HE SAID SHE SAID: Public outcry pushes for sustainability, but council digs in its core service heels
Following council’s five hour debate on the entire budget on May 1, council was forced to pause the financial plan blitz for twenty minutes on May 6 to hear nine members of the public oppose the only major cut: approximately $20,000 axed from the Sustainability Commission (SC), terminating their paid coordinator with no transition plan in place.
The May 1 meeting was open to the public but was not publicized, so only the Telegraph and the library manager were there to witness the debate, recorded in six articles:
- Community groups take the hit after millions in Columbia-Washington overruns
- Sustainability Commission funding in flames as museum budget nearly doubles for 2013
- Swathes of community support scythed in the 2013 budget
- Star Gulch swimming hole dream deferred to 2014 or beyond
- Neighbourhoods of Learning Committee faces an imminent end to city funds
- Downtown trash cans and more uncanned, but recanning still possible
On May 6, twenty people came to City Hall to support keeping the manager as a role separate from the city. With the exception of SC Chair Terry Miller, who spoke first, the comments of the eight others who addressed council were recorded on video by Liam Barnes here. Below we have recorded excerpts.
Steve Ash has been a commissioner on the SC for six years, and recently attended the Union of British Columbia Municipalities where Rossland was feted for the success of the Energy Diet, an SC initiative that resulted in renovations to hundreds of homes and an influx of millions of dollars to the local economy.
“What we have all created in Rossland is very impressive. I don’t think you should underestimate what has been created over a long period of time, and is very viable.”
“At the UBCM, the main question I was asked was, How were you so successful?” Ash explained that the trick has been having “a somewhat independent body that’s working on behalf of the city, and bringing outside views to the city.”
“The SC does bring a different, independent perspective. If the issues were totally internalized within the city, you would miss that.”
He called the SC “an audit of city thinking.” “The city does a lot of great things and gets a lot of things right. But sometimes you get it wrong. Having people prompting you to think in a different way, on a whole bunch of different things, is very, very helpful.”
“The whole fiasco of the former building inspector, for example, may not have happened if there’d been more independent input.”
Looking to a future without an independent manager, he said, “I, and a number of other people, are willing to continue. But we don’t want to be in a structure where if we bring up a point of view it’s going to be over-ridden.”
“At all levels, if we don’t change the way we think and the way we do things, I don’t think we’re going to progress as a society the way we should. The structure Rossland has [with a semi-independent SC] isn’t the only way, but it’s a way of moving things forward.”
Michelle Laurie told council that when she decided to move to Rossland, “it was not for the roads, it was not for the museum.”
“What set it apart for me is the fact that we were going down a sustainability process, I found that unique. I could have moved to Nelson, Kimberley, or Golden, I had all four on my list, but Rossland hit the mark,” she said, calling the culture “forward thinking.”
“I don’t think I’m alone,” she said.
“You need a coordinator,” she said. “I do not agree that volunteers alone can move things. They definitely help, but having a champion, a paid coordinator is what makes things happen.”
“I’m not opposed to the SC joining more closely with the city, but I am opposed to doing that without a transition plan in place first. There needs to be time in place for that transition to happen.”
“I have been working with local governments across this region and outside for six years on sustainability issues. One of the biggest challenges is that every council is passionate, but they do not have the means to engage with the community.”
“We are very lucky here. We’re ahead of the game, and you don’t want to lose that.”
“I find it completely unbalanced that we can so easily cut the Commission’s budget and their coordinator, and not even discuss the fact that we’re paying outrageous salaries for senior staff, and some contracts could be revisited.”
“This is our money, and we should be able to spend it across the community as we, as a community, see as appropriate. I’m not saying they’re not doing a good job. I’m saying we do pay a lot more than the average.”
“I’m respectively urging council to reconsider this recommendation as I think it will greatly reduce the productivity and momentum of the SC,” Rachael Roussin said.
“The city has not yet articulated how they plan to implement this change, which raises the concern that the SC’s capacity to take action on the goals outlined by the community on sustainability would fall to the wayside.”
