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

The Booth

People who follow my exploits (Hi Mom!) know I have been running this webpage for several years, and not too long after I first got elected as a City Councillor, I added an “Ask Pat” button to it. Through this, people can send me questions about the City, and I try my best to answer them. Recognizing that not everyone reads my Blog, I decided to take Ask Pat analogue a little while ago; hence the Lucy Booth.

(Credit where credit is due: Hayley Sinclair is convinced this was her idea, but I am pretty sure the original inspiration was JJ Lee’s “Sartorial Advice” booth from a few years ago, it just took me a long time to put this into action).

Having set this up in various places around town over the last few months, the response is pretty fun. However, last weekend’s Pride Street Fest was the most active booth location yet, with more than 100 questions being asked, most of them answerable, some even by me. Examples? (shortened in both question and answer for the sake of brevity)

Q: What is the long-term plan for the QtoQ Ferry?
A: We will see how the ridership on this year’s Pilot goes, and will work with senior partners to help close a funding gap. I hope we can continue to run it, because it is an important transportation link!

Q: Is the rental building at *00 block of *th street turning into Condos?
A: No. We do not permit the conversion of residential rental to condo in the City, and we would hear about it if that was happening.

Q: What is the smallest thing?
A: The Planck Length (*turns out I was only kinda right here, as is to be expected whenever anyone involves quantum physics).

Q: Is the City developing Glenbrook Ravine?
A: No. The Ravine is one of the few natural areas left in the city, and is an important park and habitat asset. A large part of it was preserved permanently as part of the Victoria Hill agreement. No-one has proposed buildings in the ravine to Council, and I cannot imagine Council ever agreeing to do this.

Q: (from a ~9 year old girl) Why does my big brother always bug me?
A: Probably because he is jealous of you! That’s why I bugged my big sister! But don’t worry, I grew out of it.

Q: Do you agree with a 10-lane pool?
A: Yes, and we are working on a grants to help pay for it and the increased deck space and other additions to the base plan for the CGP replacement that Hyack Swim Club asked for – Contact your MLA and MP to put in a good word for the pool, and help us secure those grants!

Q: What is going to happen with Marijuana Dispensaries in October?
A: The City will permit cannabis retail in a limited way as soon as the federal laws are in place, I suspect it will be limited to a few locations in the short term, and probably won’t arrive until Christmas at the earliest, mostly because of the complicated process we need to go through with Zoning and Business License regulations. It’s coming, and we are going to be ready.

Etc., etc.

Both serious and funny questions aside, there was one theme I heard a few times that was, frankly, the hardest question to answer:

Q: What are you doing about housing?
It is hard because I know any truthful answer I provide is not going to help. I can talk about the City investing in several affordable housing projects (it isn’t enough), about us working to bring in more purpose built rental (it is increasingly unaffordable), about our protecting the affordable rental we have by preventing demovictions (but are hand-tied somewhat when it comes to renovictions). I can say, honestly, we are doing all we can, and are doing arguably more than any other municipality in BC; but it is still not enough to fix the problem. We are advocating to senior governments for help, and it is starting to trickle in, but after 15+ years of inaction, it isn’t fast enough. This answer is hard, because I know the people asking me are scared and feel helpless, and I know my answers will not help them feel more secure. Empathy feels hollow when people are suffering, because it isn’t enough.

I’m working on a blog post right now that digs a little deeper into this topic.

Have questions? You can send them to Ask Pat, but recognize I am really busy these days with Campaign stuff, and it may take a while before you get an answer. It will be more immediate if you see a little red booth set up, and come and talk. If you ask a question, you may also get a button:

More pool

Last Council meeting, we had an update report on the replacement plans for the Canada Games Pool, and a reporting out on the results of the last round of public engagement. I mentioned it briefly in my council report, but it is a big enough story that I thought I would flesh this out with a bit more detail, and share some of my thinking on this project.

Back in the spring, the City began this round of public and stakeholder consultation on the replacement of the Canada Games Pool and Centennial Community Centre. This came after two years of meeting with stakeholders, holding a pretty comprehensive public engagement process, work with program staff at the pool, architects, geotechnical engineers, and other subject matter experts. I talked about that first-phase work more in this Blog Post I wrote earlier this year, and at that time mentioned we were ready to take a draft plan out to the public based on that work.

