"Reason is always a kind of brute force; those who appeal to the head rather than the heart, however pallid and polite, are necessarily men of violence. We speak of 'touching' a man's heart, but we can do nothing to his head but hit it." --G.K. Chesterton

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Regional policing? Show me the evidence

Tri-Cities 'regional policing' meeting. Photo by Terry O'Neill

You might have heard that members of the three Tri-Cities councils gathered for a closed-door meeting last night in Port Coquitlam to hear a pair of luminaries speak about regional policing. PoCo Mayor Greg Moore, who organized the meeting (and is chair of Metro Vancouver), blogged about the meeting this morning, so I now feel free to put my oar in the water, as well. And that oar will most definitely splash some cold water on the regional-police idea.
Neither of the two speakers,  Wally Oppal QC, a former BC Attorney-General and head of last year’s Missing Women Commission of Inquiry (which recommended a regional police force), nor Dr. Rick Parent, a former police officer who is now a professor at SFU’s Criminology Department, mounted anywhere near an effective argument in favour of regional policing.
In fact, while several of my colleagues and I entered the meeting with open minds on the subject, we left having been persuaded that there was precious little to support the idea of regional policing. I doubt that this outcome was the intent of the meeting, but it was surely the result among the Coquitlam Council members with whom I discussed the proceedings.
Mr. Oppal himself admitted, “a regional police force is not a panacea for everything, and they can make mistakes;” nevertheless, the many systemic communication and investigatory failures associated with the Missing Women case made it clear to him that a regional force is needed.
I asked Mr. Oppal whether he actually had any evidence to support this contention—whether it was a theoretical supposition he was making that a regional force would perform better than the Integrated Homicide Investigation Team that is now in place regionally (albeit without the participation of Vancouver, Port Moody and Delta*).  He offered no evidence, but did argue that a regional force would at least have a proper civilian oversight body in place.
Similarly, Dr. Parent was short on objective information. When he asserted that current “best practices” argued for regional policing, I said that “best practices” was one thing, but I was more interested in outcomes. I asked what the comparative outcomes are. He had no answer.
The fact that the professor’s PowerPoint presentation contained some annoying spelling errors (“two-tired” instead of “two-tiered,” for example), certainly didn’t help his case.
And neither Mr. Oppal nor Dr. Parent’s cause was helped by Assistant Commissioner Norm Lipinski, head of the RCMP in the Lower Mainland, who took it upon himself at meeting’s end to walk to the front of the room and provide some detailed information about the many steps undertaken by the RCMP in recent years to improve communication and coordination—integrated teams dealing with homicides, and the PRIME information-gathering system being in the forefront.
He also explained that a provincial intelligence centre now exists and that, in April, a Real Time Intelligence Centre will open, similar to New York’s increasingly famous Real Time Crime Center.
The bottom line is that much has already been done to modernize policing in the region, and that much of this modernization deals with issues that might be handled by the proposed regional police force. In light of this, and in light of the high approval rating that our police force receives in Coquitlam, not to mention the very good value-for-the-dollar, the ever-decreasing crime rate, and the excellent relationship Council has with our detachment, I’m prepared to declare that I am opposed to regional policing at present.

*I learned later that West Vancouver is also not participating in IHIT.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Towards housing affordability

Well, we were hard at it again this afternoon, talking yet again about affordable housing in response to this report. I had originally planned to deliver a formal speech in response to the report, but the discussion ended up being directed towards six specific questions, so I put my speech aside and dealt with the questions one by one. Much of the content of my address paralleled the speech I had prepared, however, so I've decided to reproduce it here. I should add that I was quite satisfied with the direction our discussion took this afternoon, as it is clear that council supports a move away from the vision statement I critique below, and also embraces the idea that we should focus our attention on "housing affordability" instead of the creation of subsidized "affordable housing." Progress is most definitely being made.
Graphic created with wordle.net

“The Reformer is always right about what's wrong. However, he's often wrong about what is right.” ― G.K. Chesterton

