27 December 2010

Happy Holidays

A happy holiday and the best for the new year to all my readers. If you have some extra time, why not check out Bright Nights in Stanley Park, the Bloedel Conservatory's Jewel Box of Lights and Vandusen Garden's Festival of Lights. Each of them is unique and spectacular, and a fantastic family adventure.

Here's hoping that 2011 is greener and more park friendly.

22 December 2010

Parks Budget passes 4-2-1

There was little doubt as to the outcome as the Park Board budget passed its first hurdle last Thursday night. It was also quite anti-climatic City Council announced that an additional amount would be set aside to keep washrooms open and field use for kids free. Knowing that there is a civic election next year, I can't imagine any city administration would close cherished public amenities like washrooms. What was surprising was that only 2/3 of the costs of washrooms was included, so the Park Board has to come up with an additional $100,000 in efficiencies to fund the remaining 1/3. Staff were not able to give us where these efficiencies would be found on such short notice. The $700,000 in other cuts--mostly to park maintenance--went through.

COPE Commissioner Loretta Woodcock and I voted against the budget and NPA Commissioner Ian Robertson abstained, with all 4 Vision Vancouver Commissioners voting in favour. The 2 negative votes and one abstention were all cast in reaction to the lack of public consultation done by the Park Board. While City Council gave citizens ample opportunity to speak on the priorities of the overall budget, there was very little opportunity for residents to speak to the Park Board. A scheduled opportunity on Monday December 13th was cancelled by the Chair and rescheduled to Thursday the 16th--two days after City Council decided the budget. As could be expected, very few people turned out to the meeting on the 16th as there was little point.

I hope next year's process will be more inclusive and that everyone who wants to speak to the Board is given the opportunity before the budget is set.

18 December 2010

Five reasons why Vision Vancouver badmouths Green commissioner Stuart Mackinnon

By Charlie Smith, The Straight

This week, Vision Vancouver park commissioners ramped up their attacks on the lone elected Green in Vancouver, Stuart Mackinnon.

In a peculiar move, Vision's Raj Hundal called Straight reporter Carlito Pablo out of the blue on December 15 to tell him that Mackinnon is "almost a bit of a bully".

Another Vision commissioner, Sarah Blyth, sent an e-mail to the Straight claiming that Mackinnon has—get this—"been anything but supportive", even rolling his eyes when she spoke.

What accounts for Vision's decision to go after Mackinnon this week?

Here are five theories:

1. The Vision Vancouver-controlled council approved the budget on December 14 before the Vision-controlled park board had a chance to hear submissions from the public. Mackinnon will likely point this out tonight (December 16). It's unheard-of for council to approve its budget before the elected park board has a chance to provide input. So the best defence for Vision commissioners was a good offence against Mackinnon in advance of him mentioning this to the media.

2. Related to the first point, the Vision-controlled park board postponed its budget consultation with the public, which was scheduled for the December 13 meeting. If Vision had proceeded on that day, there would have been a huge public outcry the night before the Vision-controlled council approved its budget. That's bad optics for a party that's obsessed with how it's perceived by the public.

3. Mackinnon simply knows a lot more about parks and recreation than the Vision commissioners. He has been attending park board meetings for years. Maybe the Vision commissioners are jealous.

4. Mackinnon is not a toady who supports all Vision motions. This doesn't sit well with a party that had an electoral arrangement whereby one spot was saved for the Greens. Vision feels that it helped elect Mackinnon and he's not sufficiently grateful for this.

5. Mackinnon lines up with NPA commissioner Ian Robertson on some issues. They both opposed opening up community centres for anti-HST petitioners, for example. Mackinnon has also put out joint news releases with Robertson. In the eyes of Vision Vancouver, that's tantamount to treason, and therefore, the Green commissioner must be punished.

Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.

10 December 2010

$7 million for a birthday party but not enough to cut grass or plant flowers?

On the Global news tonight they had a report of the plans City Council has for celebrating Vancouver's 125th anniversary next year. Two birthday 'bashes' are planned, one in the spring and another (for 3 days) in the summer. The total cost is reported as close to $7 million dollars. Now I'm all for celebrating the good things in life, but at a time when the Park Board is considering closing washrooms, planting fewer flowers and not cutting grass in some parks, as well as other cuts to our Libraries, one has to wonder where City Council's priorities are? Four days of parties or a year's worth of washrooms, gardens, fields and books?

