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Saskatoon’s Bridge from Nowhere

Sean Shaw has a great post on the proposed North Commuter Bridge and the process that surrounded it.

An internet search pinpoints an announcement on March 15th by the City Administration regarding the Integrated Growth Plan – the blue print that will guide Saskatoon’s growth for the next couple of decades – and the transportation plans included within that plan (Proposed Plan, March 2012 here). An article in the Star Phoenix the following day suggests that a North bridge has been on the planning books for Saskatoon since 1999. However, as recent as 2007, official City planning documents indicate only one proposed North Bridge, the provincially driven “North Perimeter” Bridge and Highway, which was originally proposed in 2000, with no mention of a second North Bridge (2007 University Heights Sector Plan – here – compare the map on page 2 to the Commuter Bridge Map). Moreover, the Sector Plan for University Heights has not been officially changed by City Council to include the proposed “North Commuter” Bridge or it’s connecting roadways, including the proposed arterial road that will now bi-sect the ecologically sensitive Northeast Swale (according to the Sector Plan no arterial roadways are supposed to cross the swale).

The lack of any historical documentation suggests that the “North Commuter” Bridge appeared out of thin-air early last year.

While researching this file last month, I made a request to City Administration to provide any public documents that outlined the feasibility of the proposed “North Commuter” Bridge – specifically traffic impact studies, like the one conducted for the Traffic Bridge, that demonstrated the requirement for the Bridge. I was told that no such study existed. Infact, the study (Transportation Functional Planning Study) that will determine the feasibility of different river crossings and how they will impact future traffic won’t be completed until later this month.

Furthermore, its commonly held in the local engineering community that the “North Perimeter” Bridge and Highway would be a better use of public dollars, in terms of addressing traffic movement for the City as a whole (funny enough, the same was said about the South Circle Bridge, namely that the North Perimeter Bridge should have been built first).

The entire post is worth reading until you realize that Saskatoon City Council has gone ahead and spent $100 million on a bridge that is going to be about 1/2 mile from another new bridge without understanding the impact of that bridge.  If anything they are doing their best to make city council spending in Regina and Markham sound reasonable.

The StarPhoenix’s call for change

From a StarPhoenix editorial on Friday

In the postwar era, suburbanites ruled by the power of the ballot, and governments were forced to react to their concerns.

It’s also significant that the events in Saskatoon coincided with a report from the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Centre in Colorado, which said that by mid-September the polar ice cap had retreated to historic levels, shattering the record retreat from 2007 and threatening to leave an ice-free Arctic decades sooner than expected.

The old way of building cities for automobiles is no longer on, Mr. Greenberg said. Except, as Saskatoon grows, that is exactly what is happening. Its suburbs still spread out in all directions, with large homes, two-vehicle-garages and car dependent citizens.

This isn’t only happening within city limits, where planners and city councillors are trying to adjust development patterns to favour denser development, but it’s happening past Saskatoon’s fringes where rural politicians argue that the city has no right to rain on their parade of sprawl.

The true test of Mr. Greenberg’s theory of a paradigm shift won’t just be the willingness of young citizens to sacrifice a Thursday evening to hear him. The test will be if they inform civic politicians on the hustings of their visions, if they turn out on Oct. 24 to mark their ballots, and if they spread the message those provincial and federal politicians and business leaders who are claiming that there is no difference between urban or rural interests.

Sean Shaw’s Campaign Video

Sean Shaw is the first candidate to use Vimeo, a fact that is probably only interesting to me.

Henry Dayday’s Campaign videos

I forgot about these but Saskatoon mayoral candidate (and former mayor) Henry Dayday has put out a series of campaign videos.

Dayday’s delivery isn’t bad but the videos… umm yeah.  That and on the last video, he is talking to a road paving crew in the parking lot of The Centre Mall and not on a road.

Tom Wolf for Mayor

Since I have been on a bit of a roll of posting campaign videos, here is Tom Wolf’s mayoral campaign kick-off video.

I like it but I would have gone with a different background.  You can find the video on his campaign website here.   If you know of a candidate campaign video that I haven’t posted, let me know and I’ll toss it up here.

I have been in meetings with city planners that are exactly like this

This transcript could have also been lifted from any number of Saskatoon City Council meetings.

