Category Archives: Alberta Government

Why Not Free Public Transit? (Updated)

The first posting was in March 2014. Time for an update.
The first posting was in March 2014. Time for an update.

Update Introduction: This is the first time in my long career in the non profit sector that I actually believe a Task Force will make a big difference. I am talking about the Mayor of Edmonton’s Task Force to Eliminate Poverty. Because of Mayor Iveson’s consistent leadership and voice on this matter and because of the integrity he brings to his office, I hope to be walking along side of him and many others to do exactly that: end poverty. I mention this because I am taking a position on free public transporation that is not shared by other bright minds who sit on the task force with me. 

I believe to take a position one must be certain enough of one’s rationale to do so while also being open to being wrong. Maybe I am wrong. But right now, I don’t think anyone is really looking at free public transportation as a real possibility. That’s really my purpose here: to create more interest and momentum in looking into this before we just write it off. 

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What would it take to make public transit a universal benefit to Edmontonians?  The cost of a bus or train ride or a monthly pass has become an obstacle for too many people and families.  If you are making the minimum wage in Alberta, a monthly pass, currently $89.00, is more than a day’s pay.

Reality Check
Imagine if that worker had two kids and a spouse who needed monthly passes. Each adult pays $89.00 and each child pays $69.00 for a grand total of $316.00. At the minimum wage of $9.95 per hour, it would take one of the earners in that family spending a week’s wages for the monthly cost of the family using public transit.

With more than 100,000 people living in poverty in Edmonton and an even larger number living pay check to pay check, we cannot allow public transportation to become a barrier to employment, health care, shopping for basic needs, and participating in community life. Continue reading Why Not Free Public Transit? (Updated)

Premier Prentice – My Two Cents about the Budget

UPDATE… at the request of the Edmonton Journal, I rewrote the piece below and the EJ published it HERE.

Dear Premier Prentice:

We met west of Edmonton at a BBQ when you were campaigning for your position. I appreciated your speech and remember thinking you could be a strong Premier and move our Province forward in a variety of ways. I am sure you weren’t all that happy that shortly after winning the post you faced plummeting oil prices and the prospect of $7 billion or so in lost revenue.

I imagine you have a few voices offering up their advice about what to do now. I filled out your online form about the budget. I hope many, many other Albertans did, too. At the risk of being one more voice amongst the din of thousands, here’s mine, written from the perspective of a boomer who has held numerous leadership positions in the community sector as well as operated a couple of businesses. I will try to be as concise as possible.

We have a revenue problem
I would suggest that the loss of $7 billion in revenue represents a revenue problem, not an expenditure problem. It’s a structural problem in our economy – too much dependency on oil. Markets can be volatile and cyclical; we need a more diverse and optimally reliable revenue mix. I know you know that, but I encourage you to do more than release an annual budget. We need a long-term plan that doesn’t allow for a knee-jerk reaction to our revenue issue to rule the day in year one of that plan.

The economy should work for the majority
Please keep in mind that during the boom times, the good times in Alberta, the poor and disenfranchised typically do not benefit, if at all, to the degree of folks like you and me do. The steady rise in the wealth gap provincially, nationally, and around the world indicates that no matter the ups and downs in the economy, it is most often true that those who have wealth continue to grow wealth and those who lack income remain, at best, stagnant. Those in deep poverty are actually worse off than they were a decade ago. This suggests to me that we need leadership that ensures those who are the worst off in our Province should not be pushed further away from what little hope they have of experiencing the Alberta Advantage.

It’s time to raise some taxes and fees
I imagine you know that the Government could raise taxes to generate an additional $8 to $10 billion in revenue and still legitimately claim that Alberta is the lowest tax Province in Canada. That just tells us how much lower we are taxed now.

No one hugs the tax man, but all of us want to benefit from living in Alberta. I hear a sales tax is off the table. Maybe you are right about that, I don’t really know for sure. That said, in Canada, corporate taxes have decreased markedly over the years while personal income tax has not decreased at all. Do you think this requires some review, perhaps a rethink on what corporate social responsibility should be in terms of paying taxes? Corporations create wealth and the wealthy are growing income and assets consistently and significantly.

