Monthly Archives: March 2012

Passing the buck to taxpayers

Instead of taking prompt action to correct a serious problem with excessive water bills, Mayor Karen Farbridge denied compensation to a condominium complex that received a water bill for $25,000 for a month. The average water bill for the complex was $1,600 in the same time frame.

The motion to compensate the Home Owners Association was defeated when the Mayor broke the 6-6 tie.

The mayor’s rationale in voting to defeat the motion, was that the staff was studying a water bill compensation system and that council should not interfere at this time.

Since the story broke, there have been other excessive water bill complaints that have placed homeowners, in some cases, in dire financial straights.

The city water management staffer said the meter was working at the East End Condo. He failed to explain why the water did not turn up at the wastewater plant. There was no evidence of leakage or flooding around the condo.

Is it possible there may be a few grow-ups in the neighbourhood tapping into the Condo water supply to feed their illegal plants?

This is another case where city staff fails to meet the needs of the public. Compounding the problem is the Farbridge-dominated council tossing the ball to the staff for resolution.

Another example was the $90,000 spent on a consultant to advise the city on proclaiming a neighbourhood composed of 60 year-old homes as a heritage district. There were 17 replies to a questionnaire sent out to more than 400 homes in the designated area.

That works out to $5,294.11 for each reply.

The most recent example was after years of study, the city taxation and revenue manager agreed with a Richmond Hill company to allow taxes to be paid by credit card.  The reasoning was that some people wanted to accumulate points on their credit cards.

Let’s see, a home with a tax bill of $3,000 would be charged 2.66 per cent for the privilege of using their credit card. That comes to $79.80 charged by the out-of –town card processor. In most bonus credit cards the payback would be $30.

It will cost almost $50 to pay your taxes by credit card.

Is this a great city or what?

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Where, Oh Where, is our new Chief Financial Officer?

 

When the city approved its 2012 budget, it was signed, among other senior staffers, by Deputy Treasurer Susan Arun, acting as Chief Financial Officer (CF0).

Former CFO Margaret Neubaur was fired last May. Susan Arun was installed as a temporary CFO while a replacement was recruited. Her predecessor, David Kennedy, long-time CFO was also dismissed by the Farbridge administration.

Well, here we are some 10 months later and Ms. Arun is still the senior financial manager in the city hierarchy. There was one abortive appointment when former deputy senior staffer from Kitchener, Dan Chapman, lasted one week on the job.

This is not to cast aspersions on Ms. Arun. She was thrust into the job by a decision made by outgoing Chief Administration Officer Hans Loewig and his sidekick Mark Amorosi, Executive Direct of Human Resources and Legal Services.

It was a tawdry affair to frog-march a capable CFO off the good ship Farbridge, not even allowing her to go back into the council chamber to pick up her belongings. That execution will have a long-term effect on the city administration’s reputation in hiring senior staff.

Even today, city officials have given no explanation why Ms. Neubaur was summarily dismissed without cause last year after three years on the job.

It is yet another example of how Mayor Karen Farbridge and her Gang of Seven have been systematically changing the city to meet their own agenda. Somehow they seem incapable of keeping their sticky fingers out of the routine management of the city.

How do you run a corporation with a budget of some $174 million without the supervision of a senior financial overseer with experience and the credentials to do the job?

Why does it take all this time to fill the job?

Taxpayers should be concerned about this disregard of managing the city’s finances.

There us ample evidence of mismanagement of funds and excessive spending resulting in the debt maximum threshold being shattered. The result of this is that future councils will have to clean up the debt mess and the fall-out of public confidence.

That horse left the stable about two years ago.

 

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The lullaby of Carden Street

This is an essay on how your tax dollars have been squandered to meet the closed-door agenda of the Mayor and her majority supporters on city council.

What most taxpayers don’t realize is their money has been spent on projects to aggrandize the personal agendas of members of the Farbridge majority.

Let’s start with the mistake on the hill also known as the Guelph Civic Museum that was built not primarily to house and display the historic artifacts of our city, but to preserve a pre-Confederation convent building on land the city does not own.

Even the owners of the building, the Roman Catholic diocese of Hamilton, wanted to tear it down to create more parking space for church members. It had not been occupied for 10 years and was in derelict condition.