Zach Jeffries to run in Ward 10

Local Saskatoon businessman and media personality Zach Jeffries is running for Ward 10 city councillor against Bev Dubois.  He joins, Dubois and Mark Horseman in the race.  I have gotten to know Zach and Mark over the last couple of years as they are both avid city council watchers and fun to talk city politics with and both made credible challengers to Bev Dubois’ re-election campaign.   Both have experience in civic, provincial, and federal campaigns with a large network of people to call upon.  It could be the race to watch in 2012.

Column: NDP Conspiracy Idea Baseless

My column in today’s The StarPhoenix

In the column, Political moves on Saskatoon council (SP, Jan. 27) John Gormley suggested an NDP takeover of Saskatoon city council.

In addition to the "Gang of Five," he saw additional threats in Sean Shaw, Pat Atkinson and Frank Quennell as contenders in an organized attempt by the NDP to take over the city. In the coming "Leftaggeddon" there could be as many as seven left-of-centre councillors and a New Democratic mayor haunting Gormley’s dreams, with the apparent intention of tormenting the Saskatchewan Party from their stronghold in council.

As fun as it is to imagine a vast left-wing conspiracy, it’s not why Saskatoon’s city council is the way it is.

After last fall’s provincial election campaign, I am not confident that Saskatchewan’s NDP is able to organize a slo-pitch team, let alone a takeover of city council. Even if there was a nefarious effort to elect leftwing councillors in some wards, some did run against a well-financed and organized effort from the right. There are NDP supporters who run and campaign in civic elections, but the battle goes both ways, with Saskatchewan Party supporters getting involved, as well.

It’s been a part of civic politics in Saskatoon for many years. Even then most civic campaigns are still won and lost by a small team of people working hard for a friend or candidate in whom they believe.

With limited budgets and no city-wide campaigns for councillors, it often comes down to who gets out door knocking the earliest and stays out the latest.

While Gormley is likely to disagree, the left-right comparison doesn’t work in civic politics as it does at other levels of government. There isn’t a lot of room for political ideology when councillors are discussing and voting on a karate studio in Westview, or the lack of access to dog parks.

During the couple of town hall meetings I sat in on this fall, there weren’t a lot of wedge issues brought up. Even on bigger topics, such as what to do with the Traffic Bridge, or voting on the south bridge, the "Gang of Four" was replaced many times by the Gang of 11 as council voted together.

Watching council you notice that differences exist, but not as much on a rightleft divide but on questions of how one builds a city and what kind of city one wants.

Will it be a neighbourhood-centric city such as New York, or an endless sprawling suburb such as Mississauga in Ontario? Do we want a car-driven infrastructure like Los Angeles, or a public transit-driven one like San Francisco?

Do we lay out rigorous architectural standards like Chicago or even Winnipeg, or toothless standards that lead to bland architecture, as we now have in Saskatoon?

The kind of council we have reflects the kind of city we have. Parts of Saskatoon have done far better than others during the economic boom, and will have much different perspectives on what the next steps should be and what priorities we should have. The average income in the city in 2006 was $65,487, with 5.9 per cent of households living below $15,000 a year.

In Saskatoon’s five core neighbourhoods, the average income is $35,003, with a staggering 13.3 per cent of families living on less than $15,000 a year. Eleven per cent of Saskatoon needs day-care help, but the number is double in the core. Only six per cent of Saskatoon adults have less than a Grade 9 education, but when you look at the core, that number more than doubles to 13 per cent.

How many areas of Saskatoon have their own economic development corporation? None. We have city councillors that see the world differently from each other because we have a very divided city, and see the challenges and opportunities in different ways.

A council that reflects our city’s perspectives is what we want. We need market friendly councillors as well as those who can advocate for other aspects of city life. Saskatoon has suffered through councils that were both too business-driven and anti-business.

A diverse council is good for the city. We benefit from both the right and left because, as a city, that is who we are. As long as councillors keep doing that, I am pretty happy.

Grandstanding over an international trade deal when the city doesn’t even have a local procurement policy? Let’s leave those stunts up to other levels of government and go back to micromanaging the transit department. It’s at least something both sides can agree upon.

jordon@jordoncooper.com

City of Saskatoon to seek exemption for international trade deal

This still boggles my mind.

Saskatoon should request an exemption to a large-scale free-trade agreement being negotiated between Canada and Europe, a city committee agreed.

City councillors, sitting as an executive committee, voted 5-4 Monday to seek a permanent exemption to the proposed Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, or CETA, a free trade and economic integration pact between Canada and the 27 European Union countries that is in the final stages of negotiation.

