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Friday 30 December 2011

It's A Tough Call

2011, like the month of December is drawing to a close. Unlike the month of December we shall not see another 2011. Following an odd year for yours truly, December has been a month of contemplation and  reflection. All that thinking has unfortunately made my head hurt and my fingers stop working as they should. Hence the serious lack of posts this month. 

This year saw me take two months(and then some) off from work to follow a dream of being an elected MHA. Unfortunately that lack of steady employment has continued into the winter and has led to some of the aforementioned serious contemplation. What I will do for a job and where I will do it has been an issue in the past, but the serious lack of financial resources has put quite a fine point on it this December. 

When I finished my first Degree from MUN I was just married and we were on the verge of moving to Ontario for work. It was out of necessity not desire to leave. Don't get me wrong, there was excitement about moving to a new place and I was ready to cut a new path in a new place. But the trip, not unlike the marriage wasn't meant to be. 

I have moved to Labrador West for work for a couple of years, but until now I have never been closer to taking a job out west. My own internal conflict is largely of little interest to most of you I'm sure but there are two songs that do a very good job of summarizing the conflict that I, and many others feel. 

Should I Stay? 

Or Should I go?

It is a decision I made once before and I will have to make again. For now I can be thankful that the things that keep me here in NL make me very happy, even if I'm not very wealthy! 

Thanks for reading and have a great 2012!

Thursday 15 December 2011

Working Without a Net

It seems that the story of Newfoundland and Labrador will forever be tied to the fishery. That's not a bad thing. The problem is the change in that story, and the action of the key players. As usual because I'm jumping into some commentary on the fishery I will clarify that I have never worked in or near the industry, and that I wish I had more time to research and learn more about it. For now I shall have to proceed based on what I know now, and thats all that any of us can do I suppose.

Two more fish plants have closed. The people of the Marystown and Port Union areas are devastated. Is there anyone out there who didn't see this coming at some point? Even the most cursory examination of the fishery in NL will reveal the basic facts.

  • We have had an over capacity for processing for many years. 
  • Many of the species stocks are still in poor shape.  
  • The companies who own the processing enterprises want to maximize profits. 
  • Governments at the Provincial and Federal level have backed away for any active management of the fishery for years. 
  • There are a raft of other much more complicated factors at play like: NAFO, Overfishing, trading international fish quotas, over and under regulation, and many many layers of political BS.  
The bottom line is that the industry has not evolved to meet the needs of the current marketplace or those engaged in the industry. Is it the fault of fishermen, governments, processors, politicians, bureaucrats? Yes. And then some. 

Unfortunately all of this means that the story has changed from "we make our living from the fishery" to "some of us kinda still make a living from the fishery" and it will become "we once made our living from the fishery." It is a heated and passionate story that is still being played out on radio talk shows and newspapers in NL. Unfortunately because it's a passionate issue and there are no easy solutions there is a whole lot of finger pointing. Two recent examples come from Geoff Meeker's Blog at the Telegram. One here and one here regarding the CBC radio program, the Fisheries Broadcast. The show is well know to the point that it's usually just called "The Broadcast." 

Over at The Sir Robert Bond Papers, Ed Hollett has been writing up a storm for a while on the ongoing issues and the ongoing BS in the industry. For a sampling of his efforts check out this link here. One thing is for sure, we won't figure it out by yelling at each other, or by turning communities against each other. 

So what's the point? The fishery is big, it's nasty and it isn't going to die a silent death. Many people in NL would be just delighted not to hear about the fishery any longer. But, they may not understand how it still plays an important roll in the lives of many people here. I think it can still be a thriving industry that offers serious employment to people. The question today is "Is the deal offered by OCI to keep the Fortune plant open year round worth the shipment of 80% of one species off to be processed in China?" 

It's a tuffy. If you work at the Fortune plant then you might say yes. If you're the FFAW you might say no. If you're Fishery Minister King, who knows what you'll say. 

There's no doubt that our current fishery structure is not working properly to provide both the product demanded by the market place and a living wage for people working in the industry. But can it really be cheaper to ship thousands of pounds of fish, thousands of miles away to processed, only to be shipped thousands of miles back to markets on our doorsteps? If the answer is yes then I guess we'd better get used to our fishery story changing to the point where we can maximize our benefit here while shipping the product to China for processing. Or make the whole industry one big co-op. 

Friday 9 December 2011

What's a RECI?

Following a multi year project that explored various regional governance entities and a great deal of scientific survey work a new tool called the Regional Economic Capacity Index or RECI has been released by the Harris Centre and is available over here. The project was a partnership between Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador, The Harris Centre (MUN) and the University of Kentucky and it has been underway since about 2008.

I was involved with some of the community meetings in the pilot regions when I worked with MNL when the project began. It has taken quite a bit longer then originally envisioned but the RECI tool is finally online.

Like many academic tools I suspect this one will largely go unused by the majority of community and Government folks who should be using them. The same applies to the entire Community Accounts setup over here. As if it wasn't bad enough that we don't have many people doing proper community planning, we do have some available tools and people don't generally use them.

While RECI is a new and useful tool it isn't quite what I recall as the planned super tool that was talked about in the beginning. The current release can be searched by economic zone, by Rural Secretariat area or by what it calls by "functional region." It is this functional region idea that I found the most interesting aspect of the original research. Part of the intent was to examine how government implemented boundaries like economic zones and Rural Secretariat areas were different from the actual and practical regions that people determined for themselves by virtue of where they worked, went to school, availed of services and purchased groceries and larger items. Unfortunately very little of that seems to have made it into the tool beyond some statistical analysis and the functional regions map.

The tool is certainly useful, and if you explore the details of each community it provides analysis based on how each community is positioned within its region in terms of demographics, working conditions, geographic location, and local governance structures. But the unfortunate part is that all we get is a list of communities and a collection of tables and graphs with very little interpretation. The nature of the tool will lead to even less use by those who should be it's largest clients.

There were a number of very interesting and useful maps that were included in preliminary presentations on the project that have not made it through to RECI. Like this one, or this one, both presented at MNL events in 2010. It is still a worthwhile tool, and I hope it gets used to it's full potential, however I was hoping for a combination of more information and more interpretation. Here's hoping they keep updating and improving RECI to build it into what could be a critical part of regional planning for the future of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Thursday 1 December 2011

Self Reliance

It's not rocket science, self sufficiency breeds sustainability. We had it once but we seem to have lost it in the last generation or so. Check out this piece over at the online Independent for one perspective.

Have we forgotten how to be self reliant or do we just not care any more?

Monday 28 November 2011

The Big Land Dance

Today's Telegram gives a Cheers to Transportation Minister Tom Hedderson for actually visiting Labrador and seeing the Trans-Labrador Highway in person. Well with all respect to their editorial team my standards are a little higher.

I have had the incredible pleasure of living in Labrador West and the pleasure of traveling to most of the communities in Labrador, and the displeasure of driving on almost all the major roads in Labrador. I have yet to drive the new stretch from Cartwright to HVGB but it's on my to-do list. One of the things that I have learned during my time living and traveling in the Big Land is that every complaint that Newfoundland has about Ottawa, Labrador has about St. John's tenfold. And they are generally legitimate complaints.

