Elected to city council one year ago as of this week, the city’s elected officials have long-passed the transition period and entered into the nitty gritty of directing a city.
“During your first year on council you kind of get your feet wet, and you look at all of the issues that surround you -- and there are certainly lots of them,” Coun. Don Cody summarized.
“During (last year’s) campaign, people were talking about taxation, about roads, about potholes, about snow and they were talking about some administrative people, saying ‘have we got the right people in the right places?’
“A lot of those issues are now behind us, thank heavens … so all in all I think we’ve done fairly well.”
A past mayor of Prince Albert, Cody joined Rick Orr, Mark Tweidt and Tim Scharkowski as new faces on council as a result of last year’s election.
Past councillor Greg Dionne was elected mayor and Couns. Lee Atkinson, Charlene Miller, Martin Ring and Ted Zurakowski retained their respective wards.
Reflecting on the previous incarnation of city council, Atkinson notes said that he’s happier with the current council -- one that he said is more receptive to everyone’s point of view.
“I think we’ve got a council, this time, that isn’t about divide and conquer,” Atkinson said. “I think it’s one that recognizes that we have more areas of common interest than difference.”
While not on city council previous, Tweidt said that he’d read about past city council meetings in the newspaper -- reports he found “disheartening.”
Infighting amongst council “shows a real bad view” of the city, he summarized.
During his first year, Tweidt said that he’s been happy to see all councillors’ viewpoint accepted, albeit not necessarily agreed on.
Also in the midst of his first term on council, Scharkowski said that he’s been proud to have seen the issues he brings to council and administration dealt with -- something he said helps remind him that he “made the right decision to run for council.”
“I am proud to be involved in the decision making to help guide the place I have called home for 45 years,” he said.
“I think it’s been a pretty good year, and I’m looking very much to next year, Cody concluded.
“You have to be holistic. You have to be a member of council who works for all of your city … We work really hard to make sure that each of our wards are looked after.”
Asked to look back at their first year as council as well as at future goals and aspirations, the Daily Herald gathered feedback from all eight city councillors this week.
Because media more frequently centres on Mayor Greg Dionne’s feedback, the focus for this article was on councillors.
The following is a summary of some of the things city councillors had to say.
First year accomplishments
One item the city’s elected officials unanimously cited as a success story has been their almost doubling of the annual paving budget, bringing it to $4 million.
At this funding level, city roads will remain in their current overall condition, administration told city council prior to their approving this year’s budget.
The paving effort is being paid for through a new $189 residential base tax and a higher, varying base tax for commercial properties.
“I think people who were perhaps more negative when that first came out can actually see what has been done,” Atkinson said. “It’s very tangible, how those funds have been spent.”
Last year’s snow removal program did exceptionally well, Cody said, noting that although crews faced particularly heavy snowfall, things were handled as they should have been.
“It was an extremely high snow volume that we were dealing with, and I thought our crews just did a great job,” Ring said, in agreement with Cody’s sentiment.
This walked hand-in-hand with paving as something council asked administration to prioritize, Cody added.
“That all comes because you have a good cohesive council that got together and said, ‘look, things need to get done in a way that the people want us to do,’” Cody recalled. “You can’t do that on an individual basis … you have to do that as a group.”
The blue bin single stream recycling effort is front and centre as Ring’s key success story from this past year.
“That’s probably one of the biggest accomplishments that I had kind of promised people and was able to see come to fruition,” he said of the program that has allowed most household recyclables, minus glass, to be dropped into curbside blue bins.
“I think it’s good for the city, it’s good socially for us to do the right thing with regards to recycling, and we’re certainly on the right path.”
The city’s downtown core appears to be turning around Orr said, noting that 10 new businesses have started up, creating about 35 new jobs.
“It was a missed opportunity, and low and behold … we’re starting to see huge benefits,” he said.
Goals for the coming year
Although he notes that the city’s elected officials have gotten along with one another in council chambers, they might have faired better while dealing with the provincial and federal levels of government, Tweidt said.
“We’ve got to be bipartisan for the citizens of P.A.,” he said, adding that the city might benefit from more regularly scheduled meetings with other levels of government.
“I think we’ve got to bring all those players in and do a good job of promoting our city and region.”
Zurakowski said that he hopes to see improved communication and collaboration on a local scale, as well.
“Communication and collaboration works much better when we all row together,” he said. “We can do better with our partners like the Chamber of Commerce and our business community as a whole.”
Recently named chair of an advisory committee centred on improving economic opportunity in Prince Albert, Orr said that one key goal this coming year will be better marketing the city to industry.
“It’s kind of like Alberta was 15, 20 years ago,” he said. “There’s a boom going on in the province ... but in Saskatoon, there’s a huge boom going on, and we’re not really getting all of that.
“We have to do a better job of promoting our region, our city, and see if we can’t attract some of that business.”
“We have to get our economic development plan in place and start to see some real growth in our industrial and our business base in our city,” Ring said.
“It’s an area we’ve kind of been on the edge with it, but we haven’t fully got our heads wrapped around what we have to do.”
Spreading police attention beyond the city’s downtown core would benefit neighbouring communities, Atkinson said, asking, “When you displace that kind of activity, where does it go? Usually the adjacent neighbourhood, where there isn’t that kind of visibility.”
Scharkowski’s campaign was largely focused on added police presence -- something he said he intends on following through on this coming year.
