Thursday, December 22, 2016

2016 - The Year of Morris Albert

If, like me, you came of age in the '70's, you'll remember this album cover: 

And these lyrics:.


This ear-worm has been going through my head for the past few weeks, as I think back on the year that is now ending.  The refrain started playing after I heard that Oxford Dictionaries had declared "post-truth" to be the "Word of the Year" for 2016.

Oxford defines the term as "relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief."  In other words, "feelings" now trump "facts".

I shouldn't be surprised at this development - in fact, none of us should.  Anyone who follows philosophical trends in our society will no doubt have heard of the concept of relativism, summed up by theologian and philosopher Francis Schaeffer back in the 1970's as the notion that "the only absolute allowed is the absolute insistence that there is no absolute.”  That was followed by post-modernism which, according to a brief definition at Wikipedia, posited that "knowledge and truth are the product of unique systems of social, historical, or political discourse and interpretation, and are therefore contextual and constructed to varying degrees."

And today, we have arrived at the notion of "post-truth."   Here's how it works.  There really aren't any objective facts anymore.  Facts and "truth" are determined by how you "feel" about a particular issue.  In the broad scheme of things, one could argue that it's this new reality that got Donald Trump elected.  He was pretty loose with "facts", but appealed to the "feelings" of the electorate, and apparently did a better job of that than his main rival.

But this goes beyond presidential elections south of the border.  

Let me give you a concrete example, based on a discussion I had with a fellow-Councillor - for the record, not someone from North Cowichan.  It was over dinner at a municipal conference a few years ago.   We were talking about local government responses to climate change.  If you've followed my blog, you'll know that while I agree we need to deal with the effects of this phenomenon (flood mitigation, etc), I've long been highly skeptical of the notion that humans actually have a major impact on climate.   But the person I was speaking with was definitely a "true believer" in anthropogenic global warming.  Our discussion was amicable enough; she gave me the usual stuff about "97% of scientists agree", while I responded with statistics which indicated that, in spite of ever-compounding CO2 emissions in the past 20 years, the earth's temperature as measured by NOAA satellites had not warmed dramatically. 

"When feelings outstrip every
other consideration,
we lose all sense
of proportion."

But the discussion hit a huge pothole when it became clear that neither of us was willing to surrender our deeply held positions.  My dinner companion just looked at me, smiled, and said "Al, maybe we're both right.  Have you thought of that?  Maybe we're both right."  (She actually clutched my arm as she said these words with great intensity and sincerity.)  

I shook my head and asked her how that was even conceivable.  I felt a bit like Star Trek's Dr. Spock as I responded with: "That's not objectively possible.  That's like me saying the china we're eating our meals from is black, and you insisting it's white.  One of us has to be objectively wrong."  But she wasn't buying it.  "Nope.  I just feel that we can both hold to our positions, because maybe we're both right." 

Did you catch how she phrased her conclusion?  "I just feel that we can both hold to our positions..."  Yup.  No matter the objective truth about climate change, her "feelings" would put an end to the discussion by determining that "maybe we're both right."   

And the discussion did end there.  I mean, how do you counter that kind of illogical nonsense?   I felt as though I was losing in an effort to nail a block of Jell-o to a wall. 

But we are starting to operate our society based on this kind of epistemological drivel.  When feelings outstrip every other consideration, we lose all sense of proportion.  In the US last month, college students were having their exams canceled because they "felt" sad about the outcome of an election.   

On the gender file, we are now telling 6 and 7 year old children that binary gender identity is nothing but a social construct; that they can be boys or girls depending on how they "feel" on any given day.  (And the federal government actually wants to make it a crime to not acknowledge and affirm those "feelings".)

And here's my point.  I fear that governance - even governance at the local level - is starting to slide down this same rabbit hole.  (When we elect to office people who can put forward - based on "feelings" - a proposition that two objectively opposing views on climate change might both be right, it's not hard to see what I'm talking about.)

Those who know me know that I'm a process geek.  I'm very much one for doing things "by the book" when it comes to procedure and legalities.  As municipal politicians, we have very clear laws and policies we have to follow when we make our governance decisions.  

But what do we do when people "feel" like they were unheard by the process?  The logical, historical answer would be that we work to amend the process to ensure better representation and more community buy-in.  But today, there is an increasing trend to simply bow to the "feelings" of one or another vocal group by saying:  "Oh, you didn't like the way we did that?  Well, then we'll just undo it."  Even though the way it was done followed - to the absolute letter of the law - the statutory process laid out for us.   To be clear, I would have no problem with working to amend the processes that might need improvement, but local governments are starting to discard entire files simply because people didn't like how they were handled.  Absolute foolishness.  