“Many volunteer groups in Rossland have paid staff. I believe that a part time manager increases the capacity of an organization, and also increases the morale, productivity, and sustainability of the volunteers.”
“City staff already have their plates full. I can’t imagine how they have time to replace a part time manager for the SC.”
“I spent two years helping to create the SSP [Strategic Sustainability Plan], the plan that served as a basis for a new OCP [Official Community Plan] and set out a vision for a sustainable direction for our community,” Graham Kenyon said.
“Those were halcyon days: the council of the day was enthusiastically committed to the mission, as were the staff. The citizens of Rossland embraced the concept and participated in unprecedented numbers. At the end of the day, I think we all felt that the SSP truly reflected the aspirations of our community.”
“Then the hard part: implementation. It was Ron Campbell’s idea to establish a Sustainability Commission, to coordinate and assist, to manage the activities of the task groups, to monitor the progress of implementation, and to provide longer term continuity.”
“As he put it, with remarkable foresight it seems, ‘Leave it up to councils and they will fail. They will always have other concerns and distractions.’”
“The SC is comprised of volunteers, but it provides valuable service to the city, presuming that the city is really serious in its mission to progress towards that ultimate goal of the SSP.”
“The total elimination of funding support for the SC delivers the message that you are not really serious. That is a message that will seriously jeopardize our ability to attract the intellectual and financial resources, and the partnerships that are essential if that goal is to be achieved.”
“Any community trying to move forward with sustainability issues benefits from having both the community and the city involved. The beauty of the Commission is that it gives that community part,” said Hanne Smith, former city councillor.
“I think moving the management in-house would be a mistake from the government’s perspective because it would merge those two separate identities and roles together. Rather than leaving them separate, which is where the strength, diversity, and partnership comes from.”
The other thing is, societies really benefit from having a paid staffer to keep day-to-day operations going on. The Trail Society would never have got off the ground had we not talked the council of the day into supporting a paid coordinator.
Volunteers burn out. Volunteers can do so much on specific projects, but they’re not the ones who need to be writing grant applications. With a part time manager, you can keep the continuity, leverage the funds, and go out for those grant opportunities.
If you look back over the last six years, the SC has done that extremely successfully because they’ve been able to work with this structure.
The proposal is very modest for what you’re getting. As a taxpayer, I think $28,000 is a damn good deal.
Alex Loeb is the volunteer taking the lead on Rossland’s new branch of the Kootenay Car Share organization.
“Michelle said she could have lived anywhere. Well, I could have volunteered anywhere,” Loeb said.
“I was a corporate VP of Microsoft. I volunteer almost full time. I chose to volunteer with the SC because of its power, because of its effectiveness, because of its ability to get very important things done.”
“I’m new to the community, and I came in full of ideas and enthusiasm, but I didn’t know anything. As I love to say, I’m a damn American.”
“Ann [Damude, the now-axed SC manager] is the reason car-share will come to Rossland this year. Without Ann, would car sharing come? Sure. But it would probably be at least next year, maybe the year after.”
“And when I say ‘sure,’ as people have said, with volunteer burnout it may have been dropped by then.”
“I really mean this respectively, but I was really taken aback by [Coun. Jody Blomme’s] commentthat volunteerism is somehow hampered by an administrative staff.”
“I volunteer at large regional orgs, small orgs, and every last one of them has a paid coordinator. People volunteer at schools and libraries and museums: they all have paid staff.”
“I lost sleep over that comment. I find it, quite frankly, insulting to those of us who are passionate about our volunteering. I know specifically in Ann’s case, I wouldn’t be able to be effective in this role without that support.”
“I moved to Rossland four years ago to ski. My partner and I decided to stay and buy a house because of the rich culture in Rossland, and a big part of that is the SC,” Caley Mulholland said.
“I’d like to reiterate that we get great value out of our paid coordinator, and having it separate from the city, but collaborating with the city, seems like a strong way to continue with the organization.”
“I hope this evening you will find a way to cut funding [elsewhere] to reallocate it to the SC. If you want to look at bringing it in-house, that should be part of a bigger discussion over a strategy that’s working towards the goals that were outlined in the SSP.”
