Social distance.

Strange days continue.

Like many people, I am stuck in this strange, soul-defeating cycle of trying to avoid Social Media and the radio news broadcasts, but feeling compelled to always be checking in lest I miss something important, combined with a need to feel connected with my neighbours and friends. I am not someone who typically suffers with anxiety, but am starting to recognize signs of anxiety in my behavior. I can’t concentrate on work or other tasks that take more than 5 minutes, like writing a blog post.

We all need to step back in our boredom and find the separation from the hourly updates. Find space to do the things that let you escape. I’m going for a bike ride right after I finish this, or maybe ill dig in the Garden. Find your escape.

Of course, I am working in my “regular job” as best I can with the virtual desktop, and trying to keep up with events in New West. There are updates here, if you feel that compelling need to check in. We have made a Declaration of Local Emergency, which may free up some resources and gives our Emergency management structures some delegated authority that we hope they won’t have to exercise. Staff are constantly in touch with the Health Authority and senior governments to make sure recommended procedures and protocols are followed. Council will have a meeting on Monday afternoon to help make any policy decisions that need to be made, and to allocate any resources that need to be allocated.

I think it is important for folks to recognize we are all on new ground here. The City has a Pandemic Response Plan developed after the SARS crisis, but it has never been activated before, and staff have to learn its operational parts, and determine what is applicable to the current situation and what is not. There are subject matter experts at the Fraser Health Authority and the Centre for Disease Control whose advice we can lean on, and we share resources and knowledge with our cohort communities, but no-one on the City’s staff (or the staff of any City) are experts at this, and therefore everyone is exercising caution.

What makes a “crisis” different than regular times is the will to act. Local governments, for a variety of reasons, are often reluctant or slow to act for fear of unknown or possible negative consequences – Cities are risk-adverse by regulation and by culture. A crisis is a time when that needs to shift to a fear of not acting, and we will tolerate some unforeseen risk, be it financial or doing something wrong, because that risk is smaller and more ephemeral than the real current risk we can see around us. None of this changes the limits of how a City can act within its delegated authority.

This crisis is also a strange, long-lasting one, with implications up and down our economy that are still unknown. This is one of those times where the stark differences between a business and a government are relevant. Although there are some services we can (or have to) shut down, like fitness programming or the Library, there are many we simply cannot. The City needs police and fire protection. Building inspections and permitting need to operate to keep the community safe. Water needs to keep flowing and be tested, sewer garbage collection systems need to keep working. As pool, recreation programs, and community centres wind down, the City needs to address the needs of its employees, especially as program cancellations stretch into months.

There is another aspect of how Cities work that most don’t think of, and that is our general lack of liquidity. Because of the strict regulations around our financing, we do not generally have a lot of unrestricted cash lying around. Most of our Reserves are earmarked for specific purposes by law, and we cannot move that money round at will. We are required every year to run balanced budgets, and our ability to borrow money on the fly is limited. Do the math on our annual financial plan, and you can see that New West runs through about $16M a month, and half of our income arrives when property tax bills are paid – this time of the year we are at the lowest level of our cash reserves. We do not (to my understanding) have the legal authority to defer property tax payments, and if we did, it would not be long before we ran out of cash.

Of course, every homeowner in BC who is over the age of 55 or has a child under the age of 18 can receive a deferral for their property taxes from the BC Government for a remarkably low interest rate. If you qualify and are feeling financial stress this year at tax time, I recommend you take advantage of this offer. This does not address the issue with small business taxes, and I am not sure (we have not discussed at Council yet) what legal options we have available to us to assist there. I am hopeful that the senior levels of government that do enjoy significantly more budget liquidity than local governments will step in to help here, as I would love to see the millions who work in small businesses in communities across the country get prioritized over airlines and oil companies.

That said, we do have options and more flexibility in our utilities accounts, so there may be some options here to allow some deferrals. We are already following the lead of BC Hydro and doing this with electrical bills, but have (again) not discussed the rest of utilities at Council yet, but I suspect we will on Monday.

I have talked informally with some of my Council colleagues and the Mayor about the situation. With limited and mixed information and no formal meetings, we of course have not made any decisions. However, I can tell you everyone has expressed unprecedented concern, and are worried about what we can do. We know many of the more vulnerable members of our community simply don’t have the resilience or support network to feel secure right now. We know a lot of small businesses are closing, and many are worried about when, or even if, they will be able to reopen. We know people are worried and anxious. So are we. But our community is strong, we have shown great spirit in supporting each other in the past. Every one of us lives and shops and plays and shares in this community, we are all committed to doing what we can to support the community we love.

So all that to say, there are better sources for info than my blog, and you should go there if you need info. City-wise, go to the City’s website for local updates. The Provincial Government website will have updates, and will the Centre for Disease Control. Don’t panic, be informed, but watch your sources, because there is a lot of bad info on Social Media right now.

We will be holding a Council Meeting on Monday, when I will be expecting some updates from staff and a challenging conversation about what this means to our 2020 budget process. There will not be public delegations at the meeting, so though it will be a public meeting with limited public seating (to respect Social Distancing protocols), we are highly recommending people stay home and watch the live stream.

Other than that, take care of each other folks, and think about how you can help others while keeping yourself safe. There are people in our community who cannot stay at home, who don’t have access to supports they may need, for whom this disruption is life-threatening. Every one of us on our own journey through this, so be kind.

Disruption

So there is a lot of news right now, and only one news story. I have never seen anything like it, and I lived in the United States during 9/11. That was a sudden shock that changed things, this Pandemic is more like a slow-moving tsunami with bigger waves on the horizon. The news keeps coming, and every day another upending of our assumptions about the place and time in which we live. It can feel overwhelming. But then you go to the store to buy, say, gardening tools (like I did today), and you realize life is going on. Germinating my tomato seeds in mid-march means fresh veggies in July. I don’t know what July looks like, but I am betting we are going to want fresh tomatoes.

I have a few blog posts for this spring break from Council reports. During a bit of downtime this weekend, I worked a bit on them, but I kept coming back to The Only Story, because right now it seems that blogs on Regional Growth Strategies and comparisons of local property taxes seems secondary, and will likely be dated by the time another week of current events unfold.

