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Saskatoon is Winterstrong

Saskatoon in Winterstrong

I have long said that Saskatoon could and needs to do winter better.  Instead of complaining about it, we need to embrace it like Edmonton has done.  With the arrival of winter today in Saskatoon, I decided to come up with a list of 30 awesome things to do in Saskatoon this winter (actually it is 28 things, one awesome thing is in North Battleford and one in PANP).  If you have any ideas, let me know on the page.  I’ll add them all.

Cosmo

Cosmo at Galaxyland in West Edmonton Mall

It could be a hint about what next week’s column is going to be about.

Turning 40

Today mark’s my 40th trip around the sun without being tossed off.  I guess it also means that I am middle aged.  That being said, Time Magazine once said that 50 is the new 30 so I guess that makes me 25 or so.  Not sure if that is a good thing or a bad thing.

To celebrate my birthday, we have spent the last couple of days where it all began; in Edmonton.  Yes I was born in Edmonton.  I don’t like to talk about it because it wasn’t my choice and it is Edmonton after all.

We got up at Sunday at 5:00 a.m., left Saskatoon at 6:00 a.m., were in Lloydminister for breakfast at 8:30 a.m. and in Elk Island National Park by 11 a.m.  After talking some photos of some bison, it was off to Edmonton.  Wendy used some Airmiles to book a decent hotel, the boys have spent the last couple of days enjoying West Edmonton Mall and I got out in the warmer weather and took some photos around the city.  I’ll post them online when I get back to Saskatoon.

I don’t really think of Edmonton as home.  I was born there and only lived there a year before moving to Rainbow Lake and then settling in Calgary for a decade.  Growing up as a Calgary Flames hockey fan, I used to despise Edmonton in the same way someone from Springfield thinks of Shelbyville.  Since things have changed (and both Calgary and Edmonton can’t play hockey),it is nice to be back, even if it does mean wandering up and down a mall.

Invicta Watch

For my birthday, the boys gave me a Pentax WG-10 rugged compact camera while Wendy gave me a GoPro 3+ Silver Edition and a really nice Invicta dive watch.  Maggi gave me a Denver Broncos sign that I will hang at the cabin.  Two of the four gifts say, “get outside more often” and after this winter, I can’t agree more.

The plan is to have dinner with the boys tonight at a local restaurant and then head down to Winston’s for a Diet Coke with some friends.

My brother gave me a DeWalt cordless drill and a bit set.  We are planning to build the deck on the cabin this summer and he included his ideas as well.  A 10×10 deck out back and a 8×8 deck in the front yard.  We should have it built in a day.

Value investing in arenas

As a hockey fan, this kind of hurts

Josh Harris said Newark’s Prudential Center was a more important financial piece in his purchase of the New Jersey Devils than the hockey team itself.

Harris and David Blitzer, a New Jersey native and senior managing director of Blackstone Group LP, purchased the National Hockey League franchise last month in an agreement that also gave the partnership control of the Prudential Center.

Located three blocks from Newark’s main transportation hub, the $385 million Prudential Center was opened in 2007. Harris called it “one of the most modern arenas in the country.”

“And we think that with the new capital structure and the new ownership group and the new management that we put in, that we’ll be able to make this arena really realize its potential financially,” Harris said in a Bloomberg Television interview.

Harris, who bought the National Basketball Association’s Philadelphia 76ers in 2011, acquired the NHL team in a deal valued at about $300 million.

Harris has already made changes to the Devils’ business personnel, hiring Scott O’Neil as chief executive officer. The former president of Madison Square Garden Sports, O’Neil is also the chief executive of the 76ers.

Harris said he viewed the Prudential Center as complementary to New York City’s two main arenas, Madison Square Garden in Manhattan and the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. The home of theNBA’s New York Knicks and NHL’s New York Rangers, the Garden is completing a $1 billion private renovation. The $1 billion Barclays Center, home of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, opened last year.

“If you’re a big concert event and you stop in New York, you’re probably going to play one of MSG and Barclays, and this arena,” Harris said of the Devils’ home.

O’Neil said in another Bloomberg Television interview last week that the Prudential Center was the fourth-highest grossing arena in the nation, behind Barclays, the Garden and Staples Center in Los Angeles. He didn’t offer specific figures or the source of his information.