I fear that this will not end well, folks. 


Saturday, September 10, 2016

What's it cost to save a tree??

Well, the final numbers are in on that escapade to save the old maple tree at the Island Savings Centre.  The Commission which is responsible for the operation of the Centre met this week.  I'm currently on a family vacation with the grandkids in Alberta, so I wasn't at the meeting.  But I emailed Centre Manager Terri Askham after the meeting for an update. 

One of the things she sent me was a written summary of the notes for a verbal report she had presented to the Commission on the "tree issue”   With her permission, here’s the most cogent excerpt:

•    A total of $16,245 in direct costs are attributable to the delay in removal of the James Street maple tree.
•    $6,000 was the direct additional cost required  for  the contractor to accelerate the entrance and exit work to complete on time with what we’ve referred to as Phase 1.
•    The remaining $10,245 included added security, signage, legal, arborist and meeting costs.
•    Financial requirements will mean that while the $6,000 can be charged directly to the project budget, the $10,245 will be absorbed by Island Savings Centre operating budget for 2016.

Yes, you read those numbers correctly.  A total of over $16,000 dollars; that’s what the delays have cost the taxpayers.  I find that number absolutely astonishing. The last line of Ms. Askham's note is the most troubling to me.  More than $10,000 dollars will have to be "absorbed by the ISC operating budget" this year.  I wasn't at the meeting so I didn't hear the details of how that would work, but to me, this can only mean one thing.  In the bureaucratic parlance of the operations of the Island Savings Centre, the word "operating" means primarily "programming".  Recreational programming, and most of that for children from underprivileged families.  I suspect it’s that which will be taking a $10,000 dollar hit before the end of this budget year. 

I understand some of the idealism that drove the demonstrators.  And I can forgive some of them for that.  For instance Siearra Courtemanche, the young lady who was the first to climb the tree back on June 28th when we initially resolved to take the tree down, was absolutely upfront about her position.  And also very honourable.  When a deal had been reached to save large chunks of the tree (before that deal was broken by other protestors, and before we discovered just how bad the rot was), she backed away from the protest.  She was patently not part of the demonstration from that time forward. 

What I can't understand is the actions of my North Cowichan council-mate, Joyce Behnsen.  She was the one who took over as the de-facto "leader" of the save-the-tree movement with Ms. Courtemanche's departure at the end of July.  By all accounts, it was Joyce Behnsen who was coordinating the schedule to ensure the tree was “protected” by protestor presence 24 hours a day. 

And I truly don't get that.  This is the same Councillor Behnsen who is constantly pontificating in Council (and virtually everywhere else) on issues of "spending" and "accountability".  She's the first to cry foul every time we need to put out a nickel for virtually anything.  And she's also the first to complain that government is "out of touch" with local residents.  She's certainly entitled to hold all of those opinions, and she's equally entitled to be passionate about saving a tree.  But I can't for the life of me understand how she reconciles her hawkish fiscal positions on other issues with the notion that she led a movement that will result in a $10-thousand dollar hit to recreational programming in our community.  Or how she took a position that essentially idolized a tree at the expense of public safety, all the while claiming she was “representing the public” (one of her favourite phrases), when a vast majority of "the public" was clearly onside with taking the tree down.

Perhaps the voters will reward her passion in 2018.  Or perhaps, like me, this episode will leave them with a severe case of cognitive dissonance when it comes to Councillor Behnsen's underlying principles.  Only time will tell.

I know the Commission made some public statements earlier in the piece about "cost recovery" on this issue.  I'm pretty sure that would have been discussed in a closed session at the Commission meeting, but I wasn't there, and I'm not privy to those details.  However, knowing what I know about the way these things work, I suspect that at the end of the day, legal action to recover the $16-thousand dollars would be somewhat pointless.  We'd likely be laying out as much money in legal fees and court costs as the amount we'd be trying to recover.  So this probably turned into a moot point.

The good news out of the meeting this week is that the parking lot construction project is now back on schedule.  If the weather holds, paving is scheduled to start a week from Monday, and the entire project will be completed on time.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Why I won't be changing my vote on "The Maple Tree".

The discussion on that Maple Tree at the Island Savings Centre just won't die down.  People are still pressuring Commission members to "charge our minds" on this issue.

I'm usually open to public input, but on this issue, the matter is completely settled in my mind.

Here, aggregated in one place, is the rationale for my decision.  To be clear, I'm not trying to speak for any other members of the Commission.  These thoughts are mine, and mine alone.  But the points here are an attempt to coalesce a series of answers to a series of questions and challenges that have been circulating in social media and elsewhere.  You may agree with my conclusions - equally, you are free to disagree with them.  But, to quote Martin Luther, "Here I stand.  I can do no other."