It’s good to hear that you are concerned about the flat tax we have currently which hurts lower income workers. A progressive tax will help with the revenue problem and lessen the tax burden on those who need every dime they earn to have a decent living.

Isn’t it time to rethink Alberta Health Care fees? We lost $2 billion in revenues when that fee was eliminated. I would think it mostly helped employers because that benefit was typically paid in full or partially by businesses and organizations. It seems to me that it was about that time when our health care system became over-stressed due to a shortage in doctors, and incredibly long waits in emergency wards. There’s some fixing there we need to do.

Public Education needs more support, not less
Teachers are coming out of a three year freeze on their wages. That’s a long time to stay flat as housing, food, clothing and other costs continue to rise. I am not sure we can blame teachers for the looming deficit. Not only do we need to address the wage challenge here, but my sense is some promises made by the Government have not been fulfilled. For example, classrooms now are integrated which means special needs students included as full members in the general student population.

It’s a good thing, but unfortunately this principle of integration has not been supported by the funds required to support teachers in a class room of 35 (which is too big a number) that might have a blind student, a disabled student, three students with learning disabilities and several who don’t speak English. Without the resources, it’s not really integration; it’s more of a gathering of students that teachers must do their best to educate. And by the way, each year our public school teachers spend between $500 and $2500 of their own wages on classroom supplies because our school system has no money to stock classrooms with the basics. Can you imagine the outrage if business forced their employees to spend that amount of their hard earned money on office supplies? Everyone knows this is happening. Time to do something about that.

Don’t abandon the poverty elimination strategy and the ten year plan to end homelessness
The ten-year plan is working and its existence is a prime example of a caring government. If anything, we need a renewed commitment, not the dissipation over time of this incredible and important initiative. We need to end poverty, Mr. Premier. Poverty is wrong and we need to set things right. Hundreds of thousands of citizens are living poor and data suggests that nearly half of the population is living pay cheque to pay cheque. We need a government that pays attention to that because if the economic vulnerability of so many people continues to grow and deepen, we will face decreased consumer spending, impacts on tax revenues, and social unrest.  I know it’s hard right now, but now more than ever is when we need leadership that speaks clearly and boldly about ending poverty for so many Albertans: Aboriginal people, newcomers, youth, single parents, the disabled, the mentally-ill, and the growing number of working poor.

Be careful about what you do to the non-profit sector
Yes, I have a vested interested, given where I work, but please think about this: non-profit organizations are structurally underfunded by governments as well as nearly all community based funders. This means that non-profit employees are paid substantially less than the comparable staff employed by the government and most of the time they receive no pension or RRSP benefits. It’s not that they are not worth the money because often your government departments recruit my staff away and offer them much higher wages. Often these are the same departments that fund our human service contracts and insist on inadequate funding levels. It is often the case that long-term non-profit workers end up retiring into poverty. It’s ironic, don’t you think?

If you cut 9% or 10% to human service agencies doing contract work with you, you are in effect cutting back on contract funds that frankly do not pay the full cost of the contract and haven’t for years. So please be careful because deep cuts here – and for some any cuts at all – will not only harm more low paid workers but will result in less support for those Albertans that need it the most.

I know. No matter what you do, you will be vilified and praised and everything in between. You won’t please everyone and frankly how could you? I am just asking you to consider the above points and then do what you believe is fair and just as you move forward with your budget.

Thanks for listening.

Mark

We Need More “Human” in “Development”

In an Edmonton Journal article written by David Staples on May 9th, he asked:  “Is Edmonton suffering from a bad case of Big-Shiny-Thing-itis? Often the answer is in the question, isn’t it?

Our community spent $90 million on the Art Gallery. The Arena and the Museum will cost $820 million. Add to that all the other development Staples mentioned and we are looking at another $1.25 billion financed through private investment and of course tax dollars from the city and province. Add the total cost of the city’s office tower and additional development promised as part of the deal and we hit $2 billion  – that’s $2,000,000,000.

