Windsor has best housing values, but…

MoneySense Magazine has given the City of Windsor a B+ rating in terms of the best real estate deals in Canada.

MoneySense reports:

Windsor, Ont., where house prices are among the best values in Canada, is in the opposite situation. It rated an A for affordability, but since the city is slowly recovering from deep layoffs in the car industry, it only rates a C in the momentum category and a C+ for local economy, giving it a B+ overall.

Windsor was tied with Fredericton, St. John’s, Ottawa, Gatineau, Winnipeg, Guelph and Saint John but scored as one of the  lowest – not surprisingly – in momentum and local economic growth.

MoneySense compared average rents to average home prices, which gives a great indicator of how valuable a home is. Next it compared local wages as to average home prices to see how long it would take for a family to purchase a home. The magazine also evaluated how quickly homes sold and prices increased over the years.

In concrete terms, what the best cities for real estate like Regina and Moncton have going for them is big-city growth and opportunities without big-city prices. While the affordability and growth value of a home are not always the prime reasons to buy in a particular location, knowing that your home is a sound investment in an economically vibrant city offers great peace of mind.

I’ve had discussions with many individuals in the city and one of the common points raised was something that had been bothering me for quite some time.

During economic good times; people amass debt – whether it be a mortgage or credit card or a child’s  post-secondary education. 

After the signficiant job losses our region has faced it goes without saying that one loses their job, but not the level of debt they may have acquired.

Couple that with downward pressures on wages and homeowners are in quite the cash crunch – not to mention the downward pressures on home values  as well as bankrupties (which has impacted the city’s budget) as their financial commitments do not simply disappear. 


Methadone clinic under scrutiny

I’ll have more to write later on this issue – but at the moment I’m growing increasingly frustrated with the turn city council meeting has taken.  All I can say is it must be election time.

Administration prepared a report to council outlining “options to redefine the use of “medical offices” in order to restrict or limit the use of future methadone clinics.”

Administration came up with 5 options for council to consider.

Except at this moment in time, they are not even considering these options.

Instead, council is undertaking a Perry Mason style interrogation of the operators of the new methadone clinic on Lincoln Road.

Forgive me, but that is not the agenda item – and yet another example of how ineffective this council has generally been in addressing issues of neighbourhood importance.

Despite protestations of a handful of councillors and residents alike – this has everything to do with the clientele of the methadone clinic based on comments such as those from Councillor Valentinis and Councillor Jones which include “dealing with the problem” of the methdaone clinic to alluding to unsubstantiated claims of increased crime rates at the University Avenue location.

It seems my last column, “Is Council On Vacation?”, ruffled a few feathers – at least according to some messages I received from furious city employees about the vacation policy as written by the Windsor Star’s Doug Schmidt.

You see, Mayor Francis is nothing short of a martyr.

Rolling up his sleeves, pulling his weight and foregoing family time to commit to his job as Mayor.

No doubt he does –  just like his union and non-union employees.

At least that is how he was portrayed in Schmidt’s January 2 article.

Schmidt wrote Mayor Francis had accumulated 133 days of unused vacation which he is entitled to cash in upon his departure December 1, 2014.

Paraphrasing the Executive Director of Human Resources, Vincenza Mihalo,  Schmidt wrote, “like the mayor, Windsor’s unionized and non-unionized staff are eligible to cash out unused vacation time” when they leave the employment of the city and that “10 days per year in vacation time can be carried over and banked, with any of that unused time eligible to be cashed out upon retirement…” (Doug Schmidt, The Windsor Star, January 02, 2014).

Sounds fair enough – the Mayor is treated exactly as union and non-unionized staff.

But according to the Windsor Star in 2003 and the city’s Non Union Vacation Carryover Procedure  – this doesn’t seem to be the case.

When the city’s former CAO, Chuck Wills, cashed out on over $60,000 in unused vacation, city council decided that needed to change and fast.

“Effective Jan. 1, 2006, all non-union personnel shall forfeit unused vacation time in excess of 10 days unless approval to the contrary is granted in writing by city manager Dennis Perlin”  (Dave Hall, The Windsor Star, March 3, 2003).

Furthermore, any banked vacation time exceeding 20 days must be used,  “by the end” of 2003 and “those with 20 to 30 days must use them by the end of next year and those with more than 30 days must use them by the end of 2005” (Dave Hall, The Windsor Star, March 3, 2003).

