Monthly Archives: June 2012

It’s time for the good guys to stand up

Posted June 15, 2012

Since the beginning of the year there has been a series of revelations in the management of the city of Guelph that would curl the blood of Rasputin.

The ongoing saga on a $33 million compost plant that is yet to work, is money already spent.

Intrigue and conspiracy floats through the halls of power in 1 Carden Street with the Mayor and her sidekick, Chief Administration Officer Ann Pappert conducting inquiries as to who, how and what is being leaked. The civic plumbers are hard at work.

Meanwhile the Chief Librarian announced that a new downtown library would open in 2017 costing $63 million. Her announcement added that a fund-raising specialist is being hired to raise another $10 million to equip the new mid-town edifice to literacy.  Is it perhaps true the ancestors of the Shah Jahan who built the Taj Mahal were hired to design the new library?

Then the Mayor got huffy with Coun. Cam Guthrie, who persuaded his fellow opposition councillors to file a freedom of information request. It started when a staffer refused to give Guthrie a copy of an air quality report from the Ministry of the Environment regarding the new compost plant.

Enter the Integrity Commissioner to investigate how the story got into the public prints. His report was so sanitized as to be laughable. Can you image John Stewart of the Daily Show getting his hands on that situation? The wags at the Hall are speculating on how much the Commish charged for his one-sided report.

Along comes the proposal to create a river side park at  the intersection of Gordon and Wellington streets. There are several businesses currently operating on the proposed site including my favourite, Angel’s Diner (the smoked meat is to die for). That proposal is projected to cost $9 million. Lawyers, man your wigs, this is going to be a bonanza for you when expropriations start.

What is it with Mayor Farbridge and her council supporters? They seem bent on calling in the legal beagles when they don’t get their way.

The lawsuit count includes the new City Hall with the fired contractor suing for $19 million; Fighting the Wellington-Dufferin- Guelph Public Health board over spending $10 million (Guelph’s share of the $17 million cost) for a new headquarters on Stone Road; the $233,000 spent on outside counsel to get rid of a lawsuit launched by the relatives of Lt. Colonel John McRae over his World War I medals.

These examples are only a handful of how your money is being spent, or, will be spent. The noose of financial ability of the city of Guelph is being tightened.  The collective arrogance of the Farbridge coalition of sticking more than $90 million of added debt on future councils presents unprecedented fiduciary irresponsibility.

Now is the time for good men and women in this administration to stand up and refuse to allow any more reckless spending.

This party’s over.

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Laugh-in at City Hall

Posted June 13, 2012

It was reported in the local tabloid that the sale of the former civic museum property on Dublin Street is imminent. So says Jim Stokes, the city’s realty services manager.

The property was listed more than a year ago for $942,000. But while Stokes says he is hearing about interest in the heritage-designated property, there have been no offers.

Warning to buyers:  If considering purchasing this property, you will be facing microscopic overview if you attempt to renovate or change anything. The Guelph administration is obsessed with preserving designated properties at any cost.

It was revealed when the city was doing the budget in 2007 for the new civic museum it was estimated the sale would earn $500,000.

With a reported chuckle, the realty manager said: “the amount that was budgeted wasn’t based on anything. I think somebody pulled a number out of the air and said we should be able to get that at least.”

Wonder if that kind of thinking went into estimating the cost of the new museum? The figure established in a staff report said the cost would be $12.7 million. And the city has been sticking to that number for five years despite cost overruns due to foundation and faulty design problems.

It would appear that there was precious little investigation by those charged with the task of estimating the cost. Outside estimates today place the real cost to exceed $20 million by the time the landscaping is completed.

The project is reminiscent of the city take-over of the new city hall and firing the contractor for failing to meet completion deadlines. The fall-out of that exercise is a $19 million lawsuit yet to be resolved.

Details of these projects are beyond the reach of public scrutiny.

But think of the yuks generated when the city responds to enquiries.

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The numbers game

Posted June 13, 2012

This is what happens when you bring CBC comedian Rick Mercer to town.