So here we go again. This is at least the third time we have been asked to have a wide-ranging discussion on affordable housing – albeit, one of those occasions being centred on the more defined issued of rental housing.  We have heard many broad policy philosophies and just as many narrow policy points from staff and from around the council table. Now is the time to refine our discussion even further.
Let’s start by looking at the framework in which we operate. It is important to note that, constitutionally, we are creatures of the Provincial Government, and our particular provincial government has enacted the Local Government Act. In turn, this act says that every community such as ours must have an Official Community Plan, and moreover, that every Official Community Plan must include local government policies for affordable housing, rental housing and special needs housing. [Interestingly, Table 1, on Page nine, the “municipal scan” shows that several municipalities, including our immediate neighbor to the east, do not have Affordable Housing Strategies.] The LGA does not, however, say what those policies must be.
A previous council here in Coquitlam adopted an Affordable Housing Strategy in 2007, and it is that document we are now revisiting. There is much good in that strategy and I congratulate those who came before me – some of whom are still here on council today – for their fine work.
However. …..I believe that the 2007 policy has a fundamental flaw at its very heart – and that is its vision statement, which envisions a community in which, QUOTE, “All residents of Coquitlam will be able to live in safe, appropriate housing that is affordable for their income level.”  The discussion paper before us today asks whether this is still an appropriate vision to have. My answer, in a word: NO.
It is completely unrealistic, wholly untenable, absolutely unreachable – as long, that is, as we living in a free society in which our residents are taxed at a reasonable rate, and in which our desire to serve the less fortunate in our community is balanced with our ability to pay,…. and with our desire NOT to bring havoc to natural market forces that give birth to our economic prosperity and quality of life.
This vision statement is actually dangerous. Dangerous, not only because it would make micro-managing activists of city planners and cash cows out of taxpayers, but also because, in its breathtakingly broad imprecision, it blinds us to more practical, more targeted and, ultimately more attainable goals.
It is clear to me that, as it now stands, the vision statement would have the City enact a strategy that would see the city waste time and energy trying to reach a Utopian goal. Let’s back up for a minute and put this into context: Land prices are very high in Metro Vancouver. Our land supply is limited because of two natural and two man-made barriers, the natural being the ocean to the west and the mountains to the north, the man-made being the US border to the south and the agricultural land reserve, primarily to the east.
The problems associated with our limited land supply are exacerbated by our temperate climate and pleasing geography. Simply put, people want to live here, it’s getting crowded, and land values are skyrocketing because of it.  In a healthy economy, as ours is, this is entirely natural and unavoidable.
Where such circumstances lead to decreasing affordability, I suggest that there are limited actions that a municipal level government can and should embark upon, and one of them certainly isn’t to strive to ensure that, essentially, anyone at any income level who finds themselves in Coquitlam should be able to live in “appropriate housing” – whatever that means.
Moving forward with such a Utopian policy would have many adverse effects: it would surely put upward pressure on property taxes; it would surely divert resources from areas which are a city’s proper field of endeavor; and it would distort the social fabric of our community.
Why the latter? Because, it seems to me that it is inevitable that the burden of paying for an aggressive housing-affordability scheme would be shouldered by average-income property owners. But we know that the property-tax burden is already straining our typical homeowner’s resources. Adding to that burden will only make living in Coquitlam that much more unaffordable for them.  Ultimately, it will drive evermore middle-income families out of Coquitlam.
A further distortion occurs regarding land use. Every parcel of land that we give away or subsidize to allow “all residents to live in appropriate housing” will be taken out of the free market. Those parcels of land that are left in the market will, of course, be that much rarer, and, as a result, their price will rise.
Another way of looking at this is to recognize that if the market is deprived of downward pressure (which would normally be provided by lower-income people, but would have now left the market because their needs would have been met by subsidized housing), then prices on open-market lands will be higher, thus making them even more unaffordable for middle-income earners.
I am also concerned about the diversion of resources away from projects and programs that are more properly in the civic purview. I’m speaking here of such fundamental things as police services, fire protection, parks, recreational and cultural facilities, and maintenance of transportation networks.
Look at our annual Ipsos Reid poll. These are the areas the people of Coquitlam want us to focus our energies on. We should do what we were elected to do, not carry out the schemes of social alchemists.
So what do I see a commonsense Affordable Housing Strategy entailing? The primary answer is already alive and well in Coquitlam, and that is the city’s densification and housing-choices policies. Our recent decision to reduce parking-stall requirements for two-bedroom apartments in rapid-transit zones will also help.  We can do more. We must redouble our efforts to reduce red tape in all areas of civic endeavor.  Time is money, and, for example, the more efficiently homebuilders can do the job in Coquitlam, the more affordable housing will be. Finding ways to fast-track a non-profit agency’s plan for an affordable rental project is a great example of the work we should be doing.
Let’s also take a fresh look at how we can encourage the construction of secondary suites in our community.   We’re already doing a pretty good job of it, but tapping more deeply into this resource could prove to be a bonanza. I support the report’s suggestion to explore “lock off suites”.
At the same time, we can and should continue to help the most vulnerable and needy in our society. Our donation of the property at 3030 Gordon, for a homeless shelter and transition home, is the best example of a well-targetted, well-intentioned, well-delivered action. So too the Como Lake single-mothers’ building being run by the Y.
And this leads to a related point. The city is growing an affordable-housing fund which has now reached $1 million. Yet, this fund remained untouched while the city participated in the two projects I just mentioned. I don’t understand why. Could not the fund have been used to reimburse the city – that is, the taxpayer – for the land it donated to the two aforementioned projects?
It’s also important to note that the discussion paper before us today suggests that even if the fund were to reach $25 million or so, it would be able to make only a very small dent in the affordability issue. Perhaps, then, the best course is to collapse the fund, move the monies into general revenue for the benefit of all citizens, and concentrate our direct efforts elsewhere. I think the time has come to see how this money can be put to better use – in the service of all Coquitlam residents and for the common good.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Eagle Ridge Hospital to open new thrift shop

