Email to Councillor Unger
Dan Appell — September 4, 2010
Dear Councillor Unger,
Thank-you for listening to my comments at the financial planning meeting, August 30, 2010.
After the meeting you asked me for a definition of “sustainability.” This definition is culled from a variety of sources and seems to be widely used. I find it useful.
Sustainability involves the maintenance of the systems that sustain us, so that these systems can continue to sustain us, and our children and our grandchildren and so on.
The definition provided by city staff for the production of the revised OCP is not incorrect. It is cumbersome, and much harder to put into practice.
You said that you thought the term was somewhat trendy and en vogue. This is ironic, because decisions regarding “sustainability” have the longest reach into the future and the broadest effect on the present.
If I may, I would like to offer you an easy to use guide that might help you make decisions that maintain the systems that sustain us — Always seek solutions based on the efficiency of their practice. Remember, efficiency has three components; productivity, consumption and waste. Efficiency is improved when productivity goes up, consumption goes down and waste is eliminated. If every idea, or design is tested based on its ability to improve efficiency, then it is much easier to find solutions that have a lasting and positive sustainable impact.
I do believe that if every councillor and mayor made a habit of practicing this test, we would soon be discussing sustainable tax decreases, not tax increases.
If you need further explanation or assistance, please feel free to contact me.
Playing the devil’s advocate here, there are varying interpretations that could be made of your definition of sustainability: “Sustainability involves the maintenance of the system that sustains us . . . ” and ” . . . efficiency has three components; productivity, consumption and waste. Efficiency is improved when productivity goes up, consumption goes down and waste is eliminated.”
Since we live in a social democracy, but at its foundation a free enterprise system moving closer to a true free enterprise system day by day, is that sustainability? That’s the system that maintains us. Or does it move us closer to the current state of the economy of the PRC, where despite its roaring tiger economy, there are increasing numbers of unemployed? That’s an example of increased productivity and reduced consumption for many. Their consumption may previously have been miniscule compared to the average North American, but it’s even lower now for some. Or Russia, part of the former Soviet Union, about which Mikhail Gorbachev said “I’m going to introduce unemployment to Russia.”? And did, replacing the Communist rulers with unbelievably wealthy free enterprise oligarchs.
If we look at an economy in which productivity goes up, consumption goes down, and waste is eliminated, and that’s sustainability, what happens to the average worker, one of the cogs in the much larger overall economic wheel? More productivity demanded for the same level of pay or at a reduced level of pay? That will reduce consumption. The GDP may very well increase, but those products will be exported because the producer-workers will be unable to afford to consume at levels they previously did. What happens to those who are unable to produce efficiently and at an acceptable level for a variety of reasons, many (but not all) of them valid?
Then we start running into the theories and practices espoused by people like Charles Bedaux and his system of production management and efficiency.
At what point do we decide that those unable to produce efficiently become “waste”?
At the other end of the political spectrum, we run into the Marxist theory: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” There are Marxists who will debate that what this really means is that those who produce the most; those who are more intelligent, requiring more education than others to produce in their particular fields but ultimately producing more; or those who face more risk in the production process should be rewarded the most; and that those who don’t meet those criteria should be paid less, with little emphasis on “to each according to his needs”.
Just some thoughts. Personally, I’m very close to apolitical. It’s difficult for someone who believes that honesty, lack of hypocrisy and a genuine concern for the good of the greater community are important to even *be* political these days. In the process of developing that attitude, I’ve probably become worse than most: I’ve got mine, I worked hard to get it, and I’ll fight to keep as much of it as I can out of the hands of others.
Thank you for your devilish advocacy, Wendy. I have to admit the parts of your argument that revisited the dialectic between capitalism and marxism confused me a little, so please excuse me if I don’t address that part of your argument directly.
I’m not advocating one political system over any other. . . No. To be more accurate, I’m not advocating for a change in our political system or our economic system. These systems we have now, are not perfect, but they are adequate.
Just to clarify? Your question “At what point do we decide that those unable to produce efficiently become “waste”?” is heading off in some other direction. Its more accurate to think of humans and all living things as a component of production. Waste is what remains after production is complete.
The problem of sustainability is bigger then any political or economic theory can embrace. This is a problem that defies any sort of abstraction. We are very close to a point where the only solutions are whatever works for the most people, most often and is easiest to deploy. The solution is political only to the extent that it requires some coordination of effort, and it is economic only to the extent that we need to measure the necessary changes in human behaviour.
This is far too brief for a problem so complex, but if you can think of what I am saying as just a small irregular shaped stone that will someday be part of a larger building, then you can find the other stones which will fit with this and help with the construction.