Page one of the Mercury’s black line is proclaiming: “City ends year with a $6.9M surplus. Move to the first paragraph and the word “almost” in reference to the $6.9 million is used.

It’s a dilemma every headline writer faces: How to write a head that pulls the reader in without distorting the facts. In case you haven’t read the story, the surplus was $6.8 million according to the acting treasurer.

Details.

Then the infighting starts when you turn to page two. There was reference to an unnamed council committee accepting a staff recommendation that the surplus be directed to replenishing reserves. Also accepted was placing $1.1 million in a new reserve entitled “Strategic Reserve.”

Coun. Gloria Kovach complained that the spending was being approved before council had approved the new strategic plan.

You get the drift. It’s the way our business is conducted at 1 Carden Street… spend first and account for it later.

But a more interesting story on page three of the same issue reported the status of scofflaws – those who avoid paying fines to the city. In 2000, the Province downloaded operations of the provincial courts to the municipalities. That year there was $5.6 million in defaulted fines in Guelph.That number grew to $11 million by 2008, when city council wrote off $5 million in defaulted fines.

It now appears there is some $6 million in defaulted fines still on the books today. This was despite efforts by Brad Coutts, the city’s courts manager and his staff, to get people to pay.

The manager said the amount of revenue has remained relatively static for the past decade, despite the huge write-down of uncollected fines four years ago.

Coutts suggested more staff could reduce the outstanding fines. There’s a solution, hire more people to increase revenue.

Isn’t it odd that the city can write off $5 million when the economy is going into the ditch and boast about a $6.8 million surplus in 2011?

That’s either dumb management or good luck.

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She never promised us a rose garden

Posted June 11, 2012

At a recent meeting of the Public Liaison Committee overseeing the new $33 million compost plant, members were told that “this is a waste facility and I don’t think we can guarantee there will never be odours.

This was in a letter by Janet Laird, Executive Director of Planning and Building, Engineering and Environment and point person on the compost plant project. I don’t think they print business cards that can handle that title.

First some background.

From 2003 to 2006 the council led by Mayor Karen Farbridge maintained a policy of composting of wet waste. That council also introduced the three plastic bag system to households. During that period, it is interesting to note that Ms. Laird was the person in charge of the management of waste in the city.

In 2006, a new council was elected under the leadership of Mayor Kate Quarrie. It was apparent from the get-go that the compost plant, a metal building, was a management nightmare exhausting extreme odours, a deteriorating structure due to chemical reactions of the composting and creating a safety hazard for employees.

The neighbours formed the Guelph Waste Management Coalition under the leadership of Ken Spira. The group complained bitterly of the smells emanating from the original plant and flowing into nearby neighbourhoods.

Council listened and shut the plant down, the manager was terminated and the wet waste was shipped to a New York State incinerator. It’s important to note that cost of this waste removal was $85 a tonne.

In 2006, Karen Farbridge swept back into office along with 10 members of council who supported her policies.

Enter Janet Laird with a new proposal to reinvent the composting of Guelph’s wet waste.

She now denies promising there would be no odours from the proposed plant. During the planning and public hearings, it was emphasized that the plant would be odour free.

The planning by Director Laird’s staff did not include any alternative to handling the wet waste other than building a new composting plant. It was proclaimed that the plant would be state of the art in handling the city’s wet waste.

But then things started going off the rails.

The final design of the plant approved a capacity that was three times the city’s needs for the next 20 years.

The successful contractor, Maple Reinders, said one of its associated companies would negotiate with Waterloo to have its wet waste processed in the new plant.

At the same time, questions were raised about the cost of the city operating the plant. Estimates by Guelph Waste Management Coalition calculated the cost would be $342 a tonne. That was more than twice the price to be paid by Waterloo.

To this day, after eight months of operation, the Laird department has not released the real operating costs of the plant. Also, the plant has never reached operational capacity.

Now, one would think that such a huge project would be thoroughly examined by the Ministry of Environment (MOE) along with the assigned city officials.

