The Anvil Centre edition! I have three questions on two topics:
Dale asks —
I was heartened to see that the recent budget includes a line item related to signage for the Anvil Centre. The building has been up for 3+ years and has thousands of people traveling by it on foot, bicycle and vehicle with no indication at all as to what the heck is going on inside. The budget item sets aside $100,000 “to work with a sign expert to determine more effective signage outside the Anvil Centre”. Please tell me that the $100k will include more than the expert consultation. Also, why not have a competition for the signage which would probably give a better outcome and will also provide publicity for the Anvil Centre?
I had two very similar questions arrive on this, and the short answer is yes, the $100K is the entire budget for the signage project, and will include more than just the planning and design. Hopefully this will result in signage and wayfinding to draw more people into the Anvil when things are happening inside.
There is a point to be made here about how we set out budget for projects like this. Municipal finance is sometimes a terrifying thing, because it involves various layers of policy, regulation and reporting, and it all must be kept transparent for obvious reasons. The diversity of things we spend money on, the need to not demonstrate favoritism or bias when purchasing, our requirement to enter contracts in service delivery, and the relative reluctance to face risk in spending run up against the fact that every check and balance takes time and staff resources that make everything less efficient. It is more complicated than that last sentence, and these complications – all designed to make government more accountable to the people they work for – are a big reason why people who say “a City should run like a business” are only indicating that they have no idea how government works.
If I ran an underwear store in Downtown New West, and I wanted to change my signage, I would call a few places to see who could provide such a service. I might get some quotes, and choose the lowest bidder, or I might call my uncle Ernie who has a sign company and give him a discount on boxer briefs if he could bang a few signs out for me at cost. I may even decide to go to the artisanal organic sign company up the block because the owner is a neighbor, gives generously of her time and energy to community-building, I like keeping my money local, and I don’t mind paying a little more for a quality product when I know the person who I am buying from. I may buy one less sign, or a slightly smaller one, because that is all I have in my budget right now, or I may go for a bulk discount and go a little over my budget to get a lot more. The purchase process is dynamic, I can act fast in response to the market, and my personal preferences. And no-one needs to know how much I spend on signs, except maybe Revenue Canada when I report the signs as a business expense at the end of the year.
Local Governments can’t do this. Our ability to “sole source”, or buy from a preferred person, is generally limited to smaller-cost items purchased irregularly. To buy anything substantial or enter into a longer-term supplier agreement, there needs to be a budget line. Depending on the cost, it may need to go all the way up to Council to approve the purchase as part of the annual Financial Plan or a Financial Plan update, as was the case for the Anvil signage program. It is outside of regular operating costs, and big enough that staff need to come to Council to ask for budget room to do the work. Problematically, they likely cannot do much more than some preliminary cost estimates before that ask (i.e. they cannot enter a contract, even a “Contract A”, without budget authority), but spending less than the budget will be easy while spending more than the budget difficult.
Once budget is approved, staff is then required to go to the market and ask for bids. Depending on the type of project and the estimated budget, that may mean going out to get three quotes, or it may mean a much more formal open procurement process like you see listed here in BC Bid. This process is regulated by our internal policies in order to prevent favoritism, to make us complaint with proper public process, contract law, and trade agreements like the Agreement on Internal Trade and the Northwest Partnership Trade Agreement. So, yes, there is a competition for the work required by practice and law.
Strangely, there is no actual statutory obligation for local governments to procure goods and services through this competitive process, and the trade agreements above are not legally binding on Local Governments, yet we are creatures of the Province, and are expected to follow these guidelines, or be subject to legal challenges or expensive arbitration by bidders who feel they were aggrieved by us not following due process. There is also a bunch of contract law around this the exists in parallel to legislation, but I am getting way deeper into the law than I am qualified to opine upon. Short version is: we have policies and practice in place to assure that public funds are spent transparently without undue bias ,and suppliers have a fair chance to compete for projects.
This, of course, often puts us at a significant competitive disadvantage when purchasing compared to underwear store guy above. If the market knows you need to buy something and exactly what you are willing to spend, you are entering into a negotiation with one hand tied behind your back – especially when it comes to purchasing a specific property or very specialized services with limited suppliers. This is why the City is able, under Sections 90 .1 (e) and (k) of the Community Charter, to discuss things like business negotiations in a closed meeting, although the eventual expenditure must be approved in an open meeting.
There is another strange part of municipal finance that is partially a result of this cumbersome process – every year we underspend our capital budget. For some reason the Koch Brothers anti-tax brigade never talk about this when complaining about our budgets, but that heads us down another long hallway…
One of those little things, three years ago there was a number of red seats and tables in front of the Anvil Centre, then they disappeared over Winter and never returned. I really liked those seats and often sat there enjoying a coffee I purchased up the street. I do often wish they were back, the benches further up are too close to the street/traffic for me. Any chance we can get the red tables and chairs back?
The red chairs that were in front of the Anvil were part of a larger City pilot a couple of years ago to try to set up a few cheap/quick seating areas around the city. The same chairs popped up in other places, including the Uptown Parklet, in front of the Queensborough Community Centre, and out back of City Hall. They have also been moved around a bit to different places, to see what sticks as far as making some of our public spaces ”stickier”. Unfortunately, the front on the Anvil was one of those spaces where the chairs didn’t really work out. A few people liked them (obviously including you!), but many found the spot too hot in the summer and not well connected to anything else, while there were some trash issues that required some management. So when the Downtown BIA wanted some help with seating for Fridays on Front, those tables and chairs were lent to them, and you will see them being used in the Front Street Parklet area.
As always, this leads to another conversation related to Dale’s question above: the public activation of the ground space around Anvil Centre. Bringing this new cultural centre into operation has been a slow and iterative process. There are many parts of it that are running exceptionally well (YEA New Media Gallery!), some that have really ramped up in a good way in the last little while (YEA Theatre programming!), but there is also some more work to do, and I think making the ground floor (inside and out) a welcoming community space that contributes to a lively downtown street scene continues to be a challenge. Council is aware of this, as is the staff at Anvil. The opening of Piva’s patio is a great addition, but that fact that they are across the street from a vacant lot is still a problem, as is the design of 8th Street that does little to draw people out of Plaza 88 onto the street, but I’ve been banging that drum for (Oh. My. God. Was this 8 years ago!?) a long time.
We have work to do there, but after all this time, I wonder if we can get it done.