As you may have heard, part of this engagement was a call from the Hyack Swim Club to build a more competition-oriented pool than the initial plans presented. Although the plans were developed with consultation with competitive swimming, which included a 50m pool length and a secondary pool that was amenable for warm-up and cool-down lengths, they did not feel the draft plan provided a venue that supported the level of competition their club could support.

Putting the wants of this user group aside for a moment, it is clear from the engagement that the program proposed closely matches the desires of the greater community that will ultimately pay for most of the new facility. The balance of aquatics and leisure swim space, the enhanced fitness centre, community flex space and gyms, and childcare facility are all well supported (in the end, we may need more pickleball space, but I’m not sure we will ever meet that demand!). So I am satisfied that the program we have proposed is the program we need in the community, and the public engagement results reflect that.

That does not mean this facility has everything everyone wants. Simply put, that was not possible, partly because we have a limited budget and buildable area on the site, partly because when you do comprehensive public engagement (see the 60 pages(!) of comments included in the report) you get a lot of contradictory requests. For everyone who wants, for example, a lazy river, there is someone who hates the concept. Parsing through this mixed data was a big task for staff, our consultant, and the taskforce.

I need to emphasize that the Hyack Swim Club was involved in this process from the beginning. Several meetings were held with their board and coaching staff, and their members were encouraged to take part in the public engagement process. From day 1 it was recognized that the competitive swimming community valued this asset, and as a regional community they are a vocal in discussions of any new aquatics complex in the region. There was no doubt that Hyack wanted as high-level a competitive pool as possible, up to a pool that would meet all Swim Canada requirements for the highest level of competition (something that currently doesn’t exist in BC, but is best represented by the $200 Million+ Pan Am Sports Centre in Toronto), and this led to some pretty significant discussion about how far we could afford to go that way while still meeting the desires of the community for a family-friendly recreational facility, within reasonable budget expectations.

The purpose of this stage of public consultation was to hear if the draft plans that came out of the planning process hit the target the community and stakeholders were looking for. In that sense, it was anticipated that some push back from some users on the draft plans would occur. I think we got there from the community viewpoint, but the stakeholder side clearly needed more work. That is why we do this kind of consultation.

Competitive sports facilities are, by nature, regional. Sports programming rarely respects Municipal boundaries, and just as competitive curlers from across the region come to New West to curl at the Royal City Club and MsNWimby goes to Coquitlam to play in a women’s ice hockey league that suits her competitive level (wait – neither of those facilities are run by a City… never mind, let me continue my story here), we need to expect that all Cities will build facilities that will be used by people from outside that City.

I also need to clarify that the request from the Hyack Swim Club is not just “two more lanes”, and though the swim fees paid by Hyack Swim Club are definitely a significant part of our operational revenue, they will certainly not offset the increased capital cost of a larger facility. The request for two more lanes, a larger secondary pool to better accommodate warm-up and cool-down length swimming, significantly increased “wet” deck space, and some level of “dry” spectator seating represents a significant cost premium. I (speaking as one Councillor, this is, as always, not necessarily the opinion of all of Council) am not willing to compromise the community amenities that the community asked for to pay for that cost premium. Ultimately, this is a case where the public engagement is vital to decision making, and I cannot ignore the wants of the larger community when building the most expensive asset the City has ever built.

That said, if we accept that higher-level competition is a regional asset, it is reasonable to expect that the region help pay for it. All along, the City has been working towards senior government assistance to build this facility, through the promised federal Infrastructure Grants program and affiliated provincial programs to support recreation and community assets and community reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. I think we have developed a program that will very closely meet the expected criteria for federal infrastructure funds. These, matched with provincial funds, may give us the financial space to build the expanded region-serving competitive facility, while not compromising on the recreational facility the community clearly wants, and not overly burdening our (still stretched) capital budget.

