Yesterday, the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta's leader, our unelected Premier, announced a plan to invest $2 billion in school construction projects over the next ten years.
If we ignore the fact that many of the projects announced were already announced once, in some cases twice, I mean thrice, and cancelled or postponed at least as many times, then this is good news.
If we don't ignore that fact, then it's still just wind on a brick wall. The PC's may huff and puff, but in the end, there wasn't a school to blow down.
But let's look positively at this announcement for a second. Finally, there is a plan to construct the space that we need for our growing population. Hopefully each school is going where 10-years-in-the-future Alberta needs it.
But there is something missing in the announcement; the explanation that the PCs are actually using binary math to calculate the real cost.
You see, $2 billion actually equals $10 billion.
(For those who don't understand binary, check my addendum at the bottom for an explanation)
Let me explain why $10 billion in particular, though.
You see, the $2 billion simply announces the construction of 230 empty buildings/modernizations. It costs a great deal more to actual turn those buildings into service centres of education. It takes lots of people (teachers and support staff), resources (textbooks, computers, etc.) and services (electricity, heating, internet, etc.) to operate them.
Alberta's operating budget for Education in 2014 is approximately $6.75 billion. If the province is building an additional 230 schools, that means they'll be adding approximately 10.5% of the current number of schools. Logic then dictates that it would require an additional 10.5% of the current operating budget to make these schools work. That would be an additional $710 million required in the operating budget.
Don't forget, the plan is to take place over the next ten years. That's $7.1 billion extra not currently included in the budget. Account for inflation, and suddenly that $2 billion promise ends up adding to over $10 billion.
Would the expected increase in population by 1 million help take care of that burden? Perhaps. Is the above example a little simplistic? Perhaps. However, it makes clear that simply building schools requires far more commitment than the PCs have undertaken.
You see, each Albertan would have to pay more taxes to cover that commitment. In order to fund healthcare and other social services to similar levels and similar growth while covering this commitment, the PCs would have to increase taxes by about 2%. That doesn't sound like much, until you hear that such an increase would be the difference between an average of about $10,000 being increased to $11,000. For those on a living wage, $1,000 is a lot of money.
Keep in mind, those simplistic calculations are only representative if every Albertan pays taxes. Don't forget, our kids don't really pay taxes, so the taxes have to be distributed over fewer Albertans.
But such an increase wasn't included in the announcement. Nor was discussion on changing how we collect royalty income from primary resources. Nor was there any announcement of some new magical income source for the province (mind you, we are in a by-election, and the PCs love announcements, it could come any day now).
So even if I am optimistic, and truly believe the schools would be built under a PC government, I have no clue how they plan on paying for the buildings and the stuff to go in them.
Thank goodness I'm optimistic about something else; an Alberta Government operated by someone other than the PCs.
Which leads me to the Wildrose Party, as they are the heavy favourites to form the next government. I am reminded of an announcement they made recently about Education. Actually, come to think of it, it was less than a week before the PC's announcement. It's value ... $2 billion dollars. Announced during a by-election.
Is there an echo in here?
As for the costing of this brilliant plan (I say brilliant, because it really is a good idea to inject that money into Education, regardless of who has the idea), again we are lacking in details. The timeline is more aggressive than the PC timeline, going for four years instead of ten. That means their $2 billion announcement becomes only a $5 billion commitment with the operating costs included.
But in four years, we aren't expected to have 1 million new Albertans. We're expected to have more around 400,000 new Albertans. That means more of a burden would be downloaded to Albertan taxpayers. Except that the Wildrose are adamant that taxes not be changed, so they have to find the money elsewhere. I'm not the first to realize this, Luke Fevin pointed it out clearly after the Wildrose release.
I think putting $2 billion into building schools is brilliant, regardless of who actually enacts it, and especially if they are placed in such a way as to encourage the development of communities. I think the commitment to operating these empty buildings should be expressed, and so far it hasn't.
So now I must express my optimistic frustration. I know a party who not only has a plan to fix the infrastructure crisis in Education, but has that plan costed, as well. However, that party hasn't had the opportunity to have that plan brought forth to their membership, and so hasn't been able to publicize it the way they want, which is hard for me as someone who has worked on it. So I have to rely on "just trust me, they have a plan, and it includes how to pay for it." Knowing that plan exists has me very optimistic, but knowing how hard it is for people to trust politicians, especially those who just say "just trust me", has me very frustrated.
So let me put it this way. You know what you'll get from the PCs. The Wildrose have explained their position as well, yet it still lacks the detail necessary to trust it.
You might not know Greg Clark or the Alberta Party yet. But at the very least, I hope you're optimistic.
BINARY EXPLANATION: By referencing binary, I probably just geeked myself out a bit. Computers, who work in binary, only work with OFFs or ONs, Trues or Falses, represented as zeros and ones. In order to represent something else, you have to combine zeros and ones, so binary systems use 10 to represent the number two)
We've lost focus. We are talking about the wrong things.
Don't get me wrong, the things we are talking about need to be discussed. Raj Sherman is exactly right asking about how contracts are being distributed. Danielle Smith is exactly right to call for a public inquiry. The PCs are right to get started on mapping and mitigations, they just don't know how to do it.
None of this matters to many Albertans right now.
We must focus on the disaster at hand, and get the recovery taken care of. The PCs aren't getting that job done, but they are right to focus on it.