Located about 11 miles (18 kilometers) from New York City, the Prudential Center has been a one-tenant building since the Nets moved to Brooklyn prior to the 2012-13 season. Harris said the venue’s concerts and special events would be enough to sustain the building without a second professional team.

“Having a basketball team, an NBA team, in this arena is not in the business plan right now,” Harris said. “We don’t think it’s necessary.”

Interesting bit of arena drama right now in New York.  You have Madison Square Garden being evicted, the Nassau Coliseum being totally renovated and refurbished, the Baclay’s Centre opening, and now the New Jersey Devils being purchased not for the team, but because it gives them access to Newark’s Prudential Centre.

In case you think this is just a New York thing, check out what MSG is doing with the old Los Angeles Forum, a building many thought would be torn down.

The first thing to consider is that arenas are costing $300 million dollars at least with many heading towards the $500 to a $1 billion range (depending on land prices).  Older arenas like Nassau and The Forum now have tremendous value, if you can call a $100 million renovation a value, in part because modern arenas have become so expensive, they aren’t viable in non-premier markets.  Remember that the City of Edmonton is paying a subsidy to the Edmonton Oilers to operate their new arena and Glendale is paying a large subsidy to the Coyotes to manage their arena.

Live and make money in Edmonton

So Detroit isn’t the only place with a compelling story.  Take a look at this video about why you should move and dream in Edmonton.

Here is Mayor Stephen Mandel making the argument to invest in Edmonton

And now Paul Douglas, the CEO of PCL explains why they work and live in Edmonton.

Of course a video on how awesome the University of Alberta is and how it will make your business money.

Column: Heavy Prices Paid for Low Taxes

My column in today’s The StarPhoenix

If you happened to have watched the discussions during last week’s city council meeting about snow removal and business taxes in Saskatoon, you would have left with a clear impression: The city is having a hard time paying for basic services.

Lost in the rhetoric over how hard city crews work and how bad was the winter is a simple fact. Council voted against residential snow removal last fall, which created this mess in the first place. Even last week there were news stories about impassable streets.

The reason that councillors voted against residential snow removal was to keep property taxes as low as possible. As the city has proudly proclaimed for years, Saskatoon has the lowest property taxes in Canada among cities of a similar size.

That’s great if you hate taxes. But it’s bad news if you have to pay for things. With taxes this low, you will always have problems with paying for essential services.

If we are going to be the city of the lowest taxes, we will be the city of no snow removal, constant potholes and inferior public transit, because all of those services cost money. We have to cut costs somewhere, and we have cut them on snow removal and on road repair.

We underfund our road maintenance by more than $12 million a year, and that is just to keep our streets at their current levels. To actually repair and upgrade them would cost much more. Instead of paving roads, we patch them, which allows for moisture penetration. With the freeze-thaw cycle that faces Saskatoon regularly, our streets will continue to fail.

To its credit, council has increased spending on road repair, so by 2020 we will have almost reached the levels needed to keep our streets at 2012 levels. By that time the city will need even more money for road repairs, even if the streets are gravel.

Of course we can raise taxes. However, the problem is that once you go on and on about how low your taxes are, it’s really difficult to back away from that. We can talk all we want about wanting to be a world-class city, but you never judge a government by what it says so much as where it spends its money. In Saskatoon’s case, it’s not enough even to maintain our essential services.

There are two ways to deal with this.

One is to cut back more services and get out of a lot of what the city does, such as affordable housing, building parks and funding art galleries. The focus will be solely on roads, snow removal, emergency services and utilities such as garbage pickup.

This approach provides a great value for those that don’t need social services or amenities. They get lower taxes with no noticeable impact on their life in the city. It’s a blueprint that a lot of American cities have adopted. The problem is that no one wants to live or work in those cities once the boom is over.

The other option is to do what Edmonton’s city council just did. It adopted a report titled, The Way We Prosper, which made it clear that the old way using low taxes to attract business isn’t working.

Competitive taxes are important, but they are only a piece of the puzzle. Issues such as building a livable city and integrating Edmonton’s economic development agencies in a better way were listed as higher priorities.

Cities grow because of external market forces. More important than low taxes are the commodity prices that are driving our economy. If these prices bottom out, there is little that low tax rates will do to keep or attract businesses.

On the flip side, companies and people aren’t coming to Saskatoon because of low taxes on properties and businesses. They are coming because Saskatoon is a gateway to a whole lot of prosperity.