First and foremost, as I've said repeatedly, this is a "liability" question.  Mention that one word - “liability” - to any public official in the context of a piece of public infrastructure and they get very nervous.  Because here’s the problem.  We have a report which says the tree is a liability.  And now, if that thing falls and hurts/maims/kills somebody, our insurance company will look us squarely in the eye and say “you knew, and you chose not to do anything about it.  We’re not covering the damage award.  You’re on your own.” 

And no matter how many other reports are generated, or how credible or well-meaning those report-writers are, that one report is “on the books.”  And it’s all the insurance company needs to refuse coverage of losses  (And trees do fall.  Witness the two blow-downs just this week of healthy-looking trees.. each within a mile of the ISC.  I put up a post on this on my FB page last Wednesday night.)

And here's the thing.  When someone goes after government for negligence/liability in an injury or wrongful death suit, the bar (and the damage awards) are always much, much higher than a standard suit against Joe Homeowner.  The courts tend to look at governments, (understandably), as bodies who “should have known better” because – unlike Joe Homeowner – they have all of the expertise and resources of "government" at their disposal.  There is an expectation that government will keep its citizens “safe”.. a much higher expectation and bar there than the expectation placed on an ordinary citizen who happens to have a tree in their front yard that falls over and hurts somebody.  Yes, that ordinary citizen might be sued, but usually the award wouldn’t be – relatively speaking – anywhere near as big as similar awards in cases of “public” infrastructure.

But let's say - heaven forbid - that we get a big windstorm and the maple falls.  And that this results in a $20-million dollar award in a wrongful death suit.  Insurance won't cover.  And these awards aren't usually amortized over 20 years.  Which means the award has to be paid for through a single tax hike.  The math says that tax increase, in a single year, could be well over $650 on average for each of the 30-thousand properties which are part of the group that pays for the Island Savings Centre.  (Some increases, based on assessment, would be much higher.)  Call me chicken if you want, but I don’t want to be the politician standing in front of a crowd and explaining that tax increase when these people can rightfully poke me in the chest with their finger and say “You idiot!  You knew about this!  You were warned!  And you didn’t do anything!!” 

Of course, the frustrating thing about all of this is that the initial report which identified the liability is subject to a non-disclosure clause.  We didn’t even notice that when we signed it, but I’ve subsequently become aware of the fact that most arborists in the Cowichan Valley will not generally contract with local government without that non-disclosure clause.  We can’t release the report, and we can’t even tell you who wrote it.  The reason?  Look no further than the abuse we’re taking over this.  I’ve had several quiet conversations with local arborists on this, and they’ve told me they have no desire to have picketers outside their homes/offices, complaining that they didn’t make the “right” decision about a particular tree.   Which is why we went to Victoria to get the report from Mr. Dunster.  More on that in a minute.

So whether anyone likes it or not, the liability question is number one here.  I will grant it’s probably not what our opponents want to hear.  In fact, many of them are patently and deliberately tone-deaf to this.  But it's the number one reality here.

But what about the two other arborist's reports; the ones that are public?

First, there's the one from Mr. Gessche

Rather than going to the substance of that report, let me take you through a hypothetical.  Let’s say you are buying a house.  You need a mortgage.  But the bank won’t lend you the money until they’re satisfied the house will stand for the 20-year amortization period; that it’s not gonna collapse into the basement.  So they tell you to get a home inspection.  You have a friend in the home inspection business; you call him up and explain your situation to him.  He does a walk-through and writes a report saying the house is fine.  No charge to you, ‘cause he’s a friend.  Do you really think the bank would accept that report if you tell them the circumstances under which it was written?   Even if your friend was duly certified and did his full due diligence, I trust you can see there would be a credibility problem with that.  And sadly, that’s the problem with Mr Gessche’s report.  Nobody paid for it; he did it voluntarily, and his very public support for keeping the tree - while he's certainly entitled to that opinion - taints the credibility of his report from a purely objective perspective. 

All of which is to say that even if we didn’t have the first report, I’d be very hesitant to present Mr. Gessche's report to our insurance company as evidence that the tree was “safe” in the event it hurt somebody.  Because he has clearly stated his bias in the case. 

And then there's Mr. Dunster's report.  That one is interesting.  Dunster is, (even Gessche has said this), the guy who literally “wrote the book” on risk tree assessment.  His report says the tree is (relatively) safe, but he also qualifies that by suggesting we shore it up by sticking a pole up the middle and “cabling” the bigger branches so they don’t collapse.   Which begs the question; if the tree is so “safe”, why even include that suggestion?  The very fact that it’s in there speaks volumes. 

