I promised I'd go, I didn't promise to leave my snark at home.

Sure, I haven’t been the most vocal about expressing my input into Calgary’s city budget.  Frankly, I’m less of a financial wizard and more of a financial orc with a rusty battleaxe. 

The fact that I don’t feel qualified to make city wide decisions gets trumped by the fact that the city is actively seeking our input and I feel my voice is wasted if I don’t at least try to explain my viewpoint.  What is singularly most important to me, however, is the feeling of wanting to be engaged and feel like my viewpoint has at least been heard.  I don’t feel like I’ve had this opportunity, well, ever.  The closest I can think of was when I spoke for a while with Al Duerr one on one.  He’s a great guy to talk to, but I don’t feel he ever really asked my opinion.  This is a chance for each and every Calgarian to express themselves and it is genuinely being sought and acted upon.  Wow, that’s such a good thing. 

I spent a bit of time tonight trying to catch myself up as quickly as possible as to what to expect tonight at the Conversation Cafe and what has happened up to this point with the budget process.  There’s no chance I was going to get caught up with everything, but I definitely got the impression they wanted input from Calgarians into what the compromises and tradeoffs we, as citizens, were willing to make so that city council could represent our wishes better. 

I have my opinion on what matters to me, so I felt prepared to head down to Fort Calgary and make some decisions. 

The first impression I got was that in terms of reaching out to Calgarians the city gets an A+++ for their effort.  This seems to be a significant step, I genuinely feel like my input was wanted and the facilitators and staff there really tried their best to actually listen to all the opinions they heard tonight.  Even when the opinions come from cynics like me.  This didn’t feel like a meeting where a focus group was assembled to find out if our collective opinion agreed with the decision already made.  It didn’t seem like they were launching trial balloons and seeing where we cringed.  It felt like sincere public consultation to me.  I wonder why I haven’t attended something like this regularly around the city.

In case I haven’t been completely clear, I found tonight to be slightly frustrating and extremely rewarding and important to attend.  I strongly recommend each and every Calgarian to attend a session or to at least go online and participate.

Upon sitting down with package in hand, I really felt like I was missing the point somehow. 

In the package was a list of objectives for the evening, a list of city departments with the options of what I would do with the departmental budget, and an evaluation form of the evening at large.  Consider this blog the second half of the evaluation that I couldn’t fit onto the form.

There are a couple of things that just didn’t mesh with my thoughts at all.  The options listed for each department were:
 - Increase funding
 - Decrease funding
 - Leave funding as is
 - Eliminate the department or service

Okay, so one of the departments was the Calgary Police Service and anyone is truthfully going to eliminate it?  It’s a preposterous notion that sets up very compartmentalized views that do not represent my viewpoint at all.  Departments exist because they have work to accomplish.

Wait, let me backtrack on that.  Departments should exist because they have work to accomplish.  Getting rid of the department isn’t going to get rid of the task.  The question we need to be addressing is not that of departmental budgets but whether the tasks themselves are being performed effectively and efficiently.  We judge that on the basis of several measurements - on metrics - and they have to be carefully and cautiously analyzed to ensure we’re getting a true picture. 

Take, for instance, the police department.  The standard metric we use is to look at our crime rate.  But a low crime rate doesn’t necessarily mean our neighbourhood is safe.  There may not be a police station in the neighbourhood, the police may never make a patrol in our area, the citizens could be too afraid to report a crime.  But we have to have a place to start and the crime rate serves as a good enough baseline.

Unfortunately, the budget kit as it’s put together does a fair job at explaining what each department does, but leaves us no method to evaluate the department’s effectiveness or efficiency.  I cannot make an informed choice knowing only the responsibilities of each department.  I have no reasonable chance to fairly evaluate the Calgary Emergency Management Agency with a 2011 Operating Budget of $3.4M plus $1.2M one time pandemic funding.  I pick on them because I know nothing at all about them.  Let me quote:

We enable Calgary to better manage both natural and man-made disasters.  - We are there in a crisis.  We work with City departments, external agencies and volunteers to be sure that there is a prepared, fast response in the event of a disaster.  - We support communities with emergency preparedness.  - We develop and manage plans to prepare for first response.  - We help City operations and community partners plan for business continuity and recovery after a disaster event.


Okay, so the department probably doesn’t consist of two fat paramedics sitting around drinking coffee dreaming up doomsday scenarios.  Three and a half million for that would be ridiculous.  But I have very little idea of the scope of the department from that write up.  Do they have 1.5 million sandbags stockpiled in case of flood?  Do they have 200 hazmat suits put away in case of nuclear attack?  Do they have equipment capable of cleaning up a 28000 barrel oil spill?  Can they source it in case a spill that size occurs here?  Three and a half million for all that is a bargain!

I know for a fact I’d much rather prefer to have a emergency preparedness team than not have one until it’s too late.  But I feel woefully ill informed to judge whether we’re getting good value or not.

Granted, tonight is the night for asking questions like that.  I wish I was clever enough to come up with it earlier.  I dearly hope that the city can provide these sorts of answers to us all in a meaningful way.  I suppose that means we need to increase the city’s communication budget, eh?

Speaking of communications, I’m going to spend a little more time ripping into the poor Planning, Development and Assessment Department.  I’m afraid I have harsh criticism in general for them, because I feel that Land Use Planning and Policy is very poorly done in Calgary and in my mind it’s a department that deserves a much sounder direction moving ahead.