For all of Saskatoon’s aspirations of becoming a world-class city, we aren’t even raising enough money to maintain the city we have. Pat Hyde, manager of the city’s public works branch, announced last week that this will be the worst year ever for potholes.

When you don’t bring in enough money to maintain and clear streets, it’s going to be this bad for a lot of years.

There is a reason why our taxes are so low compared to other cities. Those cities know they can’t maintain their assets and provide services at the tax rates the city is charging.

This paper has called for an alternative to property taxes to fund civic services. Until that happens, we need to start charging more unless we want to see a further deterioration in the state of Saskatoon’s infrastructure. It’s a bill that needs to be paid sometime. As much as we hate it, it will require the payment of higher taxes.

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

Homeless Edmontonians speak about impact of residential schools

This video is heartbreaking.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada paid a visit to the Boyle Street Community Services in Edmonton on Saturday.

As Nicole Weisberg reports, the commission has been gathering stories about the impact of residential schools on Aboriginal Peoples across Canada — but this is the first time it has visited Edmonton’s inner city.

She looked down and cried

Mark Cherrington writes this about a teen girl he was assigned as a court worker

As a youth court worker, it has never been the high profile cases, pews filled with press and families, but more often the silence that have impacted me dearly.

Last Thursday, Parminder Johal, a lawyer with the Youth Criminal Defence Office asked me to see an eighteen year old girl in custody for breaching her probation. The girl had a minor record and was being held in custody for a warrant going back years. Her crime: Not completing an apology letter and forty hours of community service hours. A Summary Offence, she should not have been held in jail under the Youth Criminal Justice Act. I entered the interview room: a small cubicle with metal tables, a phone and wall of Plexiglas. When she entered; a petite Aboriginal girl, I could see her face was swollen, yellow and black, looking like old fruit. She threw a nervous smile and was missing a tooth. I introduced myself, “I’m here to help you and provide…”

“I’ve been raped,” she interrupted. Her lips quivered, eyes welled up, and finally she just looked down and cried.

I waited a few minutes. “Perhaps,” I finally said, “somebody else…”

She shook her head and wiped her cheeks with her sleeve. “But you said you’re here to help me? Somebody has to listen? Don’t they?”

A lot of people should have been listening!

She told me she had been at a motel room with some friends. There were drinks, “But I didn’t drink much! I think my drink was spiked,” she added and waking up, bruised, bleeding from her vagina, called her mother frantic, who called the Edmonton City Police Service . As first responders, her expectations as a victim of sexual assault were different than what transpired. The Officer/s ran her name, found she had an old warrant and arrested her.

According to the girl, the only acknowledgement by the police about being raped, was once released she could attend any police station and fill out a statement.

It gets worse you read the entire post.

Edmonton targets ‘frequent flyers’

Edmonton targets the top 50 users of it’s social services for housing

A new project spearheaded by the Edmonton Police Service will target the top 50 heavy users of the city’s police, medical and inner-city services. The project is aimed at better co-ordinating efforts among the agencies that work the most with the city’s chronically homeless.

“Without looking at specifics here, we’re finding we’re all talking about the same people,” police Chief Rod Knecht told the Journal this week. “The same people we’re arresting 50 times a year are the same people that are being transported by the ambulance 50 times a year, same people in the emergency ward, same people the shelters are dealing with.”

The key, Knecht says, is to focus on these so-called frequent flyers who place such a heavy burden on resources and fill the gaps in service.

“We think there’s a better way to keep them out of the system. It’s costing a lot of money, a lot of time, a lot of effort,” he said.

A chronically homeless person costs the system about $100,000 per year, according to a presentation at Thursday’s police commission meeting by Jay Freeman, the executive director of the Edmonton Homeless Commission. By comparison, a person helped off the street and given the necessary support to stay housed costs taxpayers about $35,000 per year, Freeman said in his presentation.

Each year, police receive around 35,000 calls for service related to the city’s homeless, mentally ill and addicted populations, Knecht said. Each one of those calls takes an average of 104 minutes to complete.

“I think, if we do this properly, we’ll actually save money,” Knecht said. “And I don’t think little money — I think big money.”

But, he says, that’s not the project’s motivation.

“The big thing is, you’re going to be taking care of the most vulnerable people in the community. That’s a lofty goal (and) I think that’s a commendable goal for a city, a community, to be involved in,” Knecht said.

Saskatoon’s numbers are about the same.  It costs $100,000 for a chronically homeless here as well.  It’s way cheaper to find housing.