The solution requires that we change the way we interact with this planet. We must find a way to maintain the systems that sustain us. This is a problem that is too big to have political solutions, too big for economic solutions, and the planet is too small for technological solutions. By its nature, the problem requires a design solution, or rather, a myriad of design solutions. I’ve stated elsewhere that design is the interface between our naked selves and the rest of the universe; and it is the quality of that interface that is so essential now.
This is why I’ve been so staunch in my advocacy of basic design principles. I’m hoping that if people have a clearer understanding of what good design is, what is does and how to get it, they will be able to make better choices. These choices will accumulate to counter the effects of at least a hundred years of very poor choices.
I know this sounds like extreme idealism, but I have yet to find a more pragmatic approach. By emphasizing “efficiency” I’m advocating for the simplest, most basic, and most essential part of good design. It is only good design that will sustain us.
With fingers crossed, I hope this works.
I had no idea when I wrote my original response that you were discussing sustainability in the sense of how we interact with the planet. I thought you were discussing political systems, how they work and in particular how the system works in Nanaimo. Hence my politically-oriented response. I simply didn’t understand the thrust of your post. Reminder to self: do not make assumptions without first confirming.
I’m stil trying to figure out how to sell my considerable carbon credits (for an individual) on the thriving international carbon credits market. Now there’s *really* an example of “build it, they will come, and somebody will make a tidy profit on it, too.”
Is there any current or historic example of a society which demonstrated a sustainable culture? If so, where are they now?
When I apply the word sustainable to civic governance, I am thinking in terms of how much taxation will be sustainable in another 10 – 15 years when a goodly number among us will no longer be here.
On the point of ‘how’ we are governed, it should be noted that it is not really your elected officials who are governing, but rather it is the civil ‘servants’ who call the shots.
Instead of asking staff ‘how’ to keep tax increases to a minimum, elected officials should establish the policy that there will be ZERO percent tax increases and demand that staff establish a financial plan with that goal as the only acceptable outcome.
That would mean that the HUGE percentage of taxes which are paying that juggernaut at city hall is the first thing needing to be examined.
Will it happen?? Not with this present council it won’t. As a matter of fact, I don’t see any shining stars on the current council when it comes to actually putting the brakes on this run away train of spend .. spend … spend.
The other night as a small example, they blew off another 80,000 tax dollars on a bike path to nowhere.
Instead of asking staff ‘how’ to keep tax increases to a minimum, elected officials should establish the policy that there will be ZERO percent tax increases and demand that staff establish a financial plan with that goal as the only acceptable outcome. ~ Jim Taylor.
Finally! Someone agrees to a ZERO increase. Push Billy Bestwick to a zero increase stating it will get him elected Mayor.
George, Billy only gets one vote on council. The Mayor is not the King, although some seem to think they are. Five votes makes ALL decisions.
If I understand Mr. Bestwick’s support base, I doubt he would want to see union labour costs reduced.
Yes Jim, anybody with an inkling to the city political spectrum knows about who gets votes and who don’t. It is unfortunate that the voters did not know however and instead of kicking out the mayor they had kicked out 5 or 6 of council and gotten real change. Oh well, they learned their lesson . . . oh actually they haven’t yet!
These comments are a bit soul destroying. I’m thinking Unger was right: ‘sustainability’ is just the flavour of the month item, except, I think, the month was two years ago. I know things are really going bad, when I catch myself agreeing with Unger.
Note to self: its about time to get to know my audience.
Okay, “zero increase” guys; We know the cost of services are going up, and we know we are entering the first maintenance cycle of the largest part of our city. Which part of the city budget would you cut or which part of the city would you stop delivery of services to achieve a ZERO tax increase.?
For bonus points: How would that result in sustainability?
Sunny Dan …. Why is the LARGEST expense at city hall never looked at with an eye to increasing efficiency. Don’t expect the city staff to recommend reducing their cost to the city. It never made the newspapers, but prior to Mr. Berry’s expensive departure, there had been an independent review of staffing at city hall. Whatever became of that review?
Are we sitting on cash reserves that are earning nothing, while we are paying interest on borrowed money? Are we really getting a good bang for the buck with the way our money is being spent now?
For bonus points Dan, how is increasing taxes at the rate of 25% every four or five years in any universe considered sustainable?
I would not be surprised if Mr. Unger thinks that ‘sustainability’ is the flavour of the month, as I doubt if ANYONE on council has any idea what level of taxation is going to be sustainable in ten years time. Which is about the time a lot of the people paying the freight in town now, will start dying off, taking with them their bags of money. To be replaced by who???
A few suggestions that could/should cut spending tax dollars by about $2,000,000.00 and not reduce services at ALL.
Close the convention centre, saves $1,000,000.00. The ‘conventions’ they are currently hosting for the most part could be accommodated by the Bastion hotel.
