June 18 GPC Summary & Observations

I totally called it with my prediction for a record short meeting this morning – all told the public section was 36 minutes long. It is important to note however that this minor public section was sandwiched between two incamera sessions (8am and then after the public meeting) where three items of incamera discussion occurred (e.g., personnel, an easement under Bay Street, and a proposed municipal mutual aid service as presented by the Fire Chief).

You can find the meeting agenda here and the meeting video here.

Potential James Bay Library Branch

The finance director sat down at the GPC table for this item and said: “I don’t have a presentation for this, but I could take you through my report  if you want”. The staff recommendation was then passed in under a minute, which is that Council:

 1. Request that the Greater Victoria Public Library Board notify the City, after completion of its strategic planning process in September 2015, with the preferred option for a James Bay Neighbourhood Library Branch. 

2. Direct staff to incorporate the Greater Victoria Public Library Board’s preferred option for a James Bay Neighbourhood Library branch into the 2016 financial planning process and associated public consultation.

As noted above, the an update will be back in September.

Lesson Learned – Financial Plan Process

This was also a report from the finance director. She actually spoke to this one though. Things she said included:

Staff can be quite technical in how they explain their work so we worked really hard throughout the 2015 budget process to make our budget in “meaningful” for the public.

  • I wrote a post back on March 7th where I critiqued the relative lack of “meaningful” engagement related to the financial plan.

First steps for aligning the draft strategic plan and financial plan was to just list strategic objectives in the financial plan document. We’ll be working to actually align budget information which will mean financial planning by strategic objective going forward – as opposed to traditional budgeting which is budgeting by departments.

  • Foolish me had been under the impression that this new “alignment” was to be significantly manifested in 2015 when I first wrote about the proposed alignment of the two processes back on March 9th.

We realized that our approach of providing metrics for each and every business unit “could result in an overwhelming amount of information” so we’ll be focusing instead on producing metrics that reflect accomplishment of strategic priorities instead. Related to this, we’ve been looking at best practice performance metrics from elsewhere and one element in particular that we’re committed is looking at metric that explore things like “is anyone better off?” as a result of municipal service x.

  • I wrote indirectly about this issue of metrics back on March 5th when I summarized what had been Week 1 of public consultation related to the 2015 budget. My argument in this post was that meaningful public input needs to build from a platform of meaningful Council input – which is to suggest that we first need Council to learn how to ask meaningful questions about the budget if they are to ever come up with meaningful metrics. 

We’re looking to start our public consultation & planning process earlier for the 2016-2020 financial planning process. This means that we’ll be back to Council in October with a draft financial plan and we’ll be looking to consult with the public in November. The one limitation of such an approach is that we’ll not yet have clear information on 2015 surplus or 2016 non market assessment revenue.

  • I’ll be watching to see what happens with this – a primary critique of mine on the 2015 budget consultation was the limited scope of consultation (e.g., just the budget & new revenue) and this was something I wrote about after the budget was first presented on February 10th

We have a property tax calculator and estimator and the estimator helps simplify really complex issues by making it clear “how far your property tax bill differs from the average.”

  • My partner made a much smarter and prettier property tax calculator a long time ago. Mind you, it only provides the actual municipal portion of the property tax bill, not the whole rest of it like the city’s does. Our’s provides utility bill forecasting though!

The final piece relates to participatory budgeting and in order to bring this forward we are researching best practices and also talking with the district of Tofino. A budget simulator will also be introduced in 2016.

Questions from Council

Alto inquired about the finance director’s ability to “estimate” a fiscal year surplus prior to year’s end and was told there are way of keeping track. The existence of “contingency accounts” was also mentioned.

Mayor Helps said she had “lots of questions”.

She asked if the capital plan will be integrated within the budget that gets aligned with the strategic plan so as to ensure completion of two main 2018 strategic priorities, namely the David Foster Pathway and a new library in James Bay. The finance director seemed a bit shocked at this question, but quickly recovered and responded to remind Council that they have not yet put money aside for these 2018.

  • I’d also like to note that Council approved a base Capital Budget in a roundabout way during their 4 days of financial plan presentations, and then they also added to this during their April 9 – 15 meetings when they made final adjustment to the budget so as to spent the 2014 surplus and new market revenue.  

Helps then made “more of a comment” by speaking to how “everything in the strategic plan is “really important” and so council needs to understand the budget implications of all capital items such as the David Foster Way and a new James Bay Library. The City Manager then spoke up to remind Council of staff’s intention to bring forward a proposed financial plan  that will include capital plan items so that Council can track accomplishment of strategic priorities.

  • One thing he didn’t mention though was mentioned back in a January 2015 report (see page 23) from the finance director when she highlighted the need to also plan for the results of the City wide Facilities Assessment that was undertaken earlier this year in an effort to calculate future building  liabilities. 

Capital Planning Jan 2015

Helps then spoke of how some municipal metrics are more straightforward than others, and that she has doubts about value of assessing whether or not folks are “better off” because she is more interested in measures of things like “happiness” & “wellbeing”. On this question of happiness measures, the engagement director suggested that a survey of city businesses and residents will be occurring in 2016. A report related to this will be coming back to Council in September apparently.

