Monthly Archives: November 2012

The dog ate my homework or how council shifts the blame for high employee costs

Posted November 30, 2012

There were two presenters among more than 17 at Thursday night’s council meeting to hear 2013 budget presentations by the public. The two were the only one’s presenting facts and figures critical of the administration’s handling of the city’s business.

Separate from those groups asking for money, Sue Ricketts and Bill Tufts of Fair Pensions for All, seemed to get some members of council’s attention. The duo in their five minute presentation attempted to demonstrate how staff costs had grown exponentially faster that the actual city growth of population. Further they predicted that staff costs will double every five years.

So Coun. Karl Wettstein mounted the first line of defence claiming the 68.1 per cent staff cost increase in the past five years was due to the province downloading jobs to the city. He’s kidding, right?

He neglected to mention that every municipality in the province also received downloaded jobs, not just Guelph. Later Coun. Todd Dennis made the same claim. It was countered by saying the only jobs downloaded was a small group of EMS personnel.

Coun. Lise Burcher added that the Association of Municipal Employers and the Canadian Federation of Municipalities should be responsible for urging employee cost changes.

Does the councillor really believe that? Does she think that Guelph’s serious over-staffing problem is going to be resolved by other organizations? No one on council would admit that it was their responsibility to curb growing employee costs and the future costs to taxpayers.

But it was Guelph citizen Milton Burns who laid out the facts of the high growth of staff and benefits that met stony silence from council. Using their own 2011 Human Resources Report  (HRR) figures, Burns laid out the frightening scenario of how city employee costs have exploded in the past five years. In 2006 the staff cost totaled $92,369,323. In 2011, the staff costs were $155,215,713 averaging annual increases of 10.9 per cent. In the same period Guelph’s population grew by 5.8 per cent. Or just over 1 per cent per year.

To bolster his revealing presentation, Burns compared Guelph’s 68.1 per cent increase of employee costs, over five years, to that of four neighbouring municipalities including: Cambridge, 29.6 per cent; Kitchener, 35.4 percent; Waterloo, 46.6 per cent; Waterloo Region, 42.8 per cent.

They all had provincial jobs downloaded over the five-year period. That being the case, why is Guelph’s cost of employees far greater than that of its peer cities?

If any private business allowed this kind of growth of employment costs without supporting revenues to justify it, it would be out of business and the board of directors fired.

He pointed out the effect of the difference in terms of money to the Guelph budget. It means applying it the city’s cost structure, would result in an additional $26 million being available for the benefit of taxpayers in a single year.

As Burns admonished council: “You heard that correctly, the amount would be $26 million.”

So Thursday night, when all those organizations lined up to ask for money from the city, they can look at the civic staff whose bloated salaries, wages and benefits are taking 89 per cent of the city property tax levy.

It is a delicious irony that two representatives of the labour movement claiming at the meeting that the privatization of city work would be less productive than the regular staff. They praised the Farbridge administration for the great job it is doing. The Farbridge majority is dependent on the city union workers for support. It now appears that they have been amply rewarded.

What’s the old story? “Ya gotta dance with the one who brung ya.”

Producing figures from the City’s own annual HRR on page 7, Burns said the combined benefits are 14 per cent higher than the benchmark. Assuming that the standard benefits ie dental, medical, insurance and OMERS pension contributions are in line, there are $17 million of undocumented benefits that are 35 per cent higher than the benchmark. In just five years, benefits rose by 81 per cent or 12.5 per cent per year.

Yet only Coun. Andy Van Hellemond asked Burns if he had any suggestions to change the situation. The rest sat, stony faced and did not challenge any of Burns’ figures.

Mayor Farbridge put the wagons in a circle and defined council’s response to this damning indictment of mismanaging staff costs in stunning silence.

And we’re going to get another two years of this cockeyed mismanagement of our city. Silence indeed, secrecy abounds, transparency left the station six years ago and the staff laughs all the way to the bank.

