Friendly Update, City Hall: That Time Blogging Got Me In Trouble

Little Ball of Housing MoneyTonight, council is going to make a decision about what to do with the Southeast Lands. I’ve written loads about this already (such as: “Fantastic Tales from the Southeast Lands”). And Wanda wrote an awesome piece in the paper about it too — with quotes from important people and everything. So, I’ll skip the rehash.

Instead, for today, I’ve got a story — a personal tale — that I’ve been itching to tell. It’s about the last time I wrote at length on this blog about the Southeast Lands.

And about the trouble that blog post got me in…

Back in 2012, when the city was deciding whether or not to buy the Southeast Lands I wrote a post about it titled, “Is It Just Me Or Is There Some Weaselry Afoot?

It was really long.

And one of the many digressions in that blog post focused on how the city was planning to shuffle money around to pay for the land. Specifically, how the City of Regina was taking money destined for the Social Development Reserve — our housing fund — and using it as the bulk of the payment. But, they assured us, they were eventually going to replenish the SDR with money they earned off the development of that land.

That struck me as a bit shifty. So I spent some time figuring out what bugged me about the deal and wrote down what I was thinking.

Here’s some of what I ended up with…

What I’m trying to say is, by using $7.3 million in housing money to buy land that’s supposed to be used for housing then using the revenue generated off that land (the revenue that’s supposed to be used for housing) to pay back the housing money that was used to buy the land means that housing winds up short $7.3 million.

In other words, housing gets the shaft.

Euggh. Not the clearest sentence I’ve ever written. But there it is. What I should’ve written was “Why are we using Social Development Reserve money to buy the land? It’s for housing. We have other reserves that can be used for this purpose.”¹

Much clearer.

But the original line goes up on the blog — including the bit about “housing getting the shaft.” It was one small part out of a thousand-word monster post.

It sits up there for some days and then the council meeting rolls around where they’re going to consider the Southeast Lands report. And near the end of deliberations, the mayor of the day, Pat Fiacco, uses part of his time at the microphone to go on a bit of a tirade about correcting misconceptions that are out in the media. He talks about how housing isn’t being shorted any money in the land deal.

And I’m sitting there thinking, “Shit, he’s talking about me.”

He even brought up his “media misconceptions” talking point again in the scrum after the meeting. You know, just to make sure I heard him.

You might not remember this, but the old mayor… he was kind of prickly. When he got his knickers in a twist, he could really ooze resentment if he wanted to. Hell, he was even known to blow his top now and then. But during that scrum, he kept everything at a quiet, indignant simmer.

Still, I suspect that blog post was one of the (many) reasons why Prairie Dog lost access to the mayor for interviews (outside of scrums, that is).

And it might’ve contributed to why he got so snippy with us during his final address to council. (One of my proudest moments.)*

Whatever.

Once he’d said his piece, I paused for a moment and let out a passive aggressive, “Wellllll…” and then dropped it because I didn’t feel like arguing with a mayor in the middle of a scrum.

And I also didn’t feel like sitting down and drawing the diagrams it seemed would be necessary to get my point across.

So the whole thing passed. Fiacco walked away feeling… I don’t know… happy to fly off somewhere to ref boxing? His attendance record was in the tank at this point in his political career. He really seemed to be mailing the mayor thing in.

But, hoo boy, he sure showed me who was mayor that day, he sure did.

Thing is, I stand by my math.

SE housing infographicHere, at left, is that infographic I should’ve drawn for Pat Fiacco. (Click to embiggen.) It grotesquely oversimplifies how the deal went down, ‘natch. That’s how infographics work. But I think it pretty thoroughly encapsulates one of my misgivings with the way the city was funding the land purchase.

So why am I dredging all this up now?

Well, it’s because, from where I’m sitting, the story coming from council — read: our current mayor — seems to be that the city hasn’t decided what to do with the money that’s going to be generated from the Southeast Lands development.²

First off… Seriously? You mean to tell me that in the TWO AND A HALF YEARS that the city has been working on this report, they haven’t come to any kind of internal consensus on where the Southeast Lands money should go?

