The Red Carpet: What was both surprising and disturbing was that the people making some of these comments were the very people hired to run the city.

News 100 blueBy Pepper Parr

May 27th, 2019

BURLINGTON, ON

 

Receiving line tight crop

Marianne Meed Ward at the State of the City address to the Chamber of Commerce.

One of the promises Mayor Marianne Meed Ward made to the Chamber of Commerce when she delivered her State of the City address to them was to improve the way business was done in the city.

She created a Red Carpet Red Tape initiative that was going out into the commercial sector to ask questions and to listen. She brought Kelvin Galbraith, the Councillor with the best small business experience in as her co-chair and they have been listening.

For reasons known only to the Mayor the listening sessions have been closed to media – all we have to work with are the statements she releases. There is a lot of information in them.

The first session took place at the Waterfront Hotel where issues that were to become a theme as the Red Carpet Red Tape (RCRT) wagon rolled along.

Parking, getting paperwork and approvals through city hall and finding talent that could be employed and able to find affordable accommodation were mentioned at every session.

We have lifted portions of the reports the Mayor released and put them within quotation marks.

Small business types wanted “Access to qualified young labour. Factors that play a significant role in that challenge are a) the high price of living in Burlington and b) the difficulty in commuting here by anything other than a personal automobile, which many don’t have.

“Trying to recruit skilled employees from surrounding trade schools/colleges/universities is difficult when they find out how expensive starter townhomes or condos are here. With the often bus-train-bus experience most would have to partake in should they decide to commute from a neighboring community with potentially more affordable real estate options, the length of time of the commute becomes too prohibitive. Bottom line: more needs to be done to allow young people to live and/or work here, whether it’s through more affordable housing options or better/faster transit options.

Home church for Wendy HAger is Glad Tidings on Guelph Line.

Is an $800 Engineering report necessary for signageÉ

“Red Tape. Many examples were given of challenges before a business could open, and the labyrinth of approvals and expenses that came along the way. Reference was made to needing engineering approvals on storefront signage (a reasonable request to ensure they’re safe and won’t fall on anyone) but there was a lack of understanding of whether the $800 engineering fee was reasonable, or whether more could be done to educate new business owners about alternative options that may be more affordable. Other examples were given about starting down one path of approval, only to be told later in the process that additional items were needed and additional expenses would have to be incurred that they had not budgeted for.

“Answers given by City Staff were referenced as sometimes being inconsistent with one another, leading to confusion. Overall, many spoke about a lack of support through the process. Those who had been around for 20+ years made reference to having strong and experienced mentors and using their own hard work and ability to pull in experts to advise them on things from accounting to networking and beyond.

The downtown merchants have used special shopping bag promotions in the past. Last summer we all got to see BDBA General Manager Brian Dean in shorts that must have been on sale somewhere.

BDBA General Manager Brian Dean working a crown during a downtown festive event,.

“Some attendees had no idea if they belonged to their local BIA (or whether they even could), and most did not know about support that could be provided to them through partner organizations like the BEDC. Many wished they could give advice to new businesses setting up shop and better inform them of whether the location they are choosing is appropriate for their business model to help them avoid failure, and whether landlords and real estate agents can better help facilitate that evaluation for likelier long-term success.

“Bottom line:” posited the Mayor, “Can a smarter welcome package be created for those exploring starting a new small business in Burlington – one that outlines all the steps needed before opening, the demographics of different neighborhoods, and clearly directs people to the other resources available to help them get there? Can our staff be well-trained to provide a supportive and welcoming “red carpet” experience when new businesses reach out to start the process?

Babes at parking meters

Parking meters are a challenge at several levels.

“Parking. While this is more of an issue for small business owners south of the QEW, such as in Aldershot or Downtown Burlington, it is a known challenge and source of frustration. When discussing Free Parking in December…business owners referenced abuse by people who already have parking passes elsewhere like their condos (but find street parking more convenient), and those who are employees of local businesses and drive to work that month since they can now get free parking. Neither option helps paying customers find additional spots.

It was generally felt that there were too many confusing rules around parking in general (paid during the day but not after 6, but free in December, but still no parking anywhere for longer than 3 hours although there are some lots with exceptions to that, etc…). Bottom line: we need to think about the initiatives we are implementing around parking and whether they are supporting the goal they were intended to support.

The large manufacturers had their own issues.