The resolution still requires council approval in February and will face some difficulty with two right-of-centre councillors, Coun. Myles Heidt and Coun. Randy Donauer, absent at the committee Tuesday.

I know this will die in council with Heidt and Donauer’s return but still…

Access to government procurement at federal, provincial, municipal, regional and local governments, as well as Crown corporations and utilities, is Europe’s main goal in the pact. Saskatoon has seen interest from European firms on a small number of major infrastructure projects, including the $300-million Circle Drive South project, which drew a bid from a Spanish firm.

Cities only have to be concerned about the effect on construction contracts, not the takeover of city-owned utilities, according to a briefing from provincial officials, Jordan said

“I’m confident from the information I’ve received there’s not much need to be concerned about that aspect of it,” [Michael] Jordan said.

Okay, at least the city managers are thinking clearly on this one.

Coun. Charlie Clark questioned if the private sector could challenge the city to open up municipally operated services such as Access Transit, the lift-equipped bus service, or if city hall could no longer enact a local food first policy or a bottled water ban under the agreement.

“There’s enough unknowns about how this could impact the city and because we don’t have a seat at the table it’s best to request an exemption,” Clark said. “I think that as a democratically-elected city council we should make sure we can make the decisions we need to make to protect citizens and there’s no real benefits from what I can see for cities to be included — so it’s easier to be excluded.”

Can local municipalities actually be excluded under international trade agreements?  The truth is that on big projects like the bridges that we are building are being designed and built by international firms because of their complexity and scope and the consolidation of international design and engineering firms (which as a city we benefit from).   I also hate the idea that we need to protect local companies from international competition.  The reason we need to protect them is that we think as the city grows, they aren’t good enough.  Sometimes they won’t be good enough (which is why international firms exist and why there has been increased consolidation around the super engineering firms) but protecting them from competition doesn’t make them any better either.

Of course all of this was grandstanding because the city doesn’t even have a local procurement policy.

The bigger impact is the New West Partnership which will open up construction contracts over $200,000 to companies across the west.  It will have a far greater impact on small and medium businesses in this province than CETA will, yet that passed.

The Junction

Sean Shaw uncovers to things about the City of Saskatoon.  The first is the City is looking at redeveloping The Junction.

The Junction concept plan seeks to link together  major redevelopment projects in three Saskatoon core areas by recommending public realm improvements, identifying future uses for vacant/contaminated lands, increasing investor confidence, and synchronize past studies and recommend improvements within the area. At the hub of the concept plan will be a community focal point, the future Station 20 West, a co-operative grocery store and community enterprise centre on Saskatoon’s historical business district, 20th Street. The purpose of the Request for Proposals (RFP) is to seek  consulting and facilitation services to prepare a background summary report and design and execute a public engagement plan within the study area.

He found it while randomly browsing the City of Saskatoon website (nice to know that I am not the only one that does that) but it kind of underline the communications issues that both the city and in particular the city’s website has.  Want to find all of the RFP’s that are out?  Have fun with that as it’s not going to happen.  The city website that has impressed me the most has been the City of Calgary’s.  Along the same line, Mayor Nenshi has a spectacular website at www.calgarymayor.ca.  I am not sure why Mayor Don Atchison doesn’t have the same thing.  Whether it be him using saskatoonmayor.ca or even setting up mayor.saskatoon.ca for communications from the Mayor’s office, it would improve the Mayor’s messaging considerably.  Nenshi’s Mayor of Calgary website is branded as a City of Calgary property which makes sense and can be used for the next mayor of Calgary in the same way premier.gov.sk.ca is used by the Government of Saskatchewan.

The advantage of a website for Saskatoon’s current and future mayors (assuming that Mayor Atchison does not rule forever) is that it gives information to his defenders as well.  I am a fan of the job that the current city council has done (well some of them have done) but it’s incredibly hard to find the information needed to defend them at times.  I have heard that the city has sent out of a RFP for a new Saskatoon.ca.  Hopefully it makes finding information a lot easier.

The City of Saskatoon Spending Review

Saskatoon’s city council decided to do a spending review on what to cut.  One city councillor described their efforts as “courageous”.  That’s not a word I would have used.  After many meetings, too much debate, and questionable live tweeting, the final results are known.  A paltry $1.7 million. 

