Monthly Archives: September 2012

Class warfare erupts at One Carden Street

A Four Part series 

Note to readers: This is the first part of a special guelphspeaks exclusive series on the state of the city and the many unanswered questions that taxpayers are asking.  As usual, guelphspeaks urges all viewers to tell their friends and family to follow the blog that works to keep citizens aware of how their city works. No smoke and mirrors, just the unvarnished commentary and facts.

Part One

Posted September 19, 2012

In July, Guelph council called on staff to report back with a draft budget that limited the property tax increase to 3 per cent in 2013.

This was the response to a draft proposal by city staff to increase property taxes by 8.5 per cent.

This week the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) described council’s stand as a “regressive decision.” Ann Pappert went on to say that there had been “incremental scraping” of the operating budget in the past few years.

But she didn’t stop there.  She stated she is “seeing things that I’m not finding palatable.”

Well Ms. Pappert has only been on the job for some ten months so perhaps she may be overreacting a bit. It’s obvious that the senior staff members who closed ranks behind their leader could not care less about the ordinary taxpayer and his or her ability to pay.

This group includes the same top guns earning in some cases, $166,000 a year plus benefits. They are not going to lose their job unless they commit some egregious act that would result in being fired. This would include a hefty severance allowance.

To have the effrontery to threaten council that there could be $15 million in services cuts if they failed to accept the staff 8.5 proposals is beyond reason.

Ms. Pappert claimed the budget should balance affordability with sustainability. To be truthful, I think Guelph should rein in the multi-million capital projects aimed at sustainability. Now we are told that approval has been granted to build two biosolid holding tanks at the sewage treatment plant costing an estimated $20 million.

Already some $50 million has been spent on an organic composting facility that is six times greater than the current needs of the city. Add on another $15 million for a bin collection system. The plant, after opening a year ago, has still to be approved by the MOE and process an once of Guelph wet waste into garden-ready compost.

Coun. Jim Furfaro said council had to be cognizant that there has to be the ability to pay for services. He added asking citizens to pay more than the three per cent would “be devastating.”

The battle between ambitious elitist city staff and the taxpayers finds council caught in the middle.

They enrage voters with passing a budget with an 8.5 per cent tax increase or they cut expenses with almost the same effect.

This all didn’t happen this year. The Farbridge administration has been juggling costs and revenues, while continuing with aggressive capital spending now running over an estimated $100 million. This represents capital funds spent to date. Planned future projects include $63 million for a downtown library, $16 million to create a riverside park on the site of a thriving commercial area. Also missing from the list of past projects are the $16 million Wilson Street parking garage and the south end recreation centre estimated to cost $37 million.

This city cannot sustain the escalating spending of this administration.

It is only a matter of time before the party is over. That time is fast approaching.

Unless council has the political will to create a realistic budget that can be managed by taxpayers, there will be a new council elected in two years that will take action to rein in the spending.

It’s interesting why Ms Pappert chose this time to become very aggressive about maintaining the 8.5 per cent staff-sponsored increase. Two accountants could chop $15 million from the budget in a New York minute. But this is about preserving the cushy status quo.

So staff puts the wagons in a circle and defends their position with passion and thunder.

My guess is the budget will increase property taxes by 3.5 per cent.

It’s still too much.

Part Two tomorrow. How council has turned the city into the lab rat of waste management.

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Now the other shoe drops

Poated September 17, 2012

Remember last fall when the resigning manager of development planning in the city leaked a report?

Wel,l part two has arrived in the form of an 81 page report that staff morale is continuing to bottom as confusion between departments and council stalls development projects.

In the first act of this play, the consultant stated the word was out among those enterprises seeking to set up shop in Guelph described as “ the Guelph Factor”.

dysfunctional council, planning, and economic staff, managerial chaos rampant in the halls of One Carden Street.

The report focuses heavily on internal issues at city hall. It emphasizes “unnecessary conflicts between the planning and economic department departments”. The crunch comes when the economic development staff pushes for advancing industrial projects ahead of other development projects.

This thrust comes right from the top, aka the Mayor and her majority in council.

The back-story is that in almost six years this council has failed to increase the ratio of industrial commercial of 16 per cent of all assessment. This leaves the 84 per cent of taxpayers as the heavy lifters when it comes to budget time.

Topping it off is the provincially mandated University of Guelph deal that pays in lieu of property taxes a rate of $75 per student. That so-called bed-tax has been in effect since 1983 without any increase.

Last year the university property tax bill was about $1.6 million. Compare that property tax contribution to the total city 2012 budget of $174 million.