Have the Port Theatre increase ticket prices by $5 and save another $500,000.00.
Have downtown businesses, fund their own promotions which saves another $350,000.00. Have ALL downtown businesses, pay taxes like everyone else. Another few hundred thousand.
For the BIG Savings;
The wages and benefits paid city staff is so far ahead of the private sector the servants have indeed become the masters.
Review and rip up, some of these utterly amazing deals former mayors have signed with city staff. The one which ENTITLED Mr. Berry a half million dollars because he wanted to quit early!!
Anyone who thinks the current system is in any way sustainable is simply not paying attention to what is happening in the world of economics at all.
Cutting services and staff is not neccessary the answer. The answer may lay in postponing projects. Why is it required to have a firehall in Hammond Bay within X years? We are doing well without one. Let’s make it X plus 6 years! Do we need the water project in 9 years? How about 9 plus 5 years? No need to not build the fence, just move the posts.
If we allow a 25% increase in taxation on a municipal level in 5 years, do you think staff will recommend a staff wage increase of an equal amount? I hope not!@!
The same old song …. ‘if we don’t keep raising taxes, we HAVE to cut services’ ….. is simply wrong headed thinking!
As George wisely points out, re-assessing WHEN something NEEDS to be done would go a long way to maintaining levels of taxation.
On the subject of waste at city hall, remember when Mr. Berry left and Mr. Kenning took his place? The Asst. Mgr. position was never filled and from this the taxpayer was supposed to reap savings. Remember?? That means, that if that is true, the assistant manager has been paid nearly $200,000 a year for doing a redundant job.
A suggestion which could help control the cost of fire services …. mandate sprinkler systems in ALL new residential construction. A properly sprinkled house greatly increases the amount of time needed for the fire dept. to respond.
On policing costs…. do we REALLY need an ever increasing number of officers, with an ever aging population? Guys on walkers should not be as hard to police as guys in fast cars. :^)
Schooling costs ….. since the student population is decreasing, and no one knows what to do with all those teachers, we are now going to have full time kindergarten!! The ‘government’ will ALWAYS come up with ways to perpetuate itself.
And guess who gets to pay for it.
One more thought…. on the subject of fire protection costs … does the department REALLY need all those Chiefs???
… and this, ladies and gentlemen is why Merv can get away with saying that sustainability is just a “term… somewhat trendy and en vogue”. We rant and we fume but Dan’s point here deserves better. Is there a reluctance to discuss efficiency and productivity because our focus is fixed solely and exclusively on the expense side of the ledger?
“Efficiency is improved when productivity goes up, consumption goes down and waste is eliminated.”
There must be ways to quantify and measure these principles. An objective way to test City expenditures against these ideas would go a long way to identifying where the City budget is over-invested and inevitably identifying areas where it’s under-invested and even underfunded. Best practices elsewhere would be part of it — size of the City payroll relative to that of a comparable municipality, for instance.
“Sustainability” has become either the curse word of the new millennium or the power word.
Definitions are in the hundreds and the misconception and misuse of it makes it difficult to understand in it’s many uses.
While Merv Unger may be correct, Sunny Dan has a viable viewpoint. Instead of sounding correct by using the word, why can’t we just tell the truth. Say it in simple language without trying to sound cool by using the word of the moment. And never use the word in the description of the word (grade 4 english) ;) LOL
“Is there a reluctance to discuss efficiency and productivity because our focus is fixed solely and exclusively on the expense side of the ledger?”
Efficiency and productivity are exactly what is being discussed, the expense side of the ledger is merely the yardstick by which these are being measured.
Only comparing the costs to other cities payrolls is a mugs game. Compare the cost of like functions with the cost in the private sector.
This post, I predict, will be like the others on this blog, it will go around in circles and conclude nothing.
We never even came close to defining what the role of city governance should be.
Do you suppose that sounding off here, and in letters to the editor, simply allows a means of venting so one thinks they are accomplishing something, while in fact changing nothing?
Jim, there is no simple fix. It takes co-operation between the citizens and the elected council of the day.
We need to convince our elected council that anything less than a zero budget will result in their expulsion next election and we must live up to that by convincing others to participate in elections. ONE EACH MORE.
Can Dan or anyone else here, tell me what percentage of a net household income can continue to go to taxes and still be sustainable?
I ain’t got no more for taxes, Jim. I keep telling the politicians that and they laugh and whittle down the increase to make themselves look smart. If they want to be re-elected a ZERO budget increase or a decrease is the only way they will get my vote. If Pattje or any other member of council votes against an increase in the budget, and the increase goes ahead, they all lose my votes. ZERO or the HIGHWAY.