But the Guelph Heritage group led by now Coun. Leanne Piper fought to restore the building. In 2007 council approved the deal to restore the building and use it as the new home of the Guelph Civic Museum.

The cost to date is a deep secret. Best estimate of money spent since 2007 is close to $20 million. While the original estimate made by city staff was $12.7 million, costs soared when serious structural defects had to be fixed so the public could safely use the building.

Over the five-year construction phase, funds were transferred from the city’s general account to meet the unintended costs of shoring up the old structure.

Any resemblance of the original structure that the Heritage people wanted to save is purely coincidental. The front of the building now has a soaring glass enclosure that was not part of the original structure.

As a result, the decision meant that at best, the new museum would attract an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 visitors a year. Compare this to the number of people who use the facilities of the existing downtown library – some 400,000.

We know now that the new downtown library project was cancelled for lack of capital funds.

Here’s the skinny on the city debt.

The 2012 budget totals $174,629,567. By council rule the maximum debt that can be issued by the city is 55 per cent of the total budget. That’s $96,046,258.

Trouble is the actual debt exceeds $118,000,000.

Not included are some $15 million capital costs to pay for garbage green bins and special automated trucks to pick them up. While this expense will be phased in over three years, the money has to come from somewhere.

Guess where?

This current Farbridge-dominated council has spent the city into a dangerous debt situation with which future council’s will have to deal. It will be a tough job that could require severe cuts in services and increases in taxes to return the city finances to the point where debt servicing will be reduced.

This will eventually free up capital to match the needs of a growing and prosperous community.

Among the financial problems the city faces is the method in which the University of Guelph pays a fixed amount per student in lieu of property taxes. The Provincial Government mandates that the university is to pay $75 per student in lieu of property taxes.

That amounts to $1,650,000 that the University pays the city in lieu of property taxes. To put that in perspective, the U of G pays just .09448 percent of the total 2012 city budget.

Now compare that to Guelph’s largest employer, Linamar manufacturing. That company pays the rate that all industrial organizations are required in terms of property taxes plus business taxes and user fees as well.

It is an unfair advantage that the university has when paying its fair share of property taxes. The university is the largest landowner in the city and operates a lucrative side business leasing portions of those lands to non-university organizations.

The result is the taxpayers of Guelph are subsidizing the University that is expanding facilities to meet the growing demand for post secondary education. Expansion brings additional costs to Guelph taxpayers who are required to bump up infrastructure and services to meet the demands of the expanding university.

Did I mention that that $75 per student is called the bed tax and was set in 1983? There has been no increase or adjustment, even for inflation, in 29 years.

Taxpayers are seduced into believing that city council has control of our finances. The lack of accurate accounting and stonewalling of information is designed to lull us to sleep.

Indeed, beware of the lullaby of Carden Street.

 

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A solution to the demise of the new downtown library

More than five years ago, I protested the Council decision to rebuild the derelict Loretto Convent and turn it into a civic museum. The cost was originally pegged at $12.7 million that was subsidized by some $6 million in federal and provincial government grants.

Today, the cost of restoring this building have soared with the city now admitting that more than $15 million has been spent with the final tally yet to be determined.

When the Farbridge dominated council was elected in 2006, it pledged to build a new downtown library. It did not happen and the prospect of a new taxpayer-funded downtown library has become a hauntingly hollow promise.

With the city exceeding its debt limit and revenues barely meeting spending, there is little room for maneuvering to meet the growing demand for a new library that could cost more than $53 million at last estimate.

And what kind of library is needed downtown? After studying what has been happening in libraries across Canada and the U.S., it is apparent that the library is no longer a place for just books.  They have become community centres for social interaction and civic engagement.

Gone are the days of silence and stern librarians demanding fines for late returns. Instead libraries are encouraging events such as cooking demonstrations by local chefs, volunteer seniors helping children in the library, entrepreneurial databases for businesses and job seekers. The list goes on, as the library becomes not only a resource centre but also a community-gathering place for those seeking information and services.

It would be interesting to compare public attendance figures at the current downtown library with the newly opened civic museum.

Four years ago I wrote a column in the Mercury calling on Council to concentrate its resources by building the new downtown library, making it a community culture centre encompassing the civic museum, library, meeting places and city resource centre.

That suggestion was met with dead silence.

