Monthly Archives: December 2012

How public business is conducted sourced from the city’s website

Posted December 28, 2012

An educated guess is that possibly as much as 90 per cent of Guelph residents don’t really understand how their city is managed. They know what to do if something goes wrong in their neighbourhood but the city staff response is often misleading or ignored. It’s not the fault of the lower-ranked city staff but the policies created by senior staff managers.

Spending time wading through the city’s own online laundry list of organizational operations directives and strategies, you begin to understand how a small group of elected officials run the city. They are aided and abetted by the so-called executive team, a group of senior managers.

Under the clause “Reflective of the Partnership” (between council and staff), here is the following statement: “Senior management consists of skilled management professionals and are treated as partners in governance.”

There is some argument there considering that some of the current members on the senior management team lack professional and work experience pertaining to their responsibilities.

For example, the taxpayers could ask why we have a senior manager in charge of engineering and planning without any professional academic credentials to support that specific aspect of the job.

Governance is the linchpin of how the city is controlled by a handful of people. Guelph employs the Institute on Governance, a non-profit think tank founded in 1990 to promote better governance for public benefit. Lofty ideals, but why?

There are five basic committees of council.  A sixth committee is the all-powerful governance committee chaired by Mayor Karen Farbridge. It’s membership is composed of the elected chairpersons of five committees: Community and social services; Corporate administration, finance and enterprise; Operations, transit and emergency services; the Audit committee and the Planning, building, engineering and environmental services.

A seventh committee is the nominating committee composed of the staff heads of the basic committees.

In short, five individuals, all supporters of the Mayor, control the city.  Consider the numbers here. Those six hold key posts in the administration of the city. The Mayor is chairperson of the governance committee.

But there are 13 members of council. The remaining five non-Farbridge supporters are not invited to committee chair positions in the Farbridge controlled management club.

This is despite the Mayor’s stated role to assist all members of council in carrying out their responsibilities. The most experienced member of Council, Gloria Kovach, was unanimously appointed to the Police Services board for a four-year term in January 2011. In the fall there was a coup led by Coun. Leanne Piper to remove her. She was replaced, surprise, by Leanne Piper. This is how this controlling gang goes about its business in Guelph.  They are ruthless and will roll over any meaningful opposition, because they can.

First, take a gander at the city’s corporate values: Integrity, excellence and wellness.

What a super-sized platitude. But what does it mean to taxpayers? Is this the kind of value system that meets the expectations of the property owners who pay 94 per cent of the city’s revenues? Shouldn’t one of the values include fiscal responsibility?

Here’s the kicker.

The new Municipal Act recommends that Ontario cities appoint four new officials to monitor performance. The province forced the four positions on the City of Toronto. No doubt caused by corruption, mismanagement of finances and former Mayor David Miller’s handling of garbage strike in midsummer 2009.

The Act stipulated that it was an option for other Ontario cities.

So let’s look at these recommended positions.

Hire an integrity commissioner. Council did that by hiring outside lawyer Robert Swayze.

Hire a lobby registrar to track lobbyists influencing city management. That was ignored because it’s presumed it’s not applicable to Guelph. The caveat is the lobbying by the University of Guelph that employs three members of council. The Mayor is also associated with the U of G although not an employee.

Hire an Ombudsman to investigate any decision or recommendation – – done or omitted in the course of the administration of the municipality. Well, that’s one official this council does not want to approve as it could start to unravel the tight-fisted control of the Farbridge administration. If ever a city needed someone to bring the Farbridge balloon back to earth, an independent Ombudsman who will be independent, is the answer.

Hire an Auditor General (AG)responsible for assisting council in “holding itself and administrators accountable for the quality of stewardship over public funds and for achievement of value for money in municipal operations.” After six years of the Farbridge administration having its way, the time has come for an independent AG to oversee the financial operations of the city.

Of the four, council has only approved one.  The Ombudsman and Auditor General positions are supposed to be considered by council before the next election.

Does Guelph need these positions filled sooner rather than later? The 2013 budget has no provision for these positions. But that never stopped the Farbridge-controlled council from moving money from certain inflated budget items to other non-related accounts to pay for unbudgeted proposals.

There is ample evidence that sooner is necessary to prevent the city from falling deeper into the fiscal hole it has been created.