Shame on them and shame on us for letting it happen.

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Is Mayor Rob Ford’s conviction a harbinger for Guelph’s administration?

Posted November 27, 2012

The Mayor of Toronto impaled himself on his own sword when he pompously refused to listen to an order from the city’s integrity commissioner. Briefly, Ford used his office to solicit money from city lobbyists and friends for his football foundation. The commissioner warned him he couldn’t use city resources for soliciting money for his private foundation.

Instead Ford voted in council not to return the money and was challenged by a citizen activist for breach of the Ontario Municipal Act conflict of interest rules.

To top it off he was not contrite, testified he didn’t read the rules of conflict of interest and gave the presiding judge the impression he was right and everyone else was wrong.

He lost the case. He has 14 days to remain in office then he’s out. He’ll appeal and his stay at city hall will be extended if he wins a stay of the judgment.

What does this mean to citizens of Guelph?

Here we have a different situation. For the past six years, the Mayor and her close-knit supporters have controlled the city agenda. There has been little opposition in council to the actions of this dominating group.

And the fault rests with us, the taxpayers, who let it happen in the polling booths in 2006 and in 2010.

In this unhealthy political scenario, decisions are made behind closed doors of which the taxpayers have little response or control.

One of the more troubling situations is the relationship between the controlling Farbridge council and the University of Guelph. The Farbridge group, has among its eight members, three employees of the University plus the mayor who retains ties to the institution.

Let us assume that university employees Coun. Leanne Piper, Coun. Lise Burcher and Coun. Maggie Laidlaw, are members of the university employee pension and benefit plans. Is it a conflict of interest under the Municipal Act for them to vote on city labour relations issues, including employee benefits, wages and salaries?

If they have been voting in support of increased city staff salaries, wages and benefits in the past six years while serving as members of council, they could be in a conflict of interest according to the Act.

Further, in the past six years the university has been in a massive building program to educate its more than 123,000 students. This building program involves use of city services including water and sewer works, transit, large scale building projects requiring city staff, fire and emergency services.

This has nothing to do with private corporate employee labour costs. There are other members of council who are employed with private companies or are retired. The issue is using their personal power by voting to escalate salaries, wages and benefits for city employees while being members of another public institution’s organized labour group.

In Guelph’s case, the evidence is stark and real. City staff costs have reached a total of 89 per cent of the 2011 city tax levy. That represents a 68.1 per cent increase in Guelph’s staff costs in five years.

The conflict of interest legislation can be harsh on those serving as public trustees. Elected councillors have a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers to ensure that their interests are protected from outside influences, including the association with the University of Guelph.

While the city and the university are public institutions, only the city has elected councillors charged with the administration of the city and answerable to the taxpayers.

Unfortunately, voters only get a chance to elect councillors every four years. This places an even greater burden on those elected to maintain an open and transparent administration.

Those pious, self-congratulatory propaganda responses prepared by the Farbridge communications staff, is a study in news manipulation. In less polite circles it can be considered lying by omission. And the irony is that we pay for it.

For many citizens, change cannot come soon enough. With two more years of the Farbridge administration running the municipality, all citizens can do is organize and protest further erosion of the public purse.

As for those councillors serving as members of council and employed by the university, they would be wise to declare a conflict of interest and not vote on any issues involving their employer that may impact the taxpayers of Guelph.

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Chamber of Commerce joins the gathering storm over the 2013 city budge

Posted November 27, 2012

Guelph Chamber of Commerce President, Lloyd Longfield, has sent a letter to members of city council addressing the issues of public concern over the proposed 2013 city budget.

Mr. Longfield expressed concern that the staff’s proposing to add 23 fulltime employees next year while cutting services such as pools, splash pools and sidewalk snow plowing.

