Monthly Archives: July 2012

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Turkeys and the Titanic compost project

Editor’s note: This is a letter sent to the Guelph Tribune that was refused. Another example of the stifling of free speech and commentary by the Corporately owned Guelph papers.

Posted July 29, 2012

Why was I not surprised to hear a news item on the local radio station that Guelph was paying Hamilton to  ship their green bag compostables to Guelph? The city doesn’t have sufficient green bag volume to commission the new wet-dry facility.

The reason being given for this waste of money is that the projected compost material contracted from Waterloo, which was touted as a cornerstone to  ensure the plant viability, is less than planned.

Guelph had the opportunity to contract with Hamilton for green bag composting but in a misguided ego  trip, decided to  build its own facility. It would appear that the numerically and financially illiterate mayor and her merry band of tax and spend councilors, are seeing the turkeys come home to  roost.

Wait until the less than hoped for efficiencies come to roost when the 3 bin waste collection comes on stream. Another turkey circling city hall. The whole $50 million waste management (that’s an oxymoron if there ever was one) plan will be recognized as a white elephant with the Guelph taxpayers being on the hook for it. What a legacy!

Glen N. Tolhurst

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Guelph’s Titanic –The new organic garbage disposal plant

The City of Guelph is asking the Ministry of Environment if it can accept plastic bags of wet garbage in its $33 million Organic Waste Processing Facility (OWPF).

The official title of the plant is the tony “Waste Resource Innovation Centre.” But what’s in a name?

Now, before we begin, let’s establish the definition of “plastic”.  This application is to be allowed to accept biodegradable plastic collection bags.

Since 2002, citizens have been sorting their waste in tri-coloured plastic bags. The kind that take 1,000 years to degrade.

This was a system created in 2001 by then Mayor Karen Farbridge and her environmental sidekick Janet Laird, chief of waste management for the city.

It seemed like a good idea at the time but the Mayor was defeated in the following election.

Mayor Farbridge was re-elected in 2006 and proceeded to turn Guelph into the organic waste disposal capital of Ontario along with a public relations campaign declaring Guelph as the best place to live, lowest crime rate in the country and, oops, the highest debt in Ontario.

But the plot sickens.

Let’s see. In 2008, Ms. Laird pulls together an idea to build a $33 million wet waste plant. It was to be built on the former wet waste plant site that was shut down because of smelling up the neighbourhood and being mismanaged. This time, like the phoenix, a new waste management plant would arise and meet the needs of the City of Guelph for more than 25 years.

Indeed, it was predicted that wet waste from other municipalities would create a profit centre for the city.

Who would know better than the staff directed by the Mayor and her fellow travelers on council?

Along came Guelph’s Titanic

So the deal was hatched and a company was engaged to build the plant, run it and negotiate contracts with other municipalities to feed the plant to meet its 60,000 tonnes per year capacity.

By comparison, that’s more than the 46,325 gross tonnage of the RMS Titanic. And we know what happened to that ship.

Can anyone imagine plunking  a vessel the size of the Titanic at the Dunlop Drive facility, plus another 14,000 tonnes.

Why build such an oversized plant at the Guelph taxpayer’s expense? Perhaps it was driven by some power egos determined to prove their inflated global theories of waste management.

For the record, Guelph generates about 10,000 tonnes of wet waste a year or 15 per cent of its Titanic-plant capacity.

Instead, in 2008, at the height of the worst recession since the Great Depression, the staff and majority of elected councillors, operating beyond the glare of public input, signed the deal with Maple Reinders Construction.

The plant started operating September 11, 2011. It has yet to produce contracted volumes of reusable compost.

In fact, the current test run to bring the plant up to its contracted production is not using wet waste from Guelph but importing 900 tonnes, over six weeks, from Hamilton.

Did we mention the stuff was coming in plastic bags, the kind that takes 1,000 years to degrade?

In the fall of 2011, there were complaints of odours from nearby residents. The contractor was instructed to remedy the complaints.

              The plant was missing the parts to eliminate odours

Seems some important parts, including ammonia scrubbers, were left out of the construction. This caused leaks. escaping from the stack, to stink up the neighbourhood.

Momma Mia! The whole plan created by Ms. Laird and her team was to eliminate air-borne smells. The plant was not ready to meet neighbouring long-standing odour complaints.

The bottom line. The plant takes in tonnes of wet waste and by a process based on microbiology, magically turns the waste into reusable compost. There are complications. The temperature year round must be within a range to permit the microbes to do their appointed task. If it’s too hot they lay down on the job. If it’s too cold the same thing happens. Meanwhile, the trucks keep rolling in to dump their waste. Not only from Guelph, but now we learn from the Regional Municipality of Waterloo.