Like most of you, I am adapting things in my personal life. Nothing I do in my “real” job is life-critical, in the sense that no-one lives or dies depending on my getting things done (well, technically, I reduce the long-term risk of exposure to some cancer-causing agents by the general public, so statistically fewer people will die, but that’s a long way off). However, my employer needs to keep providing some level of service  and supporting business continuity. So I have been provided with a laptop and a cell phone and I spent some time this week getting my virtual desktop to work, I’ll be working from home for the most part except for the few times I absolutely need to get to the office.

As for my other gigs, most committee meetings can be delayed or phoned in. I’m really disappointed that the great program we put together for the Lower Mainland LGA Conference is not likely to see the light of day, as it is starting to look like we will still be under some form of Social Distancing recommendation in May. Of course, this disappointment pales in comparison to what hundreds of events like this being cancelled means to the people who work in events, catering, hotels, entertainment, arts, etc. etc. and you realize we are in deep here as an economy. This is a time to find out how resilient our society really is.

I know we are up to the task of pulling together here locally, as we do have some really strong social service organizations and both formal and informal networks in the community. Watching the New West Twittersphere share and lament and laugh together (especially the #NewWestGoesViral hashtag) gives me hope as I see people separated by space pulling together. But I worry about how we can pull together nationally after so much of the necessary social structure has been dismantled by a couple of decades of austerity. Our health systems are strained on a good day, food and financial security is so uneven across the country and even within communities. How robust a response can we mount to this extra strain? So far, responses at all levels have sounded reasoned and rapid, but the shit is still accelerating towards the fan. The feds are promising a serious spend here, and I hope those funds get to the precariously-employed, precariously-housed, and recently-laid-off first. If we give $25 billion to airlines and Tim Hortons, I’m gonna be pissed.

With most events in the City shut down, no Council meeting for two weeks and all other meetings postponed, Council life is simplified. I have no idea when we are going to activate “normal” public Council meetings again with the current restrictions, but we do have a regulatory requirement to (if nothing else) get a Budget Bylaw passed in the next month, so there will be some form of meeting. Right now the Mayor and senior staff have coordinated three ad-hoc working groups within City Hall to coordinate City resources and address three identified priority areas: protecting vulnerable populations, identifying and supporting isolated seniors, and business continuity.

I don’t know what this is going to look like, and Council is currently looking to schedule an emergency meeting so we can clarify changes in work plans and deal with resourcing requests if needed I think staff need a bit more time to get their feet under them and find out what we can and should be doing before bringing those suggestions to Council, and fortunately, the City has a Pandemic Response Plan that is being activated. If you are hankering for updates on what the City is doing, best not come to bloggers like me though, and especially not Facebook posts from randos (there is a *lot* of bad info out there, unfortunately), the City website will have updates on a regular basis.

This is not going to be over soon, folks. For those of us fortunate enough to have never lived through a society-disrupting war, I don’t think we can really imagine what months of shifting our economy and our behavior is going to look like. All we know now is that it is no longer business as usual, not for some time anyway. In the meantime, do the things our Public Health professionals are telling us. Keep some distance, wash your hands. But you don’t need to be within 6 feet to be actively looking out for your neighbours and your friends. Many of them are going to be in tough mental states and/or facing some real economic stress. Be the kindness that helps them get through the day, and receive the kindness others offer. Take care.

Budget 2020!

This week in Council we are going to be talking about the Budget, and are asking people to once again provide us some feedback on budget issues. Providing this feedback is difficult for many people, or it is hard to understand how your feedback will be incorporated, because municipal finance is a little bit arcane. So I thought before the meeting, with the reports and tables on line here, I would give you a bit of a run-down of how the budget process works.

We have already had some lengthy discussions about the capital budget. This is the budget we use to pay for things like buildings and vehicles and computers. These are (mostly) one-time items, though most need periodic replacement, and (mostly) tangible objects, though we can use capital funds to fund planning for tangible objects, like hiring a consultant to develop an Urban Forest Strategy that will result in capital expenses to buy and maintain trees.

The City is required to balance its budget over a five-year financial plan, so when we talk about “Budget2020”, we are talking about an excerpt of the overall 2020-2024 Financial Plan. Following from this, our 2020 Capital Budget is part of a 5-year Capital Plan, which makes sense because most large infrastructure works cannot be planned, financed, completed and paid for in a single year.

Our draft budget has a 5-year capital plan to spend ~$468 Million on new buildings, infrastructure and equipment, with a some of that representing a few major projects: The ~$100M Canada Games Pool, $54M for a district energy utility, a ~$40M electrical substation in Queensborough, ~$17M to fix up the Massey Theatre, $20M in road paving, etc. This includes the Utility capital investments ($123M for Electrical, $50M for Sewer, $25M for water, and $1.6M for solid waste). In 2020, we are budgeting to spend ~$140 Million of that total.

The City has three options to pay for any capital expenditure: reserves, debt or revenue. Reserves are the monies we have in the bank, some to assure financial solvency, some earmarked specifically for projects, like the money we have put aside for the Canada Games Pool replacement. If there is a reserve fund appropriate for the spending we plan, then drawing from those reserves make sense, though we have to be cautious about drawing those accounts too low because they provide us some financial resiliency, and improve the rates we get from banks when we borrow. Borrowing to pay for infrastructure makes sense for a recreation centre much the way it makes sense to get a mortgage for your house: the people using it pay for its use while it is being used. We have a *lot* of debt room in the City as far as regulations and good financial planning are concerned, but we have to address the public tolerance to take on debt (through a public process when we take out loans), and of course manage the cost of borrowing. The third option is to draw from revenues in the year we have the expense, be those revenues in the form of a grant from senior government or through raising taxes. These both, of course, have limits.

