The uninformed, opinionated, time-wasting citizens of Kamloops – Bill McQuarrie

Column PicBill McQuarrie

January 27, 2016

During the course of the last municipal election (Nov. 2014), each and every candidate spoke of wanting to serve the people of Kamloops.  They spent weeks and months convincing you they were the person for the job. They spoke of dialogue, engagement, openness and willingly spent thousands of dollars to convince you of their sincerity.  Matter of fact, the 9 winning candidates spent a combined total of $94,300 to get that coveted seat on City Council. Of the winners, the mayor topped the money list, spending $37,000.  It’s the only job I know of where you have to invest a significant amount of cash to simply try and get hired.  So it stands to reason that you’ve got to want this job quite badly.

That however is history and as we skip forward to early 2016, things get a bit confusing when it comes to that willingness to listen, engage and serve the interests of those very same voters.  Let me explain.  

For the past several weeks I have listened to Mayor Milobar do his best to prevent delegations from attending council meetings in order to express their feelings, pro or con, on Ajax.  He has whined, complained, argued against and predicted utter chaos if council allowed voters the opportunity to attend and present their case.  He has explained and lamented over how much work it will cause him and fellow councillors if the public is allowed to engage with them.  You know the ones he’s talking about?  They are, I’m guessing, all those uniformed and time-wasting citizens of Kamloops.  The rabble, the electorate, those citizens whose opinions or thoughts are deemed unworthy and not important enough for the ears of his worship.  Those same people the mayor had spent $37,000 on convincing them he was their guy, their main man.  Now the mayor feels it’s too much work, too much bother and a complete waste of his valuable time. Not everyone* on Council shares the Mayor’s opinion about the public’s ability to ruin his day, just the regular foursome.  Do you see why I’m confused? I mean one day the voters are perfection personified and the next they’re simply not important enough to be listened to.

This is the same mayor whose election platform promised to support and make PAC happen.  It failed and instead of rolling up his sleeves and jumping back in, his response has been “…there is no plan B”.   Nobody said it was going to be easy and everyone knew it required leadership, vision, hard work, long hours and an ability to champion the project…even in failure. Everyone it would appear except for one person.

The Mayor’s election platform had other roll up the sleeves and get to work promises that included:  North Shore commercial growth – What brand new ideas has the mayor put forth and implemented since electioneering ended?  Downtown revitalization was a nice turn of phrase – What personal effort by the mayor has been put into making that happen?  I see more empty stores along Victoria and Seymour streets then there were a year ago.  A downtown campus for TRU – So far though the best idea from the mayor’s chair is to tear down a building that might make a good site. Affordable housing – Has any land even been designated or rezoned since November 2014? Have federal and provincial partners been engaged and committed?  Commercial and Industrial tax base diversification and expansion – That was on the must-do list but I think someone was betting the ranch on the annexation of Ajax and that’s not going well is it?   I sure hope there’s a Plan B this time around?  Core infrastructure and maintenance – Not a word was spoken about this prior to the PAC referendum but is about to be moved front and centre along with some significant and previously known tax increases.  RIH Expansion – That’s happening but as we know, it was all put together before the election, so I guess it was felt a safe promise to make.

The Mayor’s chair, along with those of City Council are positions wanted so badly that together you spent nearly $100,000 to get there.  Nobody was forced to take the job, so why, despite those electioneering promises do some of you find listening to the people of Kamloops such a difficult, distasteful and unpleasant task? Personally I don’t care if it means your Tuesday meetings go beyond their scheduled close.  The citizens of Kamloops want to talk to you now.  They want to feel their voice is being heard.  That you find this task a burden, tiring and a non-productive part of your job is in my opinion disrespectful in the extreme.  

Mr. Mayor, your batting record is not all that good right now but here was your chance to step up to the plate for some meaningful engagement with the City you are supposed to be mayor of…And your response was?

*Voting against a motion to allow delegations back were:  Peter Milobar, Pat Wallace, Marg Spina and Ken Christian.

Voting for a motion to allow delegations back were: Tina Lange, Denis Walsh, Dieter Dudy, Donovan Cavers and Arjun Singh

Health Costs Not Boomer’s Fault – Bill McQuarrie

Column PicBill McQuarrie

January 20, 2016

In an interview with the Ottawa Citizen, Federal Health Minister, Jane Philpott made it clear that her upcoming discussions with the provinces will be focused on health care  “system” reform.

She added, “We’ve seen in the past that injecting more money into the system without a commitment to drive system change is not necessarily the most successful approach.”

This couldn’t come at a better time considering Canada ranks #10 out of the top 11 industrialized countries.  That’s right, the only country we are better than as far as delivery of health services go, is the USA.  Not exactly something to be proud of given the state of America’s health care system.

When it comes to health care cost per capita rankings, we come in at $4522.  New Zealand at $3182 is the best, followed by the UK at $3405 and Australia at $3800 with the US at the bottom of the pile at $8508.  We are paying about $1300 more per capita than New Zealand in order to be pretty much the worst when it comes to looking after the health of our own citizens.  Am I the only one who fails to see how wrong that is or to be embarrassed by those results ?