Saskatoon’s Future: Being blackmailed by billionaires

As Saskatoon grows bigger, more and more people have talked about bringing a pro sports franchise to the city. Hockey has been dreamt about since Bill Hunter tried to bring the St. Louis Blues to Saskatoon in 1984.  We saw one group try to bring the Phoenix Coyotes here for at least a couple of games a season and there has been been some talk of a CFL franchise coming to Saskatoon (even if it meant that it would kill the Riders). A pro sports franchise would be fabulous in the short term. We would sell out Credit Union Centre and cough up money for some much needed renovations and capital improvements. There may even a new stadium built downtown, where Credit Union Centre should have been built in the first place.  That is how it will start out but let me tell you how it will end.

Over the weekend, the Edmonton Oilers’ owner and senior management went to Seattle to tour the Key Arena in an effort to get the City of Edmonton to pay for an even larger part of a $500 million dollar stadium deal. After getting the city to pay for the entire stadium up front and then giving billionaire owner Darryl Katz a sweetheart loan for his portion (to be paid back over 35 years), he wants an additional $6 million subsidy to run the arena. Instead of paying back his portion back $5.5 million a year, Katz is now demanding that he gets a free half-billion dollar stadium and $500,000 a year to run it. Where do I sign up?

Katz isn’t the only owner to behave badly. For every responsible sports owner with deep ties to his community, there are numerous ones that extort their community to buy them things or as the threat goes, they will move their franchise. The threat works as there is an empty hockey stadium in Kansas City and Seattle is building a new stadium to lure back the NBA (probably the Sacramento Kings).  Hockey is an excellent second tenant to make even more money. Seeing everyone else do it, enables even local billionaires to behave badly. Katz which has deep roots to the Edmonton area and is a very profitable market with a very loyal fan base is basically blackmailing the Edmonton city council to give him the deal that he wants or he will move a team that has spent its entire existence in Edmonton to Seattle.

Now that Seattle has reached out to him (and he has reached back), expect a Kansas City visit as well.  Why not play multiple markets off each other until Edmonton City Council responds to the bullying. While it doesn’t excuse Katz’s behaviour, many other owners behave the same way. The NFL has an empty Los Angeles market where the threat of teams moving to Los Angeles has gotten it better stadium deals in almost every market where the NFL has a new stadium. It will be used for leverage in the upcoming years in Jacksonville, Miami, Oakland, and San Diego. While FedEx Field in Washington is only 15 years old and still cutting edge, owner Daniel Snyder has already declared it as “half-life” and wants a new downtown, stadium.   Instead of wanting Washington to pay for it, he is willing, if they give him a big chunk of land to develop for free.  So why does a 15 year old stadium that is the largest in the NFL need to be replaced after only 15 years? He wants to keep up with the Giants/Jets/Cowboys and maybe even the new Rider stadium.  EIther the Washington taxpayers pay for the stadium or give him premium land for his own profit.  Either way, taxpayers pay. Just watch, if he doesn’t get what he wants, he will move the team. Threats of moving teams got a new stadium built in Miami even when there isn’t a great market left to move to and this was after Jeff Loria had already proven that he is the worst owner in sports (he destroyed the Montreal Expos).

Heading back to Seattle, the Key Arena was completely renovated in 1995 and brought to NBA standards. NBA commissioner David Stern called it state of the art but less than a decade later, he was in town demanding that Seattle build the Supersonics a new team, invest another $220 million into the stadium or they would move. When the city said no, the team moved to Oklahoma and became the Thunder. In 2002, the Charlotte Hornets moved to New Orleans because of their antiquated stadium that was built in 1988. The fans supported the team through 364 consecutive sell-outs but even that wasn’t enough to keep the team in town. The stadium didn’t make it’s 20th birthday before being demolished (it was 13 years old when Charlotte had their first referendum on building a new stadium).

This is what happens. Billionaire owners of profitable teams want more and the expectation is that taxpayers give it to them. It happens all over the place and as Saskatoon grows, it will happen here, whether it is a NHL team, a CFL team or even a AHL team; it’s great for a while and then all of us have to pay up for the right to buy tickets to watch a team. It’s a sick system and I feel bad for the City of Edmonton, Edmonton Oilers fans, and fans of sport in the city because it’s not right.