Where are you again?
While in Labrador City I remember a friend receiving a fax from a Govt office in St. John's that was obviously intended for HVGB. When my friend called to report the mistake the person in St. John's apologized for the error and asked if he could drop it over to HVGB for them instead of sending another fax. Little did the ignoramus realize that there is a 7 hour drive over horrid gravel road between Labrador City and HVGB. It would be like someone in Ottawa asking someone in St. John's to run something over to Halifax for them. That would surely go over well right?    

Our Island Province
You know how Canada doesn't end at Halifax? Well NL is not an island province. Despite how often people keep saying it. Labrador is often left off the name of the province, left off of, or reduced on maps, and generally forgotten or thought of as though it were just another peninsula. It isn't. You can drive from St. Anthony to St. John's in a day. Try that from Nain.

While I was living in Wabush I was surprised by the close relationship between Lab West and the community of Fermont, just across the boarder in Quebec. As a matter of fact there were many who said they felt they had much more in common with Quebec then the Island of Newfoundland. And if you ever want to see the difference between how provincial governments approach their service delivery you should take a trip to Lab West in the winter and then drive over to Fermont. Trust me when I tell you you don't need any signage to tell you when you cross into Quebec. It's very obvious by the disappearance of ice from the road. Oh and they also still paint the lines on small patches of road in the middle of nowhere. Why? Because some people still use the road, and it's their responsibility to maintain it!

On the Road Again
If there were hundreds of kilometers of unpaved roads that carried thousands of people and millions of dollars of product on the Island portion of Newfoundland there would be a riot. If it were near St. John's it would simply never happen. Despite attempts at pilot programs of chip-seal in a couple of locations there is still no hardtop on the Trans-Labrador Highway. Well except for winter when the surface of the highway is literally ice. Not snow, or a mix of snow and gravel. It's just a solid layer of ice.

A typical section of the Trans-Labrador Highway in winter.

But there is some pavement...
In the area of the Labrador Straits there is pavement from the Quebec boarder up as far as Red Bay. The road is in such a state of disrepair that the complaints of residents of unsafe roads was met not with road repairs but a reduced speed limit.

For such an important part of our province Labrador is treated as a colony of Newfoundland. It has always been treated that way and it looks like it isn't about to change anytime soon. When people speak up and complain loud enough so that St. John's can hear they send up a minister, some senior staff and they all to the Big Land Dance. You know that old song and dance of publicly recognizing the "importance" and "uniqueness" of the issues in Labrador, but yet refusing to do anything about it due to the scale and the lack of funding. It's an old routine and we've seen it too many times. A quick visit to see the frozen highway by Minister Hedderson just isn't good enough for the people of Labrador, and The Telegram might want to consider switching that "Cheers" to a "Jeers."

Wednesday 16 November 2011

Grade of B Doesn't Hold Water.

If you're a regular reader here then you will know how I feel about the state of the drinking water systems in NL. In case you don't know I've written about it a couple of times, so have a look at this, and these two here and here. But today there's good news! As it turns out our drinking water supply is in good hands, and as a province we get an overall grade of B! Well, now I feel so much better! A group called Ecojustice has completed a 3rd report card on drinking water for all provinces and territories across the country. The report, titled Waterproof 3, is available in full here.

The Telegram has a story on the front page today with quotes from the Environment Minister Terry French,  who is just tickled pink with the report: "I'm just delighted we've come from a D to a B. It's not lost on Government, the importance of having clean drinking water, and we're going to continue to invest and work with the communities so we can get to where we need to be."

Have I been remiss in my past critiques of our drinking water systems?

Before I take back all my previous criticisms that I've learned from people who live and deal with these water issues every day, why don't we have a detailed look at the report and see just how we managed to get a grade of B with so many ongoing boil orders.

Report Quote #1:
In other jurisdictions, consultation is not mandatory, but may be required on a case-by-case basis: 
• In Newfoundland and Labrador consultation opportunities will be determined by locally-based planning committees.
Locally based planning committees...yeah... There does indeed exist the possibility of establishing watershed protection committees but like many things a lack of mandatory regulations mean that in practical terms these committees are few and far between.

Regarding watershed plan reviews...
Report Quote #2:
Newfoundland and Labrador does not formally require updating but sets a target date of every five years.
So those critical watershed plans set a target date five years for review but are not mandatory. I'm sensing a trend...

Report Quote #3:
In Newfoundland and Labrador, where water system operators are not required to test for microbiological contamination, the province operates a sampling program.
So is a sampling program appropriate to replace microbiological contamination testing? Seems like something we should be required to test for doesn't it?

Report Quote #4:
This year, only Newfoundland and Labrador and the Northwest Territories lack operator certification programs.
On this point the Minister of Environment is clear. The Telegram article reports that he indicated that we certainly do have a certification program! But it's not mandatory. And the trend continues.

Report Quote #5:
This year we find that Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, Newfoundland and Labrador, Ontario, Prince Edward Island and Saskatchewan require the reporting of water quality results to residents or the posting of the information online.
This is a positive note but it doesn't tell the whole story. Many households don't have internet access and the reporting of results usually means a sheet of paper posted at the town hall. Not exactly broad reaching reporting.

On Transparency and accountability in NL
Report Quote #6:
There is no requirement for individual systems to provide public reporting. The provincial government does not produce an annual report regarding drinking water quality trends or testing results. According to the Department of Environment, the contracts for water systems require operators to maintain contingency plans and to notify the Department when emergencies occur.
So, no required public reporting (note the apparent contradiction to the last quote), no annual report on quality or test results and the (possibly uncertified) system operators have to notify the Dept. in case of emergency. Well now I feel safe.

Those are but 6 examples pulled from the report that indicate that what we have is a system that has very few mandatory regulations. There may be good policies in place but they are largely voluntary or suggested and certainly not required.

Page 9 of the Report has the following list.
The key elements of a comprehensive multi-barrier approach include:
• the protection of water sources to keep raw water as clean as possible;
• adequate treatment including disinfection and additional processes to remove or inactivate contaminants;
• well-maintained distribution systems;
• strong water quality standards;
• rigorous enforcement including regular inspection, testing, monitoring;
• proper operator training and certification;
• public notice, reporting, and involvement;
• contingency planning;
• ongoing research; and
• adequate funding for all elements.
If those are the 10 key elements, how do we fare based on the reality of drinking water systems in NL?
  1. We do have watershed protection regulations: Pass
  2. Treatment? Check the list of Boil orders: Fail
  3. Practically no preventative maintenance: Fail
  4. Water quality standards are reasonable: Pass
  5. Enforcement doesn't exist: Fail X 10
  6. Operator Training. Improving but not mandatory: Marginal Fail
  7. Reporting is sub-par: Fail
  8. Contingency planning: Marginal Pass
  9. Research? If it is happening it is not being passed to municipalities: Fail
  10. Funding is severely inadequate!: Fail
In the end when you look at the grade of B, and the details of the report and attempt to balance it with the reality of the drinking water systems and boil water orders in NL, something is amiss. There is a scary and dangerous lack of mandatory regulations around drinking water safety in NL and we don't deserve a B, we deserve an F.

Wednesday 9 November 2011

Municipal Refit. Part 4 (This is the last one. I promise.)

