Monthly Archives: April 2013

CITY VIEW – University of Guelph failed the student housing test

Posted April 28, 2013

So the university is unhappy about the size of the Abode Varsity Living student housing project approved for Gordon Street and Stone Road and the safety of students walking across the road to attend school.

The college of knowledge accepts some 22,000 students a year but only provides 5,300 on-campus units of accommodation. University spokesman Chuck Cunningham grumped the school was disappointed in the final plans to be built at their “front door”. Which front door is that? The intersection of Gordon and College?

What was the real reason the university objected to the Abode project, during the four weeks of Ontario Municipal Board hearings? Why did the city side with the university, or was it the other way around?

As it turned out, both parties lost their case before the board.

Instead of pondering the “shadow” effect of the new student residence that will house up to 1,100 students, perhaps the university should explain why some 13,000- plus students are thrust into the community to find a home for the school year.

Mr. Cunningham said that on-campus students have campus security, residential assistance, on-site programming, entertainment and supervision. Okay, but what about the other off-campus students? Do they share the benefits of their on-campus colleagues?

Perhaps he should speak with the residents who have seen their neighbourhoods inundated with multi-student occupation of single family homes. The partying, uncivil behaviour and trash generated by these student homes is ignored by the university management. They say the Guelph housing market is “healthy”.

To further insult tour intelligence, the university abandoned a private partner on-campus student housing project, while spending money to stop a student housing project across the street.

The cost of the city’s legal and other expenses lies in the usual mystery category.

It’s time for the University to stop pussy-footing and work with the city to develop proper off-campus housing for the growing number of students. This involves an affordable, comprehensive plan to students living on and off campus.

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CITY VIEW – Ambush at One Carden Street

Posted April 26, 2013

Two months ago council approved a 2013 budget item of $170,000 to renovate the popular Farmer’s Market this summer. That figure has suddenly zoomed to $500,000.

Now it is revealed the this “life cycle” project will be paid for from the budgets of other, unspecified, “life cycle” projects. All this was accomplished by the staff who ambushed council with a lowball figure to get the Farmer’s Market renovations moving.

Top question being asked is why the sudden increase cost of renovating a building whose days may be numbered, as the Secondary Downtown Plan requires the Market relocated and rebuilt.

More important, why does the staff have authority to make such a decision without council’s approval? There is ample evidence that staff has made other financial decisions without council’s knowledge or approval.

It may lie in the grey area between the Mayor’s and Chief Administration Officer Ann Pappert’s offices in which decisions are fashioned to conform to policies never considered or approved by the electorate. Having a clear majority of Farbridge cohorts on council, allows wide latitude the decisions are made without exposure to the full council.

It is willful to conduct city business this way. The staff did not recommend spending $500,000 on the Farmer’s Market renovations when the 2013 budget was struck. Instead they came up with this cockamamie scheme to take the money from other “life cycle” projects whose budgets had been approved.

It is impossible to believe that the Mayor did not know that the staff increased the Farmer’s Market renovation cost to $500,000. If she claims she was unaware of the increase, she faces a major problem with a staff that feels it can do anything it wants at any time.

And where was Chief Financial Officer Al Horsman when this was going on? When did he know and what did he do about it? Is he not the keeper of the gate in budget matters? If not, what’s the use of even having a budget where there is so much staff freelancing with money happening?

Debate is a thing of the past. Electronic voting has denied taxpayers the voting record of councillors. Sure they can ask the city clerk to breakout the council vote records. But why should they have to do that?

This and other decisions continue to steadily drip eroding any confidence that the taxpayers have in their elected councillors and city staff.

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CITY VIEW – OMB approves high-density student housing at Gordon Street and Stone Road

Posted April 25, 2013

On April 22, the Ontario Municipal Board approved the proposal to build a two-tower student-housing complex to provide accommodation for an estimated 1,100 students. The project would demolish the Best Western motel occupying the site.

The hearing took four weeks to complete with most days starting early and ending late, according to the chairman.

The original application by Abode Varsity Living Inc. was opposed by city council, the University of Guelph and the Mayfair Park Community Association, located adjacent to the project.

The bottom line in the extensive judgment was that the city attempted to argue high-density projects had to be built in the downtown core. Sound familiar? You will recall that for the past six and one half years, the Farbridge administration has spent millions to promote the downtown core. As has been argued, it was done at the expense of other capital needs in other parts of the city.

This policy, was embedded in the revised Official Plan and Zoning By-law. The board ordered that both these be amended to allow the Abode proposal to be designated as a high density zoned site.

The University objected on the grounds that it blocked the “Gateway” to the University even though its completion would help solve the shortage of on campus student housing. Of some 122,000 students, the University can only accommodate some 5,300, almost all of who are first year students or postgraduate students. The rest must seek accommodation elsewhere.