“At the moment, the way it’s presented to us, it seems like an ad hoc move, and the productivity and capacity of the SC will be reduced unless there’s a thoughtful process.”
“We need to find a way that volunteers can be supported and the city can also work towards its goals. Please find a creative solution.”
“We’ve got amazing people in this community,” Sue Wrigley said, noting her agreement with previous speakers.
“I’m also nomadic [as in nomadic entrepreneur]: I work from home, I work outside of Rossland, I work outside of Canada.”
“I chose to stay here in Rossland for the skiing, and because Rossland is such a forward thinking community.”
“I unfortunately don’t have time to volunteer on the Commission, but I think it’s fantastic, and I don’t really understand why everyone else got their funding?”
“Why you wouldn’t take a little bit from everything? Or look at other cuts to keep something as important as the SC and its management?”
“Part of the thing that really astounded me is that the budget suddenly appeared, and there had apparently been very little time for citizens to give input,” Jan Micklethwaite said.
“I know I’ve been pen pals with a lot of you on the topic of communication for several months, and communication seems to be something that you value, but I don’t see that happening in this situation.”
“Suddenly the budget appears and we’re all scrambling trying to give you our input about why things like the SC are important.”
“We’re wondering if you’ve had enough time to read all the line items in the budget. There must have been a few places where you could have picked up a few dollars here and there and perhaps put together $28,000.”
“On the scope of our budget, that doesn’t seem like a lot.”
“The budget was put off for such a long time, that suddenly everything was compressed into a short period of time, and perhaps wasn’t done as well as it should have been.”
“I’m very happy you’ll be talking about next year’s budget starting in June, but I’m very disappointed that this budget has been compressed and forced into a timeframe that didn’t provide enough focus and enough consideration so we wound up in a situation that’s very unsatisfactory to many citizens.”
Breaking out of the “special meeting” to which council eventually returned to pass first, second, and third reading of the 2013-2017 financial plan (FP)—adopted on May 8 at an 8 a.m. special meeting—council convened a committee-of-the-whole to complete the budget discussion of May 1.
CAO Cecile Arnott noted two operational changes to the FP to accommodate a new planning process that will begin on June 1. In particular, the Cooke Ave. Park upgrade ($80,000) and swimming pool upgrades ($37,000) have been left in the FP, but deferred to the fall.
COUN. CARY FISHER
“There is a massive debt in terms of infrastructure in Rossland, and it’s going to take millions of dollars to get there,” Coun. Cary Fisher said, noting an expected $42 million to upgrade city infrastructure, plus a 21 per cent share in an upcoming $80 million liquid waste management plant in Trail.
“We don’t have a plan currently in place that encompasses all of that. We kicked the can down the road, and we can’t do that anymore. We can’t do it without cutting things,” he said.
COUN. KATHY MOORE
“We have a lot of money we need to save. But to cherry pick certain community groups at this time is inappropriate and quite disrespectful of the groups themselves,” Coun. Kathy Moore said. On May 1, Moore had suggested “small shavings” from each group as a better alternative.
Moore noted that on March 11 council had approved the SC work plan in principle. “At that time, the idea of bringing the manager’s role in huse was discussed and defeated,” she said.
“Then, last week, we didn’t have the discussion: what’s the capacity of in-house staff to do this? What modifications are we directing on the work plan? We didn’t even talk about how much money this was going to save.”
“We should do a lot more planning before we do any cutting,” Moore said, suggesting a revenue-neutral plan with an operational cut—for example, the fall clean-up, at a savings of about $20,000—to fund the SC.
“We’ve basked in the glory of the accomplishments of this group, at conferences getting awards and those kinds of things,” Moore said.
“Many grants are available to the SC that are not available to the municipality. We would lose a lot of that money, that would be unfortunate.”
She noted that the SC was “the only group that came back with a reduction over what they asked for last year.”
“I do believe there are other places, if we sharpen our pencils a little bit, that we can find the money to support the commission, and it will be win-win,” Moore concluded.
COUN. JILL SPEARN
“The process around this decision is never ideal, there’s no forewarning,” Coun. Jill Spearn began. “I apologize to the SC that the process with regards to this is unfortunate. Had I had any forewarning about this decision, I would certainly have communicated with you.”