Up to this point this short series on the municipal sector has been focused on the issues or challenges currently being faced by municipalities. It is now time to turn the attention to some solutions. Before we do that lets be clear that Parts 12 & 3 of this series are in no way a comprehensive analysis of all the issues in the sector, far from it. The past 3 posts have been presented to begin the discussion surrounding some of the major factors that are preventing towns from becoming truly sustainable communities. There are a long list of other issues that we not mentioned in any detail. Things like:
  • The limited number of engineering, construction and planning firms in NL. While it's not a monopoly it does influence competitive bidding for tenders.
  • An under resourced and misguided Department of Municipal Affairs. Besides the infrastructure money, the department has very little resources, or staff, and some of the senior people in the Dept. have very little "real world" knowledge of the towns that they are suppose to assist.
  • Inequality between types of local governments. Towns, local service districts and cities all have some different rules, rights and responsibilities. The province also treats some towns differently with regard to road ownership and snow clearing responsibilities.
  • Emergency services. Availability of service, volunteers, equipment and the often strained relationship between fire departments and councils.
  • The lack of a Federal-Municipal relationship. Municipalities are creations of their respective provinces, and as such they have no official constitutional relationship with the Federal Government. That's why any federal cash intended for municipalities passes through the Provincial Government first.   
But enough about the problems, it's time for some change in the municipal sector and here are a few ideas that could help it get to the place where local governments are strong, healthy and accountable. 

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is
If we're going to refit the system then we have to begin with the big question of municipal financing. If you really want to know more about the situation around municipal financing the go read the recent report on Municipal Fiscal Sustainability prepared by Dr. Wade Locke on behalf of MNL. Be warned that the full report is just over 500 pages. If we accept the idea that the current system of municipal financing is inadequate then we must come up with a solution that takes a new direction beyond the current Municipal Operating Grants (MOGs).  And beyond the dollars themselves is the need for a sustainable financial system that allows for long term stability and minimizes Provincial Government influence.

Dr. Locke's report examines the potential benefits of implementing a 1% increase to personal income tax or a 1% increase to sales tax (HST) to supplement the existing municipal revenue streams. He also recognizes that even those increases might still leave some smaller municipalities without sufficient revenue, and he discuses the idea of a municipal equalization program to redistribute some of the available funding. The impacts of either of these two tax increases would be an increase in municipal revenue of between 10% and 25%, with the income tax increase providing an average increase of 20% across the province.

Whether or not you agree with an increase in your income tax you have to realize that you may be choosing between an increase in income tax, an increase in property tax or a cut in your basic services. What's it gonna be? 

A Solid Foundation
As you know by now even if we fix the finances there are still foundational and structural issues that need to be addressed. I would actually argue that the structural issues are damaging the sector even more then the lack of resources but it garners far less discussion. The only restructuring idea that ever seems to get much attention, and certainly the only one that gets any action by Municipal Affairs, is that of amalgamation. There's no doubt that we have too many local governments, and far too much inequality across the system but amalgamation can't fix all the problems. But it can be a part of the solution.

What is really needed in NL is a similar process that was started in New Brunswick in 2008. Building Stronger Local Governments and Regions was a report prepared to provide a plan to reform the municipal system in New Brunswick, and we could learn a great deal from it. First there's the process of having an in-depth review of the entire system, and then there's the recommendations that they proposed. The report proposes some revolutionary ideas like "...all residents be represented and governed by elected municipal councils..." The report makes 97 recommendations and only a small hand full are directly relevant to NL, but it points in the direction of setting up regional service bodies in conjunction with restructured municipal entities. One of the basic ideas is that there should be local representation but larger administrative areas all across the province. While many people have offhandedly proposed the idea of counties for NL we need a complete sector review to determine what would actually suit our specific geography and population distribution. One thing is certain, regional government will have to be part of the answer.    

Strong and Accountable
Municipalities are the first level of government. Not the third level, the first. They are closest to the people they serve and they provide the majority of services that impact people every day. Yet they don't have the authority to really make the changes that need to be made to make our communities better. Government does not trust them enough to give them that level of responsibility. That's not an opinion, it's a fact. The Municipalities Act is just one example of that lack of trust. Councils are an elected level of government and they deserve the respect and authority to do their jobs. We need legislation that allows councils to be creative and make the important decisions that need to be made.

Spider-Man's uncle Ben said that "With great power comes great responsibility" and that certainly applies to all levels of government as well as to superheroes. While councils need more authority they also need to be more accountable for everything that they do. They need standards that must be met around training, financial auditing, service delivery, and planning, just to name a few possible benchmarks. One of the common complaints from the general public is with regard to accountability in the sector and while most of the discontent is based on a lack of understanding some it is based in legitimate concern.

Increase in Understanding
If you ever wondered how most folks feel about municipalities and their finances just take a quick pop over to the comments section for this VOCM Question of the day. It is unfortunately typical of the common misunderstanding of the sector. The blame for this misunderstanding can be shared by everyone involved and it will equally take all partners working together to get the message out. The only time Municipal Affairs says anything positive about the sector is leading up to the municipal elections and on Municipal Awareness Day, which I'm guessing most people have never heard of. Municipal Affairs should be a high priority portfolio with a Minister who understands the issues and is working with all partners to make it better! There has to be a process of education and engagement that keeps residents informed and involved. The only way to build a sustainable healthy community is with the participation of residents, businesses and volunteer groups, and that only happens when people feel that their ideas and contributions are valued.  

Where do we go from here and Who leads the way?
If you happened to be involved in the Municipal sector in NL the you will not have been surprised by anything you've read here. It's not revolutionary and it's not new. As a matter of fact for the last 5 years (that I've been part of) these conversations have been had in many meetings and over a great many drinks all across NL. So if the problems are known and the solutions, or at least a general idea of what the solutions might be, are not complicated, why has nothing been done? As with many sectors in NL it's the Government that drives change, or as in this case doesn't drive change. The Government of NL and the Department of Municipal Affairs has very little interest in improving the sector.

Help us MNL you're our only hope! 
Because Municipal Affairs has not stepped up to lead the sector Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador (MNL) has taken the lead on every major front in the sector. There's the Regional Government Initiative, the beginnings of a Municipal Benchmarking process, training through the annual symposium and other events, attempts at public engagement through its website, news paper, and regular partnerships with The Harris Centre and various research projects with MUN professors. The most recent example of spurring public debate is with the release of Dr. Locke's report dealing with the municipal fiscal framework, something the the current Government has been ignoring for years. Unfortunately MNL is a member based organization that should be representing it's members and partnering with Municipal Affairs but they shouldn't be leading the sector all by themselves.

In the end we can hope that all partners, including Municipal Affairs will begin to realize that the status quo will just see a broken system continue on a path that will see more and more small communities fail in their attempt to provide basic services. Instead of watching our communities die a slow death on palliative care, we really need leadership, vision, and action to build healthy and sustainable communities of the future. Mr. O'Brien, you now have the opportunity to make things better, time to step up to the plate.  

Tuesday 8 November 2011

Municipal Refit. Part 3

If you haven't been following along I'd suggest you have a look at Municipal Refit. Part 1, and Part 2 before you continue here. If you're still awake after all that then it's time to look at two more aspects of the municipal sector. In Part 3 we'll be examining the fiscal framework that municipalities operate with, and the structure of the system that they exist within. It's a little long so brace yourself!