The University has approval to build a ten-storey student housing building across the street from the Abode project. But it was admitted there were no plans to start the project. It’s interesting to note that Coun. Leanne Piper is employed by the University to head up its student-housing department. If she voted on council against allowing Abode to proceed, then that’s a direct conflict of interest. There will be more on this later.

The failure of this housing policy is the growing number of single-family homes, converted to multi-student housing with little or no supervision. This has enraged property owners living next to or nearby who see their single-family neighbourhood destroyed by crowds of unruly and uncaring students.

The city has done nothing to stop this unlawful conversion by unscrupulous landlords. Its excuse is it doesn’t want to provoke a civil rights intercession.

So, what did we learn today?

1. The city administration among other issues, said the Official Plan requires high-density projects to be built in the Downtown core, not at the corner of Gordon and Stone Road.

2. The administration is doing nothing about the spread of illegal student housing in single-family areas.

3. That the OMB judgment recognized there is a growing demand for at least 13,000-plus student-housing units in the city.

4. That following two amendments to the Official Plan to accommodate the Abode project in principle, details of the size and scope are to be negotiated by the city and the developer.

Those matters are complex and in some cases there are ridiculous rules established by city council that thwarts bonafide proposals.

And we wonder why Guelph is such a hard place in which to do business.

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CITY VIEW – More short takes focused on news coverage

Posted April 21, 2013

It pains me to say this but the two newspapers published in Guelph have become lapdogs for the city administration. Having toiled in the trenches of newspapering for many years, I have respect for those editors and reporters who must crank out the product daily or twice a week.

TorStar, a huge publishing concern that publishes newspapers around Southern Ontario, owns both papers. Also they have ownership of Harlequin, the biggest romance publishing company in North America.

In Guelph’s case, the editorial policy and direction comes from Lynn Haddrall, editor in chief of the Kitchener Waterloo Record. Her job description also includes being editor in chief of the Guelph Mercury and Guelph Tribune.

Both papers have become satellites of the Kitchener Waterloo Record. The publisher and editor in chief do not live in the city and have little close connection. It is apparent that Guelph newspapers’ editorial policy and direction flows through the Record’s executive suite.

What follows are some examples of patently biased stories carried in local newspapers. Reporters on both papers rely heavily on press releases prepared by the City’s communications department, known in the trade as “hand-out” journalism.

Take One – Four-year forecasting of tax increases a dumb idea

The Mercury printed an editorial praising the city finance department for promoting an annual 3.87 per cent property tax increase in each of the next four years. They think it’s a brilliant proposal to get away from, what they described as, the “chicken little” approach toward budgeting in the past six years. Being a family blog, guelphspeaks will stay away from the obvious comparison … but you get the drift.

So in that time, where were the editorials that complained about “chicken little” budgeting? During the six years tax increases have increased by more than 23 per cent compounded. The new proposal is to increase property taxes by an additional 16.4 per cent in the next four years. In the same period, the cost of living inflation rate has average slightly less than 1.75 per cent

This is a finance department that cannot track capital projects to determine if they meet allocated budgets. To obtain the information, the excuse was it would be “labour intensive.”

Given the administration’s muddled record of managing finances, does the newspaper management still think this four-year fixed property tax increase is a good idea? And don’t expect it will turn out as predicted.

Just asking.

Take Two – For $20,000 you get commitment?

As the news outlet that broke Chief Administration Officer Ann Pappert’s $20,000 relocation bonus story, it pains to read about the Mercury column defending the payment. The columnist decried the public criticism by exclaiming that it demonstrated the lady’s commitment to Guelph and is augmented by her $200,000 salary.

Too bad he failed to drill down and reveal the real story of how Ms. Pappert suddenly decided to move to Guelph. Simply, it was move or it or lose it, baby.

Hey, a team of unnamed councillors chose the lady. Her 18-month record on the job has been, dare I say it? Spotty.

As they say, the jury is still out.

Take three – Ya gotta love it!

The Tribune announces that the 2013 city budget is available online, according to a news release from the finance department. The term news release is a misnomer.

The real description is “don’t ask, don’t tell” release.

The Mayor and CFO Al Horsman waxed eloquently in the release what a great job they were doing managing the city and its finances.

The website is guelph.ca/budget.

Put lots of paper in the printer if you plan on downloading it. If you have questions, lots of luck or pay an accountant to interpret it.

Take 4 – Gerbil financing of downtown parking

Back in 2007, one of the first moves the new Farbridge-dominated council decided was to allow free 2-hour metered parking in the downtown area. It was part of the misguided downtown master plan to make the area, as the Mayor put it, “vibrant and exciting for all citizens”.

Up to that point, all municipal parking was a self-financing project in which the meter parking brought in some $600,000 a year. Any surplus after costs was transferred to the capital reserve fund.

You’d have to be a Gerbil not to understand that removing $3,600,000 of metered parking revenues in six years would lead to putting pressure on general revenues when it comes to increasing the number of downtown parking spaces.