The part of the annual budget that directly impacts your tax rates is the Operational Budget. It is from this budget that we pay staff and buy paper and diesel. Sometimes a pundit in town will chagrin “most of the City’s spending goes directly to salaries!”, to which my only retort is “Yeah, and?” The City provides services more than we build widgets. Widget ore is not as big and expense as delivery of those services, which are delivered by people, from lifeguards to librarians to police officers. Sure, we buy asphalt and pipes, and firefighters need firetrucks, but most of our budget is service delivered by people.


We spend most of the year operating the City based on the operating budget set in the previous spring. As the year goes along, staff, Council and the public identify places where the City can do things differently, where our service is not meeting demands, or where new services are being pondered. Some small things may get done as staff find space in their existing budget to make them happen (or stop doing other things to make the room). But some things are more costly or need more staff time to manage, so managers put forward an “enhancement request” – they ask for more money.

Part of the task of our senior management team is to review all of these enhancement requests, and decide what is reasonable and what isn’t, then set some priorities. Council is not directly involved in that process, but the priority-setting is based on a framework of Strategic Planning created by Council. One of the questions staff need to ask themselves and each other at this stage is – does this enhancement meet a strategic goal of the Council? Then ask if we can afford it. Which is where Council comes in.

Before these enhancement requests, the draft 2020 budget sees costs equaling a 3.9% tax increase already baked into our 5-year financial plan. These are things like increased debt servicing, annual salary increases, inflationary pressures and financing of earlier enhancement commitments already made by Council in previous budgets. Staff have brought forward new enhancement requests equaling just under another 2% of taxes. They then recommended that about half of these enhancements be included in the 2020 budget, and the other half deferred to a future year. This equals out to a draft 4.9% tax increase.

There is an interaction between the Capital and Operational budget. The interest we earn on our reserves is a revenue that is included in our operational budget, so draw those reserves down and we have less revenue. Similarly, the interest we pay on our loans is an operational expense. There is also an operational impact to many capital projects: the NWACC will cost money to heat and light, and will need to be staffed. It will also bring in revenues. Those numbers will be different for the NWACC as they are for the current CGP. These changes have to be budgeted towards.

Since we have a regulatory requirement to balance the budget at the end of the year, if we pull in more revenue (through taxes, charges for services like parking and permits, grants from senior governments, investment income, etc.) in a year than we spend (on salaries, supplies, grants, etc.) that extra money (“profit!”) goes into our reserves and helps offset future capital budget costs. The corollary to this, of course, is that a large capital budget requires us to raise taxes a bit to keep these reserves at a stable level and to pay debt servicing costs.

(I have almost completely skipped utilities in this discussion, I talked a bit about them, with fancy coloured diagrams to show how those work in this blog post from a couple of years ago)


So, this week Council will be asked in two meetings (Monday AND Tuesday nights) to review the budget, review the results of the public consultations that occurred around the budget, and provide one more public meeting where people can come and address council with their concerns regarding the budget. We will review the capital budget commitments for 2020, and will review the recommended and non-recommended enhancements. Council will then make recommendations on any changes, and staff will take those away and work on putting together the necessary Bylaws to make the budget a reality. By the end of the Tuesday special meeting, we should have a pretty good idea what our budget increase will look like for 2020, but looking at the reports, it will likely be something around 5%.

Two Bridges

A presser was called in New West this week to let people know that the design-build contract for the Pattullo Bridge replacement has been awarded, complete with a first rendering of what the bridge may look like. This is design-build, so expect that early renderings may be adjusted to accommodate the many competing demands and value engineering that the contractor will have to wrestle between now and ribbon cutting.

And then there are the political demands.

This conversation has gone on for a few years, but each new news cycle will require it to be told again. Such are our times. The City of New Westminster, the City of Surrey, and the TransLink (which was the responsible agency for the Pattullo) spent years doing planning and public consultation on the very question of what to do about the Pattullo. A quick scan of this blog finds that these conversations were happening back in 2011, and before I was elected I attended numerous public meetings, open houses, and community events (even dressed for the occasion on occasion).

At the end of that work, after all of those conversations in the impacted communities, an MOU was completed between the major stakeholders agreeing that a 4-lane bridge with appropriate ped/cycling connections was the appropriate structure to replace the aging Pattullo. Not everyone agreed, some wanted the bridge closed completely or moved, some wanted a 8-lane bridge and tunnel to Burnaby. If you look closely at the costume above, you will note it features a 3-lane refurbished Pattullo with a counter-flow middle lane, so there is my bias. Clearly, not everyone was going to be happy. As is usually the result if consultations are comprehensive and honest, the most reasonable result was settled upon.

The 4-lane bridge is the project upon which the Environmental Assessment and Indigenous Consultation were framed. It is the project that was taken to Treasury Board to fund, it is the project whose impacts were negotiated with the City at each end. It is the right size for the site, and it is the project that will be built. Re-negotiating those 8 years of consultation and planning now is ridiculous because nothing has changed in the principles that underlie that MOU.

Which brings me to this little news story. It is hard to tell where this is coming from, except for a zealous local reporter in Delta trying to put a local angle on a provincial news release. There is nothing new in this story, no new questions asked or answered, but a re-hashing of staff comments from 3 years ago.

With all due respect to the staff member quoted, those comments from early 2017 are now based on bad data, since the traffic impact issues raised were from before the removal of Port Mann tolls – which everyone in New West recognizes had a profound impact on Pattullo traffic. I have some data on that coming in a future post, but for now this is my (paraphrased) retort:

Of course, the Pattullo isn’t the only bridge Delta wants money poured into right now. The patently ridiculous 10-lane boondoggle project to replace the Massey Tunnel has been effectively shelved, but the province is currently reviewing other options. Unfortunately, the currently-leading option would be as expensive and no less boondoggley, doubling freeway car capacity to a low-density sprawling community that still resists the type of density or growth that would support more sustainable urban development, while somehow framing this entrenchment of motordom as a functioning part of a Climate Emergency response. This is a 1950s solution to a 1990s problem.

This is troubling climate denial, as Delta will certainly feel the impacts of climate change more than any community in the lower mainland, but I digress yet again.

