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News analysis:

Mayor gives his city a B+

on its financial score card.

By Pepper Parr

BURLINGTON, ON January 22, 2011  –  It was the “be at event” for the week and more than 400 business people bought tickets for the State of the City address by the Mayor and hosted by the Burlington Chamber of Commerce.  Those who attended described the room as “a happy place”. Mayor Rick Goldring told the audience who he was and what he was going to do.

The event, usually held in October of each year, was moved permanently to January.  The theme the Mayor chose for this his first address at a Chamber event was “Building an affordable, inclusive and complete City that works together.”

The Mayor of Burlington is an “inclusive man”.  He is almost too decent.  He is patient, listens, sometime far too long to all sides.  He is, most of the time, content to be in the background and is always prepared to give way for someone else.  He doesn’t have to seize the agenda and he doesn’t seem to have to let people know that he is in charge. That is not to say he is a pushover – he’s just decent and polite.  As he said in his address –“Expect me to be honest, direct, clear and enthusiastic. A Mayor that values gaining and maintaining your trust and confidence. What you see is what you get.”  That is who you elected to office.

He is also prepared to admit that he was wrong or made a mistake – sometimes that honesty makes him look a little simple – and he isn’t simple. “I speak honestly and directly”, said the Mayor. “I haven’t yet learned the art of the non-answer.”

Mayor Goldring leads a Council that hasn’t fully gelled yet.  He has three new members and they are fitting in well enough and learning the ropes, each at their own rate and each developing competencies of their own.  He is proud to work with them and he adjusts to their styles and approach to the job.

Goldring wanted to leave his audience of business people with four things to remember:

His vision of Burlington as a place that is affordable, inclusive and complete and that he will lead by listening and learning from others and wherever possible build consensus.  He emphasized that the challenge ahead was to balances our wants, our needs and our ability to pay.

He said the Pan Am/Ticat Aldershot stadium discussions provided him with great on the job training.  That experience also brought from staff the view that Burlington was not big enough to handle a of project of that size.

Current State of the City

“As you all know in this room, we have all just come through a global recession, “ said the Mayor. “Canada has weathered the storm very well. While Ontario has experienced challenges especially in the manufacturing sector and Burlington has experienced some of this, we have come through the recession in good shape.”

The Mayor reported that local unemployment rate peaked in 2009 at 9.2% and is now reported at 7.6%.  The Burlington Economic Development Corporation (BEDC) reports that we have added 852 new jobs in Burlington, up from 577 in 2009. We remain prosperous.  What wasn’t reported or commented upon was the amount of land that is identified as “employment lands” in the official plan and what the Mayor would like to do longer term to attract the high paying jobs that the city wants.  No mention was made of what is going to happen in the near term with the Maple Leaf processing plant on Harvester Road. There are a significant number of jobs that will disappear when that plant closes down and it will eventually close down.

“The Burlington Performing Arts Centre is on time and on budget”, said the Mayor and “will be open in the fall of this year. This is a significant addition to the cultural fabric of the whole city and will provide significant positive impact to the continuing development of our downtown.”  Our Mayor could have expanded on how he and his council propose to handle the deficits that are part of the agreement with the arms length non-profit corporation that runs the BPAC with a volunteer Board.  Council has yet to receive either a Budget for the year we are now into or a longer term business plan.

“Individuals and corporations” reported the Mayor, “have contributed over $10.3 million toward the capital cost of the facility. The facility is governed by an independent board composed of a broad cross section of people including entrepreneurs, business owners, executives, as well as people with experience in the arts.”

The Mayor said: “Yes, there has been capital spending, however because of the recession, much of the spending was at costs lower than originally budgeted.”  “Federal and provincial stimulus dollars”, he added, “have helped this City and province manage through the recession. In total, the City received some $22.4 million in Senior Government Funding through various stimulus programs. This stimulus funding provided for among others:

The new Transit Operations Centre was badly needed but not as badly needed as a transit policy.  This city still hasn’t decided what level of transit service it wants to provide the public.  There are some that talk in terms of a “one bus” transit system.  Burlington Transit ridership increased by 5.4% in 2010 and the introduction of low floor fully accessible buses has dramatically improved accessibility.

City Finances

The Mayor felt it appropriate to also speak to the financial status of the City itself.  “Based on my education and experience I’d give us a B+”, said the Mayor.  That’s a fair mark but there have to be some comments in the margin of the report card saying that we are only managing to get 68% of our roads up to the standard we set out and that we are about to go into a phase were close to more than half our roads are at the point where they need significant work to be kept up to standard and we do not have a reserve to do that work.  And it is substantial.

