awards to the Mayor of Nelson for their Solar Garden project –and let her know that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, demonstrated by New Westminster copying their model for our own Solar Garden project.

The good news coming out the UBCM is that some resolutions we sent to be debated were passed by the membership of UBCM. These were:

B-8: Alert Ready Emergency Alert System

… be it resolved that UBCM works with the Province of British Columbia to provide access to the Alert Ready (emergency alert) system to local governments in order to allow them to broadcast critical and potentially life threatening alerts to residents of their respective communities using the framework of the Alert Ready System.

B-54: Cannabis and Harmonizing Smoking Regulations

… be it resolved that UBCM urge the Provincial Government of British Columbia to extend the prescribed distance from a doorway, window, or air intake in which a person must not smoke tobacco, hold lighted tobacco, use an e-cigarette or hold an activated e-cigarette from 6 meters to 7.5 meters and prohibit smoking in all public parks by amending the Tobacco and Vapour Control Regulations and by ensuring the corresponding distances prescribed in the Cannabis Control and Licensing Regulations are the same.

And:
B-102: Updating the BC Motor Vehicle Act to Improve Safety for All Road Users

… be it resolved that the provincial government be requested to support modernization of the Motor Vehicle Act, addressing the recommendations in the Road Safety Law Reform Group of BC Position Paper entitled “Modernizing the BC Motor Vehicle Act” to enhance safety for all road users.

I have to admit, I’m pretty chuffed about that last one.

Bad Data

I never want to react to the Fraser Institute. The easy ad hominem attack is that they are the Canadian propaganda wing of Koch Brothers enterprises, and their attempts to shift public policy in Canada should raise concern, but the more substantive attack is that they produce terrible reports that would not earn a passing grade if they were handed in as an Economics 101 term paper. They are bad at data, so it is best if we ignore them.

Alas, I was asked by an intrepid local reporter to comment because the City of New Westminster is made to look fiscally irresponsible in their latest fresh-off-the-presses piece of decontextualized tripe, so I did a bit of a dive into the numbers. This turned into several hours of trying to reverse-math their numbers, because like the failing university economics students they resemble, they don’t actually provide raw data or point clearly to what their data sources are, instead providing derived numbers without the benefit of showing their calculations. They are bad at reporting data, and we should probably ignore them.

I dug around in the BC Government website they link to as a data source (this one), and after figuring out how they got all of the population for 2016 wrong (using projected estimates instead of readily-available Census data), I started to dig through the various tables and repeated calculations until I got results mimicking theirs. They primarily used “spending data” from this table, and “revenue data” from this table. But they clearly didn’t know (or didn’t care) that New Westminster’s data includes the financial reporting by our Electrical Utility. They are bad at interpreting the data they have, so it is best we just ignore them.

For context, New Westminster operates its own Electrical Utility. It has since before BC Hydro existed. We hold on to it because it is a great deal for the residents of New Westminster. Using 2016 numbers to be consistent with the Fraser Institute report (See Page 90 of this report for the utility’s 2017 numbers), our Electrical Utility sells about $45,000,000 worth of electricity to residents and businesses in the City, at the same rate (more or less) as those customers would pay BC Hydro if they were in another Municipality. It costs the utility about $33,000,000 to purchase that electricity from BC Hydro at bulk wholesale rates. About half of that difference goes into operating the utility (paying staff, buying wires and building substations) and the other half is paid to the City as a dividend. We are the only Municipality in the lower mainland that does this, so we are the only municipality that includes these numbers in their expenses and revenue tables. This is important context. The Fraser Institute is bad at context, which is why we would all be better off by ignoring them.

Because of this bug in the data, their report suggests that New Westminster has “the second highest municipal spending” per capita, along with “the second highest municipal revenue” per capita. They even have bar charts to prove it:

The problem being, New Westminster’s electrical utility “spends” about $38 Million a year, and it generates about $45 Million in revenue. If you take this into account, those bar charts look very different:

The shorter and more accurate story here is that New Westminster (outside of the electrical utility) spends slightly above the regional average on a per capita basis, and collects slightly less than the regional average in taxation and fee revenue. Think about that for a minute.

“Spending” in the local government context means putting police officers on the street, mowing lawns in our parks, and providing swimming lessons to your kids. The money we spend is providing services to our residents, and we do that at a slightly higher rate than the regional average. At the same time, the revenue we collect from our residents in the form of taxes and fees is lower than the regional average. An alternate Fraser Institute headline may be: New Westminster delivers more for less!

Ironically, part of the reason we deliver more for less is the electrical utility that can buy electricity for wholesale, sell it for retail, and provide a dividend to the City which we can use to provide services that would otherwise need to be paid for through taxes. Arguably, having an electrical utility is the most entrepreneurial thing we do, and is something that the entire “run government more like a business” Fraser Institute crowd would normally celebrate.

There is more in this report, including tables showing the City’s residential taxes are below average for the region (12th highest of 17 municipalities), and our debt servicing costs are average, but that kind of story – “City is about average” – doesn’t make for a very exciting headline.

Alas, New Westminster is just kind of average. And when it comes to managing finances, this is not a bad thing. Every financial decision is about balancing the cost with the priorities our residents and businesses expect us to address. I am proud of the level of service we provide in New Westminster, and our ability to do that while keeping taxes below the regional average.

Renovictions

There was a meeting this week hosted by the Vancouver Tenants Union in my Brow of the Hill neighbourhood. It was to address the culminating “renoviction” crisis in this area, and to hear from people who may be facing renoviction. As I said in my previous post, this is the hardest question for me to address as a City Councillor, and this meeting was at times heartbreaking (see a good summary in the Record here). These are my neighbours (quite literally in one case), they are scared, and we heard a lot from them at this meeting.