The short news here is that Delta wants New West paved over and the people who live here to breathe their exhaust and walk near their speeding boxes. They also want the people of Richmond to pave over more farmland and have their community bisected by more freeway noise and disruption. If accomplished, they will (no doubt) be calling for the people of Vancouver to expand the already-congested Oak Street Bridge and the Granville Corridor and maybe a third crossing of the north arm because their suburban lifestyle demands it. And they want everyone else to pay for it, because tolls are “unfair”.

If this ode to motordom in the face of a Climate Emergency boggles your mind as much as it does mine, you can always let the provincial government know, because they are taking public comment on the Massey Tunnel Expansion Project right now. Go there, remain anonymous, and tell them what you think. I did.

Metro2020

Last week during our afternoon workshop, New West Council received a presentation by representatives of Metro Vancouver’s Regional Planning Services. They were here to talk about the upcoming update to Metro2040, the Regional Growth Strategy, eloquently labelled Metro2050.

The Regional Growth Strategy is the highest-level planning document in the region. All municipalities have some form of master planning document, be it an Official Community Plan or a collection of Neighborhood Plans that lay out in broad strokes what the vision is for the community over the decades ahead. This is important, because it allows government and utilities to plan new roads, water and sewer lines, recreation facilities, emergency services, schools, and all of the things that should, ideally, be planned out before they are needed. It also helps guide policy assures communities have the right mix of housing types, commercial and institutional land, and green space. Without a well-understood plan, we cannot develop the robust policy needed to shape the outcomes we are looking for.

All the municipalities in Metro Vancouver agreed upon and ratified the Metro 2040 plan back in 2011, and all of our subsequent Official Community Plans (including the OurCity 2041 plan adopted by New West in 2017) include a context statement that links it to the greater regional plan. This is because all of the things I listed above (roads, utilities, etc.) need to be planned at a regional level if we hope to have a livable region. Every community shares our regional sewer system (for example), and the growth of the region relies on significant investment in new sewer infrastructure – not just pipes in the ground, but billions of dollars in wastewater treatment plants that need to be planned out a decade or more in advance. To make that work, we need to know where the houses, the apartments, the breweries and the shopping malls Amazon Fulfillment Centres are going to be when that plant is operating. That’s the essence of planning.

As we start looking at Metro2050, I wanted to get an idea of how we were doing on Metro2040. One of the easiest things to evaluate looking at that strategy is how growth was distributed across the region. If you look at Appendix A of Metro2040, you see population growth projections for the region by decade:

This is an extract from the Metro2040 plan, I removed a few of the smaller municipalities like Lions Bay and Anmore because they account for less than 0.2% of the regional population, and though they are certainly beautiful communities full of wonderful people, their growth trends are irrelevant to the regional picture.

As we are now almost a decade in, and are doing an update, I thought it might be useful to see how these projections turned out. Unfortunately, the best source for annual population estimates is not the Metro2040 Plan, but the annual stats collected by the Province (you can see them here), and they do not correlate perfectly with the Metro Numbers. Here are the BC Population Stats for 2011 and (most recently) 2019 for the municipalities above:

The numbers are not exactly the same as the Metro estimates, but we can compare the two sets by looking at the projected total growth (2011-2021) as a percentage of the 2011 population from Metro, and the estimated actual growth between 2011-2019 from the BC Government stats. Since that growth only includes 8 years, I projected forward two more years at the same rate of growth for each community – so which communities are on trend to meet their 2011-2021 estimates? The numbers may surprise you:

As you can see, the projected rate of growth of the Metro region over the decade was 18%, or about 1.7% annually. The actual growth from 2011 to 2019 was closer to 13% (or little over 1.5% annually), and if you project this trend forward to 2021, you get 16% growth. We over-estimated slightly.

Using the same baseline, you see vast differences around the region when communities are compared to their goals. White Rock, North Van City and Maple Ridge all grew much more than their projections, while Coquitlam and Port Moody were anomalously lower than their projected growth. Of course, this is compared to their projections, as Langley Township grew 7% less than projected, but was still the fastest growing municipality in the region at 29% growth, where Delta was one of the slowest-growing communities at 9% over the decade, but still exceeded its meagre growth projection.

There are, no doubt, local reasons for these trends. The fact the two newest communities in the SkyTrain family (Port Moody and Coquitlam) are the ones that lagged farthest behind may be related to how far behind projected opening the Evergreen Line was. Coquitlam seems to be catching up with significant growth around their new stations, though it seems Port Moody is on a different path. It is also interesting, if anecdotal, that many communities that had the most growth-related angst through the 2018 local elections, like White Rock, Port Moody and the District of North Vancouver, have some of the lowest actual population growth numbers. Having population growth rates of less than a half a percentage a year in this region is an anomaly worth exploring deeper as we look forward.

There is more info about the Metro2050 process, and ways you can get engaged here at the Metro2050 page. C’mon out, tell them what you think.

Uber alles

I have tried to avoid the social media storm that is the long-awaited arrival of large, legal ride-hailing operations in Greater Vancouver. Though I think this tweet sums up my feelings at the end of the day yesterday:

And eventually, during a transit ride home that I drafted my subtweety response:

So, it is clear that I am not excited about the arrival of Uber and Lyft, despite the almost constant media saturation and lobbying pressure from Uber Spokesfolks (in contrast, I have not received a single letter, e-mail, or phone call, or invite for a meeting from the Taxi industry on this topic). My tweet lead to a few questions from people who have never connected with me on social media before. It was also referenced in a local Reddit comment thread, so I drafted up a Reddit response. Apparently multi-platforming is the hot thing in media today, so I figured I would re-draft the Reddit response for a blog here, without even taking time to edit out all the damn brackets, because who has time? Here we go!

In response to concerns that Uber or Lyft are not available today in New West (or Maple Ridge or Delta), I need to clarify that ride-hailing companies will decide what areas they want to serve. It should hardly be surprising to anyone that they are concentrating on areas already served well with transit – those are the areas where there is a density of users and destinations to support the business case of ride hailing. Because it is the same business case that supports Public Transit in the neo-liberal model of service delivery.