“Taxes”, said the Mayor, “ are comparable with other communities. Our balance sheet has a little more debt than I would like to see”, he added, “and we have seen a moderate deterioration in asset maintenance spending.”   It would have helped if the Mayor had set out just what the debt is and what the city has in the way of reserves in its various reserve funds.  His audience was made up of sophisticated, financially informed people, who understand a balance sheet and have very close relationships with profit and loss statements.

In order for a society to function it has to be informed and there was a wonderful opportunity for this Mayor to fully inform his audience.  He missed that opportunity.  It was fine to say how much he respected the Chamber of Commerce as an organization he had served on – he could have should have shown that respect by laying out all the facts.  He has nothing to hide.

“The City”, said the Mayor, “has $2.0 billion in fair market value assets. Roads and facilities are the bulk of the assets. We need to spend about 2% per year of fair market value just to protect and maintain these assets. We have not been doing that.”   This was one of his better important bits of information and his audience understands what he is up against.

“Municipal councils throughout Canada have similar challenges and” the Mayor advised, “we have to juggle priorities and balance the need for infrastructure renewal, with additional services and other community needs.”  Here our Mayor could have and should have expanded and set out some of the options he is looking at.  Where might the cuts be made?  It would have been interesting and certainly novel had the Mayor asked his audience what level they thought the cuts should be made at.

The Mayor also said:  “Over the last four years the City portion of property taxes increased by 29%.  I have set a target of 10% over the next four years and I want to keep this number a priority in our civic agenda”.   He expanded a bit on his 10% in four years objective.  He had an opportunity to mention that his council member with the best financial smarts was advocating a 0% increase.  The Mayor could have put that in context and commented on its likelihood.  Opportunity missed.  The room was filled with people who wanted to listen and confirm the sense that this Mayor is a good guy; decent, responsible and not someone who is going to try and snow you.  When he makes a mistake, which he will, this Mayor is going to tell you and take responsibility for his mistakes.  It doesn’t get better than that.

“First”, said the Mayor, “ we need to set targets that are meaningful and achievable and I believe that this target is both. Second, I believe that it is time to review our services and operating structure. Our operating structure has been relatively static for 15 plus years and the City has changed in culture, size, demographics, development profile and needs. He went on to say: “It is my observation that despite the tax rate increases that we have experienced, council continues to ask staff to do more with less and this cannot continue. We need to take a different approach.”

“Thirdly”, he pointed out,  “the City has to think long term about its human resources. Over the next four years we have a number of staff retiring. If we want the right people, the City should be an attractive place to work and build a career. It is in all our best interests.”

“Fourth, I believe that the City has to review its processes and its use of technology and communications tools to be more productive and more effective.”   Kind of a bread and butter statement – one of those “non-answers’ perhaps?

“Lastly”,  said the Mayor, “I want to restore a culture at the City of Burlington where Council, Staff and Community are working together to fulfill the long term vision of the city.”  Well there is some work to be done at the Council/Staff relationship, which we will report on elsewhere.  Where this Mayor is dead on is the need for community to work with him to manage some of the stickier problems.  While the Mayor didn’t challenge the business community to work with him, the Chamber and its members need to support this man and the work he is doing.  He can’t do it all by himself.  Rick Goldring will listen – talk to him.

I believe that our circumstances call for a focused, collaborative and measured approach with the objective being an updated City Hall operation which deals with 21st century issues using 21st century technology, people and processes and which demonstrates the ability to operate within a sustainable economic plan.   Another one of those non-answers ?

“As we move forward together we have some key challenges:  Burlington is now growing more slowly than any other community in the GTA and will see less revenue as a result.  We will have to approach City operations and services in a different way.  Burlington’s demographics are changing and is expected to soon have 20% of its population at retirement age or older.  Has the business community factored this fact into its longer term plans”.  The Mayor might think in terms of a Symposium to look at just what it means to have one fifth of the population in the retired column.

Among the questions such a symposium might ask are:

  • How do we live within our means with slower growth and a changing demographic profile?
  • How do we re-align the City’s services to meet the needs and priorities of the community?
  • How do we keep a motivated professional staff in place at the City and deal with the costs?
  • How do we support and grow our local economy to maintain our quality of life?

All very good and relevant questions.  The Mayor and his city hall staff cannot come up with these answers on their own.  They need input from the people who do business in this city.