His solution was for council to consider using private partnerships to supply some city services instead of adding staff. He added that 2013 is expected to be a “flat” year in the city business community.  With the drastic service reductions in the staff budget proposal, suggesting a property tax increase of 3.7 per cent, the chamber president suggested it should be limited to 2 per cent.

“An opportunity like this could save significant cost in operations with some capital investment,” the president said. He was specifically referring to using local private technology businesses to provide updates to the city’s technology systems.

This is an excellent suggestion to reduce staff costs and perform a rethink of the city’s technology needs.

On Thursday, November 29, there will be more comment from stakeholders who are critical of city spending; particularly staff costs, currently taking an 89 per cent bite of the entire city budget.

The question of future retired employee obligations will also be raised. Taxpayers in Guelph must guarantee the defined pension plan proceeds of its retired employees. The growing number of city employees magnifies this and the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System (OMERS) which represents almost all of Guelph’s public staff, is currently underfunded by $9 billion.

These are only a few of the issues facing council as it moves to strike the new budget.

Will this be the winter of discontent?

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Is this the end of the beginning of taxpayer discontent?

Posted November 25, 2012

Thursday evening, November 29, will be remembered as the beginning of the citizen revolt against the City of Guelph council’s mismanagement of the public trust.

So far, more than 17 citizens have applied and received approval to address council regarding the 2013 budget.

The mounting number of protests is magnified in the letters to the editor in the print media. Likewise, citizen comments to guelphspeaks in recent weeks indicate the growing disenchantment and distrust with the administration under the leadership of Mayor Karen Farbridge.

The energy of protest is multiplying as details of the proposed budget are revealed.

It started last June when the staff produced a budget for 2013 requiring an 8.5 per cent increase in property taxes in the city. Council requested the staff to come back with a property tax increase of not more than 3 per cent.

Public confidence in the process eroded when Ann Pappert, the Chief Administration Officer for the city, complained that council’s request was “Regressive” and “Unpalatable.”

These statements coming from the head of the city staff ignited the public interest. The questions being asked included, who is in charge of running the city? Is council just a rubber stamp for staff-driven policies? Where is the base of power in the city, does it rest with the staff or the elected representatives of council?

Then a 2013 staff-initiated budget document of more than 300 pages was put on the city website. It was a breakdown of spending that included drastic cuts in services plus, ironically, adding 23 new full-time employees to the already bloated staff.

On Thursday, a presenter will reveal data about the growth of staff between 2006 and 2011 during the Farbridge administration’s control of council.

One figure will chill any relationship between council and the taxpayers who elected them.

Fact: The cost of city staff’s salaries, wages and benefits rose by 68.1 per cent between 2006 and 2011. That works out to 10.9 per cent per year.

There is more devastating evidence of mismanagement to come from various spokespersons addressing the meeting, supported by facts and figures from city and public documents.

It is important for citizens to either attend the Thursday night council meeting or watch the proceedings on cable television. It is an opportunity to learn the truth about how their city has been taken down a financial path that few voted for in the 2010 election.

The cumulative misguided approach of the Farbridge dominated council in the past six years renders confidence lost and dismay is prevalent among voters.

It’s all about a misuse of power to support personal agendas that have created capital project costs that future generations will have to carry. It also binds future councils with a debt load that is unsustainable to provide basic services to the public.

You, the public, provide 94 per cent of the total revenue of the city. There is no magic bullet to overcome excessive and wasteful spending, except political action..

Secrecy, closed-door meetings, controlling the message (i.e. propaganda), withholding details of public contracts, these are the hallmarks of a Farbridge administration.

As Winston Churchill was quoted, following the Battle of Britain: “This is not the beginning of the end it is the end of the beginning.”

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How to reduce city-spending in 2013 and not on the backs of the taxpayers

Posted November 22, 2012

As a public service, guelphspeaks offers the following suggestions to lower city spending and costs. Adopting these suggestions will result in a more reasonable property tax rate for 2013.