The Permit process – flaws and delays
Dealing with the MTO – lack of accountability to timelines, unwilling to conduct site visits
City is too slow to react
City staff have a lack of knowledge behind the scenes/of private sector and are unresponsive
Staff are inconsistent in their application of policy
Fees are inconsistent
Turnover of City staff
Sense of confrontation with City staff – rational conversation is difficult
Lack of common sense and practicality in processes
Commercial/employment zoning needs
Regional transit connectivity and transportation/traffic overall
Lack of land availability / larger space for manufacturing
Sign bylaws are too restrictive
Access to high tech talent / post-secondary / new fields & areas of study
Site visits are needed to understand practical issues
Tough finding the right department at the City
Incremental feedback on multiple submissions
Need clear timelines / business timelines
Ineffective communications
Lack of incentives if not manufacturing
Skilled and non-skilled labour/talent

There were issues that were positive; The Mayor referred to them as “issues that were already working from their point of view.

Leader CENTRE

Recent immigrant, on the left, receiving a certificate after completing a course at The Centre.

New council = progressive thinking
The Red Tape Red Carpet Task Force – appreciate the City is listening and willing to change
BEDC support, networking events and TechPlace
Employee retention and recruitment
Recent immigrants in the area provide a great talent pool
Success in exporting / export funding was helpful (got cut thought)
Location: close to highways, the border, and Go train
Innovation through partnerships
Growth of manufacturing locally
Rotational Engineer program uses fresh grads to fill roles
Product development support funding (SRED, IRAP)
Access to a huge market next door (Toronto)
Engineering staff at the City of Burlington are constant, fair, good to deal with, consistent

The Mayor added that the “wealth of knowledge and experience in the room put forward the following ideas about what can change and improve:

Work hard to create a customer service culture at City Hall. Start at the top and trickle down. Help everyone feel good at the end of the day for what they did and how they did it.

Change how work is assigned: Rather than having work assigned to whoever is next available, have the same person allocated to all permits for the same building so that the familiarity is there to increase speed and customer service rather than have so many different people involved each time and forcing them to start at square one and get up to speed.

Advocate and influence with other government and regulatory agencies.

Site plan vs. survey education – field trips and training

Include copyright protection (not here now)

Ombudsman backed by Council

Better performance management of City staff with KPIs attached / measurements

Consider CRM/Software solutions for better digitization/automation of processes as well as tracking

Electronic file transfers of documents submitted

Status on reports on file in less than 3-4 weeks / Customer Status reports conducted by Staff

Lunch & Learns for Developers

Exception approvals at the counter

Staff to ask the question: how can we make this work?

New City staff should have to have spent time in the industry first (externally)

Mobility hubs

Much of the longer term development will be located at the mobility hubs.

Leverage development around Go stations

List of issues that are black/white – clear & automatic (ex: building code)

Personalization of website – “what are you here for today”

Self-serve options

Overall management / admin/ project management for applications

Business concierge support

More mixed-use service available without getting in car

Better marketing and promotion of Burlington to businesses

Need tax credit advocacy with Minister of Finance

Review incentive programs to be more accessible

Incentives to hire new grads

Several of the courses given at the NAME are fully booked months in advance - the students usually know where they are going to be working before they graduate.

Several of the courses given at The Centre are fully booked months in advance – the students usually know where they are going to be working before they graduate.

Need a tech school in Halton (post-secondary)

Ontario apprenticeship: training and tax credit (needs new process released)

Increase limits on “Now Hiring” portable signs

More affordable housing (for employees)

Foreign worker depository

All day Go train (24 hours)

Transparency on timelines / status updates

Be willing to refund processing fees if deadlines aren’t met by City

“Overall”, said the Mayor, “the session on Monday provided a forum for this group of leaders to directly communicate with myself, other City leaders, and each other, helping ensure our businesses feel heard, valued and supported as critical parts of Burlington’s economic health and well-being.

Next up on the focus group list was a session with City staff and partnership organizations:

Mayor Meed Ward explained “the room was asked to identify the most common issues they hear from business owners and there was a lot of commonality: zoning, permits, signs and approvals were all identified as taking too long, requiring too many stakeholders’ involvement, and being challenging to navigate (especially for first-timers).

“Everyone agreed that working towards more of a “One-Stop Shop” would provide a better customer service experience and staffing that shop with subject matter experts who can guide people through the process, set realistic expectations, and provide all the information up front would be ideal. Having people to triage applications so they require fewer revisions would also be helpful in reducing timelines and workload on both sides of the table.