Follow the Money
In Part 2 we briefly discussed the situation with municipal infrastructure funding. It's a case by case application based process. So that covers the "capital works" side of things but what if the town doesn't get approved for a project, or what about everything else that municipalities need money for? What about recreation, fire protection, snow clearing, planning, general operations etc? The truth is that the revenue generation opportunities for municipalities are very limited. For the sake of clarity and time we will have a look at three avenues municipalities currently utilize to generate operational revenue.

1. Taxes and Fees.
The most well know to the average resident is the small selection of taxes and fees that a municipality can develop and enforce. The most common is the property tax, where property owners pay an annual tax based on the assessed value of their property. This tax has a residential component for homes and a commercial component for business properties. Property tax is often referred to as a regressive tax because there is a penalty for improving your property even though you don't use any more municipal services. The value of your home increases and your taxes increase automatically. Neither residents nor councillors generally like the property tax. Property tax usually makes up the majority of revenue but there are other smaller taxation options. There's the poll tax, which is essentially a head tax, or a tax for just living, or working in a town. I've seen them range from $50 to $300. There are also a couple types of business tax but outside of the major centers this tax doesn't have the ability to generate much revenue because businesses are so few. Then there are a few other fees and taxes that municipalities collect raging from large fees like water and sewer, to smaller ones like permits and garbage collection. The problem is that in most smaller communities, and the majority of municipalities are smaller, is that there is very little in terms of a business or population base to make these fees and taxes worthwhile.

2. Municipal Operating Grants (MOG)
The Government of NL has long recognized that municipalities are underfunded and have limited means to generate revenue. As such the Province issues an annual grant called the Municipal Operating Grant or MOG to each municipality based on an unnecessarily complicated formula to help compensate for the financial shortfall. To provide some idea of the level of assistance a town of 600 people would receive approximately $18,000 per year based on the current formula. Unfortunately despite increases in regulatory and reporting requirements and rising costs, successive Provincial Governments have been reducing the amount allocated to municipalities. Part of the problem is that this funding is determined at the whim of the current sitting government, whomever it might be.

3. Special Grants
Every year there are special grants announced by various Provincial and Federal Departments allocated for very specific purposes and open to proposals from not for profits and community groups. These can cover areas of general community development, recreation grants, wellness grants, etc. For some municipalities this is an opportunity to access additional funding to accomplish very specific tasks. There are two potential issues with these pots of money. First is that they are generally application and proposal based, so it requires a significant investment of time to complete and sometimes monitor a project. Second is that towns often find themselves trying to find or create a project that fits the criteria of a given program just to get access to the funding, instead of finding funding to meet the actual needs of the community.

Structural Un-integrity
There is little doubt that the municipal system is facing a raft of issues, but unfortunately the deeper you dig the worse it gets. At the core of the sector is a structure that was developed for a time and a situation that no longer exists. Prior to confederation NL had very few municipalities but a great many communities.  Following confederation the new Provincial Government had some money to invest in communities but they needed an entity or formal body to legitimately administer the local spending. As such there was a push to establish municipalities to fulfill that function. In short the structural issues are as follows:

1. Too many ineffective Local Governments.
Today we have 276 municipalities, 175(approximately) Local Service Districts (LSDs), and hundreds of unincorporated communities with no official organization or representation. All this for a population of 500,000.

2. Out of Date Legislation.
The Municipalities Act(1999) is prescriptive legislation. This means that towns can only do things that are specifically listed in the act. If it isn't covered in the act municipalities can't do it. This effectively ties that hands of community leaders who want to think outside the box and try anything new. The best example of this with regard to economic development. Because it wasn't part of the Act until 1999, any municipality that was engaged in economic development was technically breaking the law up to the rewrite in 1999.

3. Lack of accountability.
Despite the prescriptive nature of the legislation there is very little accountability built into the system, either from a voter perspective or from the perspective of the Department of Municipal Affairs. There was a time in the past when Municipal Affairs Analysts would do spot checks on municipalities to ensure rules were being followed but over the last 10 years Municipal Affairs has significantly reduced the amount of monitoring and accountability.

4. Organizational confusion.
Who does economic development in your area? The town, The Regional Economic Development Board, the Rural Development Association, the Chamber of commerce, or the Tourism development agency? The answer is that it can be all of them, yet it is the municipality that usually owns the public infrastructure that local tourism depends upon. The unfortunate part is that each group is usually very busy working on its mandate so not enough cooperation happens and decisions get made that can actually work against one of the other groups. And that's just economic development. Where do groups like the Rotary, the Lions, Unions, churches, recreation committees and the like fit in.

5. No recognition of regional realities.
Our communities were build on the idea of autonomy. Each community was often capable of surviving on its own for long periods of time. That time has passed. With the changes in rural populations communities are forced to come to grips with the reality that we need to address issues on a more regional basis. This does not necessarily mean amalgamation (but it could) but what it means is that there are better ways of addressing larger scale problems.

If you've read the past 3 articles you will now have some level of understanding of the issues in the municipal sector. It isn't a simple problem with simple solutions. It's a systemic problem that will require a multifaceted approach that will address the broad scope of issues. Stay tuned to Municipal Refit. Part 4 where I'll identify some of the possible solutions that can be implemented with minimal cost to start us back on track toward building sustainable communities in NL.

Monday 7 November 2011

Municipal Refit. Part 2

Fresh off the heals of the Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador (MNL) Annual Convention in Corner Brook we continue the discussion on the municipal sector and why it is misunderstood and in need of serious attention. In Municipal Refit. Part 1 we covered the basic ideas surrounding the level of  ignorance of the average resident when it comes to what municipal councils are responsible for, the lack of appropriate training for councillors, the issue of administrative capacity (average of 1 staff person per town), and the shortfall in the area of all aspects of municipal planning. In Part 2 we will look to the situation in municipal infrastructure and the potential implications for things like drinking water and sewage treatment.

What the Heck is Infrastructure Anyway?
In basic terms infrastructure includes the physical assets that support the community. Things like roads, water and sewer systems, buildings and recreation facilities. Most people appreciate that infrastructure is very expensive to build and maintain but they don't understand where the money comes from of how it gets invested into a local water system or road. Because the cost of major projects regularly run into the millions of dollars and the average municipality has an annual budget of around five to eight hundred thousand dollars the money has to come from another source. In NL the vast majority of money comes through a cost sharing program developed by the Provincial Government of NL. The Province combines Federal and Provincial dollars to create a pot of infrastructure money that then gets allocated to municipal projects on a case by case basis. There is a ratio that determines how much of a project is funded by the municipality and how much is funded by the infrastructure program based on the population of the municipality. From the Municipal Affairs Website:
Eligible funding is allocated based on the following ratios:
  • 90/10 for populations less than 3,000 (258 municipalities, 31 per cent of provincial population)
  • 80/20 for populations between 3,000 and 7,000 (16 municipalities, 14 per cent of provincial population)
  • 70/30 for populations greater than 7,000 (9 municipalities, 43 per cent of provincial population)
  • Local Service Districts in the province would also qualify for funding supports on approved projects
While only having to pay 10% of a project is a great deal, if that project costs $10 million then your portion is still one million dollars. So where do you get that kind of money when you have a population of 500 people, few businesses and an annual budget already stretched to the limit at $500,000 per year? The answer is that you borrow it. Adding debt payments to your budget is never fun but is often the last resort available.