So  I wrote City Clerk, Valerie Critchley January 22 asking for a copy of the “non-union staff vacation policy.”

Apologizing for the delay in responding, Critchley replied January 31 that “City of Windsor Bylaw 27-2008 … allows for the CAO to approve any requests regarding banking or carrying over Non-union vacation.”

It wasn’t what I asked for so I asked if this meant there was no “formal policy”, pointing out Schmidt’s article.

Thankfully, it didn’t cost $350,000 as my last FOI request did; and Critchley sent the “Non-Union Carry-Over Procedure” February 4.

The procedure states, “All Non-Union employees are permitted to carry up to 10 vacation days over to the following calendar year. Any days or part days in excess of 10 days will be forfeited (lost) unless the appropriate approval in accordance with this procedure is received.”

So how can Schmidt write, “‘like the mayor, Windsor’s unionized and non-unionized staff are eligible to cash out unused vacation time’ when they leave the employment of the city” when it appears the maximum that can be cashed out is 10 days, unless otherwise approved?

In fact, it makes it sound as if the Mayor’s ability to cash out 133 days in unused vacation is just like his union and non-union colleagues.

But according to city hall sources, it seems the Mayor’s vacation policy is governed by a different bylaw approved by council under former Mayor Mike Hurst.

The Art of Conversation

Since I began blogging initially for the municipal election back in 2006; I’ve met a tremendous number of people with experiences to share and stories to tell.

While I note the irony while I blog , tweet and cross post this entry to Facebook; it was the personal face-to-face contact with the people who make up our great city that enriched my own experience.  

In a day and age whereby communication has been diminished to 150 words or less; or updates on the status of painting one’s toe nails – the art of communication is being lost – along with common decency and respect.

I will not stand on a pulpit and preach as some are apt to do, for I am equally guilty of this from time to time as I fire-off an emotionally charged response before considering the impact it may have.  In the electronic age, it is all too easy to launch a missive – factually based or not – and continue to play Bejeweled or Farmville oblivious to the impact our hastily written words have had.

But standing face-to-face with someone sharing their thoughts and beliefs; engaging in mutual understanding, or friendly debate – nothing comes close to this.  Body language, facial expressions, a light touch of a hand – all add meaning and depth to the near extinct art form of conversation.

Sitting in one of my communication studies classes two years ago; the discussion led to then popular Microsoft Messenger and the impact that was having upon social skills development.  When asked how I prefer to communicate, I simply said I saw no use for Messenger.  If I wanted to talk to a friend or family member, I’d call them.  Or better yet, spend a couple of hours on their front porch sipping our choice of beverage, and saying hello to neighbours.

My statement was met with the expected derision – but for me, there is something to be said for the warm welcoming voice of a loved one or friend over cold impersonal text on a glaring screen void of any emotion.

Throughout the semester I observed how my classmates interacted with each other and discussed the issues (if you can call it that).  I was astounded by what I was hearing for it may just as well have been typed in a moment of anger and sent off without thought.

Pervasive in the discussion was this sense of entitlement; that theirs was the only opinion that was right; and everyone was wrong – laced with quick little quotes from philosophers to justify their statement.  Plain and simple, end of debate.

Of course, I do not blame such applications as Facebook, Twitter, MSN, or Yahoo! – they are only a tool.  The over reliance of these tools, in my opinion, is what is causing the slow and gradual breakdown social interaction over the past decade.

If you disagree with me, that’s okay.  I’ll just Tweet your phone number to all my followers and have them call you.

But I’m sure you’d prefer if we sat down over a nice hot coffee or iced tea and actually listen to one another.

Active Children – A Community Challenge

16,500 steps per day

Carol Kosowan LL.B., B.A. (Law), B.A. (Policy)

What is the significance of 16,500 steps per day? It is the Canadian physical activity guideline recommended for children and youth. The guideline suggests that children and youth between the ages of 6 and 14 years should work toward adding 60 minutes of moderate physical activity and 30 minutes of vigorous activity to their day.  This is roughly equivalent to 16,500 steps per day.

