While last night didn’t go the way I had hoped, over the past year it has been a true joy to knock on thousands of doors and meet the residents of the Ward, listening to the issues that matter most to them. A sincere thank you to each and every one of you who took the time to vote for me on election day.
In advance of election day this Monday, October 18, I'm honoured to share the below endorsement of my campaign from Bob Layton:
"As you may know, I am retired after more that 50 years in radio and television.
For nearly three decades I worked with Scott Johnston, an excellent City Hall reporter.
As News Director at 630 CHED, I soon learned Scott did not have a pack mentality. That is to say, he did not always chase after the same stories as the rest of the media. He was more interested in what the people, our listeners, wanted to know about.
As a result, we often carried City Hall stories other stations did not have, but would have them later, as would the newspapers.
As the years passed and someone would put forward a motion at a City Hall meeting, it was often Scott who would recall how a similar idea had failed in the past and what might have worked better.
Then there were the times people would call the station saying they could not get a straight answer from their councillor and ask what I knew about it. I would pass the question along to Scott and they would usually get a same-day reply.
Scott’s office was at City Hall. He spent more years there than an elected official and is a walking encyclopedia of what works and what doesn’t in Edmonton.
As his supervisor, from time to time, I would ask those he had interviewed what they thought of the resulting story. I never had a negative reply. They said he asked some pretty deep questions, never accepted any nonsense, and his stories were not only accurate but fair.
I do not live in Scott’s ward, but if I did, he would get my vote.
You don’t often have the opportunity to elect a councillor with this type of background and experience. I hope you don’t miss this one."
It's now official! Candidates had until September 21 to register for the October 18 election and I'm proud to say I'm officially official 24 hours later as the City of Edmonton declared all of the candidates on the ballot.
I hear a consistent message on this campaign. When I ask what concerns you have, more times than not the answer is “taxes.”
To be fair, it’s not that residents are against paying property taxes, they just don’t seem to feel they’re getting proper value for their money.
I heard plenty about it during a meet and greet event in the Creekwood area of Chappelle.
photo credit: Geoff Stickle
The major part of my campaign platform is to show some pragmatism over the next four years on municipal government spending, and not always vote towards spending that will lead to property tax increases.
Same story while door knocking
My message for keeping taxes as low as possible is also being welcomed when I speak with residents on their doorsteps. One taxpayer in Allard said his annual bill went from just under $4,000 to $4,600 in six years. It’s especially hard on seniors who are seeing the cost of their bills going up, but their income isn’t keeping pace.
Here’s a solution to funding facilities without digging into taxpayers’ wallets
There is demand for recreational facilities, especially for kids. I have been approached with a request to support a relatively low cost set of what are being called “streetball courts” in high demand areas of the city.
“Streetball” could fit within select city properties. A court on a rubberized playing surface, outfitted both with basketball hoops along the sides, and soccer nets at either end, surrounded by a chain link fence means any missed shots don’t involve ten minutes of chasing an errant ball and more play time.
It would provide much needed space to engage youth, in a safe environment, to keep them occupied, healthy and engaged.
However when I was approached I said my support is also contingent on finding the money through other savings, and not taxpayers’ dollars.
This is something where Edmonton Minor Soccer, Alberta Soccer, Basketball Alberta and even social organizations like REACH should play a role. Those tens-of-thousands of dollars raised through 50/50 draws at Oiler games through the Edmonton Oilers Charitable Foundation could sure go a long way to this goal as well.
I would be more than happy to facilitate making this happen.
If it doesn’t, we stand a good chance to lose a popular program that’s already produced international star Alphonso Davies.
That’s based on a comment from a former colleague of mine, from when we were both in the press gallery at City Hall. Tim Adams has taken to Twitter to suggest 13 years of “Free Footy” could be coming to a close.
Adams is calling on more government support. “I won’t do this @freeplayforkids thing much longer” he wrote. “Govt fund it or lose it.”
My solution is to get public support dollars in the system to benefit all Edmontonians.
(Editors note: Scott published this November 2, 2020 prior to announcing his candidacy)
The Coliseum continues to sit there, closed up, idle, and costing Edmonton taxpayers roughly $1.5 million a year in security expenses and lost opportunity. Almost a year ago city councillors agreed that demolition of the former home of the Oilers was in the cards, even though the price tag was anywhere between $15 million and $25 million.
Since then, the pandemic has hit, damaging Edmonton’s economy in the process. In an effort to support local jobs and growth in the construction sector, city council should finally get refurbishing the Exhibition Lands going, even if it means turning over demolition of the Coliseum to a private developer and reducing the sale price of the 150 acres on the old Northlands site.
The plan for the Exhibition Lands was adopted by city council’s Urban Planning Committee in early December 2019, and by turning over the property to a developer it could finally start creating a return on investment through increased property taxes, on prime real estate. What are they waiting for?