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When the math doesn’t work, obfuscate

Posted December 20, 2012

It doesn’t take much to figure out how our city got itself into the cesspool of financial mismanagement.

If the elected officials fail to understand basic budgeting and their fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers, Houston, we have a problem.

An example is the recent exchange concerning the cost of civic employees between Coun. Leanne Piper and Guelph taxpayer Milton Burns. Mr. Burns stated a factual and scary picture recently of the city’s finances when the public was invited to present its points of view.

Coun. Piper told Mr. Burns that figures from the 2013 proposed budget showed all staff costs at $119,829,529. She claimed that staff will cost 64.4 percent of the 2013 operating budget.

In fairness, Ms. Piper was not the author of these figures. Her source was the Human Resources chief, Mark Amorosi.

So being direct, if the 2011 audited city financial statement placed staff costs at $155,000,000, where did $35,170,489 difference disappear?  This is a little more than just a rounding error. How is it possible, with the staff costs increasing at 11.5 per cent per year, employee costs can magically reduce to some $119 million in 2013?

Marky, you got some ‘splaining to do.

If city councillors fail to understand the finances of running the city and become dependent on the staff, who is running the show?

In his presentation Mr. Burns pointed out some startling and true facts as how the city staff has managed to increase its employee costs to taxpayers by an average of 10.9 per cent per year for the past five years.

That totals an overall increase of 68.1 per cent during that period. In 2011, 89 cents of every dollar collected on the tax levy went to pay staff costs. Compare this to 74 cents in 2006. In 2011 the staff cost totaled $155,000,000 out of a $174,000,000 budget.

Mr. Burns did not make these figures up. He obtained them from the 2011 official audited city financial report that must be submitted to the Province. In fact, he has been tracking the official financial reports for six years and there are remarkable variances in which audited figures do not match the following year. But that’s a story yet to come.

Looking at this increase in staff salaries, Mr. Burns took figures from the City’s official 2011 Human Resources Report (HRR) that reported that Guelph’s salaries were 33.7 per cent, as a percentage of total operating costs. According to the HRR this was higher than the Ontario average of 30 per cent.

What does this mean in real money? Guelph’s salaries in 2011 were 12.4 per cent too high or $10.2 million.

Looking at staff benefits, the cost to taxpayers rose by a whopping 81 per cent or 12.5 per cent annually for the past five years. Mr. Burns assumed that the mandatory benefits including dental, medical and insurance plus payments to support the Ontario Municipal Employee Retirement System (OMERS) were more or less in line.

It’s a different story with the undocumented other benefits of about $17,000,000 that are $6,000,000 more than the 35 per cent benchmark.

Maintaining this rate of staff growth in numbers and remuneration including benefits is unsustainable. Yet, council approved hiring another 23 new full-time employees in the 2013 budget.

So, you be the judge. Exploding debt and staff plus questionable real estate deals, is mounting evidence that taxpayers are being grossly misled to support their city and its services.

 

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The Marx brothers would have loved Guelph’s 2013 budget process

Posted December 13, 2012

When Coun. Gloria Kovach stepped up to the plate with her $500,000 staff efficiency idea that was like using a knife in a gunfight. In some ways it was a clever move to bounce the property tax increase below three per cent.

Its weakness is letting the staff come up with the “efficiencies” to lower 2013 spending. It was like handing a cannon ball to a drowning man.  It failed to address the most costly part of the budget  such as staff salaries, wages and benefits that consumed 89 per cent of the 2011 tax levy.

Compounding the problem is that police and firemen contracts are up for renewal in 2013 This is the same senior staff that proposed an 8.5 per cent 2013 property tax increase last June.  Council is now entrusting them to come up with $500,000 in savings over the next year.

The most irritating cost saving decision was stopping the Christmas tree pick-up. The savings is $22,000. That’s a miniscule number in a 2013 budget of $184,000,000. But it manages to tick citizens off and they’ll blame councillors as they truck the stuff to the organic waste transfer point.

Does Guelph have a “world class” waste management system?  Presuming that waste management includes picking up the waste of all taxpayers, it comes as no surprise that hundreds of homes in the city have to pay contractors to remove their trash. That’s because the city refuses to perform its service for a number of reasons. The city still charges them on their tax bill for waste pick-up.

