It could be said that Henry Braun has an almost unique view on how the City of Abbotsford operates.
The experienced businessman turned councillor has completed his first year in office. With the exception of Mayor Bruce Banman, Braun is the only new face at a council table filled with political veterans.
Recently, he sat down with the Abbotsford News to talk about his experiences and to look at some of the issues facing the city.
What’s the city’s number one issue?
“The biggest issue I think we have in the city is where is our financial plan? The financial path that we are on is simply unsustainable. When you look at each of the master plans and you add it all up, we can’t afford it. We actually should be having tax increases of 10 per cent each year as far as I can see, in order to carry out those master plans.”
“When the long-term financial plan eventually comes before council, I think it will show that the city is going to hit the financial wall by 2015 or 2016.”
What long-term financial plan are you referring to?
“KPMG is doing that for the city. It was started before I was on council. KPMG is looking at all of the things we have put in motion, all the projects examined in all the master plans. (Master plans examine long-term, usually 10-year, goals and projects in various areas including transportation, agriculture, water, parks and recreation and fire services.)
“For (the KPMG report) to take over a year tells me some things. It’s either way more complicated, or maybe the consultants don’t want to tell us until we get through this budget … I think it’s going to open our eyes.”
“It’s easy to say raise taxes, but when there’s no more money and the people can’t give any more, well, I get all sorts of emails from people who say ‘I can’t afford this any more.’ ”
In regard to a long-term financial plan, should the city be proceeding with the $17.5-million YMCA partnership?
“I would say today, no. Had this proposal come prior to Plan A, I think I probably would, well, even then I’m not sure I would support it. The reason is, the city isn’t getting anything in return for $17.5 million. There’s nothing wrong with the Y, we just don’t have the money.
“If we’re going to put up half of the money, I think we should have half of the equity.
“Everybody says there will be no tax increase for the $17.5 million. That’s true, but that’s only a partial story. If we tell the people five years from now that we don’t have the money to fix the roads or the sewers or other capital things, then guess what’s going to happen? We’re going to have to go to the people for a referendum and say we have to borrow, say, $30 million to do X, Y and Z. At that point, there is a tax increase relating back to a decision we made in 2012.”
Was it difficult to make the transition from the business world to the political world?
“I am certainly looking at things that I actually didn’t think I’d be having to look at, water being, of course, the biggest one. It took us 10 months to get to a place where we all agree that we don’t have a water source issue. And if somebody told me that, I would not have believed that it would take that long. I’ve asked some hard questions of our staff, and that’s been tough. I don’t like to go poking holes in people’s balloons. But some of those questions needed to be asked and there’s some more that we need to ask in the future. So on that point, yeah, it’s probably been a little more difficult than I thought it would be.”
How do you feel about this year’s tax increase of 2.06 per cent? Is it fair?
“It depends who you ask. Some people think we should have a three per cent increase; some would say we need five per cent. Others would say we need minus five per cent. There’s no short answer.
“If this was a private business, I think you could easily shave 10 or 15 per cent off and produce a higher level of service, but you can’t do it with the present system. If we keep doing it the way we’ve been doing it, this is probably as good as it gets.
“I’ve heard enough times from staff that we’ve wrung all the efficiencies out, and probably they have, under the current management model. But we’re going to have to make some changes.”
The Abbotsford Heat hockey club has cost taxpayers millions. Is there any way for the city to solve the ongoing problem?
“I sat down with the ownership group and asked them some questions, and said this obviously isn’t working, but that was a year ago and it’s working even less now. That’s going to be a little harder to fix. There are some solutions but they are all going to cost money. The question then becomes how much money. Maybe we should cut somebody a cheque for five or six million dollars and make it go away, or try to negotiate.
“If I could figure out a way to solve the problem by making some changes and when I say make changes, I mean, maybe we need a different team here – but those things don’t come for free. If you want to make changes and get out of agreements, it costs money. The question is, how much?
“Maybe a good lawyer needs to help determine if the city has any leverage in the contract. I’m assuming lawyers looked at this when they put it together, but I’m not aware of any attempts by the city to change it.”
What kind of leverage could there be?
“The municipal charter does not allow us to make agreements for more than five years and there’s good reason for that. We have an agreement there for more than five years. Now, I understand our lawyers, before I got here, looked at that and they determined the supply fee agreement that we have does not violate the community charter. OK. But lawyers are known … it depends on which side of the fence you’re arguing on. What if a lawyer said that is illegal? That would give us some leverage.
“There is no question that the province didn’t want cities, municipalities, to enter into 10-year deals, or more than five. I don’t think there’s any ambiguity about what that is. The question now, is what kind of a contract is this? Does it violate or doesn’t it? If I had to pick, I tend to say I think we may be offside. But I have no basis. I’ve not heard anything from our staff to that effect – it’s just my personal point of view.
Some people feel that you ask a lot of questions at council. Is that a fair assessment?
“Yes, I would say I probably ask more questions than anyone else on council. Some might say that’s a good thing, others might think that’s not so good, depending on who you ask.
“It all comes back to the water. I lived here since 1953, so I’ve grown up with this city. But when the water referendum came, I was actually on the yes side when it first came, before I tossed my hat in the ring.
“The reason I came out on the no side is because the information we were being told was just not accurate. Our consumption wasn’t increasing. It was decreasing. We decreased our overall peak water demand 33 per cent.
“So, then I began to question other things, and one thing led me to another place, and so, yes, I’ve been asking lots of questions and I have more to ask.”
Has asking so many questions created friction between yourself and city staff?
“I don’t think it’s caused me any problems. I think some staff are probably uncomfortable with some of the questioning. But I’m always nervous when everybody approves everything in any organization.
“I have a choice. Either I can rubber-stamp and let a report go through that I know is flawed, or you ask the question to get some clarification.”
Have you found flawed reports?
“Let me start with the water. When I got here, the reports would say, and I’m paraphrasing, ‘due to the ever-increasing demand for water,’ and I said our water’s gone down 15 per cent on an average day use and 33 per cent on peak days. When are we going to start taking this verbiage out because it contradicts the actual data? So they have been doing that.
“In other cases, simple addition didn’t add up … That actually shocks me. People say ‘Henry, you should come in and talk to us,’ and I said, ‘So that I now have to become the checker? That’s your job.
“If I start correcting your work before it goes to the public, then … I’m going to kill myself here because I don’t have enough hours in the day to check everything. I only do spot checks.’ ”
Do people treat you differently now that you are a councillor?
“Yes, I’ve noticed that. And some people want to be seen with you. They think that you have influence that might help them. Because people phone you and say, ‘This is my problem, go fix it,’ and while I want to listen to them, many of the questions have to do with staff functions.”
Has being a councillor taken up more of your time than you thought?
“Yes, absolutely. My wife would say way too much time. This is supposed to be a part-time job. I think I can safely say that it’s a full-time job.”
When you decide to leave politics and look back on your career, what do you want to see?
“I would like to leave the city with a good financial state.
“We cannot spend money we don’t have. Every country is in trouble, We’re running deficits federally, provincially.
“This isn’t rocket science. This is business 101.
“I ran on three things. I wanted to get to the bottom of water, and I feel we are just about there; and fiscal responsibility, putting this city back on a financial footing that is sustainable. And a more open and transparent government.”