March 25, 2015

New photo gallery puts focus on Erin

As published in The Erin Advocate

Perhaps it is a short attention span that has led me to try a lot of different things, without becoming an expert at any of them. The pursuit of variety makes life interesting, of course, but still I envy people who can concentrate their efforts and be very successful.

I got a film camera as a present for my fifth birthday, a simple plastic box with a lens, and my friends thought I was a bit strange, going around the neighbourhood in Welland taking snapshots of trees and flowers.

Well, I’m still doing that with the Town of Erin as my neighbourhood, and while the quality has improved slightly, I’m just figuring it out as I go along. I’ve realized that if you wait for perfection, you’ll be waiting forever, and if you don’t share what you’ve got, you miss an opportunity to have some useful fun.

Putting stuff out there for the public has been central to my careers as a writer and graphic designer. The 345 columns I’ve written for the Advocate in the last 7 years are republished on a blog: They are fully searchable, organized by date and topic.

Some articles have photos with them, but until recently the content was 99% words. In January I started a new section within the blog called Somewhereinerin. It is a gallery of photos I’ve taken in the Erin area (plus a few vacation sunsets). Just click on the tab at the top of the home page to take a look.

At first, I was trying to post a new photo every day, until I discovered just how difficult that is while trying to make a living doing other things. A few new ones every week is more realistic.

Of course, I’m not the first photographer to take an interest in Erin. I admire the professional work of Martin Lamprecht (featured on the new Town of Erin website), Tristan Clark who does local news and portrait/wedding photography, and former Advocate photographers Sandra Traversy and Jill Janson, all of whom have web sites.

Whenever I post an article or a photo, I’ll normally send out a tweet – a very small sound in a noisy world – in an attempt to spark some interest and link readers to the blog. You can follow me on Twitter using @ErinWriter, and sign up as a follower on the blog.

Part of the blogging game is to drive traffic to your site, in order to sell products or make money from advertising. My blog, however, is more of a community service than a business, especially since I can’t be competing with The Advocate while working for them.

Still, I thought I’d try putting non-local ads on the blog, to see if they would generate some income. It’s easy to sign up with Google. They put a constant rotation of ads onto the blog that are somehow linked to the content, but you really only make money if people actually click on them.

I’m not much of an ad clicker and it turns out that my readers are not either. After ten weeks, I’ve made a total of $4.85, and they don’t send you anything until you hit the $10 mark.

With an average of more than 80 visits to the blog every day, I thought I might do better than that, but I had no illusions about hitting a jackpot. Still, you never know. Maybe a photo or story will go viral some day. Maybe I should learn how to shoot video.

The curious thing about traffic to the blog is that while the content is all about Erin, most of the visitors are not from Erin. Of the 86,200 all-time visits, less than half are from somewhere in Canada.

The topics obviously have a broad appeal, since I’ve had 20,000 visits from the US, 7,000 from Germany, 3,300 from Russia, 3,000 from France, 2,300 from Ukraine, 1,400 from the United Kingdom, 601 from China and 460 from Saudi Arabia. Go figure.

March 18, 2015

Let’s not be too efficient in setting Town budget

As published in The Erin Advocate

There are lots of good things happening in the budget process upon which Erin town councillors have embarked, but there are some areas where caution and a bit more time are required.

Council members are getting along with staff and each other. Mayor Al Alls is working cooperatively with CAO Kathryn Ironmonger to make sure council business flows smoothly. There’s a positive atmosphere at the Town office, which is refreshing news for all concerned.

Staff have impressed council by presenting a pre-trimmed budget, including only the top priority projects that can be accomplished with a moderate tax increase. Instead of chopping away through five or six grueling budget meetings, the plan is to wrap this thing up in two sittings – a five-hour one last week and the second March 24 at 10 am.

Council has to decide what to add back into the budget, how much to borrow, how much to pull from reserves and ultimately how much to tax. The choices are important, but if they agree with the priorities in the plan set before them, relatively simple.