There are several major problems associated with proceeding with a new library.

The lack of city cash resources is a major stumbling block. Then there is the question of replacing the lost parking spaces on the Baker Street site. Not the least is the majority of council who are not in favour of private participation when developing the project.

Here is how it may be done. First, both city and private developers must develop a plan. The golden rule is that the private developer makes a profit to the point that his financing obligations are completed.

At this point the city and developer would share operating costs of the building. Parking fees, condo fees and retail leasing fees would be pooled to reduce costs to each party.

The city’s start-up contribution would be the land and funding facilities under its control and management.

The developer would receive the right to charge for parking in the new underground garage, constructing the designed building roughing in the city activity areas, and receiving permits to build condominium units to a height that allows a minimum of 100 units.

I know. I know. The height of some 28 to 30 storeys will scare the bejesus out of most community activists.

But what is the trade-off? It will be a beautiful, functional building visited daily by citizens and bring residents to the heart of downtown. Wasn’t that part of the Mayor’s promise to turn downtown into a vibrant and exciting area for all citizens?

There are a number of excellent developers and builders right here in Guelph who could be interested in the right deal. The catch, my friends is the attitude of the majority of city Council. If they are wrestling with current downtown proposals to create multi-storey housing downtown, what would be the fate of this proposal?

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The Yokel affect in U.S. Politics

This week, Rick Santorum, Republican candidate for the U.S.Presidency, swept the two poorest states in the Union – Alabama and Mississippi. He defeated his two main opponents for the party’s nomination for the Presidency

Mitt Romney, the self appointed front-runner in the Republican primaries having secured more than four hundred delegates, took a pasting in both primary elections.

It is interesting to examine the math in the two states particularly Mississippi where 97 per cent of those voting were white while 40 per cent of the state is composed of black residents.

Here is a state where the poverty rate is among the highest in the nation. Yet the Republican voters turned to support a white, evangelical Christian in Rick Santorum.

Go figure.

Santorum is a defeated U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania who home-schools his children. He eschews higher education calling President Barack Obama a “snob” for promoting higher education for students.

He is against abortion for any reason and wants to eliminate contraception for women. His comments have stirred women across the country to protest his interference in women’s health issues.

More than 50 years ago the right of women to use contraception was approved. Yet today the issue is being used as a wedge issue to further Santorum’s personal narrow agenda of denying women their rights.

The irony is Republican voters are supporting these views by voting for this throwback to the 19th century.

I call it the Yokel Vote.  Chiefly right wing conservatives who are determined to throw the President out of office next November support Santorum. It is a mantra that has expressed itself in Congress by the stonewalling of progressive legislation proposed by the President to improve the moribund economy by creating jobs.

Can the first black President be hated so much particularly in the South where racism still persists?

You have to go back to the U.S. Civil War to match the hatred for a U.S. president who freed the slaves and defeated the Southern secessionists. His name was Abraham Lincoln and he was a Republican and white. He was also assassinated following the end of the war of the states.

Voting for any one of the three republican candidates in November this year will result in reduction of federal government entitlement spending including Medicare and Medicaid, food stamp programs, support of Planned Parenthood clinics for the poor, veteran benefits plus a host of programs that all three have vowed to reduce and to cut taxes for the rich.

If you were among America’s unemployed, poor and disenfranchised, why would you vote for these guys?

Has the Republican Party lost its senses? By projecting the failed policies of the right in which former President George W. Bush so miserably failed? We now know the outcome of that term of office and its effect on the world economy.

You don’t have to be black or white to vote Republican, just plain dumb.

 

 

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Transparency, the forgotten word in Farbridgeland

I wish Coun. Guthrie the best in trying to instill transparency and accountability in council. The cynic that I am, I hold no hope for any success as the Gang of Eight will defeat any such motion. As for the decision to muzzle the so-called private bloggers by uber propaganda minister Mark Amorosi, that ties in with Cam Guthrie’s attempt to have councillor’s expenses published.

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Rules of the Road

Guelphspeaks is a blog for all the people. Your comments are welcome and add to the diversity of opinion and commentary.

What will not be used are personal off-color comments regarding public figures.

Without being potty-mouthed, there is plenty of material for witty, accurate, meaningful posts and comments.

Let’s keep it clean, friends.

Gerry Barker, editor

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