There are still hundreds of people, maybe thousands, who have no idea where their insurance coverage stops and the Disaster Recovery Program starts. This is not specifically a High River problem, even though they dominate the news. There are people in Exshaw, Bragg Creek, Medicine Hat, Black Diamond and Calgary still in limbo waiting for answers from their insurance company. Companies are not necessarily at fault; they are trying to protect their bottom line, and they do so by saying "the Disaster Recovery Program will cover that for you". But the job of the government is to protect their citizens, and they aren't doing it.
There are still hundreds of people who also have no place to live. Again, this is not specifically a High River problem, although most of the people in this boat live there. However, there are those who live in Exshaw, Bragg Creek, Medicine Hat and Black Diamond who, because they weren't in the floodplain but were rather in the flood fringe or no zone at all, are unable to relocate. Some of those people are unable to build on the former site because, as could be expected with flood waters, the ground their home used to be on is now very far downstream. Soil contamination is preventing homeowners from returning.
An exemplar; George Lane Park, a beautiful park and campground in downtown High River and just on the flip side of a berm from the river, was heavily flooded; at least 6 inches of silt covered the land. Today, grass grows through the silt.
However, if you drive through the northeast end of the town, almost 60 days after the flood, no grass grows. Not even a weed.
You cannot rebuild a home where grass won't even grow, and expect families to let their kids play there.
The Town of High River's Downtown Core is nothing but empty shell after empty shell. If small business doesn't come back right away, there won't be a reason to rebuild High River.
Residents across southern Alberta know they need help transferring from insurance coverage to Disaster Recovery Funding, and many also know they need help determining how to live anywhere when they can't rebuild where they are. And all they are hearing from opposition parties is stuff they couldn't care less about ... yet.
So congratulations PCs, you are focusing on the right thing. However, that's where my congratulations stops.
It's in their best interests to do what they refuse to.
Under the leadership of Doug Griffiths (not Alison Redford, she has been woefully silent on everything), we have seen flood victims treated like children under his "father knows best" mentality.
At a meeting in High River, Griffiths' numerous "I know how you feel" statements showed he knows anything but how High Riverites feel.
When the official Disaster Recovery Program email is shown to have an autoresponder that says "we will not respond to your email" and is admonished for it, Griffiths responds with "It was fixed already. Try to keep up". Yes father, I will understand that even though you did wrong, I should not expect an apology, but rather will be scolded like a child.
My favorite Griffiths quote (insert sarcastic tone here): "taxpayers cannot be on the hook just because you're scared." I now understand that being scared precludes me from being a taxpayer, thanks for the education, Mr. Griffiths.
The problem is that when Griffiths sees a gymnasium stuffed to the point of being called an illegal assembly full of people who are trying to tell him his government is not doing enough, he patronizes them instead of coming up with solutions.
The solutions are easy. They are in the best interests of PCs, just to get the mob to be quiet, if not to actually help them.
Fund an ombudsman who will help individuals with their insurance, and once they're insurance is completed, have that same ombudsman guide them into the Disaster Recovery Process. The sooner people get into the DRP system, the less Mr. Griffiths will have to hear gripe from flood victims because, get this, he has actually helped them.
The only reason the government would not do this is because of the fear of the cost of paying these ombudsmen. I suggest spending a comparatively small amount on the salaries of these ombudsmen, as it will almost definitely save the DRP administrative costs, and will streamline the process, making it more cost effective and efficient.
Adjust the Disaster Recovery Program criteria to help those where rebuilding is simply not an option. Griffiths has already explained that each DRP claim will be treated on an individual basis. Why not just tell these people that if rebuilding is not an option, steps will be taken to either make it an option, or to relocate. Then Mr. Griffiths will not have to hear gripe from these flood victims because, get this, he has actually helped them.
The only reason the government won't do this is because they are afraid that once they start relocating even just one resident, they've set a precedent. It's a more dangerous precedent to make residents feel as though they have no choice but to walk away from everything they've worked for. Once you do that, the government is going to need to start increasing funding for homeless shelters, because that's where all these flood victims will end up.
Do whatever it takes to get small and mid-sized businesses back in their buildings. Intervene on rental/landlord disputes for a temporary time, and get the repair process expedited in business-places immediately. Help retail outlets purchase stock right away, they are already passed the point of ordering for Christmas. Do what it takes.
The only reason the government hasn't done this, as Doug Griffiths has explained, is that they are still focused on residents, and they'll get to businesses later. Not good enough. No business means no residents. He of all people should know this.
It has become obvious that fatherly Doug Griffiths will not listen to the children. He can't see the forest for the floodwaters.
It also became obvious long ago that the Associate Ministers in charge of Recovery and Reconstruction are not in the position to make these decisions, being relegated by the father to the back of the room or even further outside the hall, as was the case with Rick Fraser in High River last week.
So where is the leader of our province in all this? Nowhere. She doesn't run this province. Even when she said "we will return all to what it once was", the rest of her caucus isn't following through with it. She is not leading. Such a shame that she isn't even willing to consider what her late mother's neighbours are suggesting. Even her constituents in Calgary-Elbow can't get in touch with her. I wonder if the PCs will be willing to allow a non-leader to allow the caucus to continue to run amok?
I hope she steps up to the plate. She needs to show up to her own party. But she needs to do it now, because we're starting to lose focus on the needs of right now.