Alto then spoke again to muse about the value of comparative metrics related to how populations may be better or worse off. She also had extensive praise for municipal budget simulators because they  help folks appreciate the magnitude and variety of issues that need to be balanced by Council in setting budgets.

Madoff then raised a concerned about the 2015 Action identified under the strategic objective of Make Victoria More Affordable (see right side of page 7) of “Limit annual property tax increases to maximum of rate of inflation plus 1%” and suggested this rate may be “restrictive” and City needs can’t always been predicted. Helps then picked up on this to ask if there could be a line item every year such as the strategic objectives fund established this year by Council so that they can remain “nimble and flexible”. The diplomatic response from the finance director was, “can do”.

  • I went looking for more details on this “strategic objectives” found and just found this document which I have previously linked. It shows the Strategic Objectives fund as sitting at: $2,991,532.00 but if you look through the first few pages you’ll see that this money is fully allocated for the strategic objectives. Which is to suggest, that there is no extra pot of money sitting around for use in new objectives. These were all things that were discussed during their April 9-15th meetings. 
  • Related to this, there was quite the debate back on the June 4th GPC when Mayor Helps brought forward her motion specific to amending the strategic plan and it was highlighted how the strategic plan was supposed to be the master document going forward with today’s financial planning Lesson’s Learn report obviously tying into this theme of the absolute strategic plan.  And so I mention this to highlight how confused and inconsistent Mayor Helps seems to be on a process that she has driven. 

Coleman then made some Coleman like comments by speaking to the converse of “is anyone better off” which is “is anyone worse off” – but he didn’t go anywhere with it. He then wondered what would happen if inflation went down and also nodded to himself when speaking to how Council can expect ‘increased lobbying similar to what the cyclists did” when the budget process gets moved up.

Helps then said something odd*:

In response to the question from Coleman, the finance director made a comment about how inflation is currently .7% which would mean a 1.7% tax increase for the City in 2016. In such a situation, staff said they would prepare a core budget forward (e.g., basic city items not in the strategic plan like run city hall and ensure everyone has running water) and then Council would have options for building up the rest of the budget.

  • This didn’t seem favourable or adequate. 

Helps then proceeded to speak at length about the “leading edge” metrics of municipal process that have been pioneered in some town outside of Edmonton and also possibly adopted in Edmonton. She said the science of these metrics may “sound flaky” but they’re solid. When she was asked by Coleman however to name this town, Help was unable to. Neither the finance or citizen engagement director knew what she was talking about either.

The staff recommendation that:

2016 Financial Plan Process

Council endorse the proposed approach for the 2016 financial planning process (shown above) as outlined in the lessons learned report was then passed.

Construction & Sales Trailers on City Streets

This item was one that Council attempted to pass on the consent agenda, but Madoff had them pull it off for questions. When the item then came up, Madoff’s persistent & practical questioning about it actually gave me a reason to like her again. I enjoyed how thoroughly she drilled the Director of Parking & Transportation Services because this was all he put forward:

After review by staff, it was determined that using a construction trailer for sales could be authorized in one of two ways:

    • For development sites with commercial zoning in place – in a right-of-way fronting a development site where commercial uses are authorized, the City will allow sales, in relation to the construction of the building on that site, as a permitted use of the trailer. Developers would identify this intended use when they apply for a street occupancy permit.
    • For development sites where commercial zoning is not in place – in a right-of-way fronting a development site where no commercial uses are authorized, the developer would need to identify this proposed use in the rezoning process, so staff could review and seek authorization through the appropriate mechanism. If the “sales” use was approved by Council, the developer would identify this use when applying for a street occupancy permit.

The policy requires developers to identify their intent to occupy public space for this use, and provides a mechanism for Council to consider these requests, where zoning does not currently allow sales use.

The point made by Madoff was, even with this “policy” in place the sales centre/construction trailer on Rockland still happened. And the director explained how this was because staff review trailers in terms of “operations” and so the Rockland trailer, regardless of how massive it was, posed no “safety risk”. All in all, sounds like some lessons were learned by staff on differences of appropriate trailer sizes in how the Rockland trailer may have been appropriate for downtown but not for narrow streets like Rockland in the future.

New Business

This motion from Mayor Helps to provide the “in kind support” that was requested just last week from two ladies representing a new pedestrian Advocacy group in Victoria, was passed on the Consent agenda. I was told after the meeting that apparently Council had been working with these ladies for months to help them prepare for their walk on week that is scheduled for October.

* when people say things like that, you always get the sense that they’re placing their own pre-conceptions and tendencies onto you even though you’re a totally different person with a different outlook on life. 

TL:DR

I promised in my Early Thoughts to write in depth about lessons learned on the 2015 financial planning process and then I realized that I’ve already written a bunch about it. The public meeting this morning was 36 minutes long and yet I spent probably 3 hours preparing for the meeting, 36 minutes tweeting about it and a subsequent 2-3 hours writing about it.

 

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