I suspect that some of this goes back to my earlier point about arborists not wanting to be publicly identified with their work.  Mr. Dunster found a very legitimate way to get around that difficulty and speak to both sides of the issue.  Tree supporters can say, with a considerable degree of assurance and credibility.. “Mr. Dunster says there’s no (major) problem!”  

But if the tree fails, Mr. Dunster can equally say to us.. “I told you there was a potential problem.. you should have put in the supports.”   (And remember, in a hypothetical lawsuit, the insurance company is listening to all of this – they don’t really wanna pay out, and Mr. Dunster’s second statement will speak volumes, especially when combined with the first report we received.)  

And as I said at the public meeting last week, giving that tree a wooden enema with cables just isn’t an option.  Not for $10K, and especially not when doing so will only prolong the agony and put us back in this same place in 5 to 10 years.  Sometimes, you gotta bite the bullet.

The other issue here is the "communication" piece.  I absolutely agree that the Commission could have done a better job on that front.  Particularly in articulating the fact that - Joni Mitchell's little ditty notwithstanding - there is no linkage between the parking lot and the tree.  In other words, even if we weren’t doing the parking lot work, the tree would still be coming out. 

We asked for the initial arborist's report late last year.  That report determined that the tree was a safety hazard/liability.  Once that determination was made, the tree’s fate was sealed, even if we had done nothing to the parking lot.  (See my explanation above about what “liability” means in this context.)  

And it was only after we received the (first) arborist’s report that the discussion started about reconfiguring the parking lot.  We had been putting off that work for several years - actually trying to squirrel away some money for it. But now that the tree was gonna go anyway, it gave us some better, safer options for access/egress onto James Street. 

I tried to suggest to the Commission that we “get ahead” of this back in March, when we made the parking lot design decisions.  I warned that “the tree” would be a problem, and that we should go public with the information then to allow time for public discussion. But the communication plan was considered incomplete without a final dollar figure for the parking lot work, and others around the table thought it best to roll out the communication piece all at once.  Which was fair enough. We didn’t have the final dollar numbers on the parking lot contract at that time – all we’d done was approve the design, the project still had to go out to tender.  Bottom line is that my idea wasn't adopted.  Those things happen. 

So there you have it.  Feel free to criticize all you want, (although I'd ask that you refrain from personal attacks - as Commission Chair Sharon Jackson has pointed out, one person has been unable to resist doing so), but this is, from my perspective, where we stand.

Protestors continue to block the necessary work.  Which means a very protracted and potentially expensive legal battle lies ahead.  This will likely take a few months, but at the end of it all, I'm sure common sense and the facts will prevail. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

A final decision on "the tree"

There are days when I honestly wonder why I'm in local government.  Today was one of those days. 

The Island Savings Centre Commission held a special meeting to make a final determination on the fate of that old, hollow maple tree in the parking lot at the Community Centre - the one by the library entrance.  If you're new to this file, we had an arborist's report done early this year which indicated the tree was in deteriorating health, and posed a potential liability risk.  Concurrent with that report, we were working on a redesign of the parking lot, which is more than 30 years old and in dire need of an upgrade.  Long story short, the recommendation was to improve safety by redesigning the parking lot entrance on James Street.  Rather than two parking lot access points (one in and one out), the new design would provide a single in-out, located precisely where the tree is now.  So the tree would have to be removed.  Which - given the arborist's report - was pretty much a given already, even before the parking lot design was finalized. 

But the decision to remove the tree, when it was communicated publicly, caused a considerable stir.  On June 28th, the day we brought in the tree removal company to "do the deed", a young lady named Seairra Courtemanche climbed up and chained herself to the tree.  The RCMP couldn't talk her down, so the issue went to the CVRD Board.  Often in cases like this, governments will immediately move to "legal" options, including applying for an injunction to remove the protestors.  In this case, the CVRD Board decided to do something else.  They passed a motion to do the parking lot work in stages, starting at the end furthest away from the tree.  In the meantime, they arranged for a community meeting to hear public input on the tree.  That meeting was held on Monday, July 11th.   

The Commission held another special meeting two days later to consider the public input that was received.  We ordered a second arborist's report on the tree, asked some questions about the financial costs of preserving it, and asked about the safety implications of redesigning the parking lot.  Today's meeting was to look at the answers to those questions, and to make a final decision.

We received the second report from Victoria-based arborist Dr. Julian Dunster.  His report essentially says the tree is in rough shape, but that it could be saved by inserting a pole into the middle of it and shoring it up.  Here's a concept drawing of how it would work, taken directly from his report: 

Staff have determined the cost of that to be around $10,000.   Mr. Dunster infers this would extend the life of the tree by 5 (or perhaps 10) years.  You can read his full report here.