“I would like to see a realignment of current (police) staff who are on day shifts to evenings and weekends to hold costs of the operations and provide a better service and response time to the general public,” he said.
Noting a number of boarded up houses in her ward, Miller said that she hopes the city gets together with anew bylaw to deal with the issue -- something she’s
During your first year on council you kind of get your feet wet, and you look at all of the issues that surround you -- and there are certainly lots of them. Don Cody
Zurakowski hopes to see ward-specific community meetings set up so residents have a regular chance to update their councillor of community concerns.
At these meetings, “all members of senior administration are present to discuss, inform and most of all, listen to the residents and answer any questions they may have,” he said.
“It's hard enough for folks to navigate city hall so every so often we should bring city hall to them.”
Next year’s budget
With all city councillors citing next year’s budget as a key goal for the coming year, it’s worthy of a sub-headline in its own right.
Atkinson joined Miller in voting against the city’s 2013 budget, although both councillors confess that they were happier about this year’s budget than in previous years.
Dissatisfied with the $189 base tax, which she felt disproportionally affects residents of lower income households, Miller hopes to see next year’s tax increase be placed on the mill rate instead of another base tax.
The existing $60 base tax was a key reason or Atkinson’s disapproval of this year’s budget, since, unlike the $189 roadways base tax, it does not have a direct purpose.
But, the key reason for council’s citing of next year’s budget as a key goal is the fact that it’s being done differently than this year’s budget.
“We’re getting away from the status quo budget,” Atkinson said.
“I think it’s a chance for everyone to examine and see what we are doing, how we’ve been doing it, and perhaps make suggestions of how we can improve delivery of services … and what are the real costs involved?”
At about $72 million, Ring notes that the status-quo base budget is an important piece of consideration during 2014 budget deliberations, and is particularly important this year, since it was not addressed during 2013 deliberations.
“It’s always tough right after an election to continue getting through the budget,” he said. “It’s a lot for people to digest.”
Now with a year under their belt, council is able to consider and ask the bigger questions, Ring said, of which one is city facilities.
“I think we do have to do a better job of really taking a hard look at some of our facilities, because some of them have outlived their use,” he said. “The cost associated for maintenance on them has outgrown what is really considered practical.”
“Council as a whole needs to examine what are the real priorities of a municipal government and focus on those areas,” Zurakowski said.
“With limited return on our tax dollar from other levels of government, we need to ensure each and every decision is prudently made in an informed way.”
City council has already delved into pre-budget discussions centred on the base budget, which Cody said will help them produce a budget earlier than they were able to their first time around.
They key reason for this is so that “our administration can do things on a timely basis,” he said. “If you’re not ready when the sun starts to shine in the spring, you have a very short window in this country.”
Although he feels that this year’s paving initiative was needed, Scharkowski notes that it did result in a significant tax increase -- one that if placed on a mill rate increase instead of a new base tax would have amounted to about 15 per cent.
“Of course my goal this year is try to hold taxes to a nil or minimum increase,” he said.
Key to the city’s success and prosperity is establishing both short term and long-term goals, Zurakowski said.
“Where do we want to be as a community in five years? 10? 25? We must plan ahead in a responsible way and set some realistic goals with the understanding and flexibility that any long-term sustainable planning document can change as the needs of our city changes,” he said.
Tweidt said that the main reason he put his name forward in last year’s election was to effect change in the West Hill Master Plan -- a document which he perceived there to be some less-than ideal long-term plans.
“P.A.’s never been well thought-out when it comes to plans for growth,” Tweidt said.
“I really want to see our city turn into the city it can be.”
Public feedback on city council
Earlier this month, the Daily Herald put a public call-out for taxpayers to provide their feedback on how well the city’s elected officials have done this past year.
The following are some of the responses, including some comments by 2012 mayoral candidate Dean Link.
After last year’s election, I felt a measure of optimism with the newly elected council,” Dean Link writes. “Sadly, that has passed by."
Although Link notes that council inherited a fiscal mess, they haven’t done much to resolve things.
“It takes no imagination to raise taxes and slap on surcharges and fees, while cutting nothing substantive,” he wrote, citing an increase in utility rates and this year’s $189 paving project base tax as significant hits -- all while he notes that in some cases, six unionized workers are seen doing what two private sector workers could do.
“This council continues to fawn all over the unions that have City Hall in a stranglehold. Who of this bunch has spoken up?”
Openness and transparency has proven a broken promise, Link writes.
“For over 9 months we have asked the status of the Diefenbaker Trust Fund. Is the money there? How was it spent? Who authorized what? No answer.”
Although she’s been “generally happy” with the direction of city council, there is one item that Amy Webb wants to see council address.
With a paddling pool at the West Hill Community Centre demolished to make way for École St. Anne School, west hill residents have been left without the family-friendly facility.
“Every year, I have reminded our councillor, (Ted) Zurakowski, that I am still waiting for news on the splash park, and to my knowledge, it has still not been included in the budget,” she writes. “I would like to see the new splash park in our neighbourhood before our children are too old to enjoy it.”
Although happy to see extensive roadwork take place this year, Erin Mercereau asks why money wasn’t saved from previous years to pay for the project.
Council should not have agreed to continue injecting fluoride into the city’s water supply, she argues.
She also argues that citizens are not allotted enough chance to voice their concerns, asking, before going to Moose Jaw to tour their arena, was the public asked whether a new hockey rink should be a priority?
It is citizens paying taxes, “so should then the citizens not get a say in what happens in the city and what is being built?”