Here are the cuts as gathered by Dave Hutton.  Commentary is mine.

Cuts:

Voice over internet phone savings: $151,600

Let’s hope they don’t use our company.  My work phone drops calls all of the time.

Affordable housing program reduction: $250,000

Beyond disappointed with this.  It shows a lack of vision and leadership to cut this.

Eliminate satellite office space for community associations: $20,200

Cut Victoria Park skateboard security: $7,000

Okay, there was a need for this because kids were being beaten up and charged a “user fee” by bullies and kiddie gangs.  Now we decide to cut it back.  It kind of works like the Saskatoon Police safer streets initiative.  Once you stop providing the security presence, the violence and bullying will start again.  The other option is just to subcontract out the operation of the park to the bullies.  At least the city would get a cut.

Reduce newspaper advertising: $50,000

How will council respond to Henry Dayday now?  Also, which newspaper are you cutting advertising in?  It better be Planet S. 

Close Little Chief community police station: $104,000

This is a really good idea.  It wasn’t being used and I can see a boutique or specialty store coming and doing something great with the space.  If that doesn’t happen, Riversdale BID could be housed out of it.  It would also make a great location for a New York style hot dog cart (which I can’t eat anymore).

Reduce 2012 police budget from eight to six officers: $147,300

Remove purchase of a marked police vehicle: $32,600

I really didn’t like this.  Either the city needs eight police officers or it needs six.  If it needs eight, then you get eight.  If it needs six, then I find it frustrating that two token positions were proposed to be cut.  I know that is how “it” is done but I don’t like it.  Same with the police car.

Reduce park maintenance staff: $120,000

This seemed like a genuine cut and I didn’t like it.  I spent a lot of time in Saskatoon parks and I notice when things are broken and I appreciate the work they do when things are looking really good.  I think this cut is a mistake.

Mendel Art Gallery cut: $5,700

We just gave them $20 million to build a new building but we scaled back the operating grant by $5700.  Wow.

Fee Hikes:

Discounted transit pass : $159,000

I was shocked by this as I thought it was a provincial program to begin with.  The Ministry of Social Services actually advertised this on their website.  Personally I think the Province of Saskatchewan should pick up the bill for the entire program.  I applaud the city for starting the program but we should not be stuck with the bill.

Security false alarm fees: $195,300
Leisure centres: $92,000
Street closures: $12,000
Development permits: $120,000
Sign permits: $14,000
Tax and assessment searches: $18,300
Allotment gardens: $500
Development applications: $120,000
Organic recycling green bins: $24,000
Building inspections: $200,000

Total: $1.7-million

Sean Shaw has a post on the cuts as well.  In it he reveals a shocking truth – he actually read all of the reports.  In my defense, I have been busy taking Mark to football practice every night for a couple of hours which is prime NFL Network report reading time.  The next service review will be just before the next civic election in four year which means that Mark will still be playing football.  If he does not go on to play for either the Huskies or the Hilltops, I will be sure to read the next batch of reports in 2019.  Dave Hutton has both a story and a post on the cuts.

Hutton’s story had one new fee being discussed.  The sound barrier fee.

The lengthiest discussion Wednesday surrounded an administration proposal to move the payment of the construction of sound walls to homeowners via a local improvement levy. Currently, the city’s infrastructure branch budgets $576,000 annually to construct sound walls based on a prioritized list. There is $37 million in sound wall construction outstanding. The walls are now built in new areas or as part of road construction projects, but weren’t for many years.

Coun. Tiffany Paulsen said "logistical and practical issues" make such a fee a bad idea. The cost of a sound wall per lot averages $50,000, council heard. Even if the total is cost-shared by the city or by an entire neighbourhood, it’s still a substantial cost to the homeowner, Paulsen said.

"It’s one thing to have a local levy of $200," she said. "It’s another to have a local levy of $50,000. This is a whole new ball game."

Umm, Coun. Paulsen, what about the $2250 (plus GST) levy for each home that has to have city water lines replaced.  While neighbourhoods have done well without sound barriers, I have to “flush my system” by running my cold water for FIVE MINUTES each morning to ensure it’s safe.  When (and if) the city decides to replace the water mains on my street, each of us will get a $2250 (plus GST) bill for it.  So the city will cover a $50,000 bill for each home for sound reasons while it won’t cover $2250 a home for clean drinking water. 

It would be humorous if only they weren’t running the city I lived in.