But the Commission decided not to go that route.  Instead, the tree will be coming out, and the parking lot design will go ahead as originally planned.   We also passed a second motion, “to provide opportunity for the public to participate in a working group to make decisions on the trunk once the tree is removed and the trunk is relocated, as well as how the tree is honoured.”  I'll get to that motion later.  

The discussion at the meeting was intense.  The 50 or so people in the gallery accused us, collectively, of being "stone-hearted".  Commission Chair Sharon Jackson was called out as a "liar".  Folks also demanded I apologize for something I said.  More on that in a minute. 


Chair Jackson started the discussion by talking about the passions that this issue had engendered, and used the word "bullying" to describe the actions of some who wanted to preserve the tree.  She also referenced a death threat against members of the Commission, which has been forwarded to the RCMP to deal with.  And then she outlined her reasons for supporting the main motion, including the notion that "as stewards of taxpayers’ money, as decision makers who have to weigh likelihoods of failure and the levels of liability, the choice is ours to make.  (And) we should not be making costly and risky decisions based on emotion, but (rather) on the cost/risk benefit analysis..."

Then it came my turn to speak.  Herewith, my speaking notes.  I was interrupted a few times by boos and catcalls from the audience, so this might not be exactly how everything came out of my mouth, but here's what I intended to say:
"I've seen a lot of correspondence on this issue.  A lot of it is before us, and most of the formal correspondence has been in favour of saving the tree. 

One of the letters I saw - and I haven't been able to find it in our package, it came to me by way of an email to my North Cowichan email account - appealed to me to save the tree and closed with the notion that I should "do the right thing, not the easy thing."

As though voting in favour of taking the tree down in front of a crowd of people who are passionate about saving it would be the "easy" thing to do.   Frankly, the "easy" thing for me to do today would be to acquiesce to the pressure we're under.

But I've also received a lot of phone calls and I've had dozens and dozens of conversations about this.  Everywhere I go - whether it's shopping, taking part in the Duncan Parade, or attending social and other events - people want to talk about this tree.  And the folks who are talking to me about it are almost unanimous.  They want the tree down.  In fact, many of them can't even believe we're having this discussion.  

My social media feeds have exploded on this thing; I've had more than 20-thousand views on tree-related posts on my Facebook page since this discussion started about a month ago.  I've had my Councillor Al Siebring Facebook page up for over two years.  There's not a single other issue that has attracted as many visits to my page as this one.  And the comments - both public and in private messages - have run about 90% in favour of taking the tree down.

I want to respect the input that has been received.  But I have to respect all of the input that I've received.

I acknowledge there have been lots of signatures on a petition.  But I also have to acknowledge that the exchanges I've had have been at least as numerous when I add up the emails, the conversations, and the social media interactions.  And those folks, while they're not signing petitions, are also making their wishes abundantly clear."
(At this point, I was interrupted by catcalls from the crowd; folks who demanded to know where all these people who want to cut the tree down were?  Why they weren't at the meeting?  My response was simply that "they have jobs and are probably at work."  That set off howls of protest, and prompted demands later in the meeting that I apologize to everyone in the room for inferring they were a bunch of unemployed slackers.  To be clear, that was never my intent, and it wasn't what I said.  But I'm also not going to apologize for the comment.  Folks can choose to take it any way they want - I was asked where the "supporters" of taking down the tree were, and I gave what I believed to be a factual answer.  Back to my speaking notes:)
"I want to touch, just for a second, on the other arborist's report, from Mr. Todd Gesshe.  (This was a report that supporters of the tree had commissioned to bolster their case.)  Frankly, Mr. Gessche's report failed to convince me, largely on the basis of his qualifications.  He writes that he has "tree risk assessment and consulting experience."  But, while he may have that experience, and he is an arborist, he is not ISA certified as a Tree Risk Assessment Professional.  The distinction is important, because at base this is about the "risk" the tree poses.

Back to the issue of public support.  I note that on the "Tree of Life" Facebook page, there's lots of talk about how - if we vote to take the tree down - this will come back and bite us at the next election.  That's fair enough, but I can't sit here and make decisions based on how my vote will impact my political future.  For me, this issue remains centered on the two issues I talked about at the last meeting - the matter of liability, and about doing the right thing with taxpayer dollars.   I also find it interesting that the aforementioned Facebook page has only managed to attract, as of this morning, 81 "likes".  That's a far cry from the 1750  names on the petition.  But it's also a far cry from the number of people who've told me in no uncertain terms that they disagree with the notion of keeping the tree.

