Archive for June, 2012

Wrong direction

Friday, June 29th, 2012

Just when one might think that the taxpayers have been tapped enough for big public projects in Winnipeg another one pops up. On Monday the federal government, the province of Manitoba and the City of Winnipeg all announced they plan to pour about $50 million each into the expansion of the Winnipeg Convention Centre.
Winnipeg has done pretty well at diverting federal and provincial dollars into city based projects over the past few years. There was the MTS Centre, the Canadian Human Rights Museum, the new football stadium (Investors Field) and now an upgrade convention centre. It’s a lot of cash for fun stuff.
Now some will argue that these are all good investments. After all, the arena brought back the Jets and some very popular concerts. The new stadium will house the Bombers and the University of Manitoba Bisons. The CMHR has done nothing so far and it’s doubtful if it ever will achieve its goal. The convention centre is a puzzle as many people have attended events at the centre but very few events have ever filled the place to capacity.
At a time when cities, towns, villages, RMs and First Nations communities are having trouble funding even the most basic services, it should be questioned if the governments’ priorities are in the right place. It seems that governments need and crave flagship projects. It has always been thus in Canada. Consider the trans-continental railway, the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Trans-Canada Pipeline, the Commonwealth Air Training Plan, and many others. Political action seems to need a focal point.
But what about the the ugly backside of all this modern focal point spending. The ribbon cuttings look good, the building facades look impressive. But compare today’s focal point spending with those of days gone by. The railway and the seaway were major long term contributors to the economy and commerce of the nation. They were essential. Stadiums are nice but they don’t contribute to the economy and essential services like a railway, a seaway or a pipeline.
The other problem with modern focal point projects or mega-projects of the modern type is that they ignore the needs of a huge percentage of the population. At a time when many communities don’t have clean water and many more have sewage systems at the point of collapse, it’s tough to justify expanding an underutilized convention centre. The irony of ironies about the CMHR is that it’s supposed to focus our attention on human rights abuses and female aboriginal sex-trade workers are being murdered almost within its shadow.
Recently the federal government took a lot of flack about cutting 20,000 jobs. What media didn’t tell us is that the Harper government, since it came to office, filled over 30,000 new jobs. Governments all have a spending problem.
Some years ago, while making a presentation to a Manitoba legislative committee, I said if they would give me two assistant deputy ministers, two accountants and two weeks I could cut 20 percent out of Manitoba’s budget and nobody would notice the cutbacks.
I stand by that statement. It will never be allowed to happen because governments never want to be as accountable as small businesses are, they never want to work as hard or as smart as small business. A glaring example is the salary list of just the communications department at the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. Reportedly the WRHA has 15 publicity people.
The country is also very biased. Racism abounds, otherwise we would toss out the Indian Act and allow First Nations to self govern like a municipality does. We are biased against rural because few understand rural and most have fled the rural life style. We are biased against the poor and the elderly, otherwise we would have more effective services for both.
The underlying problem is that through a haze of overall laziness, lack of incentive and a fear of change, we are more content to let things drift than we are to steer the ship in a change of course.
We used to build railways and seaways. Now we renovate aging convention centres and build misguided museums. Pity, isn’t it?