I got absolutely incensed while reading from the Development and Building Approvals section.  Just one excerpt:

 - We work on development permits for new construction or changing the use of your building.  We issued 15,000 building permits in 2010, totaling $2.9 billion dollars.  The Building permits unit also looks at changes or additions to electrical, mechanical, plumbing and gas in buildings.  If you operate a business either out of your home or a commercial location, you will need to work with us.  We issued 37,354 business licenses in 2010, and conducted 6,322+ business inspections.

And right there my mood turned black.  Is it any wonder my very first thought of the entire department is one of red tape and delays?  These are the very people we expect to be detailed minds, caring for our safety by ensuring building codes are met.  Read that sentence again and tell me if I’m being too anal towards the people at city hall who are supposed to be anal.

Now, I beg their forgiveness if it just so happens that in 2010 they issued precisely 15,000 building permits - no more, no less.  It is always possible that you hit on a perfectly round number.  We know they issued a very precise 37,354 business licenses so I’m going to have to assume the 15,000 number is also precise.  But seriously, what the hell is 6,322+ supposed to mean?  Is it a programmatic indicator that I’m supposed to increment the business inspections?  Does it mean they have 6,322.5 inspections?  I know I’m boring everyone who isn’t laughing at the ludicrous notion.

The reason this bugs me is that it just drips bureaucratic jargon.  If you’re going to give me precise numbers, give me precise numbers throughout.  If you’re going to give me round numbers, based on my knowledge of significant digits I expect there to have been somewhere between 14,900 and 15,100 building permits and I’m okay with that.  Mixing and matching looks like I’m getting self-serving statistics, and I’ve got a problem with that when the entire department is supposed to be paying attention to the detail.

I see that department to be the source of red tape, the source of bad decision making, and if they’re pulling in nearly $3 billion each year it sounds pretty expensive to me for poor service.  Come on, people, I’m really hoping you’ll convince me I’m wrong somewhere along the line.  Instead I feel like I’m reading boasting about nominal accomplishments.

Underneath it all, my premise comes down to one thing:

Calgary is great at coming up with plans and abysmal with executing them.  Our single biggest shortcoming has been a lack of foresight and a blindness towards the consequences of not making decisions on a far reaching enough scheme.  We need to come up with a plan and to have our city departments act more cohesively to reach our goals.  Part of why this budget process is so important to me is that it seems to be part of laying a long range plan in place.

I cringe each and every time I see a road dug up in this city.  Sometimes a water main breaks and it has to be dug up to be repaired.  Sometimes a road has to be resurfaced or reconfigured to account for a changed traffic pattern.  But perhaps before that road gets  re-surfaced, are we having someone check the records to see when the water main was last checked?  If it’s been 50 years, maybe we could do a little preventative maintenance, no?

I know that we are doing some of this, and I know a few of the exceptional people working with the city who are way more in tune than I am.  Every anecdote that burns my butt has to have ten examples of things done right or the city would have fallen into anarchy 30 years ago.

But for anecdotes:

I live in a four-plex.  We have four blue bins and four black bins at our building.  Every week I throw out approximately half a shopping bag full of garbage - usually because it starts to smell.  I generally fill my blue bin roughly once a month.  Perhaps we’re below average, but in this building we don’t need four garbage cans.  On the other hand, there are apartment buildings who could sure use them.

I’ve officially become a year round bicyclist and intend to stop when I retire.  My biggest complaint is getting the walks shoveled on 17th Avenue SE over Deerfoot Trail.  I generally have to call 3-1-1 to complain in order to get them shoveled within a week of a snowfall.  The point of this is to say that I rely on 3-1-1, but also I could really use some better bicycle infrastructure.  That crosswalk at 17th Avenue and Deerfoot is really scary.

Talking with Craig Burrows during the municipal election really improved my attitude towards the beat cops downtown.  I like what they’ve done and would appreciate a return towards more of a community policing policy in my neighbourhood.  I know it’s expensive.  It’s also effective.  Whenever I see four or six cops walking together downtown I generally think it would be great to have a couple of them near my place.

Snow plowing on our residential streets was nice, but I thought it was a little excessive on my street.  We don’t have much of a hill and we never really had dangerous ruts develop like we had on some streets last year.  I’m willing to cut back a little on plowing - or at least focus more effort on the hills.  Of course, I drive a pretty good car and I’m apparently above average in driving skills.  Scary in and of itself.

I still stand behind my idea of licensing people capable of plowing streets to plow particular streets.  They’d have to be qualified with a permit (maybe insured?), but there has to be a better answer than, “You can’t plow because of liability issues.”

I was asked just before the meeting tonight what one thing I would change to improve my community.  My answer surprised me.  We have to resolve secondary suites in this city.  We need the courage to follow Mayor Nenshi’s original plan and open it up city wide.  It’ll give our communities a chance to evolve naturally, it’ll help improve our city’s density in a smart way, it will protect our citizens who currently live in substandard housing.  We need to make that part of our plan going forward.

The work from Community Services makes up the very best part of living in Calgary to me.  If we can encourage people to engage with what they feel passionate for, we can create amazing things.  I am proud of Albert Park / Radisson Heights as a community.  I’m excited about our Centennial Garden.  I feel a sense of belonging here, enriched by our community programs and our direction striking forward.  Just give us a chance to engage, to feel pride in our community, to feel like we’re every bit as much of a community as Strathcona or Eagle Ridge or Willow Park or Montgomery.  I want to feel like we’re just another great community to choose in Calgary.  This is as close as I’m going to get to saying, “Leave it as is.”

Did I give a little and take a little?  I’m not sure this is precisely what the city wants, nor am I sure I got from tonight precisely what I wanted.

But I have to admit, having the dialogue is a wonderful thing.