Running for Saskatoon City Council 101

Over the last couple of weeks The StarPhoenix has been running profiles of declared candidates for Ward 3’s by-election.  As I read the profile, the first thing I do is Google each candidate to find out more.  Unlike other by-elections, in this one there isn’t a single website to be found which can’t be good.  So much for defining yourself before your opponent or Dave Hutton can.

My suggestion to any of the candidates is just before you file your papers with City Hall, do one of two things.

  1. Register a domain name and put up a quick one page bio and submit it to be crawled by Google and Bing.  Ainsley Robertson* put together a great looking campaign website using Squarespace.
  2. Another solution would be to take 10 minutes and create a page with About.me.  It’s free and if you chose to use Facebook, Twitter, Flickr or any number of online services later.  You get a URL that is friendly.  Mine is about.me/jordoncooper. It took me 10 minutes to create.  There is adequate space to add a bio, it’s easy to create and change, and if your campaign takes off, millions of dollars come in, and you are able to create a political movement with your new and improved website, about.me will work with that as well.

I can’t see someone winning a local campaign without an established name or a great web campaign, especially with a short writ and no party support (as you would have in federal and provincial by-elections).  While I don’t know how to calculate campaign ROI, an investment of 30 minute and $10 seems to be a good one.

* I am going to assume that by leaving her campaign website online and active, Robertson is going to be running in Ward 5 in 2012.

I’m angry at the government as well

Cosmo Industries is upset with the City of Saskatoon City Council.  I am to but for totally different reasons.  Saskatoon doesn’t have a minor league ball team, the Riders don’t hold their training camp in Saskatoon anymore, there is a massive pothole on a street I drive to work on.  The list goes on.

Cosmo’s complaint seems to revolve around the fact that they have a contract for paper collection in the city and that contract is now in jeopardy because of the cities move to curbside recycling.  As The StarPhoenix’s Dave Hutton writes.

Cosmo issued a news release Tuesday, stating that "adults with intellectual disabilities are shut out from benefiting from the future economic and population growth in Saskatoon."

In a report, the city guarantees Cosmo 7,800 tonnes of paper fibre each year for the next seven years, the remainder of a 10-year contract. The amount of paper fibre Cosmo has received from the depots has ranged from roughly 6,500 in 2005 to 7,800 tonnes in 2010, around 41 per cent of total paper fibre in the waste stream. The city projected the amount to decrease because of more households signing up for private curbside collection and a move to digital media.

When a curbside system is installed in 2012, the depot system will remain intact, but the amount of paper coming from the depots is expected to decrease substantially. In a report, the city says it will provide the 7,800 tonnes to Cosmo by delivering the remainder of paper from depots and large organizations. The city also says it will ask bidders to provide pricing for the city to buy raw paper fibre from them and deliver it to Cosmo to meet the contract requirements.

Ken Gryschuk, community relations manager for Cosmo, said the organization projected the amount of paper received through depots to increase to 10,000 tonnes through 2018.

They are so upset they are not threatening to sue but want to talk to their lawyers about it.

Gryschuk said he still thinks there is time to amend the agreement. He said Cosmo "is not contemplating a lawsuit" but is getting a legal opinion on the status of the contract with the city.

"I do not believe that this is over," he said. "What was done last night does not reflect the will of the people of Saskatoon."

I am a part of a non-profit who deals with the Government of Saskatchewan and one thing I have learned is that essentially I work at the leisure of the Government of Saskatchewan and can be shut down or impacted negatively at any time.  This week I have spent pouring over budget information and made the hard decision to (hopefully temporarily) cut positions at the shelter.  It’s hard and it is largely a result in a government policy shift in how they want to handle their department.  The Centre has lost funding for programs before and I am sure it will lose funding for programs in the future.  Other agencies have gone through the same thing.  While I understand the frustration that those who run Cosmo Industries must feel, it is the same for everyone.  Market conditions changed and Cosmo is going to have to adjust.

The same for us.  Housing FIrst programs are dealing with homelessness far better than shelters have and so we prepare for the day when sheltering is going to be a lot less important than assisted living and SROs.  It’s been difficult in other cities as at the Booth Centre in Calgary where a change in the environment has been met with layoffs

It’s a hard decision for city council but what Cosmo Industries wanted would have frozen the city in time.  Here is how Gerry Klein sees it.

