Two municipal issues are dominating the news in this never-ending winter: the failed clearing of ice from sidewalks and the proposed realignment of fire resources. At their heart, both issues speak deeply to the interplay between politics and governance, and both demonstrate how city councillors have failed to demonstrate the leadership that’s required to run the city effectively.
Forget about the weather. “It was a bad winter” is no excuse for our icy sidewalks. Any bunch of Keystone Councillors can successfully oversee a winter operations department in nice weather. The entire point of having a winter operations department is to be prepared for bad weather.
In medicine, there’s the notion of a “precipitating cause,” defined as:
an agent, event, condition or characteristic which plays an essential role in producing an occurrence of the disease.
Think of a 40-year-old man suffering a heart attack. While the precipitating cause may be that he was shovelling snow, focusing on the snow-shovelling doesn’t get at the underlying malaise, say, that the man had a family history of heart disease, ate red meat three meals a day, and never exercised.
Likewise, the difficult winter is the precipitating cause of our icy sidewalks, but the winter doesn’t say anything about the underlying malaise in city governance. Just as a reasonably healthy 40-year-old man should be able to shovel snow without suffering a heart attack, a reasonably healthy city government should be able to respond to a difficult winter and keep the sidewalks free of ice.
So, what is the underlying malaise in city government that led to our icy sidewalks?
I’ve explained this before, as follows:
At its heart, our icy sidewalks are the fault of city government. Putting the service out to bid meant that competing contractors would try to low-ball the cost of the service, sacrificing adequate service in pursuit of lower costs, which is exactly what City Hall wanted.
[Imagine, for example, that a contractor focused on providing the needed service. She saw that what was needed was new equipment designed specifically for sidewalk clearing, and the addition of crews using hand tools at tight locations and at intersections. She then put together a bid price that reflected the purchase and use of the new equipment, a labour cost sufficient to hire the hand crews, and a reasonable profit. There’s no way she’d win the contract bidding against landscape companies using their ill-suited summer equipment and with no hand crews.]
Not only that, but the way the contracts were structured necessarily led to this result: each contractor had to offer a bid price for three years of service, no matter what the weather was. City Hall wanted a one-price contract in order to bring budget certainty to the process. But this is nuts. The city’s own in-house snow and ice clearing budgets aren’t certain; they’re continually under-budgeted, and fluctuate by millions of dollars from year to year, depending on the weather. The Chronicle Herald recently reviewed the amount the city budgeted for snow and ice removal over the last five years, versus actual expenditures:
•2014-15: Budgeted — $20 million. Actual — unknown.
•2013-14: Budgeted — $19.99 million. Actual — $24,205,700
•2012-13: Budgeted — $15.12 million. Actual — $18,557,304
•2011-12: Budgeted — $12.42 million. Actual — $18,364,604
•2010-11: Budgeted — $12.25 million. Actual — $18,963,381
•2009-10: Budgeted — $12.44 million. Actual — $18,187,798
The contractors are no doubt decent people, but come on, they’re basically the adult version of the hard-working teenage kid roaming the neighbourhood with his lawnmower. To expect them to have the budget and weather forecasting skills that professional city managers paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a year can’t provide for the city itself is just asking for trouble.
And it’s not just city managers — it’s council itself. As far back as 2008, former city Finance Director Cathie O’Toole was trying to get council to adopt more realistic budgets for winter works operations, but council would have none of it. It was a political decision to pass “balanced” budgets based on fictional warm winter forecasts, so that taxes wouldn’t have to be raised. When the unbudgeted money had to actually be spent on clearing snow and ice, council demanded that staff find other “savings,” which led to such cost-cutting measures as contracting out sidewalk plowing and instituting a “vacancy management” policy, leaving positions like, well, like snowplow driving unfilled in order to save a few bucks.
If we must contract out the service (and really, must we?), we should contract sidewalk clearing as a standing offer, like how we contract for heating oil. We would never ask Esso to guess how much oil the city is going to use over the next three years and give one set price for it ahead of time, no matter how much we might use; instead, we ask the company to offer a price per barrel, and we purchase what we need at that price. Similarly, the sidewalk clearing contractors should make bids on a per-weather event basis, and we should pay them for the service we need, however much that might cost in total.