The background to the meeting is the work that the Vancouver Tenants Union are doing around the region to provide support to people who are facing renoviction. They are one resource that can assist people in appealing eviction notices, in making sure tenants’ rights are protected to the letter of the law. They have been working mostly in Vancouver, but have also done some work in other areas in the Lower Mainland, and see New Westminster as a current “hot spot” for renovictions.

Whenever this issue of renoviction comes up, there is a common refrain that we need to give landlords the ability to maintain and renovate these lower-cost buildings, or they will quickly degrade into slums. We hear that many of these buildings are approaching end-of-life, and the increase in rent is necessary to fund the renovations to keep them standing. The VTU are presenting data that this is largely a red herring, and I am going to dig deep into one example they use. So grab a tea and comfy seat, this may go on a bit:

If you prefer TL;dnr versions: The current renoviction surge in New Westminster is mostly the result of investors extracting healthier returns for their portfolios by throwing low-income people out on the street. This is not an unfortunate result of unavoidable events – this is driven by greed for profits. And they aren’t even subtle about it.

The building-systems-reaching-end-of-life situation does occur. We get applications every couple of years for a building that fits this description. However, we are now seeing a huge increase in numbers, and dozens of buildings in New Westminster are now facing some form of renoviction, most owned by the same small group of land-flipping corporate entities. There is significant evidence that this is a profit-driven activity.

As a single case in point, the VTU provided me a copy of a sales brochure for a commercial property in New Westminster. I have done what I can to remove the actual address from this to protect the privacy of the current residents, but suffice it to say this is a ~40 year old three-story walk-up typical of New Westminster’s ample affordable rental stock. The real estate agent is offering this “renovators dream” for sale for $3.5 Million, which is $500k over assessed value. Here is a redacted image of page 2 of the brochure:

I would love to go through this pamphlet and pick out the numerous flaws in fact in here, (“The area has gone through a major resurgence with the redevelopment of St. Mary’s Hospital into condominiums” – The St. Mary’s site is currently an elementary school and public park), and speculative fiction about potential increases in suites, but making fun of sales-fluff seems seems pedantic, so I will concentrate on what we can glean from the prospectus. (highlights are mine:)

This shows 13 rental suites (one illegal, or “unauthorized” in the parlance of sales), with three of them vacant to “to help streamline the improvement program”. The other 10 are single-bedroom and renting for between $735 and $850 a month. This includes free parking and cable, and some landlord subsidy of the electrical (likely for common areas, heating, etc.). The building is netting $67,278 a year, which is a Cap Rate of 1.9% per year based on the $3.5M sale price. For some reason they are not renting out two legal suites in a market where rental vacancy is under 1%, but add that revenue, even if it meant a concurrent 20% increase in expenses and you can turn in an extra $16K, bringing the Cap Rate up to 2.3%. This is less than the expected return for a serious real estate investor, but in no way is this building losing money. As a bonus, the Residential Tenancy Act allows annual rent increases greater than inflation – these numbers will only get better over time.

Now shift over to the “Potential Rent” column. It shows an increase in rents ranging from 100% to 135%, renting the illegal suite, charging for parking, all of the electricity and cable, and all of the sudden your Cap Rate is a very attractive 6.6%. Note that nothing in this prospectus mentions the cost of significant renovation, and the sales pitch seem to suggest the building is in good shape, with recent heating and electrical upgrades. So the proposal is to more than double the rent and not increase costs at all. I guess I am mostly shocked that they have no shame just putting that right out there in the middle of a housing crisis.

The VTU have found a number of buildings in New Westminster in similar situations, and have been tracing the ownership of the corporate entities who are – and there is no finer point to make than this – making a healthy investment strategy out of throwing low-income and vulnerable people out on the street in the tightest real estate market in the country.

Arguably, there is nothing illegal going on here. People are allowed to buy buildings and make money renting them out. If this building needs significant upgrades (or, if the landlord just wants to do upgrades such that they require the suites to be vacant), they are totally within their rights to throw those people out, provided they give appropriate notice. It becomes legally grey if they just do superficial upgrades as an excuse to evict residents. However, there is currently nothing the City or the Province can do to prevent this activity from taking place, and when the decision is to turn a small profit into a bigger profit by making vulnerable people homeless, then we are into a question of morality, not law.

The City is working hard to identify these properties, as are the VTU. At this point, all we can do is try to contact the residents and assure they understand their rights under the Residential Tenancy Act and what supports exist for them if they are insecure in housing. The VTU is working to get people in these buildings organized, and help guide them through the appeal process that exists under the RTA if they feel they were unfairly evicted, but need all of the information and support they can get. The City has no power to refuse building permits in these cases, if the landlord even bothers to apply for a permit.

Ultimately, we need to change the regulations to protect these vulnerable people from predatory rent increases. This is most likely to come from the Provincial government. At UBCM last year, the City of New Westminster put forward a resolution (endorsed by the membership) that read:

be it resolved that UBCM urge the provincial government to undertake a broad review of the Residential Tenancy Act including, but not limited to, amending the Residential Tenancy Act to allow renters the right of first refusal to return to their units at a rent that is no more than what the landlord could lawfully have charged, including allowable annual increases, if there had been no interruption in the tenancy;

Although some changes in the RTA were made in May to give renovicted tenants more notice and compensation, we are still short of where we need to be, and renovictions are an emergent crisis in New Westminster. I wish there was something we could do, because being in a meeting with 50 people feeling the stress and recognizing some of them may become homeless, after all of the work this City has done and investments this City has made to protect and enhance our affordable housing stock, only because of a lucrative investment opportunity being sold here, is enraging