The monkey-wrench in the works, however, is a belief by Cosmo industries that to move on could cost the organization access to the paper that makes it work. To allay these fears, Coun. Lorje in January proposed – and council unanimously agreed – that any new system should be designed to protect Cosmo’s interests.

That turned the debate to whether the status quo was protection enough. Half of council and the civic administration believed that guaranteeing Cosmo a minimum volume of paper – the 7,800 tonnes or so it now receives – should allow the enterprise to continue by maintaining the current level of employment for its clients.

Cosmo, however, wants a bigger cut of the action. If this were about any other recyclable material, it probably wouldn’t have mattered much. But paper is where the money is in recycling.

Every non-profit wants to do more to help it’s clients.  Without a doubt Cosmo could hire more people and help more if they got up to 10,000 tonnes of paper a year but all non-profits can do the same if given more resources.  Cosmo is going to have to diversify, expand, retool, and reimagine themselves.  They have had a great ride, built a great legacy, and have goodwill in the community.  Trashing city council for not allowing them to continue their monopoly isn’t the way to go.  Figuring out their next market is what they need to be doing.

Is Saskatoon mortgaging it’s future?

Former Mayor Henry Dayday thinks so.

Please accept this letter as a concern that a number of taxpayers have related to me as a former Mayor of the city. The city has been experiencing a boom period, but as in the past we know that times change.

The concern is due to the large amount of money that is being spent on new projects without a clear plan for financing and paying for these projects. To date, many of these projects have been built with financing that uses borrowed money, or financing that will reduce the revenues to the city for operations in the future, or will reduce the amount of money available through reserves.

The city, to date, needs $12M to service its present projected debt of $175M. The city has also agreed to use money from new developed areas of the city to finance capital projects such as the Clarence Street overpass, which is in addition to the one third that already goes from increased taxation in new development areas for capital projects. Some reserves that are in deficit have already received approval as exemptions from the normal requirement to be funded. There is also a conversion of one half million dollars that the Art Gallery received from assessment growth that goes as a capital contribution and will now be diverted to debt repayment. This means that the city now needs to find an additional one half million dollars to fund the already deficient reserves. In addition, City Council adopted a policy in March of 2008 that transfers annually a portion of the accumulated return on investment of approximately $5M from the land development activities to general revenue, which is in addition to the existing transfer of over $1M.

The city has now approved a proposed new police station that is estimated to cost the taxpayers $131M with $9M as a down payment in 2011. Each year, hence until 2016, the city will raise taxes by $850,000. By the year 2016, the taxpayers will have had a tax hike of approximately 5.8%. Then once the $7.5M repayment of the loan begins, the tax hike will be another 5.8% for a total tax increase of 11.6%. Furthermore, in 2016 the total cash paid is $38M leaving a loan of$93M. At a 7% interest rate, which appears to be the rate that is being paid on the present $175M debt, this requires that the taxpayer will need approximately $98M over 30 years for interest including the $131M as the principal cost for a total cost to the taxpayers of $229M. This is in addition to many other projects such as a new traffic bridge, the Mendel Art Gallery, the new transit headquarters and the relocation of the city yards, just to mention a few where there is no funding in place.

During my years as the Mayor, the administration and I negotiated an agreement with the Provincial Government to transfer City Hospital for a large tract of land in the north east sector of the city. This land proved to be very beneficial to the city and is meant to help the taxpayers by reducing tax increases in the future. Another objective is that the land sales are to be used not only for development, but also to replace the sold land through new land acquisitions. My concern is with the policy of March, 2008 where Council is drawing approximately $5M from the reserve annually. At this rate, that could deplete the reserve when sales slow down as well as not replace the land for future development whereby future taxpayers would not get the benefit that the land was intended to provide.

To my knowledge, the city has been required to have an actuarial review done on all its pension plans every three years. It is also my understanding that these reviews have been deferred. The taxpayers would be interested in knowing the status of these pension funds.

Every time the city changes a policy of transferring money from one account to another to finance a project and then does not replace the money or draws more money from an account, so that the account will not be sufficiently funded in the future, is another form of borrowing against the future.

The purpose of this letter is to answer the concerns that the taxpayers have raised. How do we pay for this spending and how will it impact on future tax increases?