Staples didn’t even mention all of the development in the Quarters or the City’s plans to lease an office tower being built by the Edmonton Arena Development (EAD) (a partnership between WAM Development and the Katz Group). It looks like it will save the City of Edmonton substantial money (by 2039), and the deal includes the EAD investing another $500 million in development surrounding the Arena by 2021 although they can buy out of that commitment for $10 million.

And to be fair Staples did not mention the significant dollars the city and province have been and will putting into public transit – perhaps the only major development that will also benefit low income people.

In general, I support development – not all of the above, but much of it.  But where’s the balance in terms of investing in human development, especially with respect to addressing poverty, homelessness, and rising tide of economic vulnerability experienced by nearly half our local population. Continue reading We Need More “Human” in “Development”

The Scoop on Social Impact Bonds

I just came from an excellent meeting with local colleagues who lead some of the best known non profits in town.  We were talking about a number of things, but one topic was the emergence of social impact bonds (SIBs) as another method of financing social/health programs. Social Impact Bonds are very new and the first one occurred in Great Britain in 2010. Today, there are 14 social impact bond projects in the United Kingdom, one in Australia, and a couple or so in the United States (as of 2013).  There are none yet in Canada.

To say that there is wide spectrum of opinion about these bonds would be an understatement. There are sector leaders dead set against them, others who are cynical but still engaged in the dialogue, and still others who are what I would call “soft” advocates. Fewer still are actually putting time and resources into the development of initiatives that could be financed by a social impact bond. Continue reading The Scoop on Social Impact Bonds

Thinking about Progress

I am glad to see so much attention being paid by many community groups to addressing poverty. The Vibrant Communities initiative across the country is heartening and it is producing results in terms of achieving poverty reduction for thousands of households. An evaluation of this intiative is forthcoming, if not already released from Tamarack.

I am heartened by work of Homeward Trust and the substantive work this cross sector collaboration has accomplished to date. I am glad to see the Government of Alberta providing significant funding to help homeless people find a place to live and refresh their lives. It will be interesting to see if the recent Homeless Count in Edmonton will reflect the successes of this initiative or if homeless continues to grow despite these successes.

The question on many minds is to what extent is the work the sector and its partners are doing moving the needle on poverty and homelessness. It is not that these intiatives are not having successes, but rather is the rate of poverty and homelessness still growing beyond those who have been helped?

Quite often I hear non profit leaders criticize themselves and the sector for not moving the needle on poverty and homelessness as if addressing these problems are the sector`s alone to remedy. We all know to address such complex issues, all three sectors – the government, business, and the nonprofit sector – must do so together – not to mention another group called the general public. These are societal challenges, not one`s sector.

I wonder if the real truth here is that the problems and issues facing society are growing beyond our collective capacity to address them, much less over come them. If an initiative results in several thousand people moving out of poverty but overall the poverty rate is increasing, is this the fault of the intiative or does such growth indicate that the problem is growing faster than our answers?

Society has a history of under funding solutions to its problems. Approximately 15,000 people go to the Edmonton foodbank each month. If this number increases in the future what will that mean? Will it mean failure for the poverty reduction iniatives underway?

I think we can point to a lot of  progress, a lot of successes, and alot of people being helped to overcome poverty and homelessness, not to mention other problems. That progress requires more volume and that will take the collective will to create the capacity required to move the needle.

For me, this is a community development challenge and speaks to the vision and aspirations the community itself has for the community. Do we want to manage poverty so that it stays at an acceptable level or do we believe it is wrong that people are poor and we need to do something about ALL of it?

This suggests to me that the solution is not a programmatic one. It is not confined to poverty reduction initiatives or to housing initiatives. First, these are value questions society needs to address. If we don`t care enough as a society to eliminate poverty and homelessness then we won`t. If we do care enough, then the hope to change things will be accompanied by the will and resources to act.

Maybe that sounds a bit altruitstic or idealistic or whatever. What do you think?