“The room noted that more could be done to get information online and searchable, letting business owners self-serve and self-educate when possible, and do things after hours when appropriate. Marketing, education, and information sharing was a common theme, whether through campaigns to educate prospective business owners on avoiding common pitfalls in the application process, or having monthly open-house sessions where business owners can meet with experts like those in the focus group room to get free advice to help them along the way.

“Looking at technology systems and platforms that enable barcoding/tracking of applications would improve speed and accountability in everyone’s view, and exploring ones that dovetail with those of partner organizations would be helpful as well.”

What was both surprising and disturbing was that the people making these comments were the very people hired to run the city. The Mayor reported that the attendees at this one included the following (the Gazette has added some comment on several):

“Ron Steiginga (by the way a very smart guy who has served the city well) “25+ years in real estate management with the City of Burlington has let him get to know most of the developers and builders in town, build relationships, and stay aware of what is available for sale. He is involved with fees (such as park dedication fees), and the purchase of parks, fire hall sites – sees his role as keeping stakeholders aware and informed of those issues and availabilities.”

“Rosalind Minaji has been in planning and development for 30 years, and a big part of her role is to help walk people through the application process, as well as ensure the city has sufficient and identified employment areas, as well as affordable housing.

Director of Finance Joan Ford does a great job of providing the data ad her department does a good job of collecting the taxes as well. It's the spending side that is causing the long term financial stress. Ms Ford doesn't do the spending.

Director of Finance Joan Ford does a great job of providing the data ad her department does a good job of collecting the taxes as well. It’s the spending side that is causing the long term financial stress. Ms Ford doesn’t do the spending.

“Joan Ford (who runs the best department in the city) has been in finance for 30 years and sees her role as ensuring fees and taxes for business owners are collected in a fair and equitable way, and being transparent to businesses on these items.

“Mary Lou Tanner has been with the City for three years and in her Deputy City Manager role for 18 months. She sees her role as creating a culture of customer service for business owners who come to the City with questions and looking for guidance with what can often feel like an overwhelming or complicated journey. She wants to ensure people feel welcome, get the answers they need, and help make processes easier and better understood.” Tanner created the Grow Bold initiative that Mayor Meed Ward had council scrap once she took office.

“Sue Connor is two years into her role, with 30 years overall in the transit industry. She knows she needs to help move employees around so that businesses have access to the people they need to make their business run.” Connor brings an incredible reputation to the task of creating a transit service that people will use – all she needs is the support of council and the funds to make it happen. If she manages to do for Burlington what she did for Brampton we will be a much different city.

“From the BEDC, Anita Cassidy’s focus is in helping create a competitive advantage here in Burlington so that businesses want to locate here, helping them find talent or space, as well as advocating for what businesses need with partner organizations like the MTO or the Region. Cassidy is waiting to be moved from acting to full bore Executive Director.

John Davidson has been at Halton Region for 13 years and mentioned the Small Business Centre that is run out of there as a good resource for business owners starting out. He sees his role as ensuring businesses don’t get stalled in their approvals/permits journey and working behind the scenes with partners like the City of Burlington and others to remove obstacles.

“Tim Commisso, in the industry for 35 years now, sees one of his priorities as helping implement more of a 1:1 personal touch for smaller businesses who don’t necessarily have the experts and resources of larger firms and developers to help navigate the system. He also expressed interest in seeking out technology that makes the process easier and more trackable, and ensuring city staff have the skills and customer service attitude to make these experiences better for businesses.” Commisso knows the Burlington file – he served as part of senior management before he was appointed city manager for Thunder Bay. He is keeping the city manager seat warm until council makes a permanent appointment – expected sometime in July.

“Brian Dean has been at the Burlington Downtown Business Association for 18 years now and sees his role as retaining and attracting businesses to this area of our City. He works to help acclimatize new businesses, give them market data to help with their business planning, and keep them engaged with their community.” Dean must have been stunned when he heard that some business people had not heard of his BIA.

Hoey retirement“Keith Hoey, outgoing President of the Burlington Chamber of Commerce (15 years now), focuses on: a) connecting people through networking and events; b) educating businesses on things like managing their books or understanding government decisions that will impact them; c) advocating with all levels of government on behalf of business owners; and d) providing discounts and savings to help businesses save money.” A Prince who has earned retirement and will be missed – those shoes are going to be hard to fill.