The plan city council approved already calls for new LRT stations south of the Expo Centre, and north of the Coliseum Station that badly needs work to make it safer and to kick start residential development. It calls for housing and commercial and retail development that would accommodate about 8,500 residents in some 3,500 units.
The plan suggests 60 single detached, semi-detached or duplex houses, 20 townhouses and 30 apartment units could be built annually, so you can see the tax revenue potential, if councillors decide it’s time to get going.
Yet, the updated stats that council will be looking at during the public hearing show demand increases with a larger emphasis on employment and “can boost the demand for residential and office space absorption by 100% and retail space by 300%.” The new info basically tells city council, if you build it, they will come.
When I wrote about this in November 2019, the plan was to begin development of the southern part of 150 acres and eventually work north to 118 avenue. After a delay of another year it makes sense to combine demo costs on tearing down the old race track buildings as well as the Coliseum to speed up the process and allow private development money to begin flowing, especially while material costs are relatively low.
The time is now for council to move on this project and stop throwing money in maintenance and security costs at a problem that could be solved today. The only caveat is, any contract language with a developer should insist on a short time frame to make sure things start getting built, so the land doesn’t continue to just sit there.
(Editors note: This first ran November 30, 2020 before Scott declared his candidacy)
Strathcona County and the City of Fort Saskatchewan are teaming up to study new ways to share staff and services. And depending how things go, the combination of the two municipalities could save millions of taxpayer dollars each year.
It’s potentially a more aggressive step from what we’ve already seen with recreational facilities in Metro Edmonton. Spruce Grove, Stony Plain and Parkland County pooling resources to build the Tri-Leisure Centre, which opened in 2003.
And in January of 2020, Edmonton and St. Albert city councils agreed to cooperate on a 59-acre site in west St. Albert for a future rec centre. At the time, St. Albert Mayor Cathy Heron told me the potential was there to build it to serve the two cities while the Lewis Farms rec centre was on hold.
How much money can be saved?
Strathcona Mayor Rod Frank released a consultants report from Tantus and MNP that identifies areas of local government work that includes “services and service delivery, finances and taxes, growth and quality of life,” that can be improved with new and collaborative governance models.
The report says the low hanging fruit is when staff from the participating municipalities share advice, and even partner in “group purchasing.” What you see less often, but can be a money saver is when service providers team up for things like permit inspectors working in both municipalities. The report even suggests part-time positions can be merged to create more cost-effective full-time staff.
Metro area developers have called on all municipalities to reduce the amount of time it takes to green light projects, because delays are the biggest reason you see costs driven up.
The report calls on all parties involved to create “clear goals”.
“Approximately 20 per cent of capital spending could be avoided by greater collaboration and coordination between municipalities,” the report said.
There’s gotta be something in it for everyone
This past spring Strathcona County voted “no” to joining the emerging Transit Commission that proposed bringing together 13 municipalities. Mayor Frank at the time said there was not enough cost savings on what is a $100 million budget item for the county.
Strathcona County currently employs 175 staff to provide transit services through a fleet of 90 buses and four transit facilities. The feeling is, right now the county already has a strong enough service without investing more across the metro region.
The consultant’s report said between Strathcona County and the City of Fort Saskatchewan, staff efficiency gains, capital cost avoidance and procurement savings could net as much as $36 million a year for those two municipalities.
The concept behind the report where municipalities team up for a shared investment for a shared reward in both costs and services has the makings of something much bigger metro-wide. Here’s hoping the new councils in 2021 across the region explore pilot projects to gauge the potential.
(Editors note: This article first ran January 5, 2021 prior to Scott declaring his candidacy)
Now that city council has ratified the 2021 budget with a zero percent tax increase, I’m predicting that you should watch for labour negotiations to heat up in the new year.
Dozens of grievances I’m told have been filed by the unions over the “Reimagine” report compiled by city management in July that aims to reduce spending by as much as $172 million. There are roughly 30 files involving the city’s outside workers with CUPE, while the representative for the Coalition of Edmonton Civic Unions, Liam Peuramaki said in an email CSU 52, the inside workers, “would be carrying the majority of them.”
The contention by the city unions is taxpayers are in some cases paying double for work that is contracted out, because the private sector providers don’t have the same expectations placed on them that city employees do.
Program service review is too old according to the unions
The gist of many of the grievances are that it has taken too long between when the city found ways to save costs, and when they’re planning on acting upon those recommendations.
John Mervyn, with the union that represents the city’s outside workers, CUPE local 30, said the service review goes back two summers ago. Anything the city wants to implement now has been dormant for a couple of a years and the union wants to revisit those discussions. “They’re dead,” he said about the recommendations that were made. “It’s taken two-and-a-half years to act on it.”