“The SC stands us out above and beyond other rural communities. It puts us in the limelight not only in BC, but beyond,” Spearn said.
“All the successful groups that have a volunteer base have some kind of a coordinator that’s paid. For us to take a one-handed swipe at the SC and say we’ll take it in house, with all due respect, their work will be diminished.”
“I don’t think it’s fair this group has been targeted,” she said. “It has brought people to our community. The management position is anything but a luxury. It has lead our community to be outstanding.”
COUN. CARY FISHER
“I wouldn’t disagree it will have some diminished capacity,” Fisher said. “I’m hopeful it won’t be completely destroyed. I think the SC has done great work.”
“We’d be irresponsible not to look at this stuff,” he said. “If we have to take a step back to ensure we can take steps forward, I don’t think it’s a disastrous moment.”
“I’m really looking at June to look at other areas we can cut spending,” he concluded.
COUN. TIM THATCHER
“I’m for looking at shifting money around [to support the SC], as long as it didn’t increase the budget at all,” Coun. Tim Thatcher said.
“We’re going to have to look at further spending cuts in all areas. If we did fund [the SC] for this year, we’d have to look at a transition in 2014. It’s going to have to happen some day.”
“We have to save money to have a more secure future,” he said.
COUN. KATHY WALLACE
Coun. Kathy Wallace first gave her explanation for “How we got to be this late in the financial planning process.”
“It has to be remembered our CFO left us last May, and we haven’t had a manager of finance sitting in this city hall until our CAO came and took this position,” she said.
“As long as I’ve lived in this city, City Hall takes a fair amount of criticism from the community. I think the community has to recognize that staff resources are one of our most significant resources, we pay money for them, but they’re also one that gives us back a benefit.”
“So when I hear comments about neglect that we’re at this point in the planning process, that city salaries are high, the community needs to recognize that the way the community treats city hall and city council is a piece of that.”
“In my time sitting here, this is a truth I’ve come to understand. There needs to be more appreciation for the very hard work done, not so much for council—I mean, we signed up, we know we’re going to get beat up—but for staff.”
“The fact we haven’t had a finance manager sitting in city hall until Miss Arnott’s been able to take over, that leads to this situation. The atmosphere that’s created in this city hall by a hypercritical, small population, leads to this.”
“As for the SC, there has not been any discussion on moving away from the [SSP] or not following through with the action plan, or removing support from the task forces. There is an assumption I’m hearing from some people in the gallery that council is moving away from the SC.”
“What council decided is that we could take that position in-house, based on a recommendation from staff. And no, we haven’t had time to clearly lay out how that’s going to be done, or what the transition is to implement it. Budget discussions start on June 1, and that’s when we’ll get into it.”
“Council makes decisions based on the greater good of the community. There are a lot of people in this community who don’t know what the SC is, they don’t know what they do, they see some pretty pieces of paper occasionally, and they wonder why their tax dollars are going to it.”
“This has to become a more inclusive situation. I’ve heard from residents, permanent or otherwise, who feel less than welcomed when they show up at a meeting.”
“Our job is to make sure we have the core services of road, and water, and sewer.”
“We cannot sell greatly reduced, brand new condos at the [ski] hill because of our levels of taxation attached to them. That’s a problem. The direction council is trying to take is to become more fiscally responsible.”
COUN. JODY BLOMME
“We are definitely not saying we don’t support the SC and don’t support they are a great addition to Rossland. I think it’s excellent,” Coun. Jody Blomme said.
Blomme argued that “there still is money from the city going to the SC, in kind.”
She expressed confidence that the SC is “a very capable, committed group of volunteers who can pursue funding through other means,” such as the CBT.
“They can still do what they do and get funding for it,” she said, adding, “I don’t know any off the top of my mind that I know would give you money for it.”
“Eight or nine people spoke here today, but the thing is, I have to say, I know well more than that of people who are very happy we made this decision.”
COUN. KATHY MOORE
“To completely cut a group off without any kind of transition for them to adapt is not fair, for one, but it’s also not to the best of our abilities,” Moore said.