The statistics on our children’s poor health and the consequences thereof are disturbing. The Active Healthy Kids Canada Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth  (2010), reports that excess weight and obesity are becoming more common even among children of pre-school age.  Citing national data that indicates that 15.2% of 2-5 year-olds are overweight and 6.3% of them are obese, the Report raises serious issues. Children who become obese before the age of 6 are likely to be obese through childhood and some estimates suggest that they are four times more likely than their normal weight peers to become overweight as adults.

Studies of activity levels in early years child care settings have shown that generally, children’s physical activity levels are low while their levels of sedentary behaviour are high.  “In fact, long periods of inactivity in this age group are common, with one study reporting that 89% of the day was spent being sedentary.” 

 Faced with statistics such as these, communities are increasingly expected to play a part in providing solutions to this growing problem. Ontario communities lack comprehensive programs that provide affordable after-school physical activity and healthy living instruction. Only 12% of Ontario’s children meet a daily level of physical activity that is optimum for maintaining health and fitness.

Even where good community programs exist, children from low income families are far less likely to take part in these programs since registration and equipment costs are prohibitive. A community that focuses solely on providing mammoth, centralized ice parks, ball parks or playing fields for organized sports teams puts the cost of activity and fitness beyond the reach of low income families.

Recognizing that healthy active living is a shared responsibility that must be addressed by all levels of government, community organizations, schools and health care providers, the Ontario government created the Healthy Communities Fund to provide grants for community initiatives that undertake a collective plan to provide healthy living strategies. The Fund requires coordination and cooperation across community sectors and provides more opportunities for provincial and local organizations to apply for funding.

Municipal governments, more than any others, play a pivotal role in providing facilities that will engage their citizens in a healthy living strategy. Policies at the local level not only provide programs and facilities but more importantly, shape community infrastructure. For what good is a park if it is impossible to access it? How does one walk in safety if there are no sidewalks or crosswalks in your neighbourhood? Why go to a park if there are no facilities in it that encourage active play?

 Municipalities can make the greatest contribution to healthy lifestyles simply by auditing existing and proposed new zoning by-laws and other policies using a matrix that assesses them through a physical activity lens.

Through the use of actual trials geared to all age groups, municipalities can accurately assess whether or not by-laws support or detract from opportunities to be active.

For example, a survey conducted by the University of British Columbia in 2008/2009 indicated that bike paths that are separated from traffic noise and air pollution by a physical barrier contribute to a cyclist’s feeling of safety and comfort which in turn encourages more people, especially women, children and older citizens, to cycle.   Yet, cities continue to rely on crude on-road cycling lanes that serve the small segment of the cycling population not deterred by large volumes of traffic, traffic exhaust and a well-placed sense of physical vulnerability.

Similarly, though cities create parks that are meant to provide children and families with recreational opportunities, the facilities are underutilized because they are either age inappropriate, boring, skewed toward male users or perceived as unsafe by parents because the route to the park or the conditions at the park indicate that children cannot go there or be there without their parents.

Parks and playgrounds should be tailored to the characteristics and demographics of individual neighbourhoods. Staffing playgrounds with outreach workers and recreational leaders can alleviate parents’ concerns about safety and should become the “new normal” for all park planners.

Municipalities across the country are becoming the architects of healthy living strategies that not only seek out and engage community partners, but take a creative, sometimes unorthodox approach to solving community problems that have formerly been seen as intractable. The result has been community plans that make use of local resources, even if at first blush, there seems to be no obvious link between the partners.

     Consider the ingenious solution offered by community gardeners in Portland, Oregon. Volunteers with a local organization called Youth Grow started after-school garden clubs and summer garden camps for children of all ages, dug out and planted school gardens and conducted  parent/child workshops on gardening. School grounds that normally lay fallow and unused during the summer vacation became community gardens, tended by children and their families. Not only did families learn how to grow their own vegetables, they also met many of their like-minded neighbours and shared a harvest of fresh produce.

     Municipal partnerships will necessarily be broadly based and will differ from place to place. A successful local strategy will take a population-wide approach, promote active transportation, focus on the built environment and have a continuous monitoring system in place that evaluates the successes and the failures.

     According to the The Active Healthy Kids Canada Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth  2010, municipalities get a grade of “D” for municipal policies and

regulations that address barriers to physical activity even though there is widespread official recognition that the built environment can either promote or hamper such activity. There simply has not been enough emphasis placed on using tools such as density bonuses, fee waivers, fast-tracked permits and other incentives to assist developers that meet active living guidelines for youth, families, women and seniors “aging in place”. While some communities have been leaders in this regard, most have a great deal of catching up to do.