The irony is that much of that private pick-up is never sorted but is trundled to the landfill.

Now we move into the big time. Council still approved hiring more people after it was revealed that the official city financial statement in 2011 said the civic staff costs were $155 million of the $174 million budget.

Adding more staff, particularly when there are more than 35 unfilled jobs pointing to a lack of confidence of the city’s employment policies. Even more interesting is the proposal to offer more than $79,000 for a custodial job at the provincial courthouse. Or, how about offering more than $80,000 for a “coordinator of some 23 crossing guards?”

These aren’t phantom jobs. They are indicative of the splurge by staff and its compliant majority of council who have little regard for cost control or the ability of the taxpayers to pay.

It’s interesting that Mayor Karen Farbridge spent some $87,000 in her 2010 re-election campaign. Her main opponent spent 1/10th of that and still received close to 11,000 votes. Most of the source of that funding was support for her and her cohorts on council, by the unions.

If ever organized labour needed to protect its principles, it lay in supporting like-minded councillors. And, that has been the case since 2006.

Employee costs have soared by 65.1 per cent in five years. Compare that to nearby peer cities whose employee costs increased collectively by 43 per cent in the same time frame.

The cost of doing business in 2012 has not been determined yet. And already council has approved adding more staff for 2013.

It’s time to take back our city.

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This is how panic mode strikes at City Hall

Posted December 4, 1012

Having mismanaged the city’s finances by loading up staff, multi-million dollar capital projects and specious social engineering strategies, the Farbridge administration has now screwed up its tightly wound control.

Let’s remember that the Farbridge cohorts on council have controlled the agenda for six years. There has been little opposition as it exercised absolute power with the complicity of senior staff.

Their first major mistake came November 29 when council invited the public to present their views regarding the 2013 budget. The usual folks were there wanting more money for their causes. That was duly reported in the paper. Two representatives of labour spoke glowingly of the great job the Farbridge administration was doing.  It was a giant suck up, to say the least.

Then along came three presenters who were critical of the administration’s handling of employee growth and costs since 2006. Followers of guelphspeaks were the first to publicly receive details of those well-documented presentations the next day.

At city hall, the finance department was in full defence mode to check the figures presented showing how the city staff costs had grown by 68.1 per cent in five years. It was revealed that Guelph’s employee costs in the same period, on average, exceeded those of neighbouring cities such as Cambridge, Kitchener, Waterloo and the Region of Waterloo. The difference of more than 20 percentage points was staggering.

The local daily reported none of this. But five days later, the Tribune became the designated hitter, to rebut the claims of a bloated and costly civic staff. It was obvious that the Trib reporter left before Milton Burns and Jeff Burke had presented their well-documented submissions to council.

In the Tribune, here’s how some city councillors explained why Guelph’s employee costs were far higher than the peer group:

Let’s start with human resources chief Mark Amorosi.

He described the problems comparing private sector compensation with that of municipal employees. “There are elements to private sector compensation, especially at the senior level, that aren’t available to their public sector counterparts. In the private sector there are stock options, annual bonuses – it just goes on and on,” he said. Perhaps he should take his talents to the private sector if he believes that.

Oh, wonder how many of Linamar’s 12,000 employees received stock options and bonuses? Wonder how secure their jobs are compared to Guelph civic employees? It’s because in that sector, performance is measured by efficiency and productivity, and you get to keep your job. No offense to most city workers.

The most hilarious comment came from Coun. Maggie Laidlaw who suggested that private sector workers should organize to fight for more attractive wages and benefits, “rather than the city joining a race to the bottom.”

Did Maggie have her bicycle helmet on too tight that night?  As an employee of the University of Guelph, does her illogical statement apply to that public institution as well? No racing to the bottom there.

Coun. Todd Dennis brought up the cause of the high city employee costs as the downloading of jobs from the province. Turns out there were 50 jobs downloaded, not a significant number compared to the 1,500 plus equivalent full-time city staff.

Ward six bench mate, Karl Wettstein, added, “the staff number thing is a bit of a red herring, a lot of that is downloading.”