The Mayor recently bragged about the great credit rating the city has. She said it was recognition that city’s finances are in great shape. Note: Two “greats” don’t make it right.

Apparently the City of Guelph has a lower credit rating than that of the United States.

So where does the credit agency place Guelph with its lower rating than America?

Probably in the nervous ward.

On November 29, the public will have its chance to comment on the upcoming 2013 city budget discussions. It will be difficult for council to ignore the array of protest that will be expressed. Why? Because of the nutty staff proposal of an 8.5 per cent 2013 property tax increase made last June.

Council countered requesting a revised plan limited to a 3 per cent increase. The Chief Administration Officer, Ann Pappert, called the council request regressive and unpalatable.

Unpalatable for whom? Ms. Pappert doesn’t even pay taxes in Guelph because she lives in Waterloo.

If Guelph were a business, as the majority of council often believes, the task of balancing the budget is straightforward. It’s not Master of Business Administration 101.

First, examine and consider the cost of the City’s overhead. It includes those items that must be paid regardless. What the staff did was counter-propose to slash some popular and public services without touching the biggest budget component, employee costs.

Biggest item is staff salaries, wages and benefits. Currently it consumes 89 per cent of the total tax levy. No business can survive with labour costs gobbling up that portion of the total budget.

That percentage figure should be reduced by 5 per cent per year for the remainder of the council’s term in office. That would reduce staff costs to 79 percent by 2014. The task of performing this necessary surgery should fall on the executive team. The end savings could be $17,400,000.

Next, impose a hiring freeze for 12 months with an extension of another 12 months at council’s discretion.

With just these two directives, the city budget is on track without reduction of services.

Suspend all capital projects exceeding $5 million in 2013.

Beef up the internal audit staff to review key city services. While this runs counter to the hiring freeze, it is necessary to strengthen the internal audit role to reduce costs of operations.

Institute a review by the internal audit staff of the operating costs of the Guelph Civic Museum, River Run Theatre, Sleeman Centre, Victor Davis and Westside Recreation Centres, public libraries, plus all city owned property.

Take charge of Guelph Transit to lower costs. Cancel all passes. Cancel service on Sunday and designated holidays. Renegotiate union contracts to reduce operating costs. Change configuration of the fleet equipment to using more economical smaller vehicles to service low rider routes. Freeze the city subsidy until an independent citizen’s committee can review and recommend on all transit operations.

Charge water usage and waste treatment based on demand. The more you use the more it costs. The golf course exemption of water use, regardless of source, will be charged as any other property tax user.

All matters of waste management are to be reviewed by an independent committee composed of only Guelph residents and led by the independent Guelph Waste Management organization. The committee will have total access to all documents pertaining to the organic waste facility, the dry recyclable plant and the sewage treatment facility. It will report its findings to open council within eight months.

Reduce downtown Guelph development spending by 50 per cent. Instead, redirect such funding to serve the needs of other parts of the city.

Introduce a new plan to cut the cost of development in the city. Particularly to those developers bringing jobs to the community. Incentives should be carefully applied so that the entire city benefits.

Pledge to process development applications within three months.

Hiring outside lawyers and consultants must be accompanied by a business plan and approved by council as a whole in open session. Staff can recommend but council must approve any outside hiring.

Public support of community groups and the arts is to be eliminated. If a group has a cause, then they should finance it, not the taxpayers.

Instruct the staff not to approve any University of Guelph building plans or proposals without review of council. Such plans must be accompanied by an independent expert impact report on city-supplied services.

Finally, review the entire governance system employed by the administration to simplify procedures and expedite public input and understanding of the city’s business. This includes clarity in all financial statements.

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Was this Mercury editorial ghost written by Carden Street?

Was this Mercury editorial ghost written by Carden Street?

An editorial in the Guelph Mercury advocates a council in which its work can be “better spread out files on elective issues over the course of the year.”