Learning through living

Now that I am settling into my new digs at the Windsor Square, I have been pondering as to what to do with this blog space.

I want to personally thank all the individuals who have offered their support now and in the past.

Through blogging I have met many individuals who I may not have otherwise have had the priviledge to get to know.  Their insight, as well as their own perspectives, whether we agree or not, have and will continue to have an impact upon my own.

After all, that is what life in our community is really all about.

So what to do with this blogsite?

My political columns and upcoming reporting will appear on the Windsor Square which paves the way to make this blogsite a little more personal.

Even though there have been only 37 years to my life’s experience – there is a wealth of knowledge to be shared through my own experiences or encounters with with friends, neighbours and perfect strangers.

Several years ago before succumbing to long battle with cancer, a close friend of mine said to me that there is purpose, some obvious and some not so, to every random encounter we have in life.  

His last message to me before he died was to live everyday for tomorrow.

It’s such a simple statement that has a much deeper meaning for me – and I thought, what a great blog that could make.

Whether its planning issues in our city or a random encounter with a homeless man begging for change – everything that we do has an impact on another.

And whether we learn or not from these life lessons dictates whether or not we are capable of change, or doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Some will be discouraged from returning to this blogsite and that is fine.

For the rest, I hope you enjoy the ride, because I have no idea where it will lead.

So welcome to Living for Tomorrow Today – a site dedicated to sharing our collective experiences in the hopes of learning for tomorrow.

Too Much Pavement

Recent flooding of cities and towns across the world has attracted the attention of an eclectic group of environmentalists, ratepayers and municipal governments.  As our cities have expanded, natural surfaces have been covered by vast swaths of pavement and asphalt. The urban collection of wide roads, driveways and super-sized parking lots has turned our landscapes into waterslides and sluices that quickly deliver storm water overland to rivers, lakes and streams.

Our attempts to make water submit to our will have resulted in the creation of and reliance upon curb-gutter-sewer systems that are supposed to collect the rains and divert them for treatment before they enter the waterways from which we get our drinking water. Yet the legacy of curb-gutter-sewer systems is downstream flooding, erosion, effluent dumping as a result of sewer overflows and ultimately, water quality degradation. They have also been responsible for disrupting the natural hydrologic cycle, reducing groundwater recharge and stream baseflow, while turning self-cleansing systems like filtration and sedimentation into things of the past.

Other sources of water contamination such as industrial discharges, seeps from landfills and dumpings into our waterways have been the target of regulators for decades. While these traditional sources of water contamination have not been completely eradicated, programs to monitor, minimize and moderate have reduced the impact of these practices on water contamination.

But while we were busy minimizing the impact of industrial dumping, urban runoff became a significant source of water contamination. In fact, authorities now cite storm water runoff as the second-largest source of pollution for Great Lakes shorelines.

     Communities are recognizing that the “end of pipe” solutions they once relied upon are failing them in significant ways and are horrendously expensive to install and maintain. Now some communities are attempting to replicate the natural systems that existed before we covered everything with pavement and other impervious materials. These communities are incorporating urban features that retain water, such as rooftop gardens, wet ponds and dry ponds. Any early Canadian farmer or woodsman would be familiar with the techniques that are now being promoted as “green” best management practices.

Unfortunately, our understanding of these practices is sophomoric – we promote the practices without fully understanding the problem. In every municipality one can find self-styled authorities who delight in donning the environmentalist’s green hat. They call for  expanded road surfaces to provide bike lanes; green roofs that are good for moderating a building’s temperature but don’t make a dent in cancelling out the hydrologic damage caused by a Walmart parking lot; and accept without question our apparently insatiable appetite for paving over bio swales, treed lots and vegetation while eschewing helpful options like permeable pavement, eco grids and increased buffer zones as standard development requirements.

One need only look back at our historic development practices and their legacy of a sprawling network of expensive infrastructure along with the ongoing burden of maintaining and upgrading it to realize how wrong-headed our accepted practices have been. Abandoning the field to environmental dilettantes and hobbyists is no substitute for a system wide approach to earth friendly decision making.