“This is a negotiation item,” he said. “We’re in a freeze period.”
An example he gave has to do with litter pick up. There are two streams of service on that. His members are responsible for emptying the metal mesh garbage cans you’d see along Jasper Avenue. The union contends staff will not only take care of that, but clean up the immediate area around them.
Yet a private provider, Bee-Clean, has the contract for the cans you’ll find at bus stops. He claimed the language in the contract means Bee-Clean doesn’t pick up litter from the ground so city crews have to be dispatched to finish the job.
No one from the city’s Employee Services unit, which handles labour negotiations, was able to respond for comment.
The problem is the rules aren’t consistent or clear enough
Mervyn said “there are good contractors out there.” But the problem is city management doesn’t always do a good job setting guidelines and expectations in the contract language.
He said with commercial waste management pickup, where bins are emptied at apartments and businesses, there are two sets of standards for city staff and contractors. A second city employee is needed, he said, to watch the bin being lifted and dumped into the truck.
Yet that second set of eyes is not needed for private contractors according to the city guidelines. “City employees watch for clearance from overhead power lines, or to make sure no one is using the bin to escape the cold”
I think senior management should set the policy and expectations, then hold staff — both union and private contractor — to account. In the long run it should lead to city services being done right the first time.
As your city councillor I would push for adjustments on how taxpayers foot the bill for garbage collection. The price as it is now is too high. And it hits ratepayers in a couple of ways, both directly and indirectly.
It’s a complicated patchwork system that needs improving, and ahead of Friday’s meeting of Council’s Utilities Committee, here are some suggestions to reduce future costs.
It’s more expensive in Edmonton and doesn’t have to be
My biggest concern is, at this late point in the four year cycle, the current city council will paint ratepayers into a corner, without leaving options open before the October 18 election.
What you’ll hear at the Utilities Committee is concerns raised about apartment buildings, and other multi-unit sites where ratepayers pay about 50 percent more than in other major Canadian cities. In Edmonton, based on research done by the Alberta Residential Landlords Association, the going rate is $31 per unit (meaning each apartment) while everywhere else it comes in at about $20.
The argument is, it creates an indirect cost, so either rents are higher than they need to be or the high rent diminishes the property value, so property taxes aren’t at the level they should be.
In broad strokes, at 70,000 apartments, it means the numbers add up in the multi-millions of dollars very quickly in potential lost revenue that is taken out of the Edmonton economy.
I asked the city for some cost information on private versus public service delivery, but was turned down in an email, on account the election campaign is underway.
What I’d like to see
Now that Edmonton is moving into the COVID-19 delayed roll out of a new robotic truck garbage collection, we’ve got a chance over the next year or so to look at alternatives. Roughly half of the city has collection done by city employees. The other half by the private sector. It’s been that way for decades, as each keeps the other in check in terms of cost control.
But you will hear calls to go entirely with the private sector in the next while. That’s certainly a ‘red-meat’ approach that will appeal to many. I could be open to it.
I’d like to see more data before a final decision is made. Yet I would also like to see efforts to contain costs, especially at the city-run Eco-stations where customers would be forced to line up for extended periods of time to unload what they have. The city needs to do a better job providing options for materials disposal.
Why not have social agencies that need to collect large items, like heavy furniture, get the benefit of being a drop off location? That way the city does not have to increase salaried staff.
Habitat 4 Humanity is one example that would be a win-win. It’s a way to control expenses, and buys time to look at a larger service delivery system.
As your City Councilor I will work to install proper, safe, and separated bike lanes while individual communities undergo neighbourhood rehab.
I’ve asked people while campaigning about what they think about bike lanes? Many have admitted that they do not like them.
Thanks to the always excellent work of pollster Janet Brown of Opinion Research, who provided CBC Edmonton with survey results for their Edmonton: Our Future series, of 16 municipal priorities, expanded bike lanes came in dead last, favoured by only 26 percent of respondents, while 42 percent felt they were not important.
And instinct tells me there’s even more of a geographical divide, where bike lanes are more popular in the core of the city in Strathcona, Oliver and downtown, and even less so in Ipiihkoohkanipiaohtsi.
What to do about it?
In 30 years covering city hall as a radio journalist I’ve seen what’s worked, and what hasn’t, and the original concept of bike lanes tops that list.
I spoke about it with Ahmed Selim on his myradio580 program.
They were first brought in as painted lines that no one liked. Motorists saw two lanes of traffic squeezed into one, clogging up intersections in far flung parts of the city where it didn’t make any sense.
Many cyclists did not feel comfortable or safe without a clear barrier protecting them from traffic so they wound up avoiding them.