Along came a major curve ball with the MOE stating the plant could not receive waste in plastic bags. The decision was made to spend another $15 million to supply bins to households and custom trucks to empty the bins.

Was this never considered in the design phase of the plant?  Or was it submerged to avoid a negative public reaction before the plant was built?

Meanwhile, in her letter, Ms. Laird upset the Public Liaison Committee by stating that the odour complaints made last November “had not been verified.” She further chastised residents commenting they “should not be encouraged to report faint odours.

This plant commenced operation last September. It was halted from November to February when more testing was done with small amounts of wet waste.

Now the city is importing 900 tonnes of wet waste from Hamilton, starting in July, for a six-week test to determine if the plant is meeting all terms of the contract.

This project, foisted on an uninformed public, is an example of arrogance by the Farbridge administration that is consumed with the environment.

Indeed, a rose by any other name.

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The secret report the city doesn’t want you to see

Posted June 7, 2012

By a circuitous course a report about Guelph’s new $33 million compost plant has fallen into our hands.

This report carries a warning it may contain “information that is privileged and confidential.”  Further, “dissemination, distribution or copying this communication is strictly prohibited.”

Before certain councillors demand an investigation by the Integrity Commissioner, whose recent report has been labeled “old Yellar”, this report about the compost plant operations is in the public domain once posted on the Internet.

The astonishing aspect is the lengths that this city administration will go to suppress, obfuscate, threaten and deny information to which the public is entitled.

It’s treating us like mushrooms who must be kept in the dark.

These actions are directed from the top of the hierarchy with the Mayor and Chief Administration Officer calling the shots. The remaining city staffers only follow orders.

The city’s proposal to test the Watson Road compost plant for six weeks was accepted by the Ministry of the Environment. (MOE)

Here’s the skinny on the wet waste that is supposed to turn into fluffy organic compost. Citizens would be interested to learn where it’s coming from and how much Source Separated Organics (SSO) from outside Guelph will arrive at the plant.

Starting the week of July 9th, the management wants to load 50 tons into the system. A total of 900 tonnes of SSO material will be gradually installed in the plant in the following six weeks.

The purpose is to have the contractor operate the facility for three weeks at maximum capacity without any environmental or other operating issues. This will confirm the terms of the compost plant contract are being met.

This plant was started up last September. There were serious operational problems including odors coming out of the stack and drifting into neighbourhoods. There is now a question of whether this plant will ever operate as designed after ten months of tinkering and adjusting.

Stepping up to the plate is the City of Hamilton. It will happily ship wet waste to the Guelph plant. Some of Guelph’s separated wet garbage is also part of the SSO tonnage required for this test.

When fully operational, Guelph’s contribution is less than one/third of the designed capacity of SSO conversion to compost.  Waterloo is contracted to supply 20,000 tonnes of SSO a year but is currently only generating 10,000 tonnes a year.

Guelph was unable to supply enough for the six-week test so Hamilton came to the rescue.

What’s wrong with this picture?

We spent $33 million to build a plant that we cannot supply enough SSO material in the future to keep it running, even with the help of Waterloo.

General Contractor Maple Reinders controls the three companies that designed and built the plant, manages the operation plus the third related company negotiated the deal with Waterloo. Also Maple Reinders built the Hamilton plant. Coincidence?

Two thoughts come to mind: What incentives, if any, were offered to expedite this deal?  And, who approved spending $33 million to build a plant that has a capacity that this city will never use in the next 20 years?

Add in the $15 million required to supply bins to city properties and the special trucks required to collect the bins once placed curb side.

The odours coming out of the stack at the new plant are not confined to Guelph’s new mega garbage disposal; some is drifting toward Carden Street.

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Media Watch

Posted June 2, 2012

There but I go but for the grace of God category.

Mercury Managing editor Phil Andrews, in his weekly homespun column regaled about the demanding calendar of events the paper covered this week. Only problem was he credited Toshiba with bringing new jobs to Guelph. Slight problem but it was Hitachi that made that announcement. It is great news but no doubt he will be hearing from Mr. Hitachi.