In considering new debt of $1 million, council was wise to request a report on debt ratios and servicing costs. They’re also thinking of pulling a million and a quarter from reserves, so they need to be confident that such a move will not create problems in the future.

In its key role of setting policies and priorities, council needs to ensure that debates over difficult choices happen at public meetings and that the public has adequate opportunity to understand and comment. Here are some suggestions to improve the current budget process:

Have a public meeting where people can comment on the operating budget, just as they appreciated doing on the capital budget. At the very least, don’t just present a slide show to explain the budget, then approve it the same day. Give them a couple of weeks to digest it and possibly appeal for changes.

Don’t schedule all two of the budget reviews and the final approval for daytime meetings. The most important issues should get some exposure at evening meetings.

Schedule budget meetings so that each department head can appear before full council to state their priorities and answer questions. Fire Chief Dan Callaghan and Interim Water Superintendent Joe Babin had other obligations and could not attend the meeting where their budgets were discussed. What if councillors were considering a change to one of those budgets and needed to know the implications?

With only two budget meetings, players are left out. Councillor Matt Sammut, who ran on a platform of fiscal responsibility, was away for the first meeting and Councillor John Brennan, the voice of experience from recent councils, will be away for the second. Having three or four shorter meetings could lessen this impact and allow time for comprehension and possible amendments.

Finally, council and staff should be careful with the use of “working groups”. These are private meetings of senior staff with the mayor and one other councillor. (Having three council members at a non-public meeting would violate the Municipal Act.)

Essentially, we have two out of five politicians present at what would normally be a staff meeting. This is not necessarily a problem. Discussing strategy on Town issues is beneficial, but there should never be even the appearance that final decisions are being made behind closed doors, or that staff being given clear direction by other than the full council.

These meetings have been used to discuss the fill bylaw and for preliminary cutting of departmental budgets and community grants.

Last week, Councillor Jeff Duncan objected when full council was asked to endorse the pared-down list of community grants without ever seeing it. The problem was quickly resolved, but it illustrates the need for traditional separation of duties: staff make recommendations and council gets enough information to make final decisions.

Perhaps working groups should be treated more like subcommittees, with clear terms of reference and a report with recommendations or options that full council could debate.

March 11, 2015

Erin’s aging water tankers bump fire insurance costs

As published in The Erin Advocate

Shopping for insurance is already an annoying ordeal. Discovering that you have to pay extra because your fire department’s tanker trucks are more than 20 years old makes it very annoying.

It’s a confusing business, since companies may offer highly competitive rates for some types of coverage while charging more for others. So-called “quick” quotes over the phone can turn into hour-long inquisitions about your house and driving habits. I gave up on two quotes from call centres when they wouldn’t call me back later.

My broker (who actually answers the phone) found me a deal with a new company that was going to save me many hundreds of dollars. But when I reviewed the details, it was based on having fire hydrant protection. I told her that I live in a rural area with no hydrants, but that I have the protection of tanker shuttle service.

Firefighters can set up a water reservoir at my house in the event of a fire, with two tanker trucks taking turns filling it up. The insurance industry considers this the equivalent of a hydrant for fighting a fire.

My broker tried to confirm that the Town of Erin provides this service, but found nothing. A phone call to the Town revealed the bad news: last year, Erin lost its Superior Tanker Shuttle Accreditation because two of the trucks are more than 20 years old. The trucks are working fine and providing the protection, but the service no longer qualifies residents for a better insurance rate.

“We are getting calls about this every week,” said Fire Chief Dan Callaghan. “Many residents have a 15% increase.”

This issue does not affect urban residents with hydrants. It applies to rural residents who live less than 8 km from a fire hall, by road. Those further away would not normally qualify for the insurance discount in any case, but check your policy, since company standards vary.

For “superior” accreditation, the one that counts for insurance, Erin Fire must demonstrate to Fire Underwriters Survey that they have the training and two qualified trucks to shuttle water to a test site. They must pump at least 950 litres of water per minute continuously for two hours, filling tankers from hydrants, ponds or the seven underground fire reservoirs in the area.