Passing along info about a new charitable enterprise in the Tri-Cities:


For 37 years, Eagle Ridge Hospital Auxiliary has been diligently raising funds to support the equipment and patient comfort needs at Eagle Ridge Hospital.

Hospital Auxiliary members.
The Auxiliary will be opening a Thrift Shop business in Port Coquitlam as a means of expanding funding resources to meet some of the increased funding that will be necessary for the planned expansion of Eagle Ridge Hospital.

This business venture is in addition to the many current projects undertaken by the Auxiliary and, for that reason, numerous additional volunteers are needed beyond our current membership base.

Volunteering at the thrift shop will provide an opportunity to give back to the community, work in a friendly environment, receive job training, develop and practice work skills and be given the opportunity to experience a variety of duties.

Location: 2811B Shaughnessy Street, Port Coquitlam, BC 

Cashier, Customer Assistant (Floor Clerk), Sorting Clerk, Pricing Clerk. Shift Hours ­ Tuesdays to Saturdays 9:30-1:00 or 1:00 ­ 4:30 pm and Sundays from 11:30-3:30. No Experience Necessary ­ Training Will Be Provided As Needed


Please note that we are not able to accept donations until approximately the
first week of February.   Please call Vivian at 604-544-1470 if you wish to
be contacted when we are ready to take donations.

THINGS TO SAVE FOR DONATION: Housewares (no cracked or chipped); Clothing ­ clean, gently used, no tears or stains; Small appliances (clean and in working order); Baby and children clothing (no cribs or car seats); Pictures, frames, games, toys, sporting goods; Lamps, books, records, CDs, jewelry, purses
Greeting cards, wrapping paper, stationery; Craft supplies, fabrics, sewing accessories
Sheets, blankets, comforters, TV Trays; Pet dishes, small furniture and more.....
No electrical items (TVs, DVD players, etc.); No computers or monitors;  No microwaves; No baby car seats, cribs, walkers or strollers; No sofas, upholstered chairs or mattresses; No large furniture (entertainment units); No pillows.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Local gov't AG opens office

Good news from the Province. Most of the current Coquitlam council did not support the establishment of this office, but I was -- and remain -- a big supporter.