The regulations created by the provincial government are really clear: local governments cannot prevent operation of ride-hailing within their borders. They can regulate the service by requiring things like business licences and set conditions for pick-up/drop-off in their road and parking bylaws, but they can’t just say “no”. In this sense, the Mayor of Surrey (in my humble opinion) is blowing smoke. He could, I guess, create a regulatory and licencing regime that is so difficult to navigate that no-one bothers, but I seriously doubt he has the enforcement personnel to make that effective. I guess time will tell how that works out.

New West is working with regional partners to set up a regional business licence system for ride hailing, we talked about it back in November, and the best update I have is that staff in the many municipalities are still hammering out the details. Unfortunately, the sausage-making of making harmonized regulations work between all these jurisdictions is difficult, and they really couldn’t get started until the provincial regulatory regime was made clear. Such is government.

My understanding (and I stand to be corrected here) is that ride hailing companies licensed by the Passenger Transportation Board to operate in the Lower Mainland can operate in New Westminster (and Surrey and Coquitlam, etc.) right now. There will be a period of shake-down as they get their drivers organized, their service areas worked out, and local governments get the licencing requirements (and enforcement processes) organized. It’s a new world, and there is nothing unique about this as these kind of choppy launches occurred in every single jurisdiction where ride-hailing launched.

My personal opinions about Uber and Lyft have very little impact on this. As I mentioned, back in November, New West Council set out the framework for staff about how we feel ride-hailing should operate in New West. Some parts of it I agree with, some I don’t. My concerns about labour rights, environmental impacts, road safety, traffic impacts, transit system impacts, and neighbourhood livability are based on a *lot* of research about impacts of ride hailing in other jurisdictions. It has also proven in other jurisdictions that most of the promises of ride-hailing (cheaper! more convenient! fun!) are false, and the entire business model is propped up by massive financial losses. The system itself is not sustainable, which makes me wonder why we are rushing into embracing it (see “media saturation and lobbying effort” above). I trust urban transportation experts like Jerrett Walker on this more than I trust the well-oiled Uber/Lyft marketing machine. The Taxi system is not perfect, but I have gone on at length (note this piece from several years ago) about how it is actually the arcane regulation of the industry that makes it not work the way we might like. But that’s another rant, and times have changed since I wrote that piece. Not for the better.

But that said, my (Council) job is partly to advocate for things that make the community stronger and more sustainable, but it is equally to assure the City is runs as effectively and responsibly as possible. Ride-hailing is here, (some) people want it, the local government job is to work to reduce the inevitable externalities and make it work as best as possible in our community. Of course, one of those externalities is that this “cheap” transportation option is going to cause your property taxes to go up. Uber and Lyft don’t pay taxes to the City, and regulation and enforcement are not free.

You may not like Uber or Lyft, but due to powerful lobbying and a brilliant international viral marketing program, you will be paying for it.

Depot

As you may have heard, the current recycling centre adjacent to the Canada Games Pool has to close, and the services are being relocated to United Boulevard. For the best part of a year there has been a lot of discussion (mostly on social media) about what this means for our City’s commitment to recycling. Even the Record took the unprecedented step of making something that hasn’t actually happened yet their top news story of 2019.

Last Monday, there was both a report to Council from our engineering department on developments in the city-wide recycling program, and a number of people came to Council to delegate on the imminent closure of the recycling depot. Many of them came to speak in support of a an on-line petition promoted by a local political party asking that the current recycling centre be kept open. I find on-line petitions are a terrible way to gauge people’s opinions for several reasons, but this is an entirely different blog that I will maybe write someday. For now, I would rather address the report that came to Council and what I heard at the delegations.

First off, we need to be clear about why the current facility is closing. Through two years of consultation on the replacement of the CGP, it was clear that the community wanted the existing facilities to remain open and operational until the new centre is opened in order to maintain continuity in programs and offerings. This decision fundamentally shaped the new facility and the site plan.

Those conversations around the new facility answered the big questions (25m or 50m pool, one or two gyms? Daycare? Meeting rooms? etc.) and we settled on a fairly large structure – over 100,000 square feet. After a tonne of work by the architects and engineers, it was determined that the facility would not fit well on the parking lot to the east of the Canada Games Pool, and due to some utility issues and uncertain ground conditions related to the old Glenbrook ravine (which used to extend all the way to 8th avenue!), the only place where this large a facility fits is snuggled alongside the existing pool and community centre on the west side:

A rough drawing of the footprint of the new recreation centre (in white) and landscaping/entrance area (brown) that will be required for laydown during construction. This area (and much of the all-weather field to the top left) will be an active construction site. This is a rough drawing, I did it in MSpaint(!) based on drawings available here, please don’t use for navigation.

That means that the front parking lot will need to be excavated, meaning for two years the main road access to the current recycling depot would be a hole in the ground then an active construction site. Again, the engineers looked at a few options including shifting the one-way road adjacent to the fire hall to two lanes and providing temporary direct access off of McBride, but no solution was found that would meet safety standards our engineers demand.

This speaks a bit to the problem with on-line petitions. Several hundred people in New West signed a petition asking the City to do the one thing we could not do, unless we were going to turn our back on 2 years of public consultation and more than a year of architecture and engineering work. The author of the petition knew this, which is another example of how disingenuous politics are good at creating a scene, but not at finding solutions. Finding solutions is harder work.

Some have suggested that the recycling facility (even temporarily) be moved to the east parking lot. Staff have (of course) looked at this, and from what I hear, I cannot support that idea. The east parking lot has about 120 parking spots to support a recreation facility with more than a thousand visits a day, and a curling rink with a capacity of about 100. A parking spot for every 10 users is a very, very low number, and this is already certain to cause significant neighbourhood and user group stress during the building of the new facility. Moving even a shrunk-but-still-workable recycling depot to that spot would mean removing about half of those remaining spots. This challenges our earlier commitment to keeping the current facility functioning and accessible during constructions.

For all of the political hay-making and quoting of Joni Mitchell, this is just a question of geometry.