That means wet waste from Kitchener, Waterloo and other parts of the Regional Municipality, is heading for Guelph for processing. Is that a great investment or what?

Along came a $15 million spider.

Then, in the middle of the construction phase, the Ministry of Environment (MOE) informs the city it cannot use its current plastic bag collection system. The city council approves spending an additional $15 million to convert waste collection to an automated system employing special trucks and bins.

The bill to Guelph taxpayers has now reached $50 million. That’s $33 million for the plant, $15 million for the new bin collection system plus another $2 million for carrying charges and design changes.

Let’s recap at this point.

Council and staff have committed taxpayers to paying $50 million for a system that has yet to work. Unknowingly, taxpayers are financing a large scale regional Organic Waste Processing Facility (OWPF), the payback of which is uncertain.

Now the city is appealing to the MOE to allow waste to be delivered not in “plastic “ bags but in biodegradable “plastic” bags produced by an Ontario company.

Let’s get this straight. The city commits to spending $50 million, only to discover there exists the option of using bio-degradable plastic bags to collect the waste. The MOE issued a draft of new guidelines in 2009 that would allow the use of biodegradable plastic bags, provided the composting facility was designed to handle the material.

Despite this advice, Council agreed to spend $15 million on a new bin collection system. The decision was based on the MOE denial of using petroleum-based plastic bags in new organic waste facilities, as has been the case in the city for almost ten years.

But that was not quite true, was it?

Was there no discussion between the city, Maple Reinders and the province about the availability of bio-degradable plastic bags before the $15 million decision was made?

There was no business plan for the project

Now taxpayers are stuck with a $15 million bill, a $33 million plant that is very seriously overbuilt and this was all done without a business plan. That’s one of the reasons why the city refuses to make public the real operating costs of the plant, including the 21st century automated-collection system.

Already there is a citizen’s revolt over the bin deal with many questions yet to be answered by staff. Just remember, the days of heavy snow storms will cripple collection of wet waste and back-up receiving material at the plant.

This is a monumental mistake and Guelph citizens are stuck with a disposal system that will take years to pay off. Furthermore it is dependent on the bulk of inbound feedstock coming from other municipalities.

Some questions needing answers

Who made the decision to build a plant with a 60,000 tonne capacity a year, with the City of Guelph only supplying 10,000 tonnes of wet waste per year?

What is the plan to get rid of potential tonnes of composted material? Think Titanic, think big.

What are the real operating costs of the venture?

What profits, if any, can be expected?

What damages will be done to Guelph roads from garbage trucks, from other municipalities, bringing material to the plant?

Who decided to spend an additional $15 million to convert the waste collection system to automated trucks and bins?

When did the city learn that bio-degradable plastic bags containing wet waste would be acceptable at the plant for conversion to compost.

Why wasn’t the public informed of the contract agreements between Maple Reinders Contracting and its subsidiary companies that are part of the waste management plan?

This is a dereliction of responsibility on the part of city Council that has placed this heavy burden on the taxpayers.

Shame.

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The mummification of city council

Posted July 18, 2012

My first mistake was watching the recent city Council meeting on local television. It had all the elements of watching paint dry.

Any attempt by councillors to amend proposals was shot down by the Mayor’s gang on Council whose inane reasoning resulted in defeat of anything unique or different.

It is as if the agenda has been pre-digested by the pro-Farbridge councillors and, because of their majority it’s their way or the highway.

Opposition is stifled at every turn. The five members of Council who are not on the Farbridge team, battle in vain against the diet of political Pablum. It flows out of the secret, closed door meetings held before the regular, and public, council meeting.

Here’s an example of the Mayor’s controlled operation, using picked surrogates to defeat a proposal, this time from Coun. Cam Guthrie, to meet twice in August to do the city’s business.

You’d have thought Guthrie had done something unspeakable in the punch bowl at the Mayor’s garden party.

Coun. Karl Wettstein surfaced like a U-boat on the prowl to speak against the motion citing that it wasn’t necessary to hold council meetings in August. He theorized that the federal government can run perfectly well with the House of Commons off for three months.

The subject of staff hardship was slowly emerging. Coun. Leanne Piper cited how she never stopped being a councillor as she fielded constituent queries and information during August.

The Mayor added her comments stating that this “little council meeting” requires a huge commitment by staff to prepare for such a meeting.

Not one councillor dared to say: “Well, that’s their job, isn’t it?”

Guthrie’s motion was defeated and there will be no Council or committee meetings in August this year. The rationale? Because it’s always been done it that way.

So when it comes to the citizen’s business, August is not happening.

It’s kind of like France, right?

The irony is that Council debated that there would be no tax increases next year. That moved to decide that up to three percent would be acceptable.  The staff report then recommended the starting point could be three per cent. Of course more than $5 million was for increased staff wages, salaries and benefits. This was included in the three per cent scenario.