You cannot suck and blow at the same time.
The Tribune reports that the city hired a consultant who was being paid $100,000, to study its dilemma of needing more parking. The paper reports the consultant is leaning toward recommending the city’s return to the previous system of having parking pay for itself. He further predicted that by adopting the former system, parking revenues would pay for future expansion of parking facilities.

Instead of reactivating the meters, the city adopted a new 10-year capital forecast. It excluded major capital projects such as the new downtown library, South end recreation centre and, Tah Dah! A parking garage on Wilson Street.

Talk about the law of unintended consequences.

One stupid mistake six years ago has skewered the city’s plans for needed public facilities.

Take five – The Mercury’s strange fascination with urban terrorists and fellow travelers

Two stories were printed in the Mercury about activists (their word, not mine) who are connected to the Ontario Public Interest Research Group or OPIRG. This is the same organization that convicted urban terrorist Amanda Hiscocks was a director. Kelly Rose Pflug-Back also convicted of trashing businesses during public demonstrations at the 2010 Toronto G20 meeting, was also connected.

Both women were convicted and jailed for their participation in the G20 fracas. Pflug-Back was also a major participant in the Hanlon Business Park occupation in 2009. That event stopped construction and resulted in costing the city $1 million over planned construction costs due to the actions of the anarchist occupiers.

Hiscocks was charged with blocking the Hanlon Expressway with burning tires and brush.

Now the Guelph Civic League’s front organization, 10 Carden Street, is promoting an organization to shut down the Oil Sands and prevent converting a gas pipeline to carry western crude to refineries in Montreal. The Guelph Anti-Pipeline Action Group is simply against the use of oil in our society. It is also connected with OPRIG. Yawn.

Why doesn’t the Mercury dig into how these activists’ groups are linked when their determination to inflict real damage has already been demonstrated on the community.

Poetry and mindless protest don’t deserve coverage in the family newspaper.

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CITY VIEW – Voodoo accounting and the unanswered questions

Posted April 18, 2013

In a recent report in the local daily the headline stated hat: “Guelph recovers nearly $10M in unspent capital funding.”

I don’t know about you but I get nervous when the word “nearly” appears when referring to the city’s finances.

The report covered a meeting of the corporate administration, finance and enterprise committee in which senior corporate analyst Greg Clark revealed details of the 2009 Infrastructure Stimulus Fund program. This was a cooperative spending program that involved a third coming from the Federal government, a third from the Province and a third from the municipality.

At the time the city applied for permission to proceed with a $66 million infrastructure construction program of which its share would be $22 million.

Mr. Clark reported that the city received more than $40 million from the two senior governments. Again I get nervous when there is a lack of precise figures by the finance department,

Here’s the skinny: If the feds and province paid “more than” $40 million, how much did the city pony up? Mr. Clark did not reveal that figure. Probably with good reason as the reported final cost of this spending was $72 million.

First, assuming the city’s estimates of the work was accurate then it’s safe to assume the city had to pay an extra $4 million to hold up its end of the original $66 million.

Second when Coun. Karl Wettstein asks if the unspent funds could be applied to other new capital projects in the current year, you have to wonder if he knows how the system works. Mr. Clark pointed out that the bulk of the so-called recovered funds must be returned to their source. He cited restoring reserve funds or paying government agencies.

This whole story is a total misread of the facts. While the reporting is as accurate as the material presented at the meeting, the facts presented were vague and non- specific.

Coun. Cam Guthrie, chairman of the audit committee commented “it would be interesting to know … which capital projects were overspent.”

Right on! Let’s get some specifics before misleading the public that the administration came up with a $10 windfall of unspent funding.

The last word goes to Chief Financial Officer, Al Horsman. warned that the task of providing that information would be “labour intensive”.
How far do you want to drill down?” He asked.

It is disturbing that this report vastly overstated the true financial situation given the appearance of a public relations handout. It is also troubling when councillors question the staff that the request is treated as … gee, that’s going to take a lot of work.

Even more troubling is why didn’t the newspaper reporting this story, follow up and find out exactly where the money was coming from, where it was going and why was there an apparent over-spending by the city on the Infrastructure Stimulus program?

Again, this is more mushroom politics. Keep the taxpayers and their representatives in the dark.

The legacy of former CAO Hans Loewig whose four-year career as senior manager of the city, has left a culture among staff that obfuscates, allows cover ups and tightly controls the message.

Hey Hans, it’s still working!

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CITY VIEW – The hiring of Ann Pappert and the appropriate protest

Modified April 19, 2013

Guelph’s daily newspaper, owned by a corporation located out of town, claims that paying an existing employee a $20,000 relocation bonus because she was promoted to Chief Administration Officer, is “entirely appropriate”.

Let’s examine the facts. Ms. Pappert’s predecessor, Hans Loewig, never lived in Guelph and remained a resident of Brantford for