Further the piece, unsigned, continues “It might be the municipality would be far better off to have council coping with an optimal and steady volume of reports and issues whenever it does gather to review city business.”

So that justifies a reason to ask that councillors be paid full-time and then suggest that council and committee meetings not be held in January, July and August.

That’s like saying Canadian banks can take three months off to “smooth out their business.”

The newspaper attempts to compare the Federal and Provincial governments who have elected bodies take extended times off from their duties. To suggest that municipal elected officials can do the same exposes a dreadful misunderstanding of the way the city functions.

Cities and towns are the infantry of Canadian politics. Their elected officials must deal with local problems on a daily basis. In the background are the multiple decisions regarding planning and engineering, development, maintaining municipal services, social programs, infrastructure, waste management, water and electric supply.

In the case of Guelph, for the past six years one faction, led by Mayor Karen Farbridge, has tightly controlled council. As a councillor, if you are not playing on her team, you don’t count.

This administration has conducted too much public business in private and behind closed doors. The Mercury is suggesting that this management of events should be expanded by not meeting for three months of the year. The editorial mentioned only council meetings. The staff proposal included committee meetings as well.

You might as well close down the city for those non-performing months.

To suggest that this hiatus would allow the staff more time to better analyze and prepare reports is ludicrous and somewhat self-serving.

One of the reasons that Guelph’s commercial and Industrial ratio of property taxes has not budged from 16 per cent, (84 per cent for residential), is the city administration’s failure to expedite new proposals. Since 2007, its own staff and two outside consultants have identified how development proposals are delayed and withdrawn because of poor internal management.

Guelph has earned the reputation of being a bad place to do business. That undesirable characterization extends to Queen’s Park where the city’s reputation is held in low regard.

This is just another grab by the Farbridge administration to hold onto power at any cost.

It’s a dumb idea and will backfire big time if implemented.

Personally, councillors should be paid full-time for full-time service. Just reduce the number to nine with one per ward and one elected at-large along with the mayor. That way the at-large councillor can fill in for a councillor taking a vacation.

Guelph is no longer a small town but a growing and potentially great place to work and play. It’s time to grow up.

The reference in the editorial to the City Hall watchdogs able to bark and woof is noted. At least whoever wrote the piece, has a sense of humour.

The editorial’s intent is not funny.

Posted November 20, 2012

A recent editorial in the Guelph Mercury advocates a council in which its work can “better spread out files on elective issues over the course of the year.”

Further the piece, unsigned, continues “It might be the municipality would be far better off to have council coping with an optimal and steady volume of reports and issues whenever it does gather to review city business.”

So that justifies a reason to ask that councillors be paid full-time and then suggest that council and committee meetings not be held in January, July and August.

That’s like saying Canadian banks can take three months off to “smooth out their business.”

The newspaper attempts to compare the Federal and Provincial governments who have elected bodies take extended times off from their duties. To suggest that municipal elected officials can do the same exposes a dreadful misunderstanding of the way the city functions.

Cities and towns are the infantry of Canadian politics. Their elected officials must deal with local problems on a daily basis. In the background are the multiple decisions regarding planning and engineering, development, maintaining municipal services, social programs, infrastructure, waste management, water and electric supply.

In the case of Guelph, for the past six years one faction, led by Mayor Karen Farbridge, has tightly controlled council. As a councillor, if you are not playing on her team, you don’t count.

This administration has conducted too much public business in private and behind closed doors. The Mercury is suggesting that this management of events should be expanded by not meeting for three months of the year. That will only expand this council’s majority to do more business behind closed doors.

The editorial mentioned only council meetings. The staff proposal included committee meetings as well.

You might as well close down the city for those non-performing months.

To suggest that this hiatus would allow the staff more time to better analyze and prepare reports is ludicrous and somewhat self-serving.

One of the reasons that Guelph’s commercial and Industrial ratio of property taxes has not budged from 16 per cent, (84 per cent for residential), is the city administration’s failure to expedite new proposals. Since 2007, its own staff and two outside consultants have identified how development proposals are delayed and withdrawn because of poor internal management.