And a note -- I just received notice that the regularly scheduled Park Board meeting on Monday night will not be discussing the budget. Instead a special meeting has been convened by the Board Chair for Thursday, 16 December at 7 pm to discuss the 2011 Park Board budget.

07 December 2010

Washroom closures? Probably not, but what about the rest?

As you know by now, the Park Board budget reductions include the closure of many park washrooms. This seems to have resonated in both the media and the public mind. I doubt very much City Council will allow for this. After all this is an election year and nobody wants to go into a campaign being the Grinch who stole the potties! So I imagine City Council will miraculously find $300K to keep the bathrooms open. And then there will be a claim of a great victory for public process.

But what about the other cuts to this and previous year's budgets? And what about the fee hikes? Will those get the same benefit? I doubt it very much. There have been more than $4 million in cuts over the past couple of years. There are fewer programmers in our Community Centres, fewer summer programs for our kids, fewer flowers in our gardens and longer grass in our fields and on our pathways. There are higher fees for our pools and rinks, and now toddlers pay too. Is Vancouver a better place for these reductions? I don't think so.

04 December 2010

My presentation to City Council

Although I requested to speak to Council late on Wednesday, I was the first speaker on the list for the Thursday meeting. After I had made my presentation, one of the city clerks announced that the microphone wasn't working and so my remarks were not properly recorded. Just for the record here is what I said to the Mayor and Council:

Well here we are again. One year later and I stand before you, again asking that you give the Park Board enough money to fulfill its role. Did you know that over the term of this mandate you have reduced the operations of the Park Board by over 4 million dollars? That is much, much more than the previous 8 years combined. And this year we are facing another reduction of more than $1 million. By this point we are no longer finding efficiencies but cutting real programs and services. Next year we may very well be closing community centres if these reductions continue.

Last year’s reductions meant the end of the Stanley Park farmyard, the reduction of programmers in our community centres, the end of many children’s summer programs in our parks, and the closure of an after-school care program. We reduced garbage pick up in the parks, planted fewer trees, reduced park maintenance, reduced building maintenance, and nearly lost the Bloedel Conservatory.

This year the reductions will mean real hardships for the citizens of Vancouver and to our visitors too. The 1.03 million in reductions will be found by cutting back the pruning of street trees from 7 to 8 years, planting fewer flowerbeds in Stanley Park and at English Bay as well as the introduction of fees for youth playing on our fields. And these on top of the higher fees charged for using our services. All of these will be noticed and felt.

What stands out for me this year are the plans to close public washrooms and further reduce maintenance in our parks.

Washrooms are, in my opinion, essential services in cities. They are not a luxury, but a necessary public amenity to the population as a whole. We should be expanding our network of public washrooms, not closing them. There are some people in our city who rely on public washrooms for their basic hygiene, and many others who because of age or infirmity rely on public washrooms so they can lead normal active lives. And of course any of us can be caught short.

Let me put a face to this and give you an example of just one location. I live across from Riverfront Park in Fraserlands. Every morning groups of elders, many of them from the Ross Street temple, walk along the foreshore of the Fraser River. This walking keeps them healthy and is a social outlet for them. They use the Riverfront facilities as a halfway point in their morning walk to relieve and refresh themselves. Without the washroom facilities I am sure many will no longer be able to walk such a great distance.

There is also a playground in this park. On any day you can see mums and dads with their kids playing there. They use the washrooms too. You only have to hear the cry “I have to go!” once to know how important these facilities are. Without these amenities, parents are faced with the choice of not visiting the playground, or if they do, have their children urinate or defecate in the bushes. No one wants that.

There is also a plan to stop cutting passive areas of the parks and public areas and let them naturalize. Well I can tell you this is not naturalization of parks space. Naturalization would cost too much money, what with the removal of turf and the planting of native species. No this is letting the areas go to weed and letting invasive species like Himalayan blackberry, English ivy, and morning glory run rampant. The passive areas will then be full of weeds and look unsightly, turning off residents and visitors alike. And it won’t be just the Park Board who will be getting the angry calls about this.

Now you can say these are the choices the Park Board has to make, and you are right, but they are choices forced on us by under-funding, and we are running out of choices. You may say “we are increasing funding”, but just like public education the increase is not keeping up with costs and so there are reductions. You can also say that times are hard, the economy hasn’t recovered and the city can’t afford these things. Well I tell you again, an economic downturn is precisely the time when we need our parks and recreation facilities the most.

So there you have it. These are our choices. Cut backs, closures and reductions. Not properly funding the Park Board will result in a real and noticeable decline in the quality of life in our city. Not only will we have crap in our parks, but our parks will look like crap too. This may be your vision of Vancouver, but it sure isn’t mine.