You mean after TWO AND HALF YEARS of owning the Southeast Lands, we’re just going to have that discussion NOW?

The mind reels if this is true. Tectonic plates make their minds up faster than this.

Second… Sure, maybe we don’t know where all the Southeast Lands money is going to be spent. Be we do know where a good-sized chunk of it ought to be used: Affordable housing. And I don’t understand why city hall is being so cagey about this.

But there are very good reasons to think a substantial percentage of the Southeast Lands money should be earmarked for affordable housing development.

I have FOUR reasons for saying that.

1. WE PAID FOR THE SOUTHEAST LANDS WITH MONEY DESTINED FOR THE SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT RESERVE: I keep pointing this out. And do so because it’s really important.

We have other reserves that were specifically put together for things like buying land. The Land Development Reserve. It’s right there in the name. And we also have a very healthy General Fund Reserve.

Meanwhile, this is what the city alleges the Social Development Reserve is for (from the 2015 budget; emphasis mine):

The Social Development Reserve is funded with transfers from the Council-approved general operating budget and revenues from the Land Development Agreement with Saskatchewan Housing Corporation. The money is used for capital projects that advance affordable housing and social development initiatives in Regina.

So, the only way you can go before council and say “we’re going to use SDR to pay for this thing” is if that thing advances affordable housing and/or social development initiatives.

You can’t just poach money from a reserve to do whatever you want with it. That’s why we set reserves up: to make sure certain priorities (like housing) are adequately funded and don’t get squeezed out by other, larger priorities (like stadiums and potholes).

In other words, based on what we know about where the money was sourced to pay for the Southeast Lands, we know what the money we earn off the land should accomplish. We couldn’t have used the SDR for a land purchase if the revenue we’re expecting was going to fund other priorities.

2. WHAT THE OLD MAYOR SAID: In the wake of my 2012 “Weaselry” post where I argued housing could get the shaft from the Southeast Lands deal, Mayor Fiacco came out and strongly denied that. He was the one who said that housing would not get shafted. And, I seem to recall housing being front and centre in council’s discussion of the Southeast Lands in 2012.

3. WHAT THE ORIGINAL REPORT SAID: Recommendation 6 from report CR12-126, which council passed on August 20, 2012, says this:

That revenue realized from the development of this land be used to meet the commitments of the Social Development Reserve.

The land referred to here is the Southeast Lands. I don’t know how much clearer 2012’s council could have made their intentions.

4. HOW THE SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT RESERVE GETS FUNDED: As that budget quote above demonstrates, the main source of funding for the SDR has been the “Land Development Agreement with Saskatchewan Housing Corporation.” Sure, council can put money into the SDR whenever it wants. But the agreement with SHC was a guaranteed source of money for that reserve.

Now granted, the city’s description of the SDR mentions how that reserve can be used for “social development issues” that aren’t housing. However, that description leaves out language that’s accompanied every other description of the SDR that I’ve read about how the SDR has traditionally been used for housing.

It also doesn’t include this bit of context about the Land Development Deal with SHC from the report going before council tonight:

The funds from the development agreement (75%) were to be used for funding the City’s housing programs and expenditures required approval of SHC Board of Directors.

In other words, when SHC gave us money for the Social Development Reserve, they expected it would be used for housing.

It might also be worth noting that, as far as I know, the SDR is the only source of money for affordable housing initiatives that we have in Regina.

If it goes underfunded — or unfunded — it’s very easy for council to say one day, “Look, we just can’t afford to continue supporting housing initiatives.”

So, if the city doesn’t guarantee the SDR a revenue stream from the Southeast Lands, it will be kinda, sorta like saying that it’s slowly getting out of the business of supporting affordable housing.

And maybe you think that’s cool. Maybe you think affordable housing isn’t the city’s core business?