These Council meetings are laden with pre-digested decisions, arcane procedural rules and iron-fisted control by the Mayor.

It’s the unfortunate fall-out of more than five years of dictatorial operation of the city.

At present, it is discouraging that there is little free discussion by all members of Council on behalf of the citizens who pay the bills.

The city’s business does not stop in August, but the board of directors, aka Council, apparently does.

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How the Farbridge team is taking the city down the financial rabbit hole

Posted July 23. 2012

The following analysis of the city budgets over a five-year period shows how your tax money has been spent by the Farbridge-dominated Council. The facts and figures are sourced from official city financial statements and other documents.

While the city balance sheet is in fair shape, it does not reflect the profligate spending on dubious projects and events in the past and how future Councils will be forced to grapple with bad decisions and high repayment of debt.

You can judge for yourself where the weaknesses are in these facts and figures. It is not a pretty picture and every citizen should be aware that the past and future policies of the Farbridge administration must be curtailed.

The 2011 debt of $121.4 million exceeds the permissible limit of $95.86 million. This limit, composed by Council, establishes a policy of having debt not to exceed 55 per cent of the total city budget in a given year. In 2011, the city budget totaled $174.3 million. Doing the math, the current debt ratio is 69.54 per cent of the total budget.

Simply put, the city’s debt load is $25.13 million over its own established limit.

That difference, 14.54 per cent over the maximum debt ceiling, is not only alarming but probably illegal.

In 2006, the city’s total spending was $226.8 million. In 2011 spending hit $317.7 million, a 40 percent increase. During the same five-year period, revenue increased by only 25.8 per cent from $302 million in 2006 to $379.9 million in 2011.

The five-year growth of expenditures is greater than growth of revenues and is a trend that must be reversed.

By comparison, suppose your income every year only rose by 4 per cent but your spending increased by 6 per cent every year, the outcome would quickly result in a huge deficit in household finances. It’s no different with city finances.

Here are some of the reasons your city is not being run competently.

The city experienced a 70.8 per cent increase in transportation costs, spending $31.5 million in 2006 and 53.8 million in 2011. This included buying more buses and adding bike lanes. Yet hardly any money was spent on increasing downtown parking or traffic control.

In 2006, the city spent $29.9 million on environmental services. In 2011, it spent $63.3 million, a 111.7 per cent increase. This reflects the agenda of the Farbridge administration that has imposed its environmental policies on the municipality.  And, they have done it with little public input or consideration.

In this case, the construction of the wet compost plant ($33 million) and purchase of equipment ($15 million) to transport waste is one example of increased city debt. The effect of these decisions places a huge burden on future Councils and taxpayers. It’s also a concern that the plant does not meet its contracted performance. Details of the contract signed with Maple Reinders, the architect and builder of the plant, are a secret.

In 2006, the city received $127.8 million in taxes. In 2011, tax revenue climbed to $176.8 million. By 2011 that is a 39.1 per cent increase in five years or an average of 7.82 per cent per year. The myth that your taxes only rise by 3 per cent each year is misleading and frankly nonsense.

Let’s break out the sources of city revenues and expenditures in millions:

2011                                    2006                                    Plus (minus)

Taxes                                    $176.8                          $127.8                    39.1 per cent

User fees                            $67.43                           $58.3                     22.4 per cent

Gov’t grants                        $68.3                           $66.7                       2.3 per cent

Other                                    $34.5                            $45.1                    (24.6 per cent)

Total Revenues                 $379.9                       $302                     25.8 per cent

Expenditures                    $317.7                        $226.8                     40 per cent

Let’s look at the costs of staffing our city.

The number of city staff increased by 358 fulltime employees between 2006 and 2011.  Since 2006, the percentage of the tax base to pay employees wages, salaries and benefits, has shot up from 74 per cent in 2006 to 89 percent in 2011.

In money terms, the staff pay and benefits jumped from $94.7 million in 2006 to $155.2 million in 2011. That’s a 63.9 per cent increase in five years.

Strangely, the number of full time employees (FTE) has dropped in the 2012 budget to 1,434.8. This represents a staff increase in six budgets of 289 employees. There is no explanation of the sharp reduction in the 2012 budget as compared to the audited 2011 budget.

In the 2011 budget there was an increase in staff of 31.2 per cent in five years with employee costs jumping by 24.8 per cent or 4.6 per cent annually.

The average annual pay package in 2006, per civic employee, was $82,563

the close of 2011 that pay package had jumped to $103,054.

There are now 47 city employees earning more than $100,000. A number of them, senior managers, earn more than $160,000.