“We have”, said the Mayor,  “an excellent Downtown / Waterfront Plan which was developed with extensive public consultation and included input from over 1400 citizens.”

“I plan to revisit it through a public symposium, and update it to ensure it continues to reflect a 10-20 year community vision.”

The Pier: The new Council has spent 14 hours in briefings on this issue (How many in his audience cringed when they thought of the size of the legal bill for all this.  The problem is not one this Mayor brought about – he’s the poor guy who has to clean up a mess left by others.  He needs support on this one.) and is united in our resolve to complete this project. We will fix this as quickly and as cost effectively as possible.

A Vision of Burlington: “So it’s fair to ask, what is my Vision of the City, and how will we achieve it together?”

“I feel we should continue to strive to make Burlington an affordable, inclusive, complete community. Affordable so new families can move here and seniors can stay in their community. Inclusive and complete communities offer an attractive quality of life. It’s time to take a regional view of the place we call home. Let’s appreciate and embrace the amenities, services and facilities next door as part of our unique Quality of Life.

“McMaster, a university ranked in the top one percent of comprehensive universities globally is a 10 minute drive away and we have easy access to Mohawk and Sheridan Colleges. We have an emerging technology centre in Kitchener-Waterloo an hour away with one of the most successful technology companies in the world.  We also have a world recognized wine district in Niagara. And Burlington sits in the epicenter of all these amenities and attractions.”

Strung together these really don’t amount to a vision – more a description of the environmental, geographic setting we exist within.  All true, but they don’t constitute a vision

“So what”, asked the Mayor. “will Burlington look like 25 years from now?”

Imagine:

–          A city of about 193,000 nestled on the lake with an escarpment and a rural backyard.

–          A city with a strong local economy which allows more people to work close to home.

–          A public transportation network which connects Burlington with the GTHA and allows us all to move around better and preserve the environment.

–          Increased access to lifelong learning opportunities so that our community can compete and thrive in a global economy.

–          An inclusive community which provides for youth and seniors and is a tolerant and cultural oasis in the region.

–          A beautiful and well-maintained city with unique and diverse neighbourhoods that are pedestrian and cycle friendly.

–          A community that values and achieves sustainability through clearly defined ecological and environmental practices.

I don’t think this is what is imagined – but more a what the public expects.

To achieve this Vision I’m proposing a five-step action plan.

  • “We need a New Strategic Planning process for the community. Council will be defining a very different process that will provide all citizens a variety of opportunities to provide input into the future of our city. The result will be a more meaningful and measurable civic strategic plan.”
  • “I am proposing to start a new relationship with our community stakeholders with the Mayor’s Community Roundtable. We will have our first conversation next week. The 25 or so Community leaders attending represent a broad cross section of the community through their members, congregations and participants.”
  • “I will be introducing a series of lectures leading up to our next Official Plan review to inspire Burlington to look at ways of changing and improving our quality of life.”
  • “We need to support efforts of the BEDC and the Chamber and others to bring new business to our community and to help existing businesses be successful. Burlington needs to be open for Business including not-for-profit, co-ops and other forms of emerging social entrepreneurship.”

This one has all those upside buzz words but they ring a little on the hollow side when we read that city hall staff thought the proposed Aldershot Stadium, that had us all worked up for a few days was too big an undertaking for this city.   Does the city council and the city staff really have an entrepreneurial spirit

  • We will create a 4 year financial plan to maintain a manageable level of taxation and live within our means while delivering the services the community wants and this plan will be sustainable in the long term.

This, this Mayor will do.  He is responsible.

“In summary, we live in a prosperous caring community blessed with a tremendous natural environment. We have the opportunity to live an urban, suburban or a rural lifestyle. We have the infrastructure and the services needed to provide for the community and most importantly we have a community of citizens that show their commitment every day to our city and the people that live in it. Our opportunities are many and it is up to all of us to build our community to care for those around us. I have complete confidence that we can do this together.”

That last paragraph is what our Mayor is all about.  We don’t know yet if he can handle a crisis.  We don’t know yet how deep the vision is, there wasn’t much that was exciting about it and perhaps that is the way his citizens want it.  This time next year is a better opportunity to review his performance.  Nothing dramatic yet, and there may never be anything stellar about his term of office.  The city didn’t vote FOR Rick Goldring – they voted AGAINST the other guy.  Goldring came in with a clean slate and so far has kept it that way.

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