“To link the delay of this budget process to citizen unrest, like Coun. Wallace was saying, that’s just silly.”
“If you’re looking at ink on paper, then you should look to cut groups that don’t leverage funds, that don’t bring funds into the city. Based on what Coun. Fisher is saying, we should have zeroed out all the community groups.”
Moore suggested again reinstating the SC to its reduced funding request of $28,000, and then engage in a “thoughtful and comprehensive planning process” in June.
“It’s just logic,” she said. “There’s not 575 hours of spare staff time.”
COUN. JILL SPEARN
“Coun. Blomme mentioned several people in the community who are happy about this decision, and no doubt there are,” Spearn said.
“I would probably reckon that those folks are not the ones who are the movers, the shakers, the doers, the volunteers, the ones who are part this gallery who come out and do a lot of things to move a community forward.”
“Change is difficult. Thinking outside the proverbial box is difficult. This is what this group does—I will reiterate: the sustainability plan.”
“This is not just some group that came together and said, ‘Sustainability is a buzz word, we’re going to look after it.’ We adopted a plan a number of years ago, and I’m proud to say I was part of that process.”
“People who are against it, great, then come to council and tell us. But fortunately, or unfortunately, they’re not here to tell us.”
Spearn noted that council voted to increase the museum budget by $23,000, “which is almost the difference between this cut to the SC.” We didn’t cut everybody.
She added, “You’re not going to get $28,000 of ‘in kind’ out of a paid salary [city] manager.”
Spearn then referred to Wallace’s comments about respect from the community for city staff and their salaries: “The community is allowed to say what they want to say, just like they did tonight. No one was disrespectful here, and if you think people are being disrespectful to staff, I would beg to differ.”
Mayor Greg Granstrom offered his perspective: “I don’t think her comment was to this group, not by any stretch of the imagination.”
Spearn replied, “Well then maybe her comment was totally out of order. It didn’t make any sense to me.”
“I’d like to know how many councillors were at the Earth Day celebration? I know how many: it was two of us. If you want to see a group put on a phenomenal community event where we were all more than welcome. If that’s not welcoming, I certainly don’t know what is.”
She concluded. “I’m urging you all, give this a year, just like every other group. Let’s be a little more respectful to sustainability. I’m going to be really embarrassed and disappointed if council doesn’t reinstate the $28,000 to this group.”
COUN. CARY FISHER
Fisher asked about his misunderstanding that the SC was meant to have city support for only three years: “Correct me if I’m wrong,” he said, at which point the gallery swiftly corrected him.
In fact, the SC was meant to reduce it’s dependence on city funding year by year, beginning with a budget of $80,000 six years ago, which has decreased year-by-year to the $28,000 requested this year.
Fisher then argued that across-the-board cuts would be “irresponsible” because groups would have different abilities to handle the cuts.
COUN. JODY BLOMME
“It’s just a shuffle” Blomme argued, so no transition planning is necessary.
“If we were changing the scope drastically, or the structure, that would make sense. But what we’re proposing is basically that the manager has to give up the position for someone else to take her place.”
“There wi’ll be staff attending the meetings, and when something comes up that needs taking care of, then perhaps this person will know what to do next.”
COUN. KATHY MOORE
“We all agreed to the SC’s work plan, and that work plan involved 575 hours. That is not an insignificant thing to transition. This will dramatically change what they’re able to accomplish.”
Regarding Wallace’s comment that people don’t know what the SC does, Moore said, “You may remember the last council sent out regular newsletters and updated the community on the activities of the SC. This council has done one, or none? That’s part of our responsibility too. It costs the SC to put out newsletters. It’s something the city should be doing, and quite frankly, we’ve been lax.”
COUN. JILL SPEARN
Spearn got the last word: “Coun. Blomme, you’re taking it very lightly about easy transitioning.”
She added, “I don’t want it the management position to go in house,” either this year or any future year. “I want that body to stay the same as it is.”
The motion to reinstate SC funding was defeated 4-3, with Granstrom, Wallace, Blomme, and Fisher against, Spearn, Moore, and Thatcher in favour.