To date, we have a borrowing limit of $400M with $175M already borrowed. We have a projected unfunded liability to the end of 2015 for reserves of $144M. We the have a number of expensive projects that are already started with funds committed such as the $131M police station, the $67M Art Gallery, the $26M traffic bridge and a $200M approved financing plan for a new transit headquarters and the relocation of the city yards without knowing the funding sources. These commitments already appear to exceed the borrowing limit.

In the past, major expenditures by the city, such as Credit Union Centre, had a financial plan in place as to how the project would be financed before we proceeded with any construction. As was the case with Credit Union Centre, the taxpayers voted twice as to the location of the facility and then on the approval of the $10M expenditure. If my memory serves me correctly, the cost for each household was approximately $15 annually for ten years. After ten years, City Council decided what to do with the extra $1M plus that was no longer required to fund the debt. To date, we have not seen any financial plans as to the impact all these major expenditures will have on the taxpayer in the future.

He has some recommendations as well and the art gallery will probably cost more than $90 million when all is said and done.  There are a couple of city councilors who are avid readers on my website, I would love to see their comments.   My own personal view is that I don’t know how much debt it too much debt for Saskatoon’s GDP but as Richard Florida points out, some of the most desirable cities to work and live in North America (Seattle, Portland, Austin) have higher level of services and taxes.  At the same time, I see the city wanting the services but not the taxes so we are increasing debt.  The question that I have never see answered is “how much debt is too much.”  Former Mayor Dayday says that we are at that point now.  Are we?

City Report on Water Consumption

Growing up on a river, you never really think about water consumption outside of your water bill.  That started to change when we bought our house twelve years ago.  It has a boulevard out front but since we are on a corner lot, it also has a large one along the side of the house that is unbroken by a sidewalk.  The entire yard was a mess and by the time I got to the boulevard, it was a couple of years later.  We had fertilized it and watered but the problem was that the grass (basically a quack grass) was growing on clay which meant no top soil, shallow roots, and zero water absorption.  I bet 90% to 95% of the water ran off the boulevard and went straight down the drain.

Our house What I should have done was rotor till the entire boulevard, bring in top soil, organic matter and reseed but I didn’t have the money to do so and I am not sure you can do that to a city boulevard anyways.  I took another approach in that I stopped bagging my grass with the hope that it would stop some of the evaporation of the 5% of water that was being absorbed and eventually break down and decompose to provide some organic matter.  In addition to this I started to spread both some peat moss and compost down on the lawn.  Finally I started to aerate the lawn and boulevard which helped out a lot.  Over the next five years the well beaten path of people cutting through the lawn came back (we did over seed with a hearty mixtures from Early’s Farm and Garden) and the boulevard started to transition from rock hard to developing a spongy feel like there was actual soil underneath.  Now the lawn isn’t healthy enough to be organic and I do have a vacant weed infested lot behind be which causes all sorts of problems with noxious weeds which means that I tend to use a lot of weed and feed on the boulevard on the back half of our lot but we have made a lot of progress.  Last year for the first time I spread out a mixture of home brewed compost tea (recipe and instructions) after seeing how it has made a difference at Harvard (less mowing, less water, deeper roots and it absorbs wear and tear of students better).  The end result of all this has been our water consumption is way down the last several years.

Now it looks like a lot of work but it was actually less work than you think.  First of all, not picking up the grass after we mow saved a lot of time.  There are some times when a combination of rain and schedule that I do bag up our grass, plus, I do need some grass for the compost container once in a while but most of the time, it’s a big time saver and the rest of the work needs to be done anyways.  The big change has been to go to the compost tea and I am hoping that it will make a big difference over the next couple of years.

One thing that strikes me is that we don’t do a lot of talking in the city about reducing water consumption.  The average Canadian uses about 120,000 litres (26,396 gallons) of water per year which is why I was happy to see that in the full report that the Saskatoon Environmental Advisory Committee presented to the Administration and Finance Committee included five recommendations related to water conservation.  Here are their recommendations in summary

  1. amend existing bylaws to require water efficient fixtures (low-flow toilets and shower heads) for new and existing building construction and renovations in residential, commercial, industrial, and institutional sectors,
  2. implement a low-flow toilet rebate program similar to other Western Canadian municipalities,
  3. enact a bylaw implementing an outdoor water schedule,
  4. report back on a strategy to implement a water monitoring program, and
  5. promote and develop new programs and incentives for water conservation.

Number 3 is the most interesting option to me.  Okotoks’s schedule works like this

Due to the increase in water consumption in town, outdoor watering is now only permitted two days a week.  One hour of watering per week is adequate for established lawns.