Our icy sidewalks represent a system failure at City Hall. And that failure was caused by placing budget-cutting above providing adequate service. Once the decision was made to prioritize budget-cutting, it was only a matter of time and an especially difficult winter for the system to fail, and here we are.
This of course begs the question: why was budget-cutting prioritized over being prepared for a difficult winter?
One answer is that so long as the winters were unseasonably warm, no one noticed that snow and ice removal operations were being cut off at the knees.
The better answer is this: No politician would risk the political fallout of standing up for fully funding the winter operations department. Doing so would mean stating forthrightly that either taxes needed to be raised or that other popular programs needed to be cut. It would mean having to educate voters that the soundbite politics of our age — Lower taxes! Government waste! Government is bad! The private sector can do it better! Run government like a business! — is all wrong, and that government operations should be fully funded by, yes, taxes, to pay for needed services like removing ice from the sidewalks. It was easier to surrender without a fight to the unreasonable political demands of an uninformed citizenry and sweep the underfunded winter operations under the rug than to explain and stand up for good governance.
City councillors refused to even attempt to counter the over-the-top anti-government rhetoric that has come to dominate our politics. It was better to risk failed winter operations than to risk losing the next election.
In short, city councillors cravenly failed to demonstrate leadership.
We are now watching a similar failure of leadership unfold with council’s oversight (in both senses of the word) of the fire department. In this case, however, the unreasonable political demand is that fire stations can never be closed and fire resources can’t be shifted around for the most effective fire protection for everyone.
Let’s back up, and put Chief Doug Trussler’s proposed plan for redeploying fire resources, including closing some stations, in historic context. (I wrote about this at length here, if you want to more fully follow the issue.)
No one at City Hall will tell you this, but after amalgamation, the fire chiefs in Halifax sucked. They were bad managers, they failed to bring all the pre-amalgamation fire districts together coherently, and their old-boy lack of professionalism needlessly caused bad blood with the firefighter unions.
Basically, there was no coherent management plan for fire services whatsoever. Fire stations were where they were because they’ve always been there, and it didn’t matter if they were in the best location for growing populations.
To give another indication of how bad things were, there weren’t even written standards for what it took to be a firefighter at the time.
By 2005, council was beginning to see that there there was no coherent plan for the fire department, and that management seemed to be on auto-pilot. So council ordered the then-fire chief to come up with a service delivery plan — to find out what level of service should be provided and how to provide it.
The fire chief came back with a document in 2006, a decade after amalgamation, spelling out for the first time what levels of service should be provided. The problem was, the fire department couldn’t meet those service standards, so council said, OK, we’ll aim to get 70 percent of the way there, and every year, the fire department should audit its performance, come back to council, and we can talk about what funding or other changes are needed to get to better service levels.
That was a reasonable approach to the problem. Council took a bad situation, and developed a plan to address it. Had they not failed to follow up on it, it would’ve been a rare example of actual leadership.
But those annual audits never happened. The fire chief simply ignored council’s direction to conduct annual audits, and the department continued on auto-pilot for another seven years of crappy management, no one paying attention to service standards or how to best allocate resources. Council, too, let the issue drop; not once did a councillor say, “hey, where are those annual audits?”
Doug Trussler was appointed the new fire chief in 2012, and he immediately saw the mess in front of him. The first thing he did is make peace with the black firefighters, ending a long history of racism in the department. Then he addressed the top-heavy management in the department, firing a quarter of the dead wood brass doing nothing but sitting behind desks. Then, he went back to those service standards, looking at council’s direction back in 2006, completed an audit that had been ordered but never done, and developed the plan to redeploy resources in some sort of way that makes sense.
Hear my extended interview with Trussler on the latest Examineradio podcast.
Here’s how I explained the plan last month:
[Trussler] is embarking on a wholesale realignment of fire stations to best meet the service standards that had been completely ignored before he arrived. In the urban area, this means completely closing fire stations #4 (Lady Hammond Road), #11 (Patton Road in Sackville) and #13 (King Street in downtown Dartmouth.) Trussler says all areas covered by those stations will be covered by other nearby stations that will meet the service standards, and staff from the closed stations will be redeployed to other urban stations, cutting down on overtime.