On a more somber note, the Mercury ran a front-page blow-up of a button produced by the Planned Parent organization. The majority copy on the button stated “Homophobia Sucks”. It was inappropriate and a serious mistake in editorial judgment.

The Mercurygot this right

In an editorial May 30th  the Mercury pointed out that it was ironic that the University of Guelph’s Central Student Association would voice support and attendance at the three-month old Quebec student’s protests. At the same time they remain mute on the university’s plan to increase tuition to the maximum in the coming year.

Have we come to partially educated students protesting at whim?

It is noted that the Quebec students in the sciences and engineering are not taking part in smoke-bombing the Montreal subway etcetera. They are smart enough to realize that graduating is the target, not trying to force political change in the province. Why in hell do we care?

Why is the city buying non-legal ads in the Tribune?

Legal advertisements must be published in the local media. But the city administration buys pages of ads admonishing dog owners, gardeners and road construction. These are comingled with the required legal ads such as planning changes, requests for re-zoning, bylaw announcements.

The interesting part is why these ads do not appear in the daily Mercury?

The estimated bill for this is $500,000 a year.

Excuse me while I shut off my lawn sprinkler.

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Changing the deck chairs on the Titanic

Posted June 2, 2012

Note: This is a response to a comment from Geo and Craig on guelphspeaks.ca regarding the restructure proposal of city council in 2014.

The restructuring of council is to recognize that Guelph is no longer a small town. The governance structure of council allows the 12-elected ward councillors to run the show. That is what Mayor Farbridge and a collection of like-minded individuals accomplished in the 2006 election.

They formed an airtight majority that still exists today despite some losses in the 2010 election. The result is evident as millions has been spent to make the city into their image of environmental and heritage perfection.

The governance committee of council is headed by the mayor and has commanded the council agenda to reflect what she feels is best for Guelph. It has failed on many counts.

At the same time, the increase in city staff has resulted in the past five and a half years, of FOF’s (Friends of Farbridge) hired in many key positions. This increased hiring of city staff has resulted in blatant politicizing of the 1,200 plus city staff.

Mayor Karen Farbridge is totally in control.

The embryonic proposal will reduce ward representation to one councillor who would work full-time on behalf of the residents to bring better service and prevent absolute control by one person. Also this proposal includes two full-time councillors to be elected across the city. They would share power with all citizens and focus more on managing the city as a whole, instead of the ward collectivized domination that has created the current situation.

The last thing this city needs is another dictatorship like the one we are experiencing.  The heavy capital spending on waste management ($50 million; heritage ($16 million); city hall and surroundings ($11 million not including settlement of the city hall’s original contractor’s $19 million law suit and associated legal costs); and the ongoing effort to reshape downtown (uncounted millions).

Lost in capital planning is the proposed $63 million downtown Library; the $32 million South end Recreation facility; the east side commercial centre; all promises not kept by the Farbridge administration.

Topping it off there is no wiggle room to borrow money as the city debt exceeds its own limit by 25 per cent.

Council has few choices to bring its financial house in order.

Raise taxes and user fees, dramatically increase assessment or reduce overhead by cutting staff and unproductive services.

The majority of this council gives you an idea of its ability to do critical thinking. Coun. Leanne Piper has been quoted as saying that there is $84 million stashed in various reserve accounts.

So her idea of fiscal management is to spend the reserves to overcome the spending mistakes of the past two terms of the Farbridge leadership.

Yeah, let’s crack the piggy bank so we can buy more candy.

Citizens should be reminded that the city has had no senior financial official in place to control finances for almost a year.  The city has just hired a Director of Finance who does not have a formal degree in finance or accounting. Meanwhile the purge of managers continues.

Matters turned south when a Calgary public relations firm was hired to tell residents about traffic blockages; or engaging a lawyer as Integrity Commissioner at $235 a hour to investigate why a group of councillors were refused an air quality report by staff.

He interviewed the Mayor and Chief Administration Officer, Anne Pappert, but no one from the other side.

This is why a change is needed in the make-up of city council to never allow this to happen again.

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