That Facebook page also links to a gofundme page called "".  The goal on that page was to get $3-thousand dollars in donations.  I'm not sure how long it's been up - the first donation was made about 10 days ago - but so far, just two people have donated.  A grand total of $125 dollars.  I will grant that obviously those who want to save the tree have been self-funding their enterprise; I presume somebody had to pay something for Mr. Gesshe's report.   But in a day and age where gofundme has been known to raise millions of dollars in just a few days for certain causes (and I will grant that this one doesn't have that kind of profile, but still...) I think it's fair to say the people of the Cowichan Valley aren't exactly lining up with open wallets to support this cause in any big way.

But that is what we're asking them to do if we save the tree.  We're being asked to spend $10,000 tax-payer-funded dollars for the work that Mr. Dunster recommends.  And then up to $1500 per year for maintenance.  And for what?  To potentially extend the life of this tree by 5 or 10 years.  And then what?  Are we back in this room, debating whether to spend another $10,000 dollars?

It's been said that saving the tree will save us $40-thousand dollars in the overall parking lot budget.  I remain unconvinced.  First of all because - as I said - we'll potentially be back in this same spot in five years, and arguably in a worse place in terms of the parking lot redesign and the expenses associated with it.  And secondly because if we choose to save the tree, the configuration of the parking lot does compromise on safety.  It would be better than it is now, yes.  But it wouldn't be as good as it could be.

While I acknowledge the passion and the energy that have gone into the campaign to save this tree, I won't be doing the "easy thing" here.  Because, as I said, the "easy thing" would be to look at all of you, smile, and vote to save the tree.

Instead, I'll be doing what I consider to be - for all the reasons I've outlined - the "right thing".  I'll be supporting the motion before us."

After some more discussion, the Commission passed a motion that said “That the Big Leaf Maple Tree be removed and the redesign of the Island Savings Centre parking lot proceed in accordance with Attachment B of the General Manager, Community Services, July 12, 2016 report.”  

So the decision is made.  The tree will have to go.  During the question period that followed, Seairra Courtemanche (she was the one who had climbed the tree back on June 28th), appealed to the Commission to at least "save the stump".  To be honest, I wasn't totally clear on what she was asking.  Was she requesting that we save the stump "in place"?  In the location where the tree is now?  Because the motion clearly said that the parking lot redesign would be done with the tree gone. 

In any event, after the open portion of the meeting, we went into "closed" session.  Under the Local Government Act, I can't talk about what was discussed there.  But anyone who watches these things unfold knows what "usually" happens with respect to these cases.  (See my comments near the beginning.)  However, I can tell you that the Commission went a different route, unanimously passing - and then publicly reporting out on - a motion to "provide opportunity for the public to participate in a working group to make decisions on the trunk once the tree is removed and the trunk is relocated, as well as how the tree is honoured."

I see this as an attempt to not do "business as usual" on this, but instead, to engage the community within the context of the decision that has been made.  To be clear, the decision won't be changed; the tree is coming down.  But perhaps something can be done to "save the stump" per Ms. Courtemanche's request - albeit that the stump will be "relocated".  And maybe this can be done in a way that acknowledges the strong feelings about this issue, and brings some closure for all concerned.  After what I saw at today's meeting, I think that is sorely needed.

I started out by saying that today was "one of those days where I wonder why I'm in local government."  To be clear, that wasn't some invitation to a pity-party for "poor Al".  But sometimes, these situations can be difficult and frustrating.  (I went through an entire roll of Tums during the meeting.)

In the end, I'm not particularly proud of the decision we made today.  But I'm absolutely not ashamed of it either.  This isn't about that, and it's not about me.

Difficult decisions have to be made, in spite of how some people feel about them.  I do take considerable comfort from the fact that I wasn't standing alone on this.  Almost every other Commission member - having read and considered all the reports from the professionals and from staff - agreed with me in the final vote, and this includes people with whom I have often disagreed sharply on other issues. 

But it is what it is.  I truly hope we can now move forward. 

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Tax increases - the final, global numbers.

We gave fourth reading (adoption) to our financial plan and tax rates bylaw this week.  And as of today, we have the complete picture of total tax increases, including the Regional District, the Hospital Board tax, and the Education portion of your property tax bill.  (Remember, North Cowichan has little to no control over most of the other portions of the tax bill.)

The global increases in residential rates range from 2.34%  in Chemainus and Crofton to 2.66% for the "south end", (which pays a larger share into the Island Savings Centre).  Our tax bills also include utilities - water, sewer, and garbage/recycling.  (A lot of municipalities don't include this in the tax bill, preferring to send out statements quarterly.)  The increases for the utilities portion of the tax bill range from 2.56% to 2.58%.