Magi McKeowen Lancaster look at day's poster work

Allan Magi, on the left, brings a capacity to listen and a collaborative manner to the work he does for the city.

“Allan Magi, 27 years into his tenure, oversees the building of parks, roads, and other infrastructure that needs to be in place to support the businesses in our city. He helps oversee development charges, and advocates with partner agencies to streamline and find common ground to help move things along.

Nick Anastasopoulos has been with the City for 3 years, and 20+ years in the industry. He sees his role as helping get businesses “in the ground” and up and running. He looks for efficiencies and overlap to help streamline processes, and is focused on finding ways to connect partner agencies to work faster together for businesses.

Gerry Smallegange at Hydro gets involved with new businesses and expansions as many businesses have unique or additional hydro needs when they relocate/start up here in Burlington. He sees his role as finding ways to partner with businesses before they sign leases or purchase property to advise them on what is possible and consider meetings or site visits to better equip businesses with the information they need before they sign on the dotted line, so they can avoid zoning or other problems down the road.

“Kelvin Galbraith is new to his role as Councillor but has been a small business owner for 21 years in Aldershot, and is a member of the Aldershot BIA. He sees his role as similar to the Mayor’s: see the issues and help solve the problems.

Blair Smith talking to planner Heaher MacDonald

Heather MacDonald, Director of Planning has the most difficult job – a department that has been flooded with work during a time when both the regulatory and political environment were difficult (impossible?) to cope with.

“Heather MacDonald is newer to the City of Burlington in her role, but has many years of experience including years at Metrolinx, the City of Brampton and the City of Mississauga. She and her team (including Rosalind and Nick) are tasked with ensuring we have buildings and businesses that are safe and of high quality, and helping people through the development process. She wants to impact the level of education and communication outward to business owners to avoid people feeling surprised down the line and ensure they have the right information – and all of it – as early in the process as possible.”

It is difficult to read the narrative on those who took part in the meeting with the complaints that were heard from the commercial sector. There is a disconnect in there somewhere.

When Meed Ward announced the RCRT initiative she said: “My goal is to find a way to help our city grow in the right way and in the right places, and to partner with my colleagues at City Hall, with residents, and with our development community to make that happen.”

The Mayor then met with the developers, using the Tech Place facility as the venue. She was probably not surprised at what she heard:

Vision lack of

Is there a vision? Is it in the minds of city council or in the approach staff take to problem solving.? Or does the public have a vision no one else shares?

The Permit process – flaws and delays
Ability to attain SPAs in a reasonable time
Dealing with the MTO – lack of accountability to timelines, lots of delays
Delays with Halton Conservation
Conflict between the different levels of government
Business mindset is lacking
Lack of accountability with the City
Too many agencies involved
Staff act like they’re afraid of losing their jobs
No incentives to reduce operational friction
Hydro
Inconsistent bylaw/zoning interpretation/zoning uncertainty
Lack of vision
Lack of control over other agencies / influence
Affordability of projects becoming unrealistic: land, construction, time all push up costs
No “leader” to manage applications
Lack of KPIs for city staff (perceived or otherwise)

Prov policy documents

Provincial policies trump everything – and they keep being changed making it difficult to do long term planning.

Provincial policies are shifting / rethinking
Lack of staff knowledge in understanding market forces
Lack of respect for landowner rights
Too in the weeds – focus on important issues
Lack of common sense being applied
Opinions can depend on mood of person who is assessing the application
Building envelopes
No severance / Niagara Escarpment Commission
Environmentals on particular corridors
All the time delays cost money
Political agendas – development applications treated politically instead of on their own merit
Time associated with the severance process (took 2 years)
Zoning inflexibility (ex: Seniors Long Term Care facility)
Timing associated with obtaining a zoning verification letter – used to be 10 days now over 5 weeks
City staff raising issues that do not apply to the application in question
Limited incentives available for developers to build sustainably, and integrate sustainable design features
Public transparency re: cost recovery/recovery funding
Compare to Brampton, where 100 units got approval in less than a year – fast process, open to discussions, and Mayor/Council wanted things to happen
Perception that plants and animals have more rights than people
Hard to get calls returned from City Hall (all departments)
Outdated city standards (ex: Parks)
Lack of downtown parking for offices, bars, restaurants and retail
Transit dead spots

After listening to the complaints and concerns the Mayor did a smooth political pivot and said: “While it took a few minutes to switch gears and focus on the positives, there are certainly reasons everyone in the room is still doing business in Burlington and we wanted to ensure we clearly understood what those are and then she listed them:

Urban design guidelines - block by block

Developers want clear instructions – and will do everything they can to find a way to make those directions work to their benefit; which is exactly what we do with our tax returns.