Erin has three tankers, with model years 1990, 1994 and 2009. In the past there was no fixed cut-off date, but council learned in 2013 that tankers over 20 could no longer be used for the test. In 2014, Erin’s accreditation slipped to “standard” when the second tanker passed the limit. An extension of the cut-off was possible if the Town committed to buying a tanker within an agreed time frame.

A new tanker would cost at least $250,000, but it is only one of the budget priorities that have been delayed. The department is still hoping to replace a 1986 pumper-rescue truck, which would cost twice as much as a tanker.

“Where it is on the list, council will have to decide, but they are determined not to keep passing the buck forward,” said Mayor Al Alls. Each department head has been asked to look at what can be cut in their budget and the current operational review may make additional recommendations about priorities.

Councillor John Brennan said the tanker purchase must be “weighed in conjunction with other pressing needs”. He said accreditation was a factor in 2014 budget discussions.

“Council did not make it such a priority as to be fully addressed in that budget for a variety of reasons and I'm not sure the short time frame of the impending loss of accreditation was fully understood.”

March 04, 2015

Parents apply pressure for Brisbane safety zone

As published in The Erin Advocate

With heavy traffic on County Road 124 and dozens of cars forced to park on the shoulders, parents of students at Brisbane Public School have mounted a strong campaign to get Wellington County to establish a 40 kilometre per hour safety zone.

A delegation made up of Parent Council Chair Rachel Ingram, School Trustee Kathryn Cooper and Town Councillor Matt Sammutt appeared as a delegation to the County Roads Committee last month, armed with a petition from 325 parents and a traffic study that highlights the risks at the Brisbane site.

Sammut said committee members were “extremely positive” about the idea of a safety zone, but that County staff were resistant to the idea of trying to slow traffic to 40 kph in an area where the speed limit has already been reduced from 80 to 60 kph. Parents also want a flashing amber sign in each direction to warn drivers of the safety zone, at a cost of $7,900.

The speed limit would be lowered only during school transition times, 8 to 9:30 am and 2:30 to 4 pm. Instead of approving the proposal, the committee sent a recommendation to the full council that staff should review all schools on County roads and report back to the committee.

Sammut said that if the eventual decision is to install flashing signs, but leave the speed limit at 60 kph, “It would be better than nothing, but parents would be extremely upset.”

Traffic problems at the school have increased since the addition of junior kindergarten and all day (every day) kindergarten, pushing the school population to 416. With little parking available on site and no room for expansion, parents must park on both sides of the former Hwy. 24 roadway during drop-off and pick-up times. The school is served by 17 buses, and vehicles parked on the side of the road create visibility problems.

The traffic passes at a rate of one vehicle every five seconds in the morning (slightly less in the afternoon), with more than 18% of them being trucks, according to the traffic study.

As a parent, Sammut decided to get involved after witnessing a near miss between a small child and a truck. He said a safety zone would only cost drivers a few seconds of time, but provide a great benefit to the school community.

In October, parents met with school, board and county staff to demand action. Mark Bailey, Chair of the Upper Grand District School Board, told the county in December that many drivers do not obey the speed limit, with some exceeding it by more than 25 kph.

“The high traffic volume and speeds make it dangerous for children and their families,” said Bailey, asking the county to move quickly to establish a safety zone.

Ingram told the roads committee that there has been at least one accident at the site this year, and that the county could face a liability problem if there is an injury. According to criteria published by the Transportation Association of Canada, Brisbane definitely qualifies for a safety zone, the delegation said.

They provided research showing widespread use of 40 kph school safety zones, including urban areas such as Guelph, and at rural schools in Peel Region.

“The County has a duty to provide safe roads around schools, especially elementary schools,” said the delegation during their presentation. “Be proactive before a tragic accident occurs.”

Clearly, the situation cannot be allowed to continue. If common sense does not prevail at County Council, the school board will have to re-organize its services to relieve the pressure. But even with a smaller school population, a safety zone would still be the right thing to do at this site.