In one end...
The cost of collecting, treating and then delivering safe drinking water to residents is no cheap or easy task. It requires a chlorination and treatment building, a collection area (possibly a dam), and miles and miles of various sizes of pipe to every single building in the town. The costs of these systems are incredibly high, usually in the tens of millions of dollars. So if you run a town and you determine you need a drinking water system you calculate your portion of the project and you redesign your budget to include the payments on the loan for your 10%. The project is complete, likely over budget, and your residents have safe drinking water. Maybe. Now begins the lifetime struggle of ensuring the system remains safe. Because many of our municipal water supplies begin in a pond we have many systems with very high levels of silt and even mud in the drinking water. Then there's the organic matter that has to be treated with hundreds of liters of chlorine. Assuming you do get a good quality drinking water you will soon find that no matter how good a system is designed, it will eventually break. Very few municipalities in NL have any kind of preventative maintenance program in place. The general approach is to fix it when it breaks. Unfortunately that leads to systems in very poor condition and incredibly costly repairs that are often out of reach and never budgeted for.

If you're wondering what all of that means for the average household then you should have a look at this, and these two here and here. At the end of the day drinking water is one of the most important services a municipality provides. And if you have travelled around NL you will know all too well the number of boil orders in place, and the number of systems that produce "safe" drinking water that I wouldn't give to a dog. So who is at fault here? It's all about the purse strings.    

The situation is bad enough that I have heard it surmised that we have already had sickness and possibly even deaths that were attributable to unsafe drinking water. Old aunt Jenny may very well have had her condition made worse by the quality of her drinking water but because she was 83 and had high blood pressure, diabetes, and a sting of other issues it was never considered that her health was damaged by her drinking water. Not that far fetched is it?

...and out the other.
So now that you have some understanding of the drinking water infrastructure you need to know a little  about the wastewater situation. Don't get confused by the term "wastewater" it simply means sewage and all other liquid waste that leaves your home and all businesses. In NL our traditional approach is to have no treatment. All we do is pump it into the ocean, untreated. In the entire province there is a very small percentage of municipalities who have any level of wastewater treatment. Why? Because it costs so much. Remember the St. John's sewage treatment plant? Original budget of $93 million jumped to about $150 million. It's not cheap. The problem is that there are new regulations coming from Environment Canada that will require a high level of sewage treatment for all liquid that enters the ocean. Depending on the timeline and the investment provided by the federal government this could be a huge issue for NL. We don't have the money for proper and safe drinking water, so how can we come up with the investment for wastewater treatment? And how much will it cost? The estimates are currently in the range of 2 to 3 billion to upgrade the systems in NL over a 30 year time period. We just don't have the cash.

Up next in Municipal Refit. Part 3 we'll look at the fiscal framework and the structural issues in the sector...

Friday 4 November 2011

Municipal Refit. Part 1

Can you name your municipal councillors? Better yet do you even know if you have a municipal council? Maybe you have a Local Service District committee, or you may not have any form of local community government at all. I would be willing to lay a significant wager that 80% of people in the province can't answer those questions. Unfortunately the misunderstanding of the local government sector in NL extends far beyond the basic structure and participants. Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador (MNL) is currently holding its annual convention so I thought it might be nice to delve into the municipal sector for a quick view into a complex and fragile system that many of us rely upon for basic services.

What does a councillor do anyway?
Being a councillor in NL can be a very different experience depending on what council you serve on. Some councillors are very dedicated and they spend incredible amounts of time and effort attempting to make their community a better place to live. Unfortunately many people don't see that side of the system. All some people see is that the road isn't plowed, the garbage truck is late, municipal taxes keep going up and my water isn't fit to drink. Councillors are responsible for those things, but the responsibilities don't end there. They can also be responsible for economic development, strategic and land use planning, recreation, community infrastructure, supporting volunteer groups, community pride and cohesiveness, as well as youth and senior community programs. Some councillors or mayors even actually maintain the drinking water or sewer system. And just like any group of people there are those who are dedicated to serving the community, and there are those who are seat fillers.

Lifelong Learning
With a significant list of responsibilities for municipal councillors, it would be obvious to assume that there is significant training available and even required. Not exactly. There are various training opportunities through MNL, PMA (Professional Municipal Administrators) and through an entity called the Municipal Training and Development Corporation or MTDC. So what's the problem? For starters none of the training is mandatory. None. This means that there are councillors in NL who are making decisions around significant budgets, infrastructure, planning, and possibly water systems without one minute of training. Other provinces have mandatory new councillor training and Nova Scotia holds a two day orientation for newly elected councillors. Here in NL the Department of Municipal affairs provides an hour and a half of training at the MNL convention just following the general municipal election for those who feel like going. If you don't feel like going then you miss out on training regarding municipal legislation, basic decision making, municipal responsibilities, budgeting, and conflict of interest regulations. In addition the MTDC doesn't actually develop or provide training, but instead provides a financial assistance program to help cover travel costs to these non-mandatory training sessions.

But isn't that your responsibility?
Just like many businesses, it is the frontline staff that often keep the lights on and the wheels turning, and in the municipal sector there is no doubt that the whole system would grind to a screeching halt were it not for the municipal administrators. But lets bring a little perspective to the table. If we pull out the top 10 municipalities by population, how many permanent staff would you guess the average municipality has? 4? 2? No. Municipalities with a population under 5000 have an average of 1 full time permanent staff person. 1. That one person is responsible to administer all the business of the council. This includes running the office, budgeting, actioning council directions, collection taxes, ensuring services are delivered and lets not forget; dealing with resident complaints. And again training is minimal and largely not mandatory. And because of the lack of capacity there are municipalities where the one staff person administers council business, picks up the garbage, plows the road and fixes the sewer breaks. It's no part time job.

Planning to Fail
At least there are specific planning requirements to keep us all on the straight and narrow right? Not even close. When it comes to financial planning municipalities are required to submit their annual budget before December 31 for the following year. Not exactly long term planning. The other point regarding finances is that the only requirement for municipal budgets is that they balance on paper. The results at the end of the year often look very little like the budget submitted 12 months prior. Then there's general strategic planning. You know the kind. All organizations are required to have them and they usually include mission statements and goals and actions and that kind of thing. Municipalities are required to have an Integrated Community Sustainability Plan (ICSP) but only as of last year and only because it was a requirement for a federal funding program. Unfortunately the ICSPs were largely treated as a box to check and not a serious opportunity to plan for the future. Finally we have Land Use Plans, the ones that delineate residential and commercial zones, and development regulations. These plans must be developed and modified by professional certified planners and approved by Municipal Affairs. So are they mandatory? No. Do many towns actually have them? About half. Do many municipalities have certified planners on staff to work on these plans? Only 6 or 7 municipalities in the entire province have a planner on staff.