Let’s paraphrase from the report: The complexity of the issues – in the review process has increased. This is due to the city’s goals (council) related to sustainable development and active participation of stakeholders and the public in the development review process and this is impacting workload.

Okay, let’s interpret that.

First: This council believes that “sustainable development” means only approving projects that meet environmental and council’s community standards. These include accommodating the developmental growth of the university; control of what they believe is waste management; setting heritage standards; paying to operate a transit system; paying generous civic staff salaries, wages and benefits.

Second: Who are the stakeholders as described in the report? The civic unions; the downtown business improvement organization; the police, fire and EMS services?

Third: Is it not interesting that the public is third in line for consideration?  It is the hallmark of this administration that has dominated Guelph civic management for six years. Council’s delusional mantra is the taxpayers will always pay.

The report concludes that: “Guelph is seeking to become a world leader in sustainable development, energy conservation and new agro-biology technology.”

Is this what Guelph is all about?

To become a world leader?

This is monument building on the grand scale.

This city needs responsible financial management, attainable goals that serve the citizens and stop this disastrous reach for the stars as exercised by the Mayor and her cohorts.

If you give a mouse a slab of cheddar, you know what’s going to happen.

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Is Dundalk a harbinger of waste disposal trouble for Guelph?

Posted September 17, 2012

The Ontario Community of Dundalk is currently divided over a project being constructed in the town’s Eco-Park to process municipal biosolid sewage waste from communities as far away as 100 kilometers.

What are biosolids?  Plainly it is the sludge material left over from treatment of sewage at a municipal sewage plant.

The Dundalk Organic Material Recovery Centre (OMRC) is being built by Cambridge -based Lystek International. Lystek specializes in commercializing biosolids treatment technology from wastewater facilities. They claim that the Lystek processed sewage sludge, although it still contains all the toxic metals, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, makes a liquid biosolids that has lower bacteria and may have less odour.  Because it is liquid, there is more of it than the dewatered biosolids.

Guelph’s sewage operation produces approximately 20,000 tonnes of dewatered sewage sludge every year.  Lystek equipment was piloted in Guelph and by 2007, an agreement was signed, requiring the city to buy and install a full commercial-sized Lystek operation in our city at a cost of  $1.25 million.

But Guelph puts only a small fraction of its sewage sludge through the Lystek system.  For the past 5 years only about 15 per cent of the Guelph wastewater plant sludge output was processed through the city- owned Lystek equipment, for distribution on farmer’s fields.

Distribution to farms is undertaken under the Ontario Nutrient Management Act regulations through a contract to Terratec, a subsidiary of the giant American Water Services. Spreading the product can only be done between April and November because of weather conditions. Also, many farmers are concerned about damage to land and livestock if they use treated human waste as fertilizer. No organic farms can use Lystek’s products or any kind of sludge.

So what happens to the rest of the sludge? The Guelph sewage plant never sleeps. It is a never-ending process of treating human waste. Accordingly, 85 percent of the dewatered biosolids from Guelph goes into landfills in Ontario and the United States without running through the Lystek equipment.

Back to Lystek’s Dundalk operation. Although still under construction, it has not been approved by the Ministry of Environment (MOE). Is all this starting to sound familiar? Has not Guelph’s $34 million wet waste-composting plant yet to receive MOE approval to commence full operation?

Burbling in the background of all this is a concerted effort by a University of Waterloo professor to sell a sludge system that doesn’t address the toxic metals, chemicals and pharmaceuticals found in Guelph’s biosolid sewage sludge.

The science supporting this is beyond my pay grade.

What I do understand is the danger of spreading Lystek treated human waste on pastures and fields.  Sewer wastes come not only from homes but also from industries, hospitals, porta potties and airlines.  Why can’t human waste be spread such as manure from farm animals, a practice used for centuries? Because the toxic elements in human originated sewage waste can filter up through the food chain to our tables from agriculture lands using the stuff.   For example, cows feeding on Lystek treated pastures could ingest sludge- tainted food and pass it on to unsuspecting families and food processing enterprises.

Once Lystek finishes processing sewage from the municipal plants, the finished product is not a nice, fluffy dried compost, it’s a stinky, liquid slurry. They claim is it is perfectly safe to use as fertilizer.

Now here’s the kicker. In 2006, the City of Guelph issued a request for proposal (RFP), to build a super-sized biosolids storage facility, then estimated to cost $11 million. It is now estimated to cost more than $20 million. This was planned to store Lystek’s “product” until it could be disposed in the warmer months.  The planning that went into this would permit Lystek to pump in biosolid material obtained from other Ontario communities.  But since Guelph can only find a few farm fields to spread with Lystek, why store the Lystek when they can’t even spread the current output?