Now, we are talking. I knew when I woke up, today would be better.
Jim is right of course about the 25% tax increase over five years as not been sustainable. At this point, its probably best to look at that increase as the price we pay for doing things exactly the way we’ve been doing things for the last twenty years. City hall calls it a “sustainable tax increase,” because their jobs, their job definitions, and their raises are sustained for at least another five years. After five years? There is no reason to believe this pattern of increases won’t persist until the backs of almost all the taxpayers are broken.
More over, we are paying this increase to maintain things as they are knowing that when the taxpayers can do no more, the change to a more efficient system is going to be very expensive. its an insane proposition. Only people with an irrational overwhelming fear of change would support this.
There seems to me a few reasons why staff is getting away with this:
1) Council is apathetic – The last two years this council has been brow beaten into believing there is nothing much they can do about this situation. Also, if staff doesn’t have to change, then they don’t have to change either.
2) Council is directionless – There is nothing to unite this group that would compel all of them to pursue a radical change in policy. When Holdom first proposed that everyone rally around the banner of sustainability I was heartened by the possibility that he could move city hall towards making the necessary changes. Sadly, that initiative got dumped, to be replaced by nothing else. Now we have eight little frogs in a pot of warming water that don’t know that they have to jump and wouldn’t know which way to jump anyway.
3) Council reflects perfectly the mood of the majority of people. This is a council that is not leading. Rather it is being led by staff and public opinion.
We live in a city where the population is very conservative. We will go to extreme lengths to resist change. Accepting a 25% tax increase is an extreme price to pay to keep things as they are, and yet I see most people in this town more then happy to pay.
I think George has a point as well. We should hold council accountable for these tax increases. I think we have to do more then just not vote for them. To be honest, a number of people on council did very well without my vote. I think we have to get organized. They are not going to take us seriously, when we take them on one at a time. Sooner or later someone has got to do this. Better sooner, and it might as well be us.
What do you think?
Sunny Dan … great idea!! Get organized and present a united voice!
Now, what are the basic points around which you could get agreement?
I would throw out ZERO TAX INCREASES as a fundamental.
Wonder if that can be agreed upon??
Significant budget discussion has come and gone in Nanaimo. Council, in lieu of any responsible leadership in this area sent Staff back to the drawing board with nothing more than eight (reduced from eleven) motherhood and baby wishes and no specific instruction. Staff will return in November or December with virtually all that they put in the 2011 estimate of the 2010 to 2014 budget put out last year (plus, of course, items which Council in its wisdom have added piecemeal since. At this time Council will find it too late to make more than the most minor changes or will pass on some expenditures into the future to placate the present without serious concern for coming years.
Since 2004 to the present, this strategy has seen residential tax rates increase by 28%, commercial rates rise by 23%, and industrial rates decrease by 1/10 of 1%.
Compared to the rate of increase in the BC CPI over this same period of 8.3%, this means that residential tax rates have increased by more than 3.3 times the Consumer Price Index, commercial by 2.8 times and industrial rates have actually decreased. [Before getting off on a tangent regarding Industrial rates recognize that Industrial taxation is minuscule in the overall Nanaimo tax universe and further that circumstances conspired to create an unfair situation which is now being unwound.] The only rates with which we really need to concern ourselves are those on residential and commercial properties.
The boards of Enron, Nortel and a whole host of financial and other institutions chose to ignore what was happening in the companies for which they were responsible. And their shareholders chose to ignore their boards. They, and we, got what happens in such circumstances. Are we to continue following suit?
I belong to the zero tax increase faction and, in times like these, might even recommend a decrease in recognition of what is happening in the general economic environment.
This thread has given rise to a number of suggestions as to how this might be accomplished. Perhaps someone would begin a new discussion on the means by which such reductions could be implemented. I note that several of our commentators have already raised banners in this direction.
Comparing information from 2004 to 2008 according to the 2008 Financial Report page 89 (http://bit.ly/9uIEvV )
Assessed Values – Land 2004 was $2,414,039,884 which increased to 5,756,218,004 in 2008
Assessed Values – Improvements 2004 was 3,780,784,250 which increased to 5,595,821,633 in 2008
Combined Values 2004 – $4,022,188,234 to
$11,352,039,637 in 2998
Why if we had almost a 2.82 times amount of value in assessements did we also get a tax increase over 4 years?
We did because of the reduction of the commercial mill rate in Nanaimo on commercial property. Instead of a 2.82 X amount in taxes we ended up with an increase of less than $22 million instead of an increase from $97 million to $273 million. WOW, that translates to a decrease in commercial taxes of $250 million!
I could have been mistaken on the commercial rates when it might have been industrial rates. But would that still account for $250 million??