But I should note that you could at the same time interpret the province’s decision to sell off the Southeast Lands as saying that it too is kinda, sorta reducing its commitment to the business of affordable housing.

And now that it doesn’t have any land to develop and use to fund housing through our SDR, the next time there’s a housing crisis (and THERE WILL BE A NEXT TIME) and the city goes begging for housing support, the province can say, “Hey, we gave you the Southeast Lands for a song. That could’ve been used for affordable housing. What did you do with it?”

I’m not saying the province will say that. I’m just saying, that if they did, I’d have to reply, “Yeah, that’s fair.”

Of course, I can afford to be blase about these things. I have somewhere to live.

But anybody whose housing situation is less secure than mine, or anyone who can remember having trouble finding somewhere to live, should look with concern at council’s reticence to commit to funding the SDR with Southeast Lands revenue because it could mean that, down the road, affordable housing in Regina will get the shaft.

As predicted.

On that cheerful note, I have to wrap this up.

But I’ll end with this…

Under the Land Development deal with the province, 75 per cent of whatever was earned off the Southeast Lands was directed into our Social Development Reserve with the understanding that the money would support housing initiatives.

Now, the city is not required in any way to carry on that practice. They can change things up however they want at this point.

But, if the Social Development Reserve gets anything less than 75 per cent of what we earn off the Southeast Lands, then I think it’ll be fair to say that housing was better off when the province was steering the ship.


FOOTNOTE

¹ What other reserves do we have that we can use for buying lands? Well, there’s the Land Development Reserve of which, the 2015 budget says, “The funding is used for land development projects within the City.” That sounds like a good place. And if it lacks sufficient resources, we also have the General Fund Reserve which the 2015 budget says “is the primary general-purpose reserve maintained by the City to cover unforeseen or emergency circumstances or to take advantage of opportunities.”

Taking advantage of opportunities? You mean like provincial land we could buy at a discount? Like that?

* Let me clarify… (and I’m adding this footnote an hour after originally posting)… It is totally true that near the end of Fiacco’s final term in office I was unable to get phone interviews with him. I was only able to ask him questions during scrums. And it is totally true that he got really snippy about Prairie Dog in his final address to council. But that my Southeast Lands post contributed to either of those things? That’s just speculation on my part. Thing is, there are SO MANY things that could have gotten the former mayor angry with us, the SE Lands may not have figured in things.

² When Wanda asked Mayor Fougere about whether or not the Southeast Lands revenue would go to the Social Development Reserve he responded like this,

“We haven’t made a decision on that yet,” says Fougere. “But, generally speaking, revenue that is surplus to operation in land development goes to the reserve. [Me intruding here: Which reserve does he mean, I wonder?] There’s nothing in the report that talks about where that goes.

“The Regina Regional Housing Builders Association (RRHBA) felt that the profit made should go back into infrastructure, but we’ve made no decision,” he says.

 

Author: Paul Dechene

Paul Dechene is 5'10'' tall and he was born in a place. He's not there now. He's sitting in front of his computer writing his bio for this blog. He has a song stuck in his head. It's "Girl From Ipanema", thanks for asking. You can follow Paul on Twitter at @pauldechene and get live updates during city council meetings and other city events at @PDcityhall.

4 thoughts on “Friendly Update, City Hall: That Time Blogging Got Me In Trouble”

  1. Great article as always, Paul! I appreciate that you (and Prairie Dog) strive to put things in context. History is important, especially on matters such as these where the potential for weaselry is massive.

    (That graphic didn’t open up for me, sadly.)

  2. Sorry MB. We’re probably not back until May.

    Thanks for the heads up, Collette. I’ve fixed the graphic.

  3. Ha! Reminds me of the time that we tried to plan an all candidates debate and when incumbent mayor fiacco refused to attend we made the decision to put a stop to planning the as yet unbooked all-candidates debate. The mayor was pissed. I mean, like I literally had city councilors yelling at me from moving cars on Albert St. ” THE MAYOR’S STILL PISSED!’

    LOL.

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