Will the same thing happen in Saskatoon?  If pro sports come to Saskatoon in a real way, of course it will.  We will tell ourselves that it won’t happen, we have local owners, and we are a growing market in a booming economy; just like Edmonton told itself when Katz bought the team.  It’s only a matter of time.

Standing in the gap

I don’t know how you respond to that tweet.  Mark is a court worker in Edmonton and posts things like this all of the time.  Most of them are heartbreaking and they happen in all cities, not just Edmonton.  The solution to many of the issues is money.  Money so that a 17 year old mom and 3 week old baby don’t have to sleep in a ravine.   Money for bug spray, money for food, money for clothes.  Where does that money come from?  In an ideal Canadian world, the government would provide it.  In reality they don’t. 

I have long wonder why 25-30 churches can’t come together and donate $1000 each annually for a fund that is administrated by them for purposes like this.  Allow workers like Mark to access a part of it 24 hours a day (emergencies don’t always happen during office hours), provide financial accountability, and report back to the churches on how the money was spent.  It wouldn’t be that hard to do and it would allow churches to stand in the gap when everything else fails.    $25,000 a year to spend on situations where there is no other support would make a massive difference.  It would be hard to say no to some of the requests and you would need both strong and flexible boundaries but if done right, it could make an incredible difference for both the recipients and the funding groups.

Transparency in the Mayor’s Office

The debate around Mayor Don Atchison’s journal has gotten a little weird.  It started with council asking about him releasing his schedule and quickly went to Darren Hill tweeting in council chambers and some allusions to conflict of interest.  It’s not city council at it’s finest.

Gerry Klein suggested that the mayor adopting a smartphone to keep his schedule could help fix the problem and then use it to post it online. 

It’s about time that the mayor catches up to the latter part of the 20th century and begins to use a digital device and mobile technology to help him manage his time. When he does that it would be a simple matter to post the information on the mayor’s website, which is remarkable now for being among the most static and uninformative Internet pages on the entire web.

He’s right, we could probably scrounge up an old smartphone that will sync  up with Google Calendar pretty easily.  I have a Blackberry Curve that I can contribute to the cause.  While I am being flippant, this is a problem rooted in transparency and technology.

The real issue is that technology flattens any organization.  What used to need to pass through gate keepers, now can be easily assimilated.  Councillors have a right to expect this information to go to them while part of the problem is that historically the Mayor’s office (according to Atchison) used to decide who gets to go.  This problem is made worse by the fact that both council and the public assume that an invite to the Mayor means that you want the local councillor there as well (which is the Mayor’s defense, I never think that way).  The solution is not opening up Atchison’s journal but opening up the invitation process when you ask the Mayor to an event.

The mayor’s website is a static block of text and a contact form.  It could be much more than that, especially when you look at the sites for the Mayor of Calgary and the Mayor of Vancouver.  In some ways I am surprised that Atchison doesn’t have a better website.  He’s a good story teller and evangelist for the City of Saskatoon and it would be a great platform for him to expand his audience.

With Calgary and Vancouver, they use totally different domains from the city page and while I prefer mayor. saskatoon.ca or more personally mayor.saskatoon.ca/atchison/ (there is some method to that madness that I will get into later) but either way works.  If you want to invite the Mayor of Calgary to an event, they have a contact form that asks a variety of questions about the event, how to get there, and if you want the deputy mayor in case Nenshi can’t make it.  Pretty straight forward.

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It would take minutes to change the form to give you an option of inviting other city councillors (or making it clear you only wanted the mayor) to your event.  Not all mayor’s adopt this view.  To invite Winnipeg mayor Sam Katz to an event, you need to (snail) mail him an invite two months ahead of time and wait for a reply.  I am not sure how to invite the Mayor of Edmonton to your event.  I am sure there is a way but it’s not on his website.  What I am getting at is that there is a really easy way to deal with these kinds of issues, even if not all cities adopt them.

Of course it’s big news because Yahoo! has a new CEO but one could use their Upcoming service to announce which public events the mayor will be attending.  A blurb of selected events, contact information for others to attend, and even some follow up photos would extend the Mayor’s personal reach, help him politically, and promote the city.  He could also do what Nenshi does and that is tweet about it while he is there but one thing we learned this week is that the Mayor isn’t so fond of social media.