Trussler is also calling for moving a couple of stations — #8 in Bedford and #9 in Sackville — shifting them to the west to also give coverage to the rapidly developing Bedford West area.
The biggest political complaint is going to come from Trussler’s plans for rural stations, which are primarily staffed by volunteer firefighters. There is a complex set of issues involved — too complex to explore here in detail — but the bottom line is there are too many rural stations with too few volunteers. Trussler wants to shift most of the honorarium money for urban volunteers into the rural areas, enter into reciprocal agreements with fire departments across county lines at Enfield and Hubbards, close four stations, and reconfigure how a handful of others are staffed. I should note that Trussler already closed five rural stations in 2013, but even with the past and planned closures, all properties in rural areas will have access to fire services as per the service standards.
In other words, he’s bringing professional management to a department that has had crappy management for 20 years. He’s developed a plan that will lead to better overall fire protection for everyone in HRM. And he’s doing what council itself directed the fire department to do nine years ago. To use a much-loved word, Trussler is being BOLD, taking the bull by the horns and doing what’s right*.
And for that, he’s being crapped on.
Trussler is being crapped on because councillors once again aren’t demonstrating the leadership needed to explain to an uninformed citizenry that closing the local fire station is in their best interests.
To use just one example, the closure of the Lady Hammond Road and King Street stations would allow the firefighters currently assigned to those stations to be redeployed to the ladder trucks that aren’t fully staffed, both on the peninsula and in Dartmouth. But Councillor Gloria McCluskey points to the high-rise buildings going up on the Dartmouth waterfront as reason why the nearby King Street station shouldn’t be closed, even though closing the station is the best way to protect those very same high-rise buildings with ladder trucks.
That’s not to single McCluskey out. Facing an onslaught of complaints from residents, councillors from across the political spectrum, including the usually thoughtful Jennifer Watts, have ragged on Trussler’s plan rather than explain its virtues. Educating the public is evidently just too complicated a task for councillors. Easier to let the broken status quo broken continue than to risk the ire of an uninformed citizenry.
Last week, councillor Tim Outhit asked Trusller what it would cost if, instead of redeploying existing fire department resources, all the existing fire stations were kept open and new stations were opened where needed, and more firefighters were deployed to existing gaps like the ladder trucks. Trussler responded with a quick back-of-the-evelope calculation that he’d need 75 new firefighters, which Outhit calculated would cost $7.5 million annually. But that figure doesn’t include the technology upgrades, new stations, and equipment purchases that Trussler’s plan envisions.
Coincidentally, the $7.5 million figure is almost exactly the same amount winter operations are underfunded by.
I can see where this is going. Councillors won’t demonstrate the leadership needed to counter an uninformed citizenry demanding that no fire station ever close, so councillors will vote to keep all fire stations open amid some vague promise of in the future adding new stations, buying new equipment, and filling existing gaps in the system. But then, in the future, as with winter operations, councillors won’t demonstrate the leadership needed to tell an uninformed citizenry that providing proper fire protection means increasing funding, which means raising taxes, and so those promised new stations, new equipment, and filled gaps will never materialize.
I don’t know what the fire department version of this year’s icy sidewalks is, but whatever it is, we’re heading there. It probably won’t be this year or next, but sooner or later the fire system is going to have some stresser, the equivalent of a hard winter, and something’s going to fail.
*I can fault Trussler for one thing, however: not playing politics. He should have realized that putting his plan out all at once would lead councillors to form a coalition to defeat it in whole. It would’ve been better to bring out the plan in pieces, over a few years. If he had started, for example, with a plan for moving the urban honorarium for volunteers to rural areas and closing the King and Lady Hammond’s stations, very likely the rural and suburban councillors would’ve gone along with it, despite the urban councillors’ objections. Then, the following year, he could’ve moved to close the rural stations and open a new Bedford station, which the suburban councillors would agree to and the urban councillors would have happily signed onto in retribution. The third year he could’ve put forward the closure of the now-reduntant Bedford and Sackville stations, which only the local councillors would oppose. It’s unfortunate, but in the absence of strong leadership from politicians, it’s left to managers to play political games to fill the void and do what’s best for citizens.