It obvious that both these guys and a number of their confreres believe that their high employee costs are due to the provincial government downloading responsibilities and jobs. Well, let’s be clear, the same downloading happened to the four neighbouring municipalities mentioned previously. And they still managed their staff costs more efficiently than Guelph, by a broad margin.

That argument is an insult to taxpayers.

It’s easy to blame someone else for your own mismanagement.  The hard truth is that there has been wholesale hiring of city staff to fill jobs created by the crazy quilt of policies that the Farbridge group has inflicted on the city.

Examples abound: Zooming transportation costs, excessive compensation packages, featherbedding of locked-in jobs, opaque secret meetings, no clarity of positions, mangled communications, dodging responsibilities, excessive employee benefits, saddling the taxpayers with unnecessary pension and benefit liabilities, and, finally telling the residents what they want them to hear, but not what they need to know.

When council gathers to complete the 2013 budget, they have one sure-fire way of raising property taxes by just 2 per cent as the Guelph Chamber of Commerce requested.

Stop listening to the senior staff; freeze all hiring and lay-off 50 employees regardless of rank, last in first out.

There! That was easy.

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Guelph’s two newspapers are magpies for the Farbridge administration

Posted December 4, 2012

By Gerry Barker

Editor, guelphspeaks.ca

When Guelph’s corporately owned newspapers specifically, the Daily Mercury and twice a week Tribune, cover the news, their obligation to readers is to get both sides of the story.

Newspapers remain a public trust in that they report the news, not the chosen half of it. In Guelph, it is increasingly apparent its two newspapers – both owned by Metroland Publishing, a division of TorStar, are consistently supporting the Farbridge administration.

Right now there is no consistent community content in either paper opposing  the Farbridge administration. It’s close to becoming an embarrassment.

Here’s a case in point:

Thursday night, November 29, the public was invited to make representation to council regarding the 2013 budget. In fact, some 20 citizens spoke up about their causes and concerns about the budgeting process. That took about two hours and was completed before 9 pm.

The following day there was a short story in the Mercury about crossing guards and bicycle representations, who spoke in order to address the council. In fairness, the Mercury reporter faced a tight deadline to meet the paper’s press time for Friday’s publication.

The Tribune was down as the paper had been already distributed with the Mercury Thursday afternoon.

On Saturday, I expected coverage in the Mercury of the full meeting in which two of the later presentations were highly critical of the administration, particularly the exploding cost of civic employees. Nothing appeared in the paper.

Milton Burns, a retired accountant, presented figures from the city’s own documents, that saw a 68.1 per cent increase in staff salaries, wages and benefits from 2006 to 2011. Separately, Jeff Burke reinforced the employee costs that now consume 89 per cent of the city’s tax levy.

In the same five-year period, the city population grew by 5.8 per cent.

A presentation made early in the meeting from Sue Ricketts and Bill Tufts of the Fair Pensions for All organization, predicted that staff salaries will double in the next five years. This is partially due to taxpayer guarantees to maintain indexed pensions for all retired employees.

None of this was reported in the Mercury.

Finally, the Tuesday, December 4th Tribune carried a story about the public meeting. It was a planned strike dissing the Burns and Ricketts presentations.  With the weekend to prepare the city’s response, the Tribune’s Tuesday report disputed the claims of overstaffing using quotes by various councillors. The point man in the city’s awkward rebuttal was Human Resources chief Mark Amorosi, who apparently doesn’t read his own department’s reports.

In reporting, this story is labeled a “follow” of a news event. It’s common in the news business and necessary. The point is that both sides of the dispute are interviewed to obtain clarity. The Trib failed the readers on that count.

Having worked in a newsroom including being assignment editor of the largest paper in Canada, I have heard all the excuses as to why a story was not a story or it needed more work. As of Saturday afternoon no one from either paper had contacted Milton Burns for more information. He did hear from Councillors Gloria Kovach and Leanne Piper requesting a copy of his presentation.

Is this what has happened to our newspapers?  Ignore accurate, documented breaking news about excessive spending by council and staff?

This is a dereliction of responsibility and a disservice to the community. The publisher, (he’s in Kitchener at the Record), should investigate as to why these portions of an important public meeting were ignored and misrepresented.

The simple reason is the credibility of these newspapers is gravely diminished.

And being in that business these days, is not an asset you want to lose.

 

 

 

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