And it's worth remembering that these increases were done in a context that also decreased the Light Industrial tax rate by 15% this year.  (See my earlier blog post for the particulars on that.)

I campaigned a year and a half ago on keeping increases to the rate of inflation.  When I made that motion, Council didn't deem it worth supporting, which left me with little option but to do my best to limit the increases as best I could.  And the fact is that these numbers really aren't that far off the inflation rate for the major cost-drivers for the municipality - especially in the area of utilities and labour costs. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Another Year.. Another Tax Increase.

I thought a lot about that headline.  And it's true. 

Another year.  Another tax increase.  But on the other hand, it could have been a lot worse.

Here's the fundamentals.  When we started the budget process in October of last year, staff was telling us that the total increase in the amount of taxes collected would have to be in the range of 3.6%. 

This would have had a proportionately greater impact on residential taxes because of a stated desire by Council that this was going to be the year we were going to reduce the tax burden on the "Light Industry" class.  We were taxing that class at a considerably higher rate than places such as Nanaimo and other Island jurisdictions, and we were starting to see evidence that some of the players in that sector - the window manufacturers, boat builders, and lumber remanufacturing outfits - were voting with their feet and taking their capital investments elsewhere.  Of course a reduction in that class would have to be made up somewhere else, with the most likely target being the residential class.  So the reality was that we were potentially looking at a residential tax increase that could have been as high as 5%.

I won't take you through all the permutations of what happened since October - there were some budget cuts, some unexpected new revenues, and some compromises around the table - but here's the bottom line.

We managed to keep the overall increase in the amount of taxes collected this year to 2.3 percent.  We cut the Light Industry rate by 15% this year.  And we also managed to keep the increase for the residential class at just under 3%.  It settled at 2.95%.

So the North Cowichan portion of your property tax bill for your home - assuming your assessment stayed in line with everyone else's - should be up by just under 3% compared to last year. 

And remember, the total tax bill includes things like the School Tax and monies for the CVRD and the Hospital District, items over which North Cowichan has minimal control.  But the stuff we can control? 

I'm pretty proud of what we managed to achieve this year.  And the rest of Council appears to be as well.  The vote to approve the budget was unanimous.

Monday, October 26, 2015

"Local Control" shouldn't always have to mean "Local Funding"

The CVRD is looking to dig into your wallet again, with three "Alternative Approval Process" (AAP) questions.  You can read all about them in last Friday's Cowichan Valley Citizen, where there's a pretty comprehensive treatment of the three different issues.

(If you're unfamiliar with the AAP process, it's essentially a way for government to increase taxes for specific functions or projects without asking the residents for their formal "approval" by way of a referendum, which can be a very expensive exercise.  Under the rules of an AAP, 10% of the residents affected by a proposed expenditure have to register their objection to the increased taxes by filing a form with the local government.  If that threshold is met, the local government has to either cancel the expenditure or take it to a full referendum.)

As to the latest three issues, here's a brief recap:  The first is a relatively small (and minor) issue.  The Regional District wants to create a region-wide "Arts and Culture" function.  Actually, I take some of the credit for getting this to the Board table.  This goes back to 2010, when Kirsten Schrader was hired as the Manager of the Arts and Culture Divison at the CVRD.  The problem was, there really was no "Arts and Culture Division" for her to manage at that time.   This created no end of discussion at the Island Savings Centre Commission (which I chaired at the time), because Ms. Schrader was being paid out of the "Cowichan Theatre" function which is administered by the ISCC but which gets its' financial support from only some of the taxpayers across the Regional District; only the ones who help pay for the Theatre.

I still maintain the hire was premature; to be clear, none of this was (or is) Ms. Schrader's fault.  She applied for the position as it was advertised, and she's done a very good job.  But somebody forgot to tell the then-manager of Recreation and Culture that hiring someone for that position was premature because technically, the "Division" she was hired to manage didn't even exist.  So I went to the Board several times, both privately and publicly, to get the issue resolved one way or another.  The AAP question that's now being posed is the final outcome of those discussions.  (And to be clear, I would expect that if this new function is approved, it will mean a shift of part of Ms. Schader's salary out of the Theater function, which should result in a slight drop in the requisition for those paying into that enterprise.)  The cost for an average homeowner in the CVRD to create the function, based on a $350-thousand dollar assessment, will be just under $3 dollars per year.  Because this is "region-wide", a total of just over 6-thousand people have to file an objection to the expenditure.  The form is available online here, and the deadline to get the forms in to the CVRD is the end of business on November 18th.

The second question deals with the creation of a function to manage the region's diking network, much of which was created and upgraded after the big flood in 2009. 
CVRD Chair (and North Cowichan mayor) Jon Lefebure told the Citizen that this one is pretty much unavoidable.  “We’ve built... dikes to protect our core areas and First Nations areas from the type of flooding that happened in 2009, and we need actually a function so that we can maintain those dikes,” he said. 