So we have councillors and staff who are trying their best but likely not appropriately trained in a sector that is largely misunderstood by the majority of residents, and suffers from insufficient planning on most fronts. What about the fiscal framework that they operate in, the infrastructure situation, the ongoing boil order issues or the issue of the municipal structure in NL? Stay tuned to Municipal Refit. Part 2

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Open The House

It all started with a guy in a plastic lawn chair.

While I have no doubt that The Premier will not listen it is the protest and the collective discontent that is important. I only wish more people had the courage of Matt Howse.

Thanks Matt.

Friday 21 October 2011

The Illusion of Care

We care about our customers. This Government cares about the fishery. The corporate community cares about the environment. The Hospitals cares about patients comfort. All untrue, but not for the reason you might think.

We hear it all the time, the word care. As with many words it has been bastardized to a point where its meaning has been lost in the mix. Makes me think of one of George Carlins stand up bits on language use. He made the point that we have lost respect for what words actually mean and instead we make up new definitions that water down the actual definition. How can you pre-board an airplane. Do you get on before you get on? For that matter to quote Carlin "F**K you I'm getting IN the plane!"

So what does all that have to do with the word "care"? There's a guy named John McKnight who is not an academic but was offered a post at a university in the US based on his work around the idea of Asset Based Community Development or ABCD. This idea is focused on the fact that it is the people within a community that are the real assets and can be better organized and mobilized to make all our communities better, even, or maybe especially, without government intervention. John has been in NL a couple of times and I was lucky enough to take part in one of his seminars and it truly changed the way I look at community development. But the point here is that John wrote a book called "The Careless Society" and in that book he discusses how society has changed to a point where structures no longer work in the best interests of individuals. He makes the simple point that while individuals can care corporate entities cannot. Not because the people in those entities don't, but because to care is a human emotion that corporate entities are not capable of. Simple.

Governments and corporate entities want to use the word care for two reasons. First because the individuals who write the policies and communications, and the individuals who work there, or sit on the board may actually care about people or their well being. Second because it humanizes the corporate entity or government. "We care" make a cold corporation sound like a small group of neighbours. The reality is that corporations, healthcare agencies, and governments all lack the ability to care. They are legal entities that exist in a word of blind policies that do not see individual people, but instead see clients, patients or numbers on a spreadsheet. It doesn't make them evil or bad, but we need to understand how they operate so that we, as a society can operate in cooperation with them and know what to expect from them. In the case of governments it means that we have to build into the system a series of policies that require the human touch as opposed to the corporate claw. And that isn't easy.

So how do we ensure that a non-human entity can maintain a level of humanity? Just like John McKnight's approach to community is based on the individual skills and capacities of people, good government policy should be a mix of decision making processes tempered by an actual person who makes the final call or has input into the system at some point. The Healthcare system is the perfect example of where this kind of approach could really make a difference. We often hear of cases where individuals who work within the system would like to help but the existing policy prevents them from doing so. The policy removes the human element from the equation to protect the system, and as a result the system treats unique individuals as numbers and statistics. As a matter of fact our current healthcare system uses the word "client" as oppose to patient. As I indicated here the larger a system is the more work is involved in protecting the system and those who run it. The system becomes the focus and not the people it was set up to help, but the word "care" is ubiquitous in Government departments and agencies as if it actually meant something.
When you look at a loved one and you tell them how much you care about them you mean it. When a Government, one of it's agencies, a corporation or any other legal collective tells you it "cares" about you it is lying to you. Sometimes it's because it doesn't know the difference, sometimes it's because it does.

From a perspective of good government policy we need to remember that government is in place to serve the people and not feed the system. We need policy that recognizes that all the employees have valuable contributions to make, and that each "client" is a person. If we can actually accomplish that then we may begin to say that as individuals we care enough to make change that helps others. Until then we're all under the illusion of "care."

Wednesday 19 October 2011

The System is the Problem

The Occupy Wall Street movement has caught on and appears to be spreading across the globe. The reason we know it's really catching on is because we have our very own Occupy NL protest happening in downtown St. John's. It may be a small group but the fact that people care enough to protest over anything is some kind of miracle. I've mentioned our troubling slide toward apathy before so I won't beleaguer the point here. At the same time there's a guy named Matt Howse staging a solo protest against the decision to keep the House of Assembly closed until the Spring. I'm not sure if they realize it but the two groups are protesting the very same thing: The System.

Sure it sounds easy to say blame it on "the man" or "fight the power" or some other empty catchphrase but they do have some component of truth in them. When a system grows to a certain size part of that system's function becomes to maintain itself and that usually means maintaining the status quo, no matter how messed up it is. It can defy logic and still be perfectly acceptable to those who exist and operate within the system. Governments of all levels and their agencies are usually the worst offenders and the most resistant to change.

On the global scale we can look to the current economic crisis that we are trying to fight our way out of. It was essentially the result of nonsensical policies of the US Government because the banking system held so much sway in the system that they set the rules. And those rules were basically that there should be no rules. As such major corporations sold things they never really owned and others purchased insurance against the security of those items, banks began predatory lending practices because they didn't care if people could pay, and the US Government and its regulators let it all happen. Not unlike ENRON, the system of buying and selling things that only exist in theory is like playing Russian Roulette, you win big until you loose big, and while we lost big the system protected those responsible because thats what the system does.

Now back to NL. Those who protest in the Occupy Movement may not be able to tell you what they are protesting beyond corporate greed, but they are actually protesting government policies and a system that allows huge corporations to exploit the working class. Oh and Matt House is protesting bad Government policy that allows one person to determine when public debate will take place in the peoples House of Assembly. Those in power do not want to change the system because it may put their jobs at risk and unfortunately they do not see the greater good as the ultimate goal.

How about we elect some folks who care less about maintaining the system and their jobs and more about changing the things that need to be changed to improve the system, even to gut the system if necessary. Tabula Rasa.    

Friday 14 October 2011

Some Political Quotes for Thought.

The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all.
John F. Kennedy 

If liberty and equality, as is thought by some, are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons alike share in government to the utmost.

Democracy is the form of government that gives every man the right to be his own oppressor.
James Russell Lowell 

Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.
Franklin D. Roosevelt 

The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter. 
Winston Churchill 

Advertising is the very essence of democracy.
Anton Chekhov 

A fool and his money are soon elected.
Will Rogers 

A liberal is a man who is willing to spend somebody else's money.
Carter Glass 

A conservative is a man who just sits and thinks, mostly sits.
Woodrow Wilson 

A conservative is a man with two perfectly good legs who, however, has never learned how to walk forward.
Franklin D. Roosevelt 

Apparently, a democracy is a place where numerous elections are held at great cost without issues and with interchangeable candidates.
Gore Vidal 

Democracy is being allowed to vote for the candidate you dislike least.
Robert Byrne 

Friday 7 October 2011

Read This Before You Vote

Before you cast your ballot on Tuesday check out this article by Geoff Meeker. Muskrat Falls should be the number one issue of the election, but don't take my word for for it, take his.

Friday 30 September 2011

At The Doors

Normally I do my best to keep my blogging and politics separate, but for a brief moment I wanted to post a few notes regarding some of the issues that have come up during my conversations with people in the Terra Nova District. I simply want to provide a simple list of the issues with no political commentary from me.

