Posted November 7, 2012
Mayor Karen Farbridge recently delivered her “ State of the City” address to the Guelph Chamber of Commerce.
In the interest of those of us who wouldn’t pay the 15 bucks to hear the lady speak, guelphspeaks offers a condensed observation and comment.
Ms. Farbridge is no shrinking violet when it comes to patting herself and council on the back. This speech was an echo of previous versions, some six years of them.
Her recent address was a rambling, jargon-filled description of how the council and administration has done a superb job managing your city.
She even admitted, “the average person finds it difficult to know what local government does and how to engage with it.” That’s right out of the elitist handbook. So the uninformed are relegated to the back of the bus, so to speak, while the Mayor and her crowd of toadies, crank up the esoteric rhetoric and social engineering policies.
The creation of the Farbridge communication team is supposed to clarify and inform the citizens of what the administration is doing. What happened? Does the failure to communicate the message rest with the media or the mission?
When the Mayor speaks, the buzzwords flow like water. How about “innovation” and its cousin, “innovative.” Her address is peppered with words such as “bold”, “robust”, “strategy” and its second banana, “strategic”, and “vibrant”.
It reminds me of the old saying: “All hat and no horse.”
When she speaks about the strong financial position of the city, it is because of council’s strategy to squirrel money away in a wide variety of reserves. This gives them the flexibility to draw from one reserve to pay for a need in another. The administration counts on using these mini banks to suit its purposes.
This gives management a lot of flexibility.
More to the point in 2011, the legal department encountered a 100 per cent increase in outside legal fees due mainly because other departments hired outside counsel without the legal department’s knowledge. The charges exceed $800,000.
Perhaps the new internal auditor will detect more of these missteps as she works her way through the labyrinth administering your city. One of the problems lies with the 450 pages of the official city financial statement. It is complex and needs clarity so the average taxpayer is able to understand.
This is a hallmark of the Farbridge administration. She quotes the old expression about dealing with voters: “Tell them what they want to hear.” The outcome is they become docile and “don’t connect the dots”.
Well Mayor, despite the lack of information to which the public is entitled, the people are starting to connect the dots with your stewardship of their stake in the City of Guelph.
In her address, the Mayor keeps talking about challenges of the future. She says the city is just not a “vending machine” that takes in money and supplies services.
She seems to be bent on creating FarbridgeWorld, a new super community that spreads beyond its mandate, to meet the challenges that are not in her purview of responsibility.
An example is the Guelph Wellbeing Initiative. Did the Mayor and her council supporters take a step too far? She admitted during her address, that citizens asked why the city was engaging in areas that were not within its jurisdiction?
Her response is classic social engineering. “Community-based accountability is at the heart of Guelph Wellbeing Initiative.”
To sell this, the Mayor invited a select group of 10,000 to call her office. There was no report how that went. It was a dumb idea and no wonder the Farbridge communication team is silent.
But here’s the bottom line issue that the Mayor nor her council supporters don’t talk about.
Since 2006, Guelph has added some 600 employees as of 2011 for a total 2,030.
Almost all of these employees belong to the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement Service (OMERS). Here’s the rub. There are 268,000 municipal employees in the province who are members of OMERS. This pension fund is underfunded by an estimated $9 billion by the end of this year.
Mark Amorosi, Guelph’s Executive Director of Human Resources and Legal Services, describes this as an “actuarial deficiency” that will be overcome within ten years.
The way OMERS defined pension works is the employee and municipal employer contribute a 50-50 contribution each payday. That locks in the employee with a guaranteed pension for life.
Now keep in mind that the taxpayers of Guelph are obligated to guarantee the OMERS-entitled pensions of its retired employees. OMERS requires the municipality to maintain the retiree’s pensions. Regardless of economic conditions, war or pestilence, taxpayers must guarantee the employee’s pension.
Let’s take an example of how this affects Guelph’s taxpayers.
Recently the Chief of Police retired. His pension of $135,000 a year, indexed at 2 per cent is guaranteed for his lifetime. That’s an estimated 20 years. Now enter the new police chief.
The taxpayer obligation has now doubled. We are now responsible for guaranteeing two people for one job. The new chief’s salary and benefits for as long as he holds the job, presumably until he reaches 65 years is the city’s responsibility.
It gets better.
The average age of OMERS retirement is 58 years.
So now the second police chief retires at 65 and a new chief steps in. Taxpayers are now guaranteeing the pensions for two retirees but pay the third individual to do the job.
In the space of potentially ten years, Guelph taxpayers are potentially on the hook for three individuals working the same job.
If OMERS remains underfunded and is unable to pay those pensions, then the municipalities are on the hook, big time.
So when the mayor hires more and more people to carry out her agenda, what is the long term impact on property taxes and, if you will pardon the expression, our wellbeing?
The exponential growth of city staff, not only in numbers but increasing higher salaries, wages and benefits, is creating daily future liability for Guelph taxpayers
So when the Mayor speaks of the wonderful job she and her council supporters are doing to meet the challenges of the future, be wary, very wary.
This administration is reaching out beyond its mandate, has incurred long-term liabilities that will affect this city for many years.
It has to change. When the 2013 budget talks begin at the end of this month, the staff is to produce cuts that will bring the property tax increase to 3 per cent.
With staff costs taking 89 per cent of the city budget, the place to look for meaningful cost reductions lie in that area.