It’s all about local

Thursday, June 14th, 2012

There’s a growing movement in Manitoba to raise the Provincial Sales Tax (PST) by one percent and dedicate that tax revenue to infrastructure. It’s supported by groups such as the Association of Manitoba Municipalities (AMM), the Manitoba Business Council and by rank and file NDP party members. It’s also supported by many municipal leaders.
Now the Town of Neepawa council hasn’t recently discussed this issue in the way of supporting or opposing a PST increase and a subsequent influx of money for infrastructure. I happen to be mayor of Neepawa and it certainly hasn’t been discussed in my short term on council.
The need for infrastructure improvements is discussed at nearly every meeting in one way or another. The budget always contains some infrastructure improvements but it’s never enough to catch up. There is a lot of legitimate pressure on infrastructure.
The question that needs to be answered is whether or not an increase in PST is the way to go. It would raise our PST to eight per cent which would be eight per cent higher than Alberta. In Saskatchewan, their web site says it’s five per cent and a quick note says it’s not on light vehicles if the PST has already been paid. In Manitoba, it’s seven per cent and you pay it on light vehicles every time a vehicle is sold.
So an increase to eight percent would put Manitoba at a retail disadvantage to Saskatchewan and Alberta.
There’s another couple of problems with an increase in PST. One is that the money all goes to the province and gets doled back out to the municipalities. That costs money. Every time you let a senior government get its hands on your tax dollars, some of it sticks to their fingers and you never see it again. It gets eaten up in bureaucracy, good union, well paid job bureaucracy that doesn’t do a thing for replacing infrastructure.
A bigger problem is that someone in an office somewhere decides what infrastructure is and where that infrastructure will be built. You can rest assured most of it will be built in Winnipeg, Brandon and Thompson. You can rest assured that infrastructure’s definition will magically expand to include hockey rinks, stadiums, theatres and swimming pools.
A local politician currently stands pretty much alone on this issue. Reeve David Single of the RM of Westbourne has repeatedly stated at AMM meetings that local governments should fight the increase in PST and work out ways to finance their own issues.
I think Single is correct, but that is a personal opinion. The Neepawa council hasn’t taken a stand on this issue, perhaps the RM of Westbourne council hasn’t either.
However, decades, yes decades, of experience has shown Single (and me) that local solutions are the best ones. Local governments can build roads, street, sewers, water lines, essential stuff a lot cheaper and faster than provincial or federal governments.
Long term planning is needed, 100-year planning, as a young engineer said at a recent meeting.
So, in spite of the pressure from various sources, the provincial government officially is against the PST increase. That’s a good thing.
Local governments and local groups need to take a much higher profile in terms of local infrastructure. When outside money is requested, such as federal or provincial grants, the project should be large, regional and a benefit to many municipal areas. Otherwise, local government needs to stand on its own and let the local taxes stay local. It’s just better that way.

There’s always more to the story

Friday, June 8th, 2012

Fixing up an old house is a recurring theme in our lives. My wife and I have moved 14 times in  our several years of marriage. Many times it’s been into an old house and renovation before moving in has rarely been an option. The closest we came was re-doing some flooring before moving in, but for the most part, we have learned to live around renovations.
An old friend once said a good wife could put up with unfinished gyproc for two years. I think my wife has passed that test a couple of times.
Last Saturday, after a long list of not so heavy jobs got done, it was drawn to my attention by word or by deed that the main door from our dining area to the BBQ patio was sticking. It was sticking because during a couple of heavy rains, the eavestrough overflowed and water came down the wall. It flooded the door step which swelled up and caused the door to go beyond sticky. If we had to pull any harder on it, the door knob would have come off.
So, at 8 p.m. on a Saturday evening, off came the door. The trusty old Stanley steel plane did its magic but it wasn’t enough. The only solution was to take off a blade width with the circular saw. That worked and then the door opened and closed freely.
Not to be deterred, I went back at it Monday night and found  a new storm door, so that meant the next step is to take off the ugly old storm door, repair the frame and install the “new” old door.
As the title suggests, there’s always more to the story. The frame is damaged a bit at the bottom with rain-induced rot. Apparently, in the 100 plus years this house has stood the test of time, a few rain showers have overflowed the eavestrough and wetted down the door frame.
Taking off the brick mould exposed some hollow uninsulated wall spaces which will have to be fixed. It also revealed two little treasures. Hidden in the hollow of the wall, were the longest porcelain wiring tubes that I have ever seen. After the dust came off, they proved to be very shiny little novelties, no value just novel.
There’s a lesson in this little three foot by seven foot piece of the world called our kitchen doorway.
There is indeed always more to the story. It doesn’t matter what area of life you look at, be it politics, government, social interaction, commerce or our relationships with others, there’s always more than what appears on the surface.
Renovating an old house holds other lessons too. There’s always some little treasure buried in a situation, there’s always a cause for a problem. There’s usually a solution too.
So, as a proud owner of a very old house, I will probably be able to keep on re-disovering these truths for a while yet. Seeing as my wife says she has no intention to move again, I may actually get to finish this house to the level we really want to do so.
And I guess I better invest in a good ladder as it looks like eavestroughs always need to be cleaned out. That is if I want that door to ever stop sticking. This is a Sunrize Group internet solution (204)226-2247