So the status quo is not viable. What do we do now? Some of the delegates provided some good ideas, and I think that it was useful to hear what types of recycling people are most stressed about. I think for many people in the City, the new joint recycling depot on the Coquitlam border with more services than our current facility, longer hours, and easier access to SkyTrain, will provide more convenience. I also recognize that for some people, this change represents a change to their established patterns and extra inconvenience.

We have not really had a robust conversation with the community about what that change looks like for them, and I recognize that was a communications and engagement failure on the City’s part. Over the last couple of months a few people have asked me questions about recycling, I have met a few for coffee, replied to some e-mails, tried to listen and learn (and have occasionally reported out on those conversations). During the delegations last Monday we heard a few interesting ideas, and there were also several people who came to delegate to say they fully supported the change. People had different recycling needs – some spoke of lawn clippings, some of Styrofoam and glass. Its clear most wanted to have a deeper discussion about what role recycling plays in our community, and asking for resources to make not just the City’s recycling system work better, but to assure our waste management systems are meeting our climate and sustainability goals.

Council heard that call for a better discussion, and staff heard it as well. The staff report that came to Council last Monday outlines a series of opportunities to provide the City some feedback and ideas on recycling (open houses, on-line polls), and I am spreading hearing rumours of the NWEP “Trash Talkers” group getting together and working to raise public awareness and gather ideas about the barriers to waste diversion, and strategies to address them.

Resilience

This was quite a week transportation-wise. We are headed into a second week with snow and ice on the ground, and even more forecast tonight, and like many of you, this has messed with my plans.

Monday was a Council day, so I spent most of it inside not thinking about how frightful the weather was outside. Tuesday I faced transit delays on my way into work, and transit chaos in my way home, but I managed to get to the QRA meeting in Queensborough for the 7:00 start, only to find the meeting cancelled due to a power failure. Wednesday was a true “snow day” where I did some work from home, but mostly went out every couple of hours to shovel Kootenay-quality powder off of my walk and driveway. Thursday saw more transit delays with some sort of “power rail meltdown” on Skytrain. Today was slushy with promise of more to come, but was actually a seamless transit day both ways, though ridership was notably higher than usual, as I assume fewer people wanted to risk the still-wintery roads on bikes and in cars.

I love transit, and I rely on it. Though it arguably provided safer and more reliable service than driving in those weather conditions would have, this week got me thinking about the resiliency of the system. During snow events, trains run slightly less frequently (with staff on board to help manage the controls in case of a weather-induced track intrusion alarm), and there are some issues with how the automatic doors manage ice build up, but much of the overcrowding and delay was related to the system running at 110% during a normal rush hour, and 25% more people show up wanting a ride during a weather emergency. The system feels fragile: it is on edge and under pressure on the best of days, and quick to disappoint when conditions veer from nominal (in the NASA use of the adjective).

Strangely enough (and this is definitely anecdote, not data), all of my bus rides this week were uneventful and reliable, if sometimes a little more crowded than usual. I even made a strategic mistake in route planning one day, deciding to use Canada Line-SkyTrain instead of a bus-SkyTrain option that would have allowed me to skip the “trouble spot” on SkyTrain. Aside from the issues around keeping up with road clearing and our ongoing trouble with maintaining universal accessibility at bus stops during snow conditions, it is the distributed and flexible nature of the bus system that provides the resiliency to our transit system that the SkyTrian back bone sometimes fails to do.

The Skytrain system has grown remarkably in ridership over the last decade, as has always been the regional plan for transit-oriented development. But until recently, there was no money or political will to invest in making the system grow to match this increase. That has changed when Jordan Bateman started stumping for contractors with new investments and proper funding of the Mayors 10-year plan, which includes significant SkyTrain capacity increases (bigger stations, new cars, reduced time between trains, etc.). But we are still playing catch-up, and I don’t think it is enough. Everyone is doing the best with the resources we have, but there is no escaping the simple math: the system is at capacity, ridership is exploding, we need more money to expand the system now, and we need consistent capital funding from senior governments to plan for future growth. That is the only way the system will become more resilient.

There is an ongoing discussion right now about the future of TransLink, and I (as always) have my own opinions about things like embracing-the-newest vs fixing-the-fundamentals spectra and the roles of different solutions, but I hope people who care enough to read this far in my post will go there and take part in the TransLink discussion.

I also hope as the Federal and Provincial governments continue discussions about spending billions on expanding road capacity on Highway 1, under the Fraser River, or even right here in our own neighbourhood, we can re-frame the discussion to talk about economic impacts of an unreliable transit system. The tunnel replacement and highway expansion is always talked about as an economic imperative – cars and trucks stuck in traffic are a negative cost. I argue that this picture right here shows the real economic backbone of the Province. 7.5% of the national GDP, almost half of the Provincial GDP is earned within 10km of this spot, and the real cost of congestion and traffic that looks like this is never accounted for:

But I want to say a couple of positive things about this week’s experiences in Snowmageddon.

I spent a lot of time this week on crowded platforms, stuffed cheek-to-jowl on lurching trains, and lamenting on Social Media about it all, but I have to say the human experience of it was way more positive than you experience when an accident on a bridge causes traffic chaos in the adjacent neighbourhoods. We’ve all seen the cursing, honking, banging-steering-wheel impotent anger of people trapped in traffic gridlock, some of us may have even felt it at some time. But my experience in the Skytrain mob was not like that at all, There were some long sighs, a muttered curse here and there, but it was mostly concert eye-rolling and “we are all in this together” comradery. And it is amazing how diffusing that energy is. The few times I was starting to feel a little hot under the collar because I-am-going-to-miss-my-important-meeting-I-am-an-important-person stress hormones or whatever, the feeling that we were all in the same boat, and the many lame humour attempts by my fellow straphangers got me out of my own head, and out of my own ass, and into the shared reality. Transit is a community that way. Beats the hell out of traffic on the worst day.