While we are the topic of Nenshi’s website, it is an example of how accountability and privacy can work.  Nenshi posts many of his meetings that he hosts.  He excludes meetings with City of Calgary employees, staff, media, and government but does include meetings with individuals or small groups.   According to the City of Calgary’s Mayoral Office

Publishing the Mayor’s meeting list was something we intended to do on a quarterly basis starting this spring. But while preparing the first list, we received legal advice that we could be contravening the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act by publishing people’s names without their consent. So, beginning May 1, 2011, the Mayor’s Office required that anyone meeting with Mayor Nenshi provide a signature approving to have their name published.

Quite a few colleagues have said, “It’s an incomplete list” and they are right.  Nenshi needs the privacy to conduct some City of Calgary, personal, and even political business in private yet when he is operating at the Mayor of Calgary, it needs to be made public (even if people like me want to see the complete list) 

Here is June’s public meeting list in it’s entirety.

  • Debbie Newman, Calgary Drop-In and Rehab Centre – June 8, 2012
  • James Murray – June 12, 2012
  • Carlos Salazan – June 12, 2012
  • Bhavini Pasel, Standard & Poors – June 26, 2012
  • Stepehn Ogilvie, Standard & Poors – June 26, 2012
  • Ian Merrit, Fraser Milner Casgrain – June 27, 2012
  • Joan Durshinim, Brookfield Properties – June 27, 2012
  • Ian Parker, Brookfield Properties – June 27, 2012
  • Martin Sparrow, Dialog – June 27, 2012
  • Earle Arney, Dialog – June 27, 2012
  • Sally Hodges, Project Ploughshares – June 28, 2012
  • Karen Huggin, Project Ploughshares – June 28, 2012
  • Douglas Roche, Project Ploughshares – June 28, 2012
  • Bev Delong, Project Ploughshares – June 28, 2012
  • Don Douglas, Calgary Airport Authority – June 28, 2012
  • Doug Mitchell, Calgary Airport Authority – June 28, 2012
  • Tony Kay, UK Counsel-General – June 28, 2012

The lists are both interesting and what you expect.  Dignitaries, politicians, business people, community groups… the kind of people that you expect the Mayor of Calgary to be meeting with.  A website like this for the Mayor could be easily powered by WordPress, easily updated and include future trips (like when he is going to Singapore) as well. 

As for Atchison’s request that all of Saskatoon City Council do the same thing, he’s right.  They should. (and many are willing)

On not making some councillors aware of a trip to Singapore for the World Cities Summit two weeks ago: He said he told CKOM and CTV about the trip in his weekly appearances last month. Other councillor’s make international trips under the same protocol, he said. “By the same token I don’t know what my colleagues are doing either. Their budgets are wide open to use as they see fit. As long as their expenses come in as they’re supposed to, that’s it. They’re all reported at the end of the year.”

He said if he releases his schedule so should all of council, out of fairness. “It’s all or none, ” he said.

Instead of giving out the information for the World Cities Summit to CKOM and CTV, he could announce it the entire city on his website and post his monthly expenses along with the rest of council (also, it’s a pretty big expense not to send out a media advisory for).  As for the city, it needs to create mayor.saskatoon.ca/atchison/ for the mayor (and you leave it online when the mayor has retired or has been defeated as an archive of his time in office).  For councillors you give them a council website at council.saskatoon.ca/hill/ for Darren Hill, council.saskatoon.ca/lorje/ for Pat Lorje and so on and so on.  The U.S. Congress does the same thing.  It’s their space for official business on.  When the election comes (starting August 31st), they are locked out from the pages until they are re-elected.   Each councillor has a choice between a couple of City of Saskatoon templates and a set up install of WordPress.  You put the same requirements on them for reporting, expenses, and schedule as you do for the Mayor.  Atchison is right that if he has to do it, they all have to do it.

I’ll be honest.  I have been at every council meeting of 2012 and there have been some vote changes that have made me wonder what was going on.  Who met with who (or even what kind of money exchanged hands).  Some transparency is needed.  The technology is there, it’s free, it’s easy to use and it would mean a more coordinated council and a better informed electorate.  How hard could this be?  Everyone else is getting it, why can’t Saskatoon?

Facebook

While in Edmonton we got lost.  I found out that no one in the car can read a GPS and I was driving with them navigating.  Not only that but NO ONE at Hope Mission would give Katie or DeeAnn an address.  Great discipline but a big time pain in the neck as we were trying to figure out where to go.  While we were driving, DeeAnn was trying to persuade me to spam my friends with the Lighthouse Facebook page so they will “like” it.  Somehow she started to explain Facebook to me and never really clicked in that not only was I probably in really early, I was in so early, I left before it got cool.  Twitter is much more my style.  As I have said, what the strangers I know on Twitter are doing are more interesting to me than what my friends are doing on Facebook.