For access of service we are ranked 11th, the worst when it comes to timeliness of care.  Safe care and efficiency has Canada second worst at #10 on both counts.  Those numbers suggesting that it takes longer than it should to access the health system and when you do, expect inefficiencies and a less than safe environment.  Again, am I the only one to see the failed logic of those results?  Explained at a more personal everyday level, it confirms that it takes months to see a specialist, followed by months to get testing, followed by months to receive treatment.  Treatment delayed that long could result in symptom changes that result in the need to revise treatment options and so the cycle continues.

Back in 1974, Canada was looked to as a world leader in the area of public health, including disease prevention and health promotion.  In the 1990’s, Canada consistently ranked number 5 when compared to other countries..  So what happened?  According to the Conference Board of Canada, part of the problem is, “Management systems that don’t focus enough on the quality of health care”.  So Minister Philpott seems to have it right when she speaks of system reforms.  We are spending too much time and resources managing and creating paperwork instead of delivering health care.  We have built what appears to be an amazingly complex,  non-medical bureaucracy that seems more intent on hampering the delivery of services then on serving the best interests of society.  Appointments to health authority boards appear to be more about political party loyalty and patronage than about ability and health services knowledge. We need change and a different kind of accountability.  As Minister Philpott said, “…I think we have a responsibility to make sure that people can see that we reach our targets and we see the kind of change that people expect.”

After everything has been said and ideas evaluated, politicians like to justify the current state of affairs and scare us about an even costlier future by blaming our rapidly aging population.  Yet countries with older population than ours, like Japan and Sweden do not have more expensive or less efficient health care systems.  Japan boasts the highest life expectancy in the world and the lowest mortality rates due to cancer, circulatory diseases and diabetes.  Sweden with one of the oldest populations in the world credits it success to an integrated approach that tailors home care, health care, and fitness activities to the needs of their older citizens.  So when the next politician plays the ageing population excuse card, challenge him or her to backup those claims while explaining the efforts and results shown by Japan and Sweden.  

So why are other countries delivering faster and better health services at a lower costs while not blaming the Baby Boomers for all their health care budget problems? I don’t know the answer but I’m wondering if I did a Freedom of Information request if I’d find that ministry delegation after ministry delegation has spent thousands of dollars visiting these countries and seen exactly what they are doing to be as successful as they are.  Which begs the question, why aren’t we doing more of what they’re doing?  I believe studies and reports have replaced action and are creating an inability to make decisions and a bureaucratic inertia that is slowly crippling our health care system.  I’d also like to know how much has been spent to observe and learn but neglect to implement and why are MSP premiums going up when they could be going down?

To be fair and provide some balance…Within Canada, BC’s health care performance ranks number 2 amongst all other provinces and territories.  Now before Minister Lake gets too excited, the Conference Board of Canada attributes much of that success to the healthy life-style choices made by BC’ers as opposed to one amazingly efficient health carel system…Sorry Minister Lake but there’s still a lot of work to be done. Fortunately the solutions aren’t that difficult to find.  In fact progressive and proactive governments have already been there done that, so you don’t have to reinvent the health care wheel to implement them.  Nor do you have to hit up the taxpayer for more money.

8 CEO’s +27 VP’s+53 Directors = $10 Million – Bill McQuarrie

Column PicBill McQuarrie

January 13/16

Another multi-million dollar question and as you might suspect and are perhaps sensing a trend, it involves your money.  Here’s the questions:  What organization has 8 CEO’s, 27 Vice-Presidents, 53 board directors and gets over $10,000,000.00 of your provincial tax money each and every year?

The answer – our five Regional Health Authorities, including the Interior Health Authority and you can be forgiven if you are already asking, “didn’t he say eight CEO’s but only five health authorities”?  Good question and I have no idea why we need eight Chief Executive Officers to run five provincial health authorities.  Mind you, neither do I know why we need and pay for 53 directors and 27 Vice Presidents.

This is $10 million that doesn’t go towards direct health services or equipment purchases.  These millions of dollars simply cover salaries, honorariums, expense accounts and administrative support staff for these executives.

I began researching the health authority system for a future column on MSP but stumbled upon these numbers and it made me wonder:  Do we need 5 separate health authorities to manage our healthcare system?  Originally the duties were centralized and managed from the Ministry of Health in Victoria but years ago there was a decision to decentralize.  It was felt the communities and the health services provided would be better served by a local management group.

The goals of the system, which are referred to as the Triple Aim are:

  1. Improving the health of populations
  2. Improving the patient experience of care.
  3. Reducing the per capita cost of health by focusing on quality and the efficiency of health care delivery.

Have these goals been met?  I am of the opinion that as a whole, all three goals remain just that – Goals.  

We have a total of eighty-eight well paid minds in this executive group. They have three pretty straight-forward objectives to meet and we give and have been giving them $10 million a year to achieve those goals.  So it begs the question:  Should we be giving salaries to 8 CEO’s that are in the $300,000 per year range with the balance split up between VP’s and Directors if the goals for their jobs are not being met?  Should we step back and consider bringing the system under control, saving some money in the process and returning full responsibility to the Ministry of Health?