The real local positive this week was that the QtoQ Ferry ran pretty much as scheduled, and had a lot of new riders. As repeated snow-ice cycles made it hard for our road crews to keep up with Primary route clearing, never mind Secondary routes and local roads, a lot of people on the east end of Queensborough found the QtoQ to be a better alternative than to drive on snowy/icy roads and taking a chance on traffic chaos around the bridge. This itself speaks a bit to resiliency. A robust transportation system needs to provide alternatives, and the QtoQ is one of those “niche” solutions that takes the pressure of the entire system. I hope folks at TransLink see this story, and see in it the value of integrating more flexible solutions to local transportation needs (cough cough Gondolas cough).

Bad measures

I try not to be one to rise to the bait.

In my role as an elected official, there are voices you are best to just ignore. Part of this is something I have talked about before around not punching down – an elected role is a bully pulpit, and it shouldn’t be used to ridicule people who have less access to information or less understanding of what my job actually is. There is also a second part, though, where disingenuous arguments are used by political opportunists – those who know better – but responding to them just throws attention toward them, and we enter some weird Streisand Effect peril.

This is the second one, and here I am rising to the bait, because someone who knows better is being very, very silly, and trying to make narrative out of it. He is doing this specifically because he knows that most people don’t recognize the flaw in his argument, but having worked in City Halls himself, he knows perfectly well how disingenuous he is being. Since he already has many platforms, I don’t mind calling him out.

When Daniel Fontaine started a blog to specifically criticize New Westminster Council, it wasn’t a surprise. The blog is a little light on content (hey, blogs are dead as a media!) but the hook is something he calls the “unanimeter”. This ostensibly measures how often New West Council votes unanimously on motions, apparently an effort to prove we are all one like mind.

Anyone who watches Council meetings, especially our (always free on video) afternoon workshops, can hear that we are rarely of one mind. But that is not the point I want to push back against. The inference in the Unanimeter is that if we had a few people like Daniel on Council, we would have more split votes, which would mean, in an underpants gnome type of causation, better democracy. But measuring split votes is based on a flawed understanding of how a City Council works.

Currently, Daniel has pegged the “Unanimeter” at 96%. We have, apparently, voted unanimously 96% of the time on motions brought to vote in 2019. I don’t know if this claim is true, as he doesn’t really provide back-up to this claim, and I’m not interested in doing his math for him. But more importantly, he also doesn’t provide any kind of “ideal” number, because he knows the idea underpinning this is ridiculous.

Does anyone think a Council that is always arguing (0% unanimous) is a better one? How many people on the Council have to vote against the majority for democracy to be served? One? Three? What exactly are we measuring here? 

Still, to the people Daniel is trying to misinform, 96% sounds bad. So I thought I would do a bit of my own math to see how bad that is compared to other (supposedly better, by the underlying conceit) councils.

For example, New Westminster has a School Board made up of 7 Trustees. Five of them ran together as a slate (full disclosure – with me!), one ran as an independent, and one ran on Daniel Fontaine’s team. They are, by all accounts, doing a great job. The School District is managing money well, building new infrastructure, and showing provincial leadership on some important issues. If these positive results are related to the diversity of representatives, and this can be measured by a Unanimeter, surely their Unanimeter would count lower than New West Council? I went through the publicly available minutes for SD40’s Board for 2019, and guess what? 96% unanimous votes. (numbers below).

But that is a School District, surely  City Council is a different animal? I went back to 2008 to look over the minutes of the most diverse Council for which New West has an online record. This Council was chaired by Mayor Wayne Wright, and included three “labour endorsed” City Councillors (Cote, Harper, and Williams). There were also three long-serving Councillors who were definitively NOT labour-endorsed: Calvin Donnelly, Bob Osterman and Betty MacIntosh (who is still a Facebook critic of everything this Council does). Going back through their minutes from 2008, how did this democracy-serving Council work? 96% unanimous votes. (numbers below).

To demonstrate why this is especially disingenuous coming from Daniel is that we can all remember he worked in Sam Sullivan’s office when Sam was the Mayor of Vancouver. Daniel helped the increasingly-unpopular NPA Mayor manage a Council of 5 NPA members, 4 Vision Vancouver members, and a COPE member. Luckily, their 2008 minutes are available online as well. Guess what? This fractious and oppositional Council made up of three parties with no love of each other and representing very different political alignments was unanimous 92% of the time. When you dig deeper into the minutes, you see most of the “defeated” votes were on amendments to motions that were subsequently approved unanimously by Council. If you adjust for this anomaly, the Unanimeter tips to 96% (numbers below).

Short version: The Unanaimeter is useless at measuring… the thing Daniel claims to be concerned about.

Now, there may be an argument that majority government is a bad idea, but if Daniel is making that argument, the Unanimeter is not supporting it. There may be an argument that this Council makes bad decisions, or that the voters made a big mistake when they gave the people who are on this Council more votes than they did to Daniel. I would like to hear Daniel make those arguments, because at least they will be based on something other than an ill-informed meme that only serves to misinform voters.

I’ve always been transparent about my decision-making on Council, and anyone is free to watch our meetings and ask Council questions. Part of the reason I do this blog (though blogs are a dead media!) is to help people be informed enough to engage meaningfully with Council. Sometimes people use this to call me on what they think is a bad decision on my part, or on the part of Council, and I encourage that. Sometimes I change my mind.

But what I won’t do is the easy thing – throw meaningless votes away to shift the numbers on a voter-insulting meme like the Unanimeter. It would be easy, and it would disarm Daniel, but it would be silly, and it would be disrespectful to the people I serve and the work the Council is doing.

Links to the sources are above, but here is my math, please check it! 

Year of the Beard

I’ve been taking a serious year-end break. I took a couple of weeks off work, got out of town just after the last Council meeting. I’m taking a social media break as well, though I do hazard a short lurk once in a while to assure myself #NewWest still exists. I brought a few City documents on the road with me, and I am spending a bit of down time reading capital budget stuff (January is coming on soon!)but it’s been nice to turn most things off for a bit, ride my bike, sit on a beach, and chill with @MsNWimby.

That said, the week between Christmas and the New Year is ripe for these “year in review” things, so here goes mine. 2019 was a strange and interesting year, and I have a hard time summing my 2019 up.