Put another way, while taxes rose by 36.4 per cent in five years, staff salaries and benefits jumped by 63.9 per cent. That’s a compound yearly increase of 10.4 per cent.

The bottom line is the number of staff running the city grew exponentially faster than the actual population growth.

Consider that the staff salaries and benefits comprised 89 per cent of the 2011 tax total tax income.

From this information, the average taxpayer must believe that the tail appears to be wagging the dog.

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Three bins full of It.

Editor’s note: This was a letter written to the Tribune that was refused. Unlike the corporate print media, guelphspeaks welcomes submissions from viewers that are informative, witty and accurate. GB

Posted July 19, 2012

It was with a mixture of dark humour and cynicism that I read the articles “Most of city knows bins rolling out” and “What you need to know about bin system” as published July 12. A few points were noted.

The picture of Heather Connell, city manager of integrated services with Solid Waste Resources, posing with her elbow jauntily resting on one of the three coloured bins was disingenuous. How about a picture of a person with disability in a wheel chair wrestling the carts to the curb in summer, let alone winter?

When was the last time Ms. Connell purchased sugar or flour in a bag large enough to line a green bin?  If shredded paper is to  be placed in a transparent blue plastic bag and then placed inside the blue cart, how can it also be used to  line the green bins? Perhaps Ms. Connell will post a video showing how this can be done as a home based craft? If transparent clear bags can be used for holding diapers, hygiene products and placed in the grey cart, where is the reduction of plastic bags going to  landfill?

Now to  keep the yucky stuff from sticking to  the inside of the green bin, people can purchase paper liners, which add to  the user costs and is simply brilliant.

Likewise, the professed ability to “top up” the green bin with yard waste will mean it will take about 10 weeks to get rid of 5 paper yard waste bags, if they don’t rot out first, and then toss the used paper bags into  the blue box.

As I traipsed around my home in “Guelph the good and cradle of recycling”, I counted three washroom waste baskets containing used tissues, dental floss, and other yucky bathroom detritus, as well as two home office areas with  waste baskets, all lined with repurposed retail plastic bags. Now it appears that the drill will be to empty these bags into  the grey bin and then throw the empty bags into the bin. Again, simply brilliant. I can hardly restrain my enthusiasm as I await my 3 bins in 2014. Perhaps some gifted graffiti artist will appropriately paint caricatures of Larry, Moe, and Curly on them.

Glen N. Tolhurst

Guelph

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Cue the Overture, the Guelph budget dance has begun

Posted July 17, 20012

The 2013 budget workshop is applying the same tactic that has been the case for the past six years. Scare the taxpayers with a big number such as a tax increase next year of 8.5 per cent but then have staff suggest it could be 3 per cent.

Trouble is the 8.5 per cent staff proposal includes a $15 million increase of costs next year.  Topping off the list are staff increases of $4.5 million; $2.9 million bump in police, library and public health costs; increase of $3.2 million in capital costs;  $2.2 million for “growth related “ costs.

This year’s city budget totals $174 million. Adding another 15 million is an 8.62 per cent increase. That’s not sustainable and staff knows it.

Besides we’re only talking about the expenses-side of the budget. What are the anticipated increases in revenue, if any, before the taxpayer’s contribution?

And where does the new downtown development incentive costs enter the picture. One chunk promised to a condo developer is $3.5 million. Without regurgitating details of this risky scheme, this is the beginning of the annual budget dance.

The taxpayers are yanked up, then down, trying to figure out whether the process is to their benefit.

Answer: It a game being played, unfortunately by rank amateurs who scurry about pushing their minor and major agendas.

And you read it here first; the 2013 tax increase will be 3.5 per cent once the dust settles.

I agree that there is a need for belt-tightening of the city budget.

As a public service, here’s how:

Freeze staff hiring for one year.

Freeze all staff wage/salary increases.  Save $4.5 million

Freeze all increases to local boards. Save $2.9 million.

Order all city departments to reduce budgets by 5 per cent. Estimated saving is $5.3 million.

Suspend capital spending for one year

Only increase taxes across the board by the official rate of inflation for 2012.

All of this is achievable if there is political will on the part of council.

It’s time for some fiscal backbone to face reality. This city can no longer afford to increase costs annually 10 per cent, the real estimated expense growth of city budgets over the past six years. And that figure is probably low considering the soaring $118 million debt the city has approved.

This has some troubling background music playing. Already there is the possibility of another $116 million in capital projects being proposed, including the $63 million downtown Library; $16 million proposal to create a riverside park demolishing a thriving strip mall; $37 million for the South End community recreation centre.

Planning these projects goes well past the lifespan of this council and is superficial and self-serving for its members.

What a hangover for the new council to endure.

It’s time for taxpayers to get a break.

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