And don’t forget the seasonal problem of snow covered and icy roads, sitting alongside bike lanes that were ploughed and cleared right down to the bare pavement.
In the end, at a cost of millions of taxpayers’ dollars, city employees blasted the paint off the pavement.
We all came out losers in the end because some in the city’s roads department pushed this through without proper council oversight.
You’ve already paid for them
My proposal is to install proper safe separated bike lanes while individual communities undergo neighbourhood rehab. That’s the work where roads are resurfaced, cracked and falling apart sidewalks and curbs are rebuilt, and sewers are maintained.
Over a ten year stretch you had been paying a line item on your property taxes dedicated to building up the fund for specific neighbourhood reconstruction. So that also provides the opportunity to design and build safe separated bike lanes that will actually get used, while still allowing traffic to move without interruption. Sidewalks can be redesigned too, to improve pedestrian safety.
What are the other priorities?
Based on Brown’s survey results, maintaining existing roads topped the list with 82 percent saying that’s highly important. I couldn’t agree more. And based on what I wrote earlier in the campaign the auditor has some suggestions on how to improve snow removal that I think should be acted on.
Rounding out the top five, and I agree with these as priorities, attracting and retaining young people — especially entrepreneurs, address homelessness and systemic discrimination, and keep residential property taxes low. Absolutely.
What I think that’s lower in the survey and deserves to rank higher, and I’ll strive to do that, is to keep commercial and business property taxes low as well.
Edmonton’s business community, as our primary job creator, needs all the help it can get.
There are business owners who have a clear vision on how they want to create jobs. Yet they run into roadblocks set up by the City of Edmonton’s administration. By trying to control them, it does more harm than good.
That’s why I am vowing to improve the food truck permit process, to make things more streamlined.
I heard from one food truck operator recently that I reported on in 2018. Seems to me, instead of the city improving the situation, it has gone backwards.
How I think things should be handled
Who do you think knows better on how to manage a particular industry? It’s the individuals themselves who rely on things operating smoothly.
I’ve heard similar issues with Edmonton’s festivals. They suggest they can band together as an entity and deliver a product at less cost to the taxpayer than what’s in place now.
I see my job as your city councillor to have it so I’d gain support among my colleagues to change the rules. That way food truck owners would attest to a promise of performance. Then if they stray from what they intend on doing, they would have to deal with city staff to correct things. But the city would not intervene before then.
City council should set the standard for how things operate, then the administration and the players involved should work together to make it happen. If an outlier truck doesn’t cooperate, then bylaw at that point should step in.
Here is what is lacking
There are about 175 food vendors who require permits, and one administrator to process the requests. There is no longer an automated online system these days, brought in because of Covid-19 when the parks were temporarily closed.
City staff play “king maker” picking winners and losers for locations. The food and beverage industry experts could likely sort that out themselves, even allowing for more trucks in each park location, properly spaced apart, and allowing the market to thrive on its own.
A whole new set of Parkland Vending Guidelines were imposed on food truck operators three months ago in February. A truck can no longer have location rights to three parks, yet they can still access three locations on Edmonton’s roads.
Another setback for operators that they’re still getting used to is they have to renew on a month-by-month basis instead of carrying over permits over several months.
If it were up to me, there would be a more streamlined, automatic system that covers off an extended period of time. That way operators could spend more of their day working to find ways to innovate their business, and grow the economy, instead of answering to the bureaucracy.
Tangent’s Treats is one of those innovative companies that fits a unique customer base. They’re well known for baked goods that are specific to two sets of clients -- man’s best friend, and the dogs’ owners. In my dealings with them, I can see why they’ve been very successful in their niche market.
Yet they can only make things work at parks that allow dogs in off-leash areas. Not every city park fits that bill -- like Hawrelak, or Emily Murphy. Having city staff handle scheduling might miss that crucial point.
The industry itself has the ability to map out a schedule and locations, instead of having the city do it for them. As an industry they can make sure “like” trucks providing the same product aren’t duplicating service at one location, while others are missing.
Things changed because of Covid. Now is an opportunity to emerge with a better plan
Here’s where it gets tricky. The system already prevents food trucks from parking at the entrance to some dog parks because they are too close to residential areas.
Wouldn’t it be great if dog park users could grab a beverage or a snack? The way it is now the rules prevent the chance to make a sale or two on account of regulations on the books dictating what happens near residential neighbourhoods and not the dog park itself.
Food trucks are bogged down by the City’s unnecessary red-tape which means they are not able to be as successful as they could be. Not only does this decrease demand for products from suppliers, it costs Edmontonians jobs and the City of Edmonton an opportunity at increasing economic prosperity.
As the Councillor for Ippihkoohkanipiaohtsi, I will make sure that we are protecting businesses and adding more jobs for Edmontonians. It’s time city council starts caring more about our economic future.