Keep Vancouver healthy and beautiful. Do the right thing. Give the Park Board enough money to do its job. Good night.

03 December 2010

Operation Red Nose

Budget Notes

I made my brief presentation to City Council last night, asking once again for full funding for the Park Board. After more than $4 million in reductions over the past two years the Park Board cannot afford a further $1 million+ cut again this year. After last year's charade at the same hearing I decided not to stick around for questions and let other people have the opportunity to speak.

There are many issues within the budget proposal but I chose to focus on the closure of washrooms and the reduction in maintenance of passive areas. I would be very surprised if Council ignored the plea to fund public washrooms and fully expect them to "find" $300 thousand to keep them open. I can't imagine the ruling party going into an election year with that legacy. I do wonder about our park maintenance though. Visitors from all over the world come to Vancouver because of our beautiful parks and gardens and any reduction in their care and attention could give the city a black-eye.

I want to take this opportunity, while talking about park maintenance, to thank and commend our hardworking gardeners and caretakers for the wonderful job they do keeping our parks and public spaces looking so terrific. With every budget reduction their work gets harder to do, but they still keep our city beautiful.
I know that my plea didn't fall completely on deaf ears. I received this e-mail this morning:

"I just wanted to let you know that I found your short statement at the budget meeting extremely moving. As a citizen, I'd like to thank you for your thoughtfulness and commitment. DC"

01 December 2010

Park board may close washrooms and cut cleaning

Commissioner calls for more council cash

Anyone visiting a city park next year might want to take along a roll of toilet paper and a bottle of disinfectant.

The toilet paper will come in handy if the washroom in the park is closed due to proposed park board cuts and your child is forced to go in the bushes. Since the board is considering reducing the frequency of cleaning washrooms outside the Downtown Eastside, the disinfectant will come in handy.

According to a recent park board staff report, closing washrooms in some parks and cutting back on cleaning could save the board $300,000 of the $1.03 million budget shortfall it's facing in its 2011 operating budget. The city has a $20 million budget shortfall and is asking each of its departments to find ways to cut costs. City council wants to keep the upcoming residential tax increase to two per cent, a goal that means cuts to services across the city.

Green Party park board commissioner Stuart Mackinnon says council should increase the number of washrooms in Vancouver instead of closing them by forcing cuts to park board services.

"What are young families with children and older people going to do if they're at a neighbourhood park with no washroom?" asked Mackinnon.

"If someone has a child at a park who has to go, they're going to uses the bushes and that's not healthy," Mackinnon said.

Other cuts being considered include reducing mowing of 14 per cent of the city's passive turf areas, eliminating night security at Andy Livingstone Park, the reduction of flower and shrub beds in downtown parks by 10 per cent, eliminating the budget for community-based park board meetings, reducing community centre staff and introducing new fees for playing fields.

NPA commissioner Ian Robertson said introducing fees for playing fields will push the cost of some sports out of reach for low-income families.

"For some families, Little League is their last affordable sport," said Robertson. "This Vision Vancouver council needs to get its priorities straight and put families before renovations to the mayor's office, chicken coops and bike lanes. We need to protect core services."

Robertson said cuts to the park board's operating budget are four times higher under Vision Vancouver since 2009, at $5.3 million, compared to cuts of $1.2 million in the past eight years combined under COPE and the NPA.

Vision Vancouver park board chair Aaron Jasper said fees for sports fields will be minimal. He noted many other municipalities in Metro Vancouver charge a fee to use their fields.

As for washrooms, Jasper said if the $300,000 doesn't come from closures and reductions in cleaning, it could mean cuts to even more essential services.

"I'm not happy we might have to close washrooms, but there are no good choices left," said Jasper. "What we're facing is a series of bad choices."

Vision Vancouver commissioners Jasper, Sarah Blyth, Constance Barnes and Raj Hundal are asking the Vision Vancouver-dominated council to reconsider the proposed budget shortfall.

"That $1 million target could seriously impair our ability to provide core services," said Jasper.

At Monday night's park board meeting, the board voted to defer a decision on its 2011 operating budget until Dec. 13. A special council meeting on the city's 2011 operating budget for all departments takes place at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow, Dec. 2, at city hall.


Twitter: @sthomas10

Read more: http://www.vancourier.com/news/Park+board+close+washrooms+cleaning/3910684/story.html#ixzz16sirN8rJ