Budgets, Biofuels And Beyond

Plus: A tedious new quest for efficiency and heritage bylaws, wheee!

City Hall by Paul Dechene

Council has moved to a two-meetings-a-month schedule, which should mean they’re doing the same amount of work but it’s just spread out a bit. And yet, it seems like there’s a ton going on in Henry Baker Hall these days. So much, in fact, that we must once again resort to a Top 6 listicle that looks at some city hall highlights from the last few weeks…

1. EFFICIENCY ÜBER ALLES I wrote not too long ago about Mayor Masters’ campaign promise to initiate an efficiency review of city operations, saying that I didn’t think she’d follow through on this because the pandemic has significantly worsened since the election and seeking cuts in this environment might appear over-harsh.

Well, looks like I jinxed things because the savings snipe hunt is going ahead.

It’s called the Recovery & Efficiency Review Program and council passed it at their Feb. 24 meeting, with only Councillor Dan LeBlanc voting against.

Phase one of the review requires hiring a consultant for $250,000 and establishing an Efficiency Review Sponsor Team which will report to council. This phase will focus on six to eight city services and produce an implementation plan towards the end of 2021. Council will have to approve any of the team’s recommendations and decide whether or not to carry on with a second phase.

Of note, a centrepiece of Masters’ campaign promise was that her review of city operations would be seeking 15 per cent in efficiencies across the board. The efficiency review we have at present, however, does not mention 15 per cent anywhere. In fact, it lacks any specific targets, opting instead for vague language about doing “more or better with the same.” 1You know what I bet would absolutely slay if you were a civil servant? A chance to do “more and better with more and better.”

Also, the efficiency review is being twinned with a Recovery & Efficiency Task Force which will build a “Made In Regina” 2<sigh> COVID-19 recovery plan “that meets the social, economic, and sustainability needs of our community.”

The Recovery Task Force has a mandate to identify strategic infrastructure investment opportunities and improve the city’s business environment. Seems odd to intertwine in the same report a government intervention into the local economy with an effort to shrink said government. But in their report, administration suggests timing an Efficiency Review with the COVID-19 recovery provides an opportunity to leverage new delivery models that have emerged during the pandemic. 3I offer admin’s exact gobbledygook so you can judge if I’m reading too much into it: “The timing of the Efficiency Review with the COVID-19 pandemic provides an opportunity to move beyond continuous improvement to leverage innovation and new service delivery models to support community recovery. In an effort to align the continuing priority of improving operations of the City with an engaged and strategically effective COVID-19 recovery strategy, a community optimization approach through a Recovery and Efficiency Task Force is proposed.”

That sounds troubling seeing as the main innovations to emerge during the Plague Year involve scaling back operations and ambition: running with fewer staff, working from home and reducing services. It would suck to see our pared-down city made permanent.

2. THE SNOW IS MELTING. WHAT’S THAT I SMELL? COULD IT BE A BUDGET? The new budget is out and, as expected, it is light on spending. The theme this year is “Responsive Recovery & Investment” and the proposed property tax increase is a mere 2.34%. The bulk of that, 1.39% (or just over 59 per cent of the total 2.34% tax increase), goes to the Regina Police Service. Of the remainder, 0.45% (19.2% of the total) is your annual, inescapable tax bump dedicated to Mosaic Stadium. The other 0.50% (21 per cent) is a new annual increase that goes to renewal of the city’s recreation infrastructure. All other city services see no increase. At all.

The budget will be considered at the March 24 council meeting at 1 p.m., with additional discussion on March 25 and 26 if needed.

3. OUR HERITAGE POLICIES ARE SO OLD THEY NEED HERITAGE STATUS At a special Feb. 25 meeting, council once again voted to protect the Cook House, a heritage residence on Albert Street. The homeowner proposed saving the façade and building onto it a 16-unit condo complex. It’d have 34 parking spots.

He wanted to put this in Old Lakeview. Old Lakeview!

It was never going to fly.

But somehow the Cook House project has been popping up over and over at council for a couple years now, like a really embarrassing STI. And even though she has only had to attend the final meeting of this saga, Mayor Masters was clearly fed up with the rigamarole, pointing to the lack of clarity within our heritage policies and the slow pace at which new policies are being drafted.

It’s hard not to sympathize. Our heritage policies have been a cause for confusion and frustration for as long as I can remember.

Meanwhile, the Bagshaw Residence in the Crescents neighbourhood was finally put out of its misery. The Provincial Heritage Review Board had a look at the place and declared it unfit for preservation. During discussion of the Bagshaw’s fate, council requested a report on establishing Crescents as a heritage preservation district which would give special protection to the area’s streetscape and impose architectural controls on any infill.

Admin’s response was to strongly imply that they’d rather hold off on this until the Cathedral Neighbourhood Plan is up for review — in 2024 or 2025.

Hilariously, the current Cathedral Neighbourhood Plan already recommends establishing a heritage preservation district in the Crescents and that plan was written in the late 1980s. So council is just asking admin to implement an action item that’s been gathering dust for 40 years. And admin is saying, don’t rush us.

Something tells me this report is not going to make Mayor Masters feel any better.

4. WE’RE DOING BIOFUELS NOW? From the “Stuff That’s Being Debated At Council While This Paper Is Being Printed But Is So Important It Warrants Mention Now Anyway” File: Council is considering a request to provide $1 million to support construction of a biofuels refinery and agriculture processing facility in the Regina area.

The $1 million represents the local investment required for the project to access $10 million in federal ACT (Agricultural Clean Technology) funding.

The company behind this proposal, Calgary’s True North Renewable Fuels, plans to turn canola into renewable diesel fuel. This promises to provide 2,500 temporary construction jobs and 300 permanent operations jobs.

According to True North’s greenhouse gas consultant, (S&P), the renewable diesel produced at this plant will be 83 per cent less GHG intensive than conventional fossil fuel diesel.

Which sounds… great? But it sure would be nice to have some kind of environment committee that could call in experts to check the math on that.

Unfortunately, the Renewable Regina advisory committee is still being put together.

And that’s too bad because we’ve been burned by too-good-to-pass-up megaprojects before. <cough> Global Transportation Hub </cough>, and I’d think an excess of caution might be warranted in these situations.

5. QUICKLY: SOMETHING AWESOME The Municipal Justice Building on 11th Ave in the Heritage Neighbourhood is going to get a heritage restoration and be turned into a community centre. Yay!

6. QUICKLY: SOMETHING ELSE AWESOME The Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technology is opting into Regina Transit’s wildly successful U-Pass program.