Archive for March, 2012

If I were a customer, I would ask for my money back
March 29, 2012

First off – yes – it’s easy to be a critic. Critics criticizes and rarely do anything about it. In my defense, I tried to do something. I did run for municipal council. I didn’t win. And that’s perfectly fine with me. In retrospect, I wonder if some ran for council just to make sure others didn’t get in. But that’s another story for another time.

I’m beginning to think that my loss was a blessing (I know, all losers say that just like all nominees say it was an honour to be nominated). But really, it was. Frankly, of late, I’m seeing a decision-making process that makes fools of our well intentioned mayor and council. But I also see a council who defend decisions by saying they didn’t have all the information therefore made the best decision they could. This does nothing to bolster my confidence in the institution whose ranks I once wished to join.

Now, I like the new City Hall. I do. Many don’t. When you spend that much public money on a building, it would be better if more people liked it. But they don’t and that’s their choice. So be it. There are, however (and you knew this was coming) a few things that irk me to the nth degree. Here goes.

Item one on the agenda – the agenda. In a nine million dollar building, please tell me there’s a better way to post the official business of council other than sticking a photocopied piece of paper in the window with scotch tape or using a bulletin board circa 1972 with push pins to display other relevant information at the Chambers entryway. I know. Petty. But annoying none the less.

The next item on the agenda also relates to signage. One that was planned and thought out and far more annoying that item one. In the lobby, above the reception counter to the left are spelled out in big letters the words “customer service”. Well I hate to break it to you but I am not a customer. And neither are you if you pay property tax. You’re a taxpayer, a shareholder, a community member, a volunteer, a neighbour – but a customer, my friend, you are not.  A customer implies two things. One – you had a choice and could have offered your custom elsewhere – not true. Two – if you were a customer you could return the goods and ask for your money back – also not true. However, after recent events, I wish I were a customer because I would be asking for my money back, so help me, I would. And here’s why.

1) The City of Salmon Arm in British Columbia, Canada awarded its website contract to a firm in Kansas, not in British Columbia, not in Canada.
The firm in question has more employees than the City of Salmon Arm does. The firm in question does nothing but municipal websites. The firm in question will do the job well. But that’s not the point. The point is that the City purported to go “local” on the tendering by offering one firm a chance to bid on the process knowing full well that no firm in Salmon Arm could do the job. True. I know because that was my firm. But I also know that if that RFP was indeed drafted from scratch word for word by City staff, they wouldn’t need to go to RFP for it. They could have built the darn thing themselves – that’s how technical the requirements were – and this is what happens when big firms help small towns figure out how to get shiny new websites.  To mention nothing of the request for speculative design (free work for consideration of award) which is an unethical practice at the best of times especially so when public funds are up for the taking. But council defended the decision saying they voted with the information they had. So be it. We move on. Or do we? No wait, there’s more.

2) The city voted to approve participation in a $25,000 infommercial produced by a, shall we say legally questionable, firm in Florida.

Florida? Home of swamp land and shady corporations? Now we’re sending money to Florida? Swamp land may well be a better deal. At least we could try reselling it. But the recommendation was made to them by their very own, funded to the tune of $300,000 Economic Development Society. Surely to heavens they’d never recommend an ill-fated scheme? Again, they voted with the information they had. And agreed to it they did. Why the fuss. What’s $25,000 between publicly funded friends – no biggie. You know what, it is a biggie. It’s arguably the single”biggie”est advertising purchase we’ve ever made in one shot (well except for the website business in Kansas). The city of Salmon Arm and its funded agencies and other agencies funded by other levels of government have never ever ever paid $25,000 for any single advertisement ever. And if you must pay, then make no mistake, it’s an advertisement pure and simple – not a TV show hosted by a retired football star featuring specially selected mid sized towns in BC who meet a special criteria and are offered the honour of participating in coverage that will be broadcast in “select affluent US television markets”. If you believe that, maybe you should buy some swamp land in Florida. I feel sure our new found television friends could recommend a good realtor.

So what. Do I feel better now. Not really. Well maybe a little. Blogging is good for the soul. But back to the issue. We have no plan. Nothing says “we have no plan” like “hey Salmon Arm, let’s spend $25,000 on a Florida infommercial to promote our Kansas-built website”.

Some people go to ball games or watch hockey to relax. I like to think about politics and economics which probably means you won’t be inviting me to your next bbq, but I digress. So it won’t come as much of a surprise to you that I’ve researched how much money is spent municipally, provincially and federally on local “economic” development initiatives. You might want to take a deep breath for this. I stopped counting at 3.5 million. Last I checked, there are only 16,000 people in town. Let me do the math for you. 16,000 people, and about 1,200 businesses – or approximately $3,000 per business (even the little wee ones like mine) or $218 per person (even the wee ones like the ones living in my house). If that doesn’t get your attention, then you really are a die-hard baseball fan (baseball statistics are even more complicated than that so maybe we do have something in common afterall).

So please, if anyone is reading, the idea of spending $25,000 on an infomercial is no better than buying tires for a car you don’t own yet. Or carpet for a house you haven’t build. Get a plan. Follow the plan. Analyze the results and repeat. But do not pass GO – you’ll never get that $25,000 back. Ever. And you’ll have all the US market exposure you didn’t need to prove it. We’ll never get our money back as taxpayers, but with any luck, smarter more thoughtful heads will prevail and we can make sure that Florida doesn’t get it either.

