Crisis

Ron Bolin: August 18, 2013

It is often noted that the Chinese word for crisis includes both the character for danger and that for opportunity.  While linguistically this interpretation comes under some criticism, it is certain that the concept of the dangers and the opportunities inherent in a crisis are understood in any language.

Nanaimo’s City Hall now stands at the fulcrum of danger and opportunity in dealing with its citizens and its issues.  It can choose to continue down its past path of drivership, secrecy and sole source expertise without attention to the knowledge or  the desires of the public or it can give a new look to the way in which it has been dealing with its citizens and take a leadership position entailing public information and discourse.  Certainly being a driver is an easier task: until you run into the kind of kick back that has been all too evident both within Council and with the public lately.  There are times when leadership is not only desirable, but mandatory.  In Nanaimo this is one of those times.

Issues such as the Conference Centre; the construction and operation of a new hotel with limited relationship to the VICC;  the DNBIA and its general taxpayer funding; the NEDC and its general taxpayer funding; the treatment of the Colliery Dams; the rapid growth in the cost of Nanaimo’s Governance along with a related report of poor performance; the development of the Linley Valley; relations with the Snuneymuxh First Nation; the possibility of a Nanaimo incinerator for Metro Vancouver’s garbage; the relationship of the City and the Nanaimo Port Authority to our harbour; the purchase and eventual use of the Wellcox land downtown; the ever bruited Multiplex; the downtown fast ferry which can turn Nanaimo into a bedroom community for Vancouver; the walkway from downtown to Departure Bay;  and trying to forget our bottomless asset management problem, are among the problems and the issues which we face.   How are we to view these as a community in order to a reach a position which, if not agreed by all, is at least understood by all?

As in most such decisions, the parameters are pretty basic: on the one hand we have wants and needs, and on the other we have our ability to pay the costs that go with them.  It is arguable that we have ignored the relationship between acquiring and paying for so long that it will be very painful to recover either financial or social equilibrium.  For example if you want to be very afraid, read the City’s Asset Management plan at:  http://www.nanaimo.ca/assets/Departments/Engineering~Public~Works/2012AssetManagementUpdate.pdf

This gives a picture of the gradual disintegration of over $2 Billion dollars in assets which the City already owns and operates, not to mention the additions which are being made annually and the dollars required to maintain them.  An examination of the report shows that, despite the dire picture, it is possible that the crunch can be postponed beyond the anticipated service life of either our present Council or Staff:  But not beyond the property taxable lives of our Citizens.   It’s like a death spiral where we borrow more every year just to pay for new toys and old debt until nobody will lend to us anymore and the roof falls in.

In this regard, are we the worst off City in the Province… or the Country… or the World…?  Not by a long shot.  We are not Detroit… But not being leaders in a pack of lemmings heading for a cliff is cold comfort.

Nanaimo is now entering a new budget cycle.  This is the once in year budget/ once in five year financial plan opportunity to take a cold hard look at our existing obligations and current financial situation to determine what we must do, need to do and want to do if anything is left over.  This year, under pressure, Staff has agreed to start that process early enough that we might not have to start spending the 2015 budget even before we have approved the 2014 budget.  In addition to the early start, Staff has undertaken a number of innovations in reporting for which they deserve praise, even if diluted for being incomplete.  Among these documents, along with such standbys as the City’s Budget Information:

http://www.nanaimo.ca/EN/main/departments/Finance/budget-information.html

and Financial Reports:

http://www.nanaimo.ca/EN/main/departments/Finance/financial-reports.html

and the Asset Management Update:

http://www.nanaimo.ca/assets/Departments/Engineering~Public~Works/2012AssetManagementUpdate.pdf

The 2012 Annual Municipal Report: lays out the tasks of all City Departments and can form the basis for an in-house core review by adding the requirement  level of each task (mandatory, needed or desired) and the resources, both human and financial allocated to them.

http://www.nanaimo.ca/assets/Departments/Finance/Budget~and~Financial~Reports/Financial~Reports/2012%20Annual%20Municipal%20Report.pdf

The Strategic Plan attempts to lay out City Priorities:

http://www.nanaimo.ca/EN/main/departments/Human-Resources/strategic-plan.html

And the “Balanced Scorecard” attempts to set out some performance measures.

http://www.nanaimo.ca/PerformanceMeasurement/BalancedScorecard

The Asset Management Update, the 2012 Annual Municipal Report, the Strategic Plan and the “Balanced Scorecard” are all new documents which are really works in progress, i.e. good starts which need considerable follow-through to get to completion.

At a meeting where last year’s budget was discussed, Staff indicated their belief that the arcane methods of their financial reporting probably were not understood by most people.  The implication that I took from this was that it was meant for accounting purposes only and not for understanding by citizens, non-financial staff or Councillors.  This needs to change.  While it may be necessary for the records to be arcane, general understanding of the meanings of those records needs to be established.  Several of the new reports are aimed in this direction.  We need to encourage Staff and Council to complete these tasks which they have set for themselves and for all of us.

I repeat:  The budget is the most important document prepared by the City each year as it sets the limits of our spending… and our taxing.  We allow others to take over these tasks without our oversight at our peril.

Let us know your views of city spending and taxing and the budget processes that lead to them.

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