Odd numbered addresses may water lawns:  (Addresses ending in 1,3,5,7,9)
Thursdays &/or Sundays

Even numbered addresses may water lawns:  (Addresses ending in 0,2,4,6,8)
Wednesdays &/or Saturdays

Watering may only occur during the following hours:
6:00 am – 9:00 am
7:00 pm – 11:00 pm

Flowerbeds and vegetable gardens may be watered by hand at any time using a watering can or hose with a trigger spray nozzle.

Please respect the specified watering days and hours, as water is a limited resource. The fines for not obeying the water regulations range from $100—$2500.

Cambridge has a similar plan but will it work and be accepted here.  It’s a big shift in behavior for Saskatoon, especially when much of our water consumption goes right back into the South Saskatchewan River (once treated).  Mark and Oliver have grown up running through the sprinkler in the yard and Maggi takes a nap under the sprinkler on many days.  To lose that or have that restricted would be a big change.  It would also lead to conflicts among neighbors.  Someone is always complaining about one neighbor on our street because they think his vehicles take up too much street parking (which makes no sense to me).  Every summer someone from the city comes by because (probably the same neighbor that complains about the parking) is sure the maple firewood we have in the backyard is elm (and banned).  Watching a recent show on Melbourne, Australia which has more severe water restrictions than what Okotoks has (Melbourne has had a drought since 1997), people put up signs saying that their gardens are being watered by excess shower water.

Saving water in MelbourneWhile we aren’t in a situation of drought, the South Saskatchewan River is under some pressure and this where I get upset.  On one hand, I totally agree with the recommendations being made to Saskatoon City Council yet on the other hand, this isn’t a Saskatoon issue.  Most of the water being taken from the South Saskatchewan River is from irrigation projects in Alberta.

“We know virtually nothing about actual use or consumption of water,” she says. “No one does.” Her assertion catches There are nearly 12,000 licensed users of river water and 80 percent of the water allocated under these licences is withdrawn in Alberta’s sprawling irrigation districts. Users typically meter their intake pipes, but the standards for reporting are lax, and withdrawal numbers alone cannot tell us actual water use. Some water is taken up by growing plants, some evaporates or is lost from leaking canals, and much simply flows back to the river. Since none of this is measured, actual consumption is just an estimate based on assumptions.

The article goes on to state

When it comes to water, getting the big picture is never easy. The truth can simply vanish in the details. Since the future of the river is, in the broadest sense, a supply-demand equation, I set off to the university’s department of economics to find Joel Bruneau, co-editor of a comprehensive technical report called “Climate Change and Water Resources in the South Saskatchewan River Basin.” The ponytailed professor does his part to avert a hotter, drier future climate by getting around Saskatoon by bicycle year-round. But his report suggests the challenges are here and now.

“The whole story is irrigation,” says Bruneau before I am quite seated in his office. His studies show there is sufficient river water to cope with regional population growth and worst-scenario climate change, but not if we keep irrigating at the present rate.

In fact, irrigation is still expanding. Even though Alberta stopped issuing new water licenses in the South Saskatchewan River Basin in 2006, room to grow comes from “efficiencies” — converting leaky, evaporation-prone canals to low-loss pipeworks. Trading in water allocations, which further maximizes Alberta consumption, is on the rise. The net result of such “savings” is less water in the river for downstream users.

“They are already overallocated on the Oldman and Bow rivers and borrowing from the Red Deer to pay the ‘bill’ to Saskatchewan,” says Bruneau, who can foresee a day when Alberta will want to buy some of Saskatchewan’s share. For years a poor cousin to its western neighbor, Saskatchewan has seen its economic fortunes rise meteorically, and some farmers have called on government to directly match Alberta’s irrigation investment.

Bruneau doubts new irrigation projects would make economic sense now, if they ever did, but he dismisses the idea on more fundamental grounds. “We are taking a third of the river for irrigation already,” he says. “There’s no way we can double that. The water would become warm, covered with algae. The fish would die.”

So Saskatoon gets to pay the bill because Alberta farmer’s want to grow crops that are more profitable then would be allowed by normal farm conditions.   I remember seeing the dry river beds of California and the Colorado River and thinking, I am so lucky to have the South Saskatchewan River.  Let’s hope enough people agree and we come up with ways to guarantee that it is always going to be there.

The South Saskatchewan River