The CVRD received major grants from Emergency Measures B.C. to build those dikes, but the condition for that funding puts the Regional District on the hook for maintenance.  In the bureaucracy that is the CVRD, a fund and function has to be created (and funded) by a specific group of taxpayers in order to carry out that dike maintenance.  Those are the rules set out by the Province. 

In this case, the "specific group of taxpayers" is determined by geography; even more specifically, by topography.  Those being asked to foot the bill live within the areas from whence water flows/drains into the Cowichan River.  That creates some strange boundaries.  Folks as far north as Mays Road will be paying into this function, as will those in (most of) the Properties, but people on the east side of Mt. Tzouhalem, along Genoa Bay Road, are not, because their runoff heads the other way.  And Crofton, Chemainus, and Ladysmith are obviously exempt.  (There are detailed maps showing the various participating areas at the CVRD website.  To see if you're in one of the affected areas, click here.)  The cost for creating of this function works out - at maximum - to just over $9.00 for the same $350-thousand dollar home identified above.  To stop this expenditure (or to force a plebiscite on it), just over 26-hundred signatures are required to be in to the CVRD on the appropriate forms (available here) by 4:30pm on December 2nd. 

(On this one, I'd be careful what you wish for though.  Without the creation of some kind of fund to manage the dikes - which was a condition of getting the funding to get them built - we could be looking at major costs 15 or 20 years down the road to repair infrastructure that hasn't been properly maintained.) 

But it's the final AAP question that's liable to create the most push-back from residents.  First of all, because of the cost.  The Regional District is looking to tax homeowners in the affected areas a total of up to $32 dollars per year (again, based on a $350-thousand dollar assessment), to create a Regional Watershed Management Board.  This issue has considerable history, which is best summed up in this quote from the Citizen article.  "The watershed management service has been a main topic of discussion amongst local governments ever since community group One Cowichan raised the profile of the issue and the CVRD board began to investigate the far reaching impacts of the Cowichan River running dry." 

In an environment where we constantly hear local
governments complaining  about "down-loading" from
the Province, it seems counter-intuitive to me that
the CVRD would be asking for this particular
download, to the tune of more than $30 dollars
per year for the average homeowner. 

There's a fair bit more going on here.  The Provincial Government has just re-written its Water Sustainability Act, which is set to take effect early next year.  Part of the rewrite involves the minutia of "regulations", which includes the notion of who is actually responsible for what under the Act.  There has been, as the Citizen accurately points out, considerable discussion about devolving the actual authority for local water management to local authorities.  And it makes sense to have the control of, for example, the Cowichan watershed, in the hands of local stakeholders who have a much more intimate knowledge of the River than the sometimes faceless bureaucrats at the Environment Ministry.  Local control is absolutely a good principle in cases like this.  And several CVRD Board members have articulated, more than once, the idea that the Cowichan Region should be the "leader" in this area; that we should develop a model of "best practices" when it comes to working with the new Act; practices that other jurisdictions would be encouraged to follow.  This is certainly a laudable goal.

But there's one problem.  Money. 

I have said it more than once.  While I fully support the notion of "local control" on this issue, there is a legitimate question about who will fund this endeavour.  Right now, it's a Provincial responsibility.  In an environment where we constantly hear local governments complaining about "down-loading" from the Province, it seems counter-intuitive to me that the CVRD would be asking for this particular download, to the tune of more than $30 dollars per year for the average homeowner.  If the Province has responsibility for this area right now, it stands to reason that they have also allocated some money toward it.  If we're going to ask to take over administering the service, wouldn't it make sense to also ask for the funding that goes along with providing this service, rather than starting up a whole new "function" at local taxpayer expense?

And there's also the question of which areas would be paying into this.  Unlike the boundaries for the diking issues above, this area is supposed to take in all of the geographic areas that discharge water or runoff into the River (the same areas as above), plus whatever areas draw water from the watershed.  And that makes this considerably more complicated and, some would say, subjective.  To use my earlier example, at least some of the folks on Genoa Bay Road, while they discharge their runoff into Maple Bay and Birds Eye Cove, get their municipal water from the Cowichan River watershed.  The same thing, incidentally, for the folks in Crofton, whose municipal water is supplied via the Catalyst pipeline which draws it from the River.  That issue is so complex, in fact, that late Monday afternoon, (as I was writing this blog post), the CVRD postponed the AAP on this until they sort out the specifics of which areas should and shouldn't be asked to pay for it.

I'll try keep you posted as this issue moves forward.