Cheque please! I’ve had my fill.Best I leave before they call the Customer Service Manager.

talk about taking the time to talk local
March 22, 2012

Isn’t it time we talked about taking the time to talk about what happens to our money after we spend it?

Let’s face it. We live in a world where what seems, on the surface, to matter most, is how we make our money and how we spend it. How government collects our money and how they spend it. How corporations earn their profit. How pawn shops and auction hunters and storage wars and even housewives spend their money. How killer deals make millionaires of some of us and slaves of others. Did we really work this hard to live in a scavenger economy? I sure hope not.

It’s time we took the time to talk about what happens to our money AFTER we spend it. Not just how we made it or how we spend it – but what happens to it once it’s spent. Otherwise, it’s like saying we only care about sunrise, not sunset. Grand children, not Grand parents. Puppies, not dogs. It’s short sighted and by short sighted, I mean not good.

In life, we have choices. Too many choices, if you ask me. Which is why our brains seem to stop as soon as the debit card PIN number is entered and the transaction is approved. The power of your dollars should really start there. We spend far too much time thinking about the best deal and the best price rather than the best impact.

Case in point. Costco or Walmart. Canadian company with fair wage employees who have profit sharing or minimum wage employees with profits to Arkansas?  WestJet or Air Canada?  Airlines with shareholders who treat you as guests or airline who treats you as “passengers” with wretched staff relationships who put their own spin-off maintenance company out of business to save money on a few upgrades? Closer to home – think Askews vs Safeway. Same deals, same money. Discounted two for one bargains or local economic booster. It seems so obvious to me yet so elusive.

If your money matters to you – and let’s face it – what other choice do we have, please think about what happens to your money after you spend it. Your spending power, as powerful or as weak as it may be, it what really matters. And the sooner we embrace this, the better off we’ll be.

This post wouldn’t be complete without a nod to the city who argues that the best deal for the city is the best deal for us. I disagree. Our money is best spent on one another and our home grown, hard raised tax dollars work best when they work at home. When they leave town, they leave us for good, or as this argument goes, not so good. Our spending power is lost when we foolishly believe that the best deal comes from the lowest price. To think otherwise, is to be foolish. And call me crazy but I still want to believe that I live in a town that elected a team of people who, at the very least, are not fools. But I have my doubts. Don’t we all?

On the other hand, don’t buy local. It’s a free trade economy after all. Just don’t come whining to me when living local doesn’t add up to as much as you expected it, or in the case of  many small businesses who buy local and hire local, expected it to be. But I wouldn’t write this post if I didn’t have total faith in you. Don’t just shop local. Buy local. That’s where the real spending power is.

talk about telling the truth
March 3, 2012

A few days have passed since the Kansas kerfuffle but the underlying problem persists. The truth, in my view, is that the city had no real intention of going local on this job despite Mayor and Council being fervent shop local proponents. It’s easier to shop local for groceries and gas than for a state of the art city management information system and website. I get that. It would not have been easy and it would have been more expensive. It would have required a team of business people and city people to get the job done. And the truth is that’s not how city hall does its shopping. It chose a firm in Kansas with over one hundred employees who do nothing but build municipal sites. They are most certainly experts at what they do. And they are well known in municipal government circles.

On Thursday, a delegation of us designer/printer types went to City Hall at Mayor Cooper’s invitation to review the matter. I’ll tell you quite honestly, I’m not sure council was terribly jazzed about this interpretation of the truth. Our comment that the RFP wasn’t really written to allow for anything but a Kansas style solution probably wasn’t that great to hear about either, if you ask me.

Again, truthfully, a shop local policy, or better yet, a buy local policy is not part of the city’s process unless the price is right. Which means it’s not really about local at all even if as individuals residents and heads of households, we understand the powerful economic momentum of spending local money locally over and over and over again.

Ironically, we raised the money to pay the Kansas firm. You and I. Business owners and property taxpayers. That money will now leave Salmon Arm. We had to earn a fair amount of it to free up $28,000 of it for taxes. It’s not coming back. Not in volunteer hours or paper clips or local wages or hot lattes or donations to the food bank. Not a dime.

What’s the big deal about spending $28,000 of a $25 million budget out of town? No biggie right? There’s plenty more to spend. That’s a very large part of what the city does afterall, issue RFPs, review RFPs, award RFPs. Repeat. And they always ask locals to try. Trouble is, we try but we don’t know how often we win or how loud the sucking sound is when the cash funnels out of town for good. Even “saving” money has a cost when it means spending money out of town.

My final point – that $28,000 might not have been much in the city’s scheme of things but for us creative types, it’s probably the biggest job to cross our paths in the last few years. Hard to watch it fly off to Kansas. No matter which way or how fast you try to spin it.

So, the truth is, we could have done it. It would have been great. It would have cost more money and taken more time. But as Einstein himself was famous for saying, not all that can be counted counts and not all that counts can be counted.

There’s work to do. We’ll keep doing it. Join us if you think our city (and while we’re at it our regional district) needs reminding that there’s no place like home. We need a buy local policy – not a shop local mockery. Ask our Mayor and Council to study how many of our tax dollars are re-circulated on goods and services purchased from Salmon Arm businesses and what the real truth of saving money by shopping out of town really costs us. Let us know how you make out. It’s time we talked.