So the path forward the City has chosen is to continue to work towards an expanded facility that will support higher-level competition (one the Hyack Swim Club expressed unbridled support for at their public delegation last week), and the community recreation that the public engagement outlined, and hope that senior government grants will be sufficient to make it viable. We will continue to hold the current more recreationally-focused program as a fall back in the event we are unsuccessful in receiving sufficient senior government support.

The good news is that we now have a well-supported plan to move forward, and can do some of the extra work we need to do to get this project “shovel ready” enough to get those grants. To quote someone more profound than me: Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is the end of the beginning.

And I’ll write one more post about this pool in the next few days (yes, I’ll get to your question, Jason), but this one is long enough for now!

LMLGA 2018 part 2

As a follow-up to this post, here is the second half of the LMLGA Conference in May. This may not be as interesting for my regular readers (Hi Mom!) as me ranting about traffic, but I think it is important that I report out to the community what I learned during the conference, because the community paid for me to attend the conference. As I am on the LMLGA Board, the cost for one of my nights was covered by the LMLGA, but the City still paid my registration for the conference, and paid part of the travel cost (I car-pooled with other attendies).

As I mentioned last post, a big part of the annual conference is the Resolutions session. This is when the members of the LMLGA vote on resolutions to be forwarded to senior governments, asking them to change policy or prioritize spending to meet the needs of our communities. The 2018 session included more than 40 resolutions, with about half of them at least slightly debated. This was an unusual year in that three separate resolutions or proposed amendments were defeated in tie votes (which is pretty unique with ~100 voting members present). If you want to know the results of all of the votes, you can read them here.

In brief, the two resolutions put forward by New Westminster were endorsed. The first was to ask the provincial government to prioritize the funding and support of the Community Health Centre model for providing general health care in communities across BC. The second was to ask the provincial government to update the BC Motor Vehicle Act by addressing the recommendations of the Road Safety Law Reform Group of BC to better protect vulnerable road users ( as I talked about in this report earlier in the year). Both were endorsed by the LMLGA Executive, and passed by the membership without debate.

Day 2 Featured a session on Digital Connectivity that started with a presentation from a technology director at Amazon, talking about what they see as the future of retail. Depending on your outlook on the world (or possibly your age), he either described a stunning future where your computer will know exactly what hammer you need before you even go on line to shop for it, and one click later the hammer arrives at your door within two hours, or a stark dystopia where every decision you make is predetermined by algorithms and every human interaction or social aspect of purchasing goods is scrubbed away as “friction” that interferes with the efficiency of the market. So that was interesting.

Hotels
XKCD, as always, predicts the most logical end result.

This was followed by another ying/yang tech discussion by Mayor Greg Moore, directed at the elected officials in the room. He talked about the positive opportunities that Social Media provides to engage with your electorate, both during campaigns and while you are in office. He then described, step by step, how a single person with a bone to pick, a couple of hours to kill, and $20 can use a social media platform like Facebook to create a powerfully disruptive disinformation campaign using the same tools, and make themselves look like a large crowd of people to amplify their voice. It was stunningly familiar, and a valuable lesson to all of us who seek to engage meaningfully in decision making. If you don’t know who you are talking to on-line, it is quite possible they do not actually exist.

This led us into a closing plenary session on Human Connectivity, which brought together several aspects of making human connections in a time of digital disconnection. We had presentations about the power of volunteering, about working for sustainability within a community framework, and about thinking deeper about the everyday interactions we have, and what underlying the narratives we often miss may be telling us about ourselves and our community. It was inspirational, but also challenging – we are so busy “doing” or “planning”, that we are sometimes forgetting to take the time to listen, look, and understand the interactions in front of us.

I’ve given a bit of a summary of my learnings/rememberings from LMLGA, but there was more. The Minister for Local Government and Housing gave us a great update on where housing policy is going in the province, the Leader of the Official Opposition told us all of the things that the current government has not accomplished in 9 months, seemingly forgetting his government had 16 years to do the same things. Of course the networking, both formal and informal, with local government leaders across the region are valuable, and the LMLGA executive met to discuss next steps, including developing a better plan to present the resolutions to government members in Victoria. Altogether an informative, inspiring, and crazy busy 2-1/2 days.