When considering this, keep in mind that since 2009 your MSP premiums have increased by 40%.  To put that into perspective, the total premiums collected this year are likely to exceed that of all corporate taxes collected by the Province.  In other words, we are paying a lot and while doing so remain the only ones in Canada still paying monthly premiums.

In my opinion the $10 Million dollars has not been spent wisely and we need to push the pause button and rethink this decentralized plan.  

On a different topic and answering a couple of questions from last week’s column on City taxes and staffing costs.

To those wondering how many people are employed by the City, the answer is: 752 full time, 118 part time and 117 leisure instructors.  These numbers do not include RCMP or Transit employees.

Also had a few messages asking about Kelowna and how our City’s staffing costs compare to them.  They spend 110% of all property taxes collected on staffing.  Once again and on a percentage basis, Kamloops spends more.

The 2% Holy Grail of Taxes – Bill McQuarrie

Bill McQuarrieColumn Pic

Jan 6/16

2% – The Holy Grail of Tax Increases

A January rite of passage for home ownership begins with the arrival of your Notice of Assessment.  Opening that envelope brings on thoughts of property taxes and memories of promises from City Hall to keep increases to a minimum…Which for some reason are felt to be acceptable and a sign of good management, if kept in the 2% range.  I’m not sure who decided that was the benchmark but our elected officials seem to think it’s an okay hike and proof of their financial prowess.  

That got me to thinking though.  Just where does all our money go?  Well, I spent a bit of time over the Christmas break tracking down the answers to that question and I have a feeling you’re going to be as shocked at the results as I was.  Let me explain by breaking down how your tax dollar was distributed in 2014 and unfortunately it’s a very quick one item answer.

You see, every single dollar, down to the last penny of the $98,000,000.00 collected in property taxes that year, went to Wages & Benefits.  That’s everything you gave, without exception, was needed to pay for staff and contract employees (ie RCMP and Transit) and even that was not enough to cover all staffing costs.  Another $16 million from other sources was required to top up your contribution in order to cover the total wages and benefit bill of $114 million.  We spend 116% of all property tax collected on staffing costs.  Not a cent of your dollar went or will go to infrastructure or other operating expenses.  

By comparison, Prince George, roughly comparable to us in size, spent $89,000,000 on staffing or 100% of what they collect in property taxes.  We seem to be the salary spending winners of the year, beating our closest rival, Prince George, by $25 million dollars.  And yes, to anyone who noticed the numbers and quickly did the math, Prince George also collected $9 million less in taxes than we paid here in Kamloops.  Interesting concept that.  Collect less, spend less.

At this point you might be expecting my solution is to lay off $25 million worth of City staff.  But no, while it’s true they benefit, the staffing costs are the product and result of management and ultimately council.  The same council of course that has been known to jump on “the give me more pay” bandwagon themselves, so let’s try our best not to punish the staff.  It’s a City Council creation and one they have to solve but there’s at least one possible solution.  

What if we set a reachable three year target of reducing staffing costs by a total of 10%?  That’s just over 3% per year and if a hiring freeze was put in place, attrition would likely take care of most if not all of those reductions.  If the City hits their targets, they would not have to increase taxes by the traditional 2% and could actually reduce taxes by 1%.  Nobody gets laid off and we’d get a break on our taxes.  As a bonus, the City would start to get their costs under control and more closely aligned with other cities.

Speaking of getting costs under control, didn’t anyone in City Hall see the writing on the wall when the water meters were put in.  You asked residents to reduce water use and played the conservation card along with the threat of money (consumption tax) as the incentive, so they did exactly as asked.  Could you not see the consequences of that?  You encouraged everyone to consume less, they did and surprise, surprise, the City’s revenues decreased.  Your response and solution is as brilliant and well thought out as the first one…let’s increase everyone’s water rates and in so doing punish the very users asked to help you out in the first place. To recap: You ignored the results of a referendum (called the will of the people), spent millions on equipment, forced water conservation and in the process, decreased City revenues. Is there anyone in City Hall who thinks these things through to their logical conclusion or is planning simply tied to election cycles?  Do you really have to wonder why the voter is increasingly frustrated with and by City Hall?

Recently, Ken Christian mentioned the possibility of Kamloops taxpayers having reached their pain threshold for tax increases.  I have a feeling that Mr. Christian is reading those tea leaves correctly.  However, I think he should have added that many are also looking for and not finding much in the way of leadership or assurances that their money is being well managed.  Instead, they get the same old, same old about a 2% increase in taxes (and far greater increases in service fees) because that’s the way it’s always been done. Simply because it’s the old way doesn’t automatically make it the right or even the smart way.

The performing arts centre was a good indicator of the level of confidence the majority have in our municipal government.  Lack of planning, lack of clear explanations, lack of time and a cavalier attitude towards the cost the taxpayers would have to cover.  Sound familiar when it comes to other projects, costs and expenses that we are asked to pay for?