BEDC as a facilitator, expeditor and supporter
Great fast-track process for building permits
Experienced city staff are good to deal with
Online process that shows if a building permit is closed
Mayor seems very on board
Facilitation at this event was great – Interim City Manager was great facilitator at the table
Professional people to deal with
Sustainable design guidelines
Ability to start work early to help shorten delivery sometimes
Burlington building process is good
Councillor was helpful overriding bad staff decisions
Building department closing out an old permit +
We win most if not all appeals to OMB/LPAT
Development application website is good
Community safety – businesses with shifts / evening hours are less worried for their staff getting to/from work
Burlington’s culture, family-orientedness & energy draws people here to live and work
Access to talent, amenities and housing (high tech talent is easier than other segments though because of housing costs).

Developers do business in Burlington because it is a great market – they can build almost anything and sell it. They have chosen to focus on the high end of the market and for the most part are doing very well.

The Mayor took what she could from the meeting and closed by saying: “We finished the day by leveraging the knowledge and experience in the room to come up with solutions, ideas and changes that the City can spearhead to make things better:

service customer

The key word is service – does city hall know how to deliver it? Will the new city manager make that a key deliverable ?

Priv - public sectors

Private sector experience makes for better public sector employees.

Support a culture of service and efficiency by ensuring staff have clear KPIs and they are part of their performance reviews
Incentives for hitting KPIs and going above and beyond
Business/file liaison to track, communicate, and shepherd a file to completion in a reasonable time
Leadership needs to stand behind file planner
Encourage staff to learn more as things change to drive subject matter expertise (regulations, etc.)
Leverage better technology to streamline and automate / CRM system / Self-Serve
Customer service training / commitment to customer service
Hire more people if short-staffing is impacting speed of turnaround
Cut the timelines to match the Municipal Act
Apply a stronger sustainability lens and offer incentives
Allow multiple levels of approval to run concurrently
Seniors housing/land zoning strategy
Business advisory board
BEDC needs more influence
More advocacy/upward pressures necessary to other levels of government
Stand firm on the position of what is good for Burlington – don’t sit on hands with other agencies
Be collaborative vs combative
Site visits at properties to understand context and better apply common sense
Create more “fast track” and “premium” services – willing to pay for speed
Do more to educate the public about the benefits of growth to help those inherently resistant to change to see the positives
Make it a priority or essential that new hires in these departments have spent at least some time in the private sector on the other side of the table to provide better perspective and understanding
Next round of comments shouldn’t go back to bottom of the pile
Be ok with weighting the value of certain projects in their worth to the community (jobs for example) and be willing to prioritize those in terms of speed and attention – not every project is equal
Apply Artificial Intelligence / automated processes to remove personal opinion from the process
Shorten time frames for turnarounds of minor revisions
Fees should be payable on approval not all up front (or reimbursed when deadlines are missed)
Empower staff with more decision-making power to apply common sense
Remove height restrictions
Educate the public on good planning practices
Be more consistent – don’t change policies when Councillors change
Leverage tech being used in other municipalities (ex: Mississauga)
Focus group with staff: what are THEIR challenges to moving quickly & how can we help
Provide more info on the steps that happen in the process & why it takes so long. What is happening each day over the course of all those months (and sometimes years)?
Quick morning meeting/daily scrum (15 min) each day by team leaders to set goals with staff: what will you get off your desk today and move forward? Then hold people accountable and recognize good performance. Ask the question “What will it take to get this approved today?”

More of a culture of recognition for making things happen. Celebrate those staff.

Interesting that the city spends something in the order of $7 million a year on cultural matters: Performing Arts Centre, Art Gallery and the Museum but there wasn’t a mention of how big a driver this sector is to a local economy.

The Red Carpet is a brave initiative – one hopes that even a small percentage of what got put on the table will actually get done.  Let us leave it at that.

Related article:

Public service is noble work

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