So for about 30 minutes, she was evangelizing Facebook to me while I just ignored her but she did make some good points about if we are trying to make social change, we should use the mediums we have at our disposal and Facebook is one of the things we have at our disposal.

As much as I hate Facebook, I need to be using it more effectively than logging in once a year (generally in January).  From now on I plan to log in a couple of times a week if for no other reason than to reply to some of the messages and post some things to The Lighthouse’s page.  According to experts, an organization needs to spend about six hours a week to social media for it to be effective.  I don’t have six hours a week but DeeAnn seems to (she is The Lighthouse’s director of communications and it is part of her job).  That being said, I realized that more and more people are going to our Facebook page expecting to find that I show up more than once a year.  

As for Google Circles (cue tumbleweed), it is so quiet that I am not sure if it is worth my time and effort.  If I had to choose between the two, I think I would choose Facebook.  I am not sure I would use it if it wasn’t for the good work DeeAnn has done with it at The Lighthouse but she has so I need to be a part of that as well.  I care a lot about social change and that means taking the message to where the people are.  As for Google Circles, it doesn’t even seem to have a functioning API which is shocking considering it is coming from Google.  Twitter can’t post to it, Feedburner can’t post to it (and it is owned by Google).  Maybe that is intentional but I doubt it.  There just isn’t very much content that you can put on there without going to the site.  If things change, maybe I’ll head back but for now, it doesn’t capture my attention.

Red Arrow Coaches

My colleague and I were talking about Red Arrow coaches the other day and I found this great article by Jeremy Klazus who writes about them in Alberta Venture

The Red Arrow Red Arrow carries business travellers, mostly. But its fares aren’t out of reach for students and others making personal trips. “Our typical demographic is a professional or a student that does have access to a vehicle, and they choose for reasons of safety and efficiency to travel with the coach,” says Stepovy. “The decision they’re making is: ‘Do I drive, do I fly or do I take the coach?’” Most drive. In 2006, cars accounted for more than 90 per cent of trips between Edmonton, Red Deer and Calgary. Air travel accounted for six per cent, and buses, including Red Arrow, accounted for only three per cent of trips.

It doesn’t sound like much. But when somebody gets on board the Red Arrow, they usually come back; its customers tend to be enthusiastically loyal. “If we get them to ride it once, they’re sold – absolutely sold,” says Mike. “And they’ll tell 10 other people how happy they were.” Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, Wildrose Alliance leader Danielle Smith and former premier Peter Lougheed and his wife, Jeanne, have all been spotted on the black coaches that cruise along Highway 2 at about 120 km/h. “I find it very civilized,” says Edmonton Journal columnist Paula Simons, who uses the Red Arrow to get to Calgary and enjoys being “above the fray” of highway traffic, especially in winter. “If I’m going down to make a presentation, now I have three hours in which I can actually sit and think and read and research and prepare.” This is perhaps Red Arrow’s strongest selling feature: Travel time that’s enjoyable, comfortable and useful.

It was a tough sell, initially. The first Red Arrow coach that pulled out of Calgary on July 9, 1979, was even roomier than today’s coaches, seating 25 passengers at most. The coach had sandwiches, a big closet, flip-down work tables and cassette tape players pumping music into headphone jacks on each seat. Unfortunately, there were precisely zero customers on board to partake in these unconventional luxuries. “Very disappointing,” recalls Rick. Both Rick and Mike had become involved in their dad’s company as kids – working their way through the maintenance pit, the wash rack, the body shop and the dispatch office – and both were committed to their dad’s vision of an upscale coach service. But barely anyone noticed when Red Arrow launched. “For a while, we were the best-kept secret in Alberta,” remembers Wilson.

I have always thought that this level of service would do really well between Saskatoon and Regina, even could be run by STC from different bus stops (by the Bessborough or downtown someplace).  A partnership with wifi on the bus give a business traveller a couple of hours of time to work, relax or just unwind at a fraction of the amount it costs to fly to Saskatoon and Regina.   I just did a quick last minute search on AirCanada.com for what it would cost me to fly from Regina and back to Saskatoon.  I had to fly through Toronto.  $458 (one way) for a last minute flight (via Toronto).  I can also take Express Club for $124 plus fees, which is still almost twice the $138 that Red Arrow charges for a return bus trip.  STC by comparison is $80 return for Saskatoon to Regina but the quality of service is… how do I say this… really, really poor.