The city’s rationale is that the current practice of sending biosolids to the landfill would end and the result would be the nirvana of recycling sewage for the public good.  But the public good is not served by delivering toxic metals and chemicals to our food lands. And clearly farmer demand is very limited.

Guelph has built its $34 million wet waste composting plant to convert home-produced organic materials.  The design called for processing 60,000 tonnes of wet waste per year. But the city produces only 10,000 tonnes per year. To the rescue comes Maple Reinders, the plant designer and contractor. Through its subsidiary company, Aim Environmental, a contract with the Region of Waterloo guaranteed another 20,000 tonnes per year.

This still leaves another 20,000 tonnes in total capacity remaining.

It is possible to mix treated biosolid sewage sludge with residential wet waste to produce usable compost?  While current Ontario regulations make this unlikely, it may be coming in the future.  As an aside, in Denmark, they burn the biosolids to heat their buildings.

Could Guelph be planning to use its new Watson Road composter to process liquid biosolids? This would create the mother of all ammonia smells providing an even greater public protest.

What are the terms of the contracts made with Lystek and Maple Reinders?

Or are we stuck with a white elephant on Watson Road that is overpriced and overbuilt? Why should Guelph taxpayers spend $20 million to create housing silos for storing sewage plant sludge that has little or no market?

This party is only beginning.

 

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Correction

 

Posted September 14, 2012

It has been brought to my attention that Coun. Leanne Piper did declare a ”pecuniary interest with regards to OMB Hearing -716 Gordon Street by virtue of her employment with the University of Guelph. And did not discuss or vote on the matter.”  The confusion arose from a newspaper report that the council meeting was unanimous in challenging the application by Abode Varsity Living to build two towers for student housing on the site of the Best Western Motel. Guelphspeaks regrets this error and continues its policy to make every effort to correct mistakes.

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With friends like this, who needs enemies?

Posted September 13, 2012

What is it that Coun. Leanne Piper doesn’t understand about conflict of interest as it applies to her employment with the University of Guelph and her position as a councillor of the City of Guelph?

During the July 23rd council meeting, Ms. Piper as chairperson of the committee responsible for water, waste and environment, moved to have council approve a contribution toward a watershed project covering the Grand River area.

This project, in conjunction with scientists from the University of Guelph, is an in- depth analysis of the watershed and its ability to sustain demand for water use and the ability to control waste water flowing into streams and rivers.

Her making the motion to have council approve spending some $240,000 for the project is a direct conflict of interest.

This is another example of Coun. Piper’s disdain for the rules covering conflicts of interest. All she is required to do is recuse herself if a motion or a vote or discussion is introduced involving her employer (the university) doing business with the city.

Recently, council agreed unanimously to reject a proposal to build two student residence towers on the site of the Best Western Motel at Gordon Street and Stone Road. Coun. Piper was one of those councillors who voted to reject the proposal by Abode Varsity Living.

The company appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board that is currently hearing evidence on the project.

On the first day of the hearing, it was revealed that the University of Guelph objected to the proposal on the grounds it would be unfair competition to the development of university residences.  The owner of the property said he was approached by the University to purchase the land, after he made a deal with Abode.

The Mayor had no trouble lining up her troops to reject the proposal on the grounds it was too big for the neighbourhood. Of course, the decision was made on a staff recommendation.

It’s apparent the university has allies on council to support their objection. Three of whom were employed by the university.

One may ask why this sudden desire to build university-owned student housing off campus? Student housing on campus totals some 5,000 units serving an undergraduate population of 20,000. Guess where the rest are going, into neighbourhoods where they are seldom welcome?

So Councillors Leanne Piper, Maggie Laidlaw and Lise Burcher, are you representing the people who elected you or your bosses at the university?

Where was Mayor Farbridge, the one concerned about integrity and code of conduct of councillors, when these obvious violations of the the Ontario Conflict of Interest Act occurred under her watch?

Her silence is deafening.

It’s not that complicated.

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Why is a proposed privately built student housing suddenly a no-no?

Posted September 8, 2012

If I were elected Mayor of Guelph, the first thing I would do is scrap that electronic voting system. I defy anyone, outside of council and staff, to figure out who voted for what when the nano-second vote result is revealed. Sure there has to be a record that the city clerk maintains but trying figure out the electronic result at the time the vote is held is nigh impossible … particularly on the televised council meetings.

This brings up a report about the impending meeting with the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) regarding a proposal to build two hi-rise student residences at the corner of Stone Road and Gordon Street. The developer, Abode Varsity Living, has made two attempts to obtain agreement to proceed.