Guelph has earned the reputation of being a bad place to do business. That undesirable characterization extends to Queen’s Park where the city’s reputation is held in low regard.

This is just another grab by the Farbridge administration to hold onto power at any cost.

It’s a dumb idea and will backfire big time if implemented.

Personally, councillors should be paid full-time for full-time service. Just reduce the number to nine with one per ward and one elected at-large along with the mayor. That way the at-large councillor can fill in for a councillor taking a vacation.

Guelph is no longer a small town but a growing and potentially great place to work and play. It’s time to grow up.

The reference in the editorial to the City Hall watchdogs able to bark and woof is noted. At least whoever wrote the piece, has a sense of humour.

The editorial’s intent is not funny.

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Fast and Furious versus Guelph’s vending machine services

Posted November 17, 2012

In her recent state of the city address, the Mayor Farbridge spoke of shifting the administration emphasis from supplying  “vending machine services” to one that is open and collaborative with residents.

If only it were true.

Yet another attempt to give citizens the idea that they have some say in how their city is to be run.

If the last six years of this administration’s handling the city’s business is any example, paying lip service won’t work despite sugar coating the most secretive and closeted administration on record.

Even the Mayor stated that people don’t understand the complexities of municipal government. Sounds like something George Orwell would write in his novel, 1984.

The Farbridge faction’s attitude on council believes this and treats citizens accordingly.

City Clerk Blair Labelle, told the governance committee dominated by the Mayor and her cohorts, that it will cost $100,000 to create structure that is “ flat, streamlined and tech-enabled. They even invented an acronym – F.A.S.T.

This proposal ranks up there with the other feel good attempt to comfort and control we peasants called the “Wellbeing Initiative”.

Where does this stuff come from? Is it possible there is a secret lab rat testing facility buried in the basement of City Hall?

Managing a city with competent people is not rocket science. This Farbridge administration is a collection of dream catchers with only bare bones ability to know how our city actually works.

If they did, their ambitious capital projects, uncontrolled spending on staff and consultants, would not have driven up the city debt. Intertwined is the abstract financial administration that few understand, including most staff and members of council.

The result is the current charade of staff tabling a proposal to increase property taxes in 2013 by 8.5 per cent. If not approved by council, then existing services would have to be cu, was the implied threat.  The initial staff proposal would increase the operating budget by $15,000,000.

So council instructed the staff to come back with a proposal allowing a tax increase of no more than 3 per cent.

The staff response was insulting and petty. They said that services would be cut including splash pools and cutting off the water in the St. George’s Square fountain, among other things.

What we have here is a power struggle between council’s majority and the senior staff led by Chief Administration Officer Ann Pappert. This is the same CAO who called the council requirement “regressive and unpalatable”.

Perhaps she should look for another job.

Standing in the shadows is Ms. Pappert’s mentor, Mayor Karen Farbridge, who discreetly remains above this growing division between council and her chosen CAO.

Mayor Farbridge is wily enough to recognize and ignore a political disaster in the making. Later this month, the public will be given the opportunity to provide their views about the city budget. Already it’s shaping up to be a donnybrook of unprecedented proportions.

This is a mess created by the Farbridge record of hiring staff to meet her council’s needs over the past six years. The city staff is bloated and consumes 89 per cent of the operational budget.

Was the Mayor and council expecting the solution to their problem was by cutting staff costs?  When that topic was raised, council scurried into a closed-door session cutting off public exposure and comment.

To have the nerve to introduce a new system called “Flat, streamlined and tech-enabled”, dodges the fundamental issue and insults the taxpayers.

No amount of outside consultant fees now topping off at $1,200,000 is going to solve this problem.

As the late, great Toronto Mayor Nathan Phillips used to say: “Let’s pull up to the public trough”.

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