One big change for me personally in 2019 is a change in my work/life balance. I went back to more regular “work” outside of Council. When elected in 2014, I was working full time. After almost two years of increasingly strained attempts at making it work, I had to be honest that I was not giving the attention or energy my 40-a-week professional job deserved, and decided to quit. For the balance of my first Council term I was doing a bit of consulting work, but nowhere near full time. Being honest about the effort and time I could put in with this council work (and my volunteer work with the CEA, CSAP, and LMLGA), I had found a couple of clients that offered the right level or workload, though I think @MsNWimby would have liked a more equitable contribution to household expenses.

In early 2019, I had an opportunity to take a real job working in my field that was half time – a solid 20 hours a week at a proper professional wage. It is work I am very familiar with so the learning curve was easy to get past, and I was able to provide value right up front. The employer is super flexible, and we have a great relationship around planning a work load for the weeks ahead, so I can assure scheduling conflicts are avoided. It all seems very “millennial” in work conditions, but it is working for everyone, and I am staying connected in my field. It has been a fun team to get to know as well, and the work is really interesting. so all’s good!

I also spent a bit of time in 2019 volunteering on the local federal election campaign. This was mostly a good news story – Peter Julian is an easy Member of Parliament to support, he had a great team working for him, and it is fun to knock on doors and make phone calls when you are stumping for such a popular guy!

The disappointment side of the 2019 Federal Election, personally, is a regret that I didn’t spend more time over in Coquitlam/Port Moody helping Bonita Zarrillo’s campaign. I have known Bonita from local government stuff for a few years, and was really excited to hear she was going to represent the NDP in Fin Donnelly’s riding. She is passionate, smart, caring, and hardworking, and she loves her home in the Tri Cities. In the end, she lost a squeaker to a parachuted-in ultra-conservative who failed to meaningfully campaign when she arrived. To see such a brilliant local leader lose to a party-issue hack form central casting is sad. To me a Member of Parliament is representative of your community in Ottawa, not a representative of the Party in your community. I feel disappointment that I didn’t have the foresight to invest more of my volunteer time to help Bonita, when she just needed a few hundred votes to get over the top. Sorry Bonita, but I am glad we are still working together in Local Government in the Lower Mainland.

In the local political realm, New West Council had probably the most quietly challenging year I have ever experienced. From my seat, it seemed there were very few big splashes, yet we pushed some really bold stuff forward. I have felt a tremendous amount of personal growth in how I approach the work, and the organization’s growth in some of the functional changes we are making at City Hall and in Council Chambers. We are making the organization more efficient and effective, though some of this is a bit out of sight for all but the vigilant council-watcher. This is alongside the real progress and growth reflected across the organization on files like climate and reconciliation. I think our Strategic Plan is (perhaps) too aggressive in wanting to achieve much more in a short time period than will be easy for a City our size. That said, I can’t disagree with the bold vision created, and hope we can continue to build the political will to be the most progressive and forward-looking local government in the province, if not in Canada. The shift represented by our Council and Staff’s embrace of aggressive climate actions is an encouraging example of progress that can be made when we are all on the same page, and I’m glad this community is still pushing us forward on that front.

In looking back at the direction we are forging, I find myself using words like “aggressive” and “bold”. Still, it feels like we are being given the clear political push from the public to get this work done. The community is telling us they can be just as bold as this Council, and perhaps through us providing transparency and a clear set of underlying values and vision, I am more confident in our ability to make this progress.

It is a bit funny, but you sometimes need to go outside to see how good things are inside. Our Council has ways of disagreeing – even new ways different than the last Council –and can drive each other nuts with our 7 different ways of approaching solutions, but if our paddles sometimes cross, we are all at least rowing the same direction. It is mostly at regional or provincial conferences where our cohort reminds us that New West is functional and punching way above its weight in the local government actions, and we do it while avoiding so much of the hijinks afflicting other less-functional Councils around the region. They get headlines, we get work done. That is a good feeling.

2019 had challenges, but I think the year ahead will be more challenging. We are deep into Capital Budget discussions right now, and are asking for the public’s help in setting those priorities. Translating an aggressive capital plan into a sustainable operational budget is the hard work part. We will be having some conversations not just about the things we want to do, but our vision for the 5 years ahead is going to have to include some conversations about what we are not going to do, or are going to stop doing. And New Westminster is not as good at letting things go as we are at starting new things (and by that I mean Council, City Staff, and the Public!). These conversations will be at times hard, but worth while. I’m looking forward to the work!

With all of this going on, I hardly had time to ride my bike for recreation, my blog here has been suffering from lack of attention (but blogs as a media are deader than dead, so who knows the future of this?), and my garden was a pretty dismal failure, except for all the tomatoes. I also found myself intentionally stepping back a bit from some things in 2019, mostly because of my new work & commuting schedule: fewer of those “I should make an appearance” events, and less patience for social media. I’m not sure what to make of my nascent impression that our local political challenges have become pettier, despite the good work we are doing (see above). I am not sure if that is a product of the changing social media landscape, or just the natural result of me settling in after five (5!) years of elected life. Or maybe I’m getting older.

Which brings the big personal news – I turned 50 in 2019. I’m not sure how that happened, but it just kinda snuck up on me and now I am looking down the second half of middle age. @MsNWimby threw a hell of a party, and I really haven’t taken the time to thank everyone who came out to celebrate. 50 makes you ornery, I guess. Or gives you a ready excuse to be so. Thank you for the great party, and for being a great support network for me and @MsNWimby.

Let me wrap my 2019 in review by thanking the wider network of great people in New West working to build this unique, progressive, compassionate community. There are so many people in this town who are doing so much to make it a great place to live. My Council colleagues are constantly challenging and surprising me, and the Mayor has really grown into a strong leader who earns more respect every day. There are true leaders in the School District, in the Arts community, in our BIAs and local businesses, in the many service agencies that make New West tick. Please keep up your good work, though it may feel you are fighting against the tide, your contributions are noticed and appreciated. If I have one resolution for 2020, it will be consciously spending less time worrying about the boo-birds on Facebook, and more time expressing gratitude to the many people around New West actually working every day to make this community so great. Happy New Year!