Auditor General for Local Government opens office

Basia Ruta
SURREY - British Columbia's first office of the Auditor General for Local Government (AGLG) has opened its doors, announced Minister of Community, Sport and Cultural Development Bill Bennett today with B.C.'s first AGLG Basia Ruta alongside.
Recommended by the five-member Audit Council that oversees the office and subsequently appointed by government, Ruta took up her position on Jan. 15. The AGLG will conduct performance audits of local government operations and provide recommendations regarding economy, efficiency and effectiveness.
The opening of the office fulfills a commitment made by Premier Christy Clark as part of her Families First agenda. It is also an example of how the government listens to British Columbians, as the idea was originally suggested by B.C. business groups to provide an additional level of accountability and transparency for taxpayers.
The first audits will begin by April 30. It will be up to the AGLG to choose what local government operations to focus on within the framework of the Auditor General for Local Government Act.
The AGLG will publish an annual service plan that will lay out the goals and objectives for the coming year and the following two years. The annual service plan will include the criteria used to determine the need for and priority of performance audits.
Bill Bennett, Minister of Community, Sport and Cultural Development -
"This office is going to make a difference for B.C. families by making sure local governments are maximizing taxpayers' hard-earned tax dollars. The bottom line is that it's about accountability to taxpayers. Basia Ruta is highly qualified and will be an asset for local governments. I look forward to the benefits Ms. Ruta's work will bring to local governments and taxpayers alike."
Basia Ruta, auditor general for local government -
"I'm excited to get started in this important and challenging position. I intend to make sure the AGLG is a valuable and objective resource for all of British Columbia's local governments, helping them provide the greatest possible value for every tax dollar they spend. Under my leadership, this office will be independent, accessible, fair and transparent as we carry out performance audits of local governments."
Laura Jones, executive vice-president, Canadian Federation of Independent Business -
"B.C.'s business owners are pleased the government has shown leadership by establishing an independent Office of the Auditor General for Local Government. Taxpayer accountability is always welcome. We are hopeful that municipalities will recognize the opportunity to provide British Columbians with greater transparency on how their tax dollars are spent and focus on providing the best value possible."
John Winter, CEO, BC Chamber of Commerce -
"Taxpayers and local governments will see real tangible benefits with the establishment of the Office of the Auditor General for Local Government. Taxpayers will see increased transparency and accountability on how their tax dollars are spent while local governments will have a resource to enhance their decision-making process through the sharing of best practices."
Peter Fassbender, mayor of Langley -
"As a mayor of a local community I look forward to working with the new Auditor General for Local Government as we find ways to validate and improve the efficiency of local government finances. I know local governments are doing a good job and this office will show their commitment to serve all taxpayers and citizens interests!"
Learn More: www.aglg.ca

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Multi-generational consultation

Concept sketch, from Coquitlam.ca
There aren't many times when a city gets to design an entire new neighbourhood from scratch, especially one that could end being home to 20,000 new residents. But that's the opportunity Coquitlam now has with the Partington Creek neighbourhood, which is being planned for the eastern slopes of Burke Mountain.
With neighbourhoods along the western slopes already well underway (and experiencing some growing pains too, I might add), it's important that the city gets Partington Creek, a good chunk of which the city itself owns, done right.
When the draft Neighbourhood Plan was unveiled late last fall, planners told Council they would present the plan to various stakeholder groups. But the thought struck me that all the usual suspects, including builders and residents' associations, weren't actually going to be the people living in Partington Creek; those folks are now in their teen or early 20s.
I therefore suggested that our planning department engage local high school and college students; let's hear what they have to say about shaping the future of Coquitlam.
With all this in mind, I was pleased that a list of upcoming public open houses, released this week, includes consultation meetings with both high school and college students, including a meeting at Douglas College. It will be very interesting to hear what they have to say.
Here is a list of some of the upcoming consultation events regarding the draft Partington Creek Neighbourhood Plan:

  • Tonight (7 pm-9 pm, Council Committee Room): staff meeting with the PCNP Neighbourhood Working Group (staff will present the draft PCNP for feedback, similar to the presentation to the Dec. 10 2012 Council-in-Committee meeting). 
  • Thursday, January 17 (7 pm-8 pm, Victoria Hall): North-East Coquitlam Ratepayers Association meeting - staff have been invited to present the draft PCNP. 
  • Tuesday, February 19 (4 pm to 8 pm, Victoria Hall): Public Open House #1 
  • Thursday, February 21 (11 am to 3 pm, Douglas College atrium): youth/student-focused Public Open House #2 (emphasis on engaging Douglas and Pinetree Secondary students) 
  • Thursday, March 7 (4:15 pm-5:15pm): staff meeting with Coquitlam Youth Council.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

What those assessments mean

Central Coquitlam residential high rises. (Photo by Terry O)
A friend of mine who is a long-time Coquitlam resident approached me at a party a few days ago and said he wanted to shake my hand. I asked why, and he said that it was obvious that I was doing a great job helping to run the City because he had just learned that the assessment on his home had risen by more than $60,000 and so he was pleased that his net worth had risen so sharply, so quickly.

As appreciative as I was of the compliment, I had to tell him that the increased assessment of that magnitude also likely means that he will be facing a higher-than-average property-tax increase this year -- not in the realm of Port Moody's average 6.65% jump, mind you, but still above the average 3.34% hike that Coquitlam homeowners will face this year.

He seemed a bit confused by my comment, so I did some explaining. And the thought then struck me that many other homeowners may be somewhat perplexed by our property-tax system as well, so here's an explanation.

When I joined with the majority on Council in the late fall in voting 8-1 in favour of adopting our most recent budget (more about which I'll discuss below), I did so knowing full well that the 3.34% residential increase would be applied exactly against only those whose property value rose (or fell) by the exact same figure that the average residential property's value in Coquitlam rose (or fell). And it turns out that the average Coquitlam home enjoyed an increase of 5.59% in its value, according to assessment figures made public earlier this month.

With this assessment figure now in hand, and with the knowledge of what its ultimate revenue needs for the year are, the City will now set one universal residential mill rate (which is amount of tax payable per dollar of the assessed value of a property) and apply that rate evenly against all residential properties. Follow the logic, and you'll see that if your home rose in value more than the average 5.59%, your tax increase will be more than 3.34%, and if it rose less (or even fell somewhat), your increase will be less or maybe you'll even enjoy a decrease.

I'm guessing that my friend's $60,000-plus assessment increase represents something like a 7% or 8% increase in assessed value, so his property-tax increase will be greater than the 3.34% average. For my part, our now-long-in-the-tooth Eagle Ridge home recorded an assessment increase of just under 1%, which means our property-tax increase will be lower than the 3.34% average.

(You find more details about the City's five-year financial plan here.)

And, while we're on the subject of the budget, I'd like to take this opportunity to get a few more things on the record. First, Council actually passed a budget increase of 2.95%.  The average homeowner faces the higher, 3.34% increase, because Council embraced a one-point "tax shift" that sees the commercial/business sector facing an increase of only 2.34%. We did this because the business-tax rate in Coquitlam is among the highest in the region, and we are attempting to lower it to somewhere around the middle of the pack.

Some readers might recall that, in the last election, I signed the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses' pledge, promising to work towards business-tax reductions. I am happy to report that, for the second year in a row, the majority of Council has voted for a one-point tax shift.

I am also pleased that, for the second year in a row, we have reduced the overall rate of property-tax increase in the City -- another one of my promises. As stated above, the average increase for 2013 is 2.95%; in 2012, it was 3.16%; and in 2011, it was 3.18%.

I believe we are headed in the right direction, and I will continue to work towards greater fiscal responsibility and a lower rate of property-tax-increase growth, while also meeting the legitimate needs of Coquitlam residents.