Air Canada rates for July 13th I am not a business man but I think there is a but of margin for a high end bus (oops, coach) service to run from Saskatoon to Regina.  It would be interesting to see STC run a business class express from Saskatoon to Regina.  There seems to be a big gap in the middle of that market.  Whether the numbers support it would the next question I have. 

Column: Handling debt poses challenge

Today’s column in The StarPhoenix.

The StarPhoenix Former mayor Henry Dayday wrote to council in May questioning how much debt the city was taking on and how Saskatoon residents were going to pay for it.

He pointed out that the city has $175 million in debt on its books and potentially another $225 million related to new projects, which will take a toll on cash reserves and add a lot of new debt.

As he sees it, it’s a total that was expected to push the city to its debt limit of $400 million, which is starting to remind some of us of the 1980s.

A look at the city finances leaves a couple of impressions. First, $400 million in civic debt is a lot of money and to be at our debt ceiling makes many people nervous. It’s like when you’ve run up your credit card to the limit. Not only can you not do anything until it’s paid down, but paying it off takes up a lot of money that could be spent elsewhere. Let’s hope the city at least gets reward points.

Does that mean that civic finances are in bad shape?

Some on city council say it does, but Standard & Poor’s recent report on city finances maintained our AAA credit rating. The bond rater does mention some clouds on the horizon – higher debt from the capital projects and some pension liabilities. Reading the S&P report shows it’s concerned, but not especially so, about Saskatoon’s debt level, which it expects to peak in 2014 at about 30 per cent of revenues. It’s a lot of debt, but it’s not crippling.

Looking at other western Canadian cities, an independent benchmark of Saskatoon’s finances and services (we are compared to Regina, Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg) was tabled on Feb. 23. It shows our credit rating to be higher and we compare favourably to other cities in most services offered and how much we pay for them.

The only area we really lag behind is in mosquitoes per capita (Winnipeg), NHL franchises and CFL teams.

Not surprisingly, we will soon lead the group in large, box-like riverfront art galleries.

When it comes to debt per capita, Saskatoon is at $526.91. Regina is at $549.80, while Calgary leads at $2,310.61. Moose Jaw has the highest per capita debt of Saskatchewan cities, at $1,168 At $400-million debt, our debt per capita would start to look like Moose Jaw’s – high, but manageable. As for taxes, our per capita tax burden compares well not only to that of other western Canadian cities, but it’s around half of the Canadian average.

It’s not how much debt a city has, but how it will pay for it. It’s a question Dayday raises and one worth exploring. Looking at growing cities with high debt levels, Red Deer’s debt limit is 1.5 times city revenues and it is approaching 90 per cent of that limit.

Its plan is to pay down its $183-million debt $2.1 million a year, which is similar to trying to pay off your credit card by making the minimum monthly payment. Calgary budgeted debt reduction into its mill rate increases in an attempt to lower its burden, despite its growing economy and larger tax base.

Paying off civic debt is not a lot of fun and a mill rate increase may be something that Saskatoon may have to do. In his letter Dayday says: “The city has been experiencing a boom period, but as in the past we know that times change.”

In the 1980s it was low commodity prices and in the ’90s it was taming a massive provincial deficit that made for a most significant challenge. Both held the city back, which contributes to the spending debate now.

How many of these capital projects have been discussed and planned for years?

Before we get too caught up with what to cut, we need to have a discussion about what those challenges in the future will be. Rising energy prices, the lifeless and debt-ridden American economy and global warming. Two of those issues will reshape Saskatoon beyond recognition both positively and negatively, and all three of them, if handled poorly, could severely hinder the city’s ability to pay off its debt.

You have to start the discussion somewhere, so in next week’s column I will look at how rising energy prices will reshape Saskatoon.

Here are some of the background links.

Next week’s column is about the impact peak oil is going to have on the city and how it will affect our long term future.  This won’t get much more of a passing mention in next week’s article but both the Rockefeller’s and Bill Gates are betting on algae being the future of carbon based petroleum.   That being said, Shell is betting against it.  It’s an interesting possibility, even if it won’t come to market in time to stop massive crude oil price shocks.