The first plan was submitted to city staff in 2010. A second proposal last December reduced the number of units. The city staff did not take a position on the proposal at that time and Abode turned to the OMB for an adjudicated decision.

Now the story gets murky.

The city and an activist group formed to oppose the proposal, to take part in the 15-day hearing. Known as the Mayfield Park Community Association, it is attempting to raise funds to defeat the proposal. Also the University of Guelph has expressed “concerns” about the project and will also be represented at the hearing.

In August, it is reported that city council voted unanimously to oppose the application. This was based on a staff recommendation that the project was too large and not compatible with the surrounding neighbourhood.

Those councillors who voted to turn this down should not have included councillors Leanne Piper, Lise Burcher and Maggie Laidlaw who are employees of the university. If they did vote, without revealing their ties to the university, that’s a conflict of interest.

At best, they should have recused themselves to maintain the credibility and integrity of council.

Here is a paraphrase of the conflict of interest law that applies in Ontario.

“The goal is to keep councillors from using their elected position to advance their private interests.”

What is hard to figure out is why the objection to the proposal? It’s to be built on the site of a former Best Western motel It is across the street from the Delta Inn complex. It’s across the road from the University and the company has an established track record of building affordable student housing.

On top of that, there are the complaints of nearby residents in areas zoned for single families, who are plagued with homes being converted to student apartments and rooms. This council refused to take action to stop this on the grounds the Civic Rights organization would object.

Please explain: Who is representing the interests of these long-suffering residents? They will not have a voice at the OMB hearing that starts September 10.

The OMB will undoubtedly consider these factors.

The underlying concern for citizens is the cavalier way these three councillors ignored their link to the university when supporting the city’s rejection of the proposal.

The irony is Coun. Leanne Piper’s job as manager of student residences puts her in a direct conflict of interest. That is if she continues to vote on any matter before council concerning her employer, the University of Guelph.

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How the city massages the message to suit its purpose

Posted September 7, 2012

A report published on the front page of the Guelph Tribune carried the headline: “Wet Plant odour test gets green thumbs up”. The piece quoted Dean Wyman, general manager of solid waste resources, who stated the compost plant has passed odour (emanating) testing this summer during a “full capacity” test in July and August.

Well, that’s not true. I am mindful of the old cynical newspaper axiom: “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story”.

There were 25 complaints about odours from the plant during the recent testing period. Wyman states there is no proof of the source.  In fact, he denies that the complaints ever happened. That’s his story and he’s sticking with it.

The real story is the Ministry of Environment (MOE) received a report from the city and its band of nameless consultants claiming there were no “provable” odour problems associated with the plant operation.

The MOE is in the process of evaluating the city report.

Wyman is quoted as saying: “ They should have no issue with it. If they do, they will ask some questions”.

You betcha, Mr. Wyman. There will be questions. These include the city criteria for determining there is no odour problem associated with the plant.

This brings back a similar defence by the city’s solid waste people last November when citizens complained about the odours from the first start-up of the plant. At one point the city pointed the finger at the Cargill operations for the odour problems. They backed off when someone pointed out that Cargill had been operating down the road from the compost plant for 26 years without one odour complaint.

Now Wyman says the plant will be fully operational within “a couple of months” and the city will “sign off” and take full ownership of the plant.

With respect Mr. Wyman, this party’s not over quite yet. People are angry over the creation of this waste management system.

What you failed to explain to the reporter is why the city built, at taxpayer expense, a $34 million plant that has a capacity six times greater than the city’s needs. Then turns over the operation to Maple Reinder Construction and its subsidiary company to operate, market and sell the facility to other municipalities.

Question: Does Maple Reinders have any skin in this game? Is this what the Mayor calls an example of a public/private partnership?

Citizens built the plant blindly unaware of the terms of the contract and cost projections. Then another $15 million was committed to collect our wet waste etc and Maple Reinders makes the money?

Why all the secrecy about this “arrangement”?

Tell us Mr. Wyman, how is the collection system your department has devised really going to work? The bins are phased in over three years. Does this mean that in the first and second years, the plastic bags will still be used? If that is the case, where is that stuff going? The MOE says the plant cannot receive waste in oil-based plastic bags, as is the case today.

Why is it taking three years to phase in the bin system? We both know the answer to that. There is no money available in the current budget and in the next two years.

Where is Guelph’s solid waste going today? The St. Thomas landfill? How much is that costing taxpayers?

Mr. Wyman, your explanation and misleading information does not sit well with many taxpayers.

Did anyone at the Tribune contact the MOE to confirm the city’s version of the facts?

Manipulation of public information is nothing new.  Manager Wyman and the city’s communications tag-team have confirmed: To never let the truth get in the way of a point of view.

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