In no special order these are the main items that have been mentioned thus far:

  • Healthcare. Wait times and availability of services and family Dr.s 
  • Muskrat Falls. Mostly people wanting more information and less rhetoric. 
  • Roads and other infrastructure. 
  • Public service pensions.
  • Seniors issues. In a general sense with healthcare, places to stay and otherwise.
  • Small Business development and assistance. 
As I said no partisan comments from me just the top half dozen issues. There are some others but these are the most popular.

Monday 26 September 2011

The Party, The Platform and the Person

Two weeks and counting until the voters of NL get to decide who forms the next Government of NL, while simultaneously choosing a person to represent each of the 48 electoral districts. I have little doubt that anything I write or say will be sen as blatantly partisan so I'll keep it brief and factual.

When I vote in any election my decision is based on three main factors: the party, the platform, and the person. Those three factors are all equally important in making an educated and informed decision. While the issue of the person and the issue of the party are sometime very personal opinions, the policies of those people and parties are public documents that can, and should be publicly debated.

All three parties have now released their platforms and my suggestion is simple: GO READ THEM! If you are even slightly considering parking your vote with a party then you should at least take the time to have a skim through the platform documents. To make things a little easier for you I'll provide direct links to each policy document so you can go and do you democratic duty.

PC Policy Platform

NDP Policy Platform

Liberal Policy Platform 

Whatever you do, even if you don't know the proposed policies of the party you plan to vote for (shame on you) then you should at least get out and vote. Earlier in the year I wrote a spot on how NL has seen democracy over the years here, and I wrote this satirical piece on voter turnout here. Don't let apathy win, encourage everyone to get out and vote on October 11th!

Friday 23 September 2011

I'm still here!

Just a quick blog note to let readers know that I'm still around! It has been an incredibly busy couple of weeks and the blog writing has taken a bit of a back seat. I've been Working a piece for a while but it's slow going. lol Hoping to have a real post up soon!

Thursday 15 September 2011

An Honour Just to be Nominated!

Those of you who are regular readers will know that as of late I've been involved in the NL political scene in a pretty serious way. It has been, and will continue to be, a whirlwind experience that has brought a raft of surprises, both pleasant and other wise. Yet it was a message today that really gave me a moment to pause. The Rural Lens has been nominated for the top political and commentary blog in NL. WOW.

When I began writing here back in February it was because I felt I had something to say and I needed a place to say it. I have been writing articles in one form or another for about 10 years, including a stint on the Community Editorial Board with The Telegram. The funny thing is that when I started this blog it was as a side project while my main idea got off the ground. I wanted to make a film about rural NL. I had collected all the materials I needed, started to arrange interviews and was on the way to filming a documentary on the issues of rural NL. Unfortunately I couldn't secure the required funding to cover the operational costs and so the project went on hold. I started The Rural Lens as an outlet for some of the ideas germinating in my brain for quite a while, and it's been full steam ahead ever since.

Shortly after I got started a friend suggested I send my address over to the NL Blog Roll where you'll find over 325 blogs focused on or written from Newfoundland and Labrador. Over time I could see my traffic increasing from links from the Blog Roll and I've been glad to be part of such a fantastic blogging community ever since.

So today I find out that along with The Sir Robert Bond Papers and The Fighting Newfoundlander, The Rural Lens has been nominated for the top political and commentary blog. If you don't already read the other two blogs then you certainly should. We are merely three of many blogs of folks who speak out on many community and political issues in NL. So go read the other two blogs and then head over to here and vote for your favorite.

While your over at the NL Blog Roll check out the Science and Technology category as well. And if you have any interest in the tech sector check out I Code By The Sea and if you like what you read go to the Vote Page and throw a vote his way.

On a final note we all owe a huge thanks to Stephen Harris at the NL Blog Roll for providing us a way to keep in touch and share our thoughts.

Thursday 8 September 2011

The Biggest Picture

October 11th is fast approaching and the politicking is already well underway. Every cent of Government cash doled out is accused of having the intention of buying votes, and every complaint levied at Government is called blatant negativity, and the name-calling is just getting ramped up. The PC’s want to hold on to control, the Liberals want to take it, and the NDP want to continue the “orange wave” into NL. It’s why they affectionately call election time the “silly season.”

The finger pointing is rampant and unfortunately forms the crux of many political campaigns. Luckily we have not yet gone nearly as far as the American style of political attack ads, even though the research seems to indicate that negative ads actually work. It seems contrary to what reasonable people say about wanting to hear messages of positive plans and directions. What is it that voters really want?

Those with a few campaigns under their belt will say that voters want to be told that you can fix their problems. “They” say that just saying you will do your best just isn’t good enough. It seems that the battle is turning into a silly argument of who can promise the most. Unfortunately the delivery of those promises is often long forgotten except by those of the other parties.

Winston Churchill is supposed to have said “The best argument against democracy is a 5 minute conversation with the average voter.” While I can understand where that sentiment comes from, I don’t agree with the premise that average folks aren’t up to the task of voting for good representation. I have to believe that people can make the right choice when it’s offered to them.

Politicians who underestimate the intelligence of voters do so at their peril. I happen to think that the main reason people are disenfranchised from politics and often feel that all politicians are out for their own best interests is because some of them are. It’s unfortunate but true that some people enter public life for less then altruistic reasons. These are the politicians who underestimate the abilities and passion of the average voter, but there is an upside.

Luckily the majority of people who throw their hat into the political ring do so because they see an issue that needs to be addressed, or they really want to make a positive difference in government. Despite how some people feel, the truth is that politicians are normal folks who want to make a difference. They commit their time, money and effort to bringing good government to everyone.

Of course the results vary greatly but there’s one thing that’s for sure. No matter what the results of the coming election, we will get the government we deserve. Lets hope we choose wisely.

Thursday 1 September 2011

By The Numbers

It must be a good time to be on the receiving end of any of the public funding being spent these days. Government has been on a rampage of spending as of late and I have no doubt that many feel that it's long overdue. Maybe 5 or 6 years overdue? Millions and millions of dollars have been announced and re-announced over the past few days, weeks and months. This money is not new and in fact was included in the provincial budget brought down a few months back, but it appears that voters, I mean residents, need reminding just how much the current administration has done for us, with our own money.

Of course with an election coming on October 11th there are cries of electioneering and buying votes, and the requisite denials across the board. Well, not exactly. Certainly the Premier denies any "vote buying" over here, and says it's all within the budget. And never to cross swords with the leader, Minister Kevin O'Brien has been denying the political ties to funding for a while now. But there's at least one member who's not afraid to tell it as it is. Minister King was on Open Line and made no excuses for spending in his district. The story posted on the VOCM website isn't available but the text was as follows:
MHA Makes No Bones About Pre-Election Spending
Aug 9 , 2011

A cabinet minister is unapologetic for the rash of pre-election spending announcements coming from the government. The MHA for Grand Bank, Darin King, announced some money for health care recently. There has been a steady stream of news releases, most announcing money that had already been allocated in the budget, over the past several months.

On VOCM Open Line with Randy Simms, King said he is dedicated to bringing in as much money as he can to his district.
So What more can you say? Well lets let the numbers speak for themselves. The last three days of August in 2010 saw 23 press releases from Government, with 13 of them being related to funding allocations and 10 related to other purposes. If you look back over the last 3 days of August of this year it's a little different. From August 29 to 31 of 2011 the Government issued 53 press releases that included only 7 that were not related to funding. That means that 46 of the 53 were either announcements or advisories for announcements. Compare that 46 in 2011 to the 13 in 2010.

Dunderdale insists that everything is on the level as she says "But telling people how their money is going to be spent, how that offends people given that the money was announced in April, I'm at a loss to understand." Well, I think people will draw their own conclusions and I'm fairly certain that unlike the Premier, most folks will understand it just fine.

Friday 26 August 2011

Muskrat Falls Joint Review Report in Brief

This just in: Muskrat Falls deal "might not" be the best option!

Hardly breaking news if you read this, or any one of a multitude of blogs on Newfoundland and Labrador. But what makes this pronouncement a little different is that it comes from an independent panel mandated to study the environmental impacts of the project. For the full report go here. But be warned it's almost 400 pages so I'd suggest you boil the kettle first. To get the majority of the points in the least amount of time you could stick with the Executive Summary in the front and the list of recommendations at the back.

While the Report largely covers the potential environmental impacts (and there are MANY) there are a few very specific points worth noting. The first is captured in this quote:
However, the Panel concluded that Nalcor’s analysis, showing Muskrat Falls to be the best and least-cost way to meet domestic demand requirements, was inadequate and recommended a new, independent analysis based on economic, energy and environmental considerations. The analysis would address domestic demand projections, conservation and demand management, alternate on-Island energy sources, the role of power from Churchill Falls, Nalcor’s cost estimates and assumptions with respect to its no-Project thermal option, the possible use of offshore gas as a fuel for the Holyrood thermal generating facility, cash flow projections for Muskrat Falls, and the implications for the province’s ratepayers and regulatory systems.

So in other words there could be other ways to meet the potential electrical demand. Then Why is Government pushing Muskrat Falls so hard?

The Second point is clearly identified in this note:
Would there be net benefits to Newfoundland and Labrador?
The Panel concluded that the Project might deliver net economic benefits to the Province as a whole, depending on the results of the recommended studies regarding long-term benefits and alternatives. The residual environmental effect for Labrador would likely be adverse. Whether there would be net social and economic benefits for Labrador would depend on whether enough of the revenues generated by the Project were re-invested in Labrador.

So not only is this a project that we may not need, but we may also not get any real benefits from it. Especially if you live in the Big Land.

Sounds like a good use of $6.4 billion to me.

PS. According to the review the cost is now $6.4 billion. I guess that means the cost has gone up by $0.2 billion in about 8 months since the project was announced. Wonder what the over run will be by the time the project is complete in 6 or 7 years time?

Thursday 18 August 2011

Political Fortitude

Go read page 5 of todays(August 18th) Telegram.

So you got to see some pics and read a quote from me saying that I'm still planning to run for the Liberal Party in Bonavista South. What else would you expect from someone who is committed to positive change, and who just ran for the leadership of the party?

You will also have read about a candidate who has decided to jump ship because he's unhappy with the new direction of the leadership. Well Mr. Baird, let me first say what a pleasure it is to see how committed you are to the Liberal Party and the positive direction we are working toward in NL! Sheesh. You're well aware that my preferred choice for leader wasn't successful either, but all that does is change my focus to bringing positive change over the long run from the inside. I'm not just running away.

Sure I understand that people have every right to leave a party or change parties if they no longer feel aligned with the direction the party is taking. But if you choose to leave who will make the change you want to see? How about a little backbone or perseverance here?

I mean the objective is to make things better isn't it? If all you wanted to do was win then you'd gladly sell your self, and choose the party you thought would win instead of they party you actually support. Unlike a recent former Auditor General...

We have to work hard to make things different, and we can't just cut and run because we don't like a decision made by party leaders. It just goes to show that there are certain folks who don't have the fortitude required to make change happen

Tuesday 16 August 2011

Pharmacies, Pharmacists and Ministers of the Crown

Wow, is anyone else tired of hearing about the dispute between the independent pharmacy owners and the NL Government? Don't get me wrong, they have every right to fight it out in public, but I'm getting tired of hearing two sides say completely different things about the same issue. So here in a nutshell is my 2 minute version of what's happening and why it needs to be resolved before I go hoarse from yelling at my radio.

The Players
To lay the ground work we need to know who is involved, at least from a collective perspective. We have the Gov. of NL usually represented by the Minister of Municipal Affairs (you heard me), but sometimes represented by others, vary rarely ever by the Minister of Health himself.

We have the Pharmacists Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, or PANL as they are usually called. This is a professional organization of pharmacists in NL, and all pharmacists are members. According to their website: "The Pharmacists' Association of Newfoundland and Labrador (PANL) is a non-profit corporation established under the Corporations Act on November 5, 2003, with a mandate to serve as the professional association representing pharmacists in Newfoundland and Labrador and promote the profession of pharmacy in the Province."

Then we have the Council of Independent Pharmacy Owners, or CICPO. They are a collection of the majority of non-chain pharmacy owners in NL and they have a website over here.

The Game
The Gov of NL says that they can save between 18 and 45 million dollars(wow thats a big gap) by changing how generic and brand name drugs are administered in NL. They are about to enter into negotiations with PANL on ways to cut back on reimbursements to pharmacies paid by the brand name drug manufacturers, thereby encouraging the use of more generics, and thereby saving the Gov some cash by paying out less money on its drug program.

The folks over at CICPO are crying foul for two reasons. The first reason is because they use those reimbursements to cover operating costs, and that money is necessary to remain in operation in many cases. And two, because the folks in the GOV, namely Minister of Health Kennedy, refuses to meet with them.

GOV says that CICPO is just a rogue splinter group of PANL and they refuse to even acknowledge them. They will only speak with PANL. CICPO says that they have very different needs then the members of PANL and that they need their own organization.

PANL has said very little.

The Rules
So we have a group of business owners, some of whom are pharmacists, but many of whom are not, are upset because the GOV sets all the regulations for their industry but yet refuses to meet with them. GOV makes all the rules here and they say they can pretty much ignore CICPO as long as they want.

Minister O'Brien went so far as to suggest that the members of CICPO who are pharmacists could literally take over all the board seats on PANL and then they could represent the interests of the independent pharmacy owners as well. So to be clear, the Minister is suggesting that a group of business owners overthrow a professional organization so that they can subvert it's purpose for their own benefit. Yeah...that sounds like a great solution... Perhaps he should stick to Municipal Affairs.

The Winners and Losers
So who wins? No matter what the outcome no one wins this thing. Unfortunately that means we all loose. How badly we lose depends entirely up to the GOV because they make the rules.

Look at it this way. If you owned a garage and had the best mechanic in the world working for you, would you want him, or his professional association negotiating the price you could charge for an oil change with GOV? Of course not. He may be an excellent mechanic, but he is your employee and has his own priorities that may not always coincide with yours.

The Minister of Health should be ashamed to say he refuses to meet with CICPO. Whatever the specifics of the dispute he should at least meet with them. They could be an association of any kind of health related professionals and it is his job and his obligation to meet with them. He does not get to hold the healthcare system ransom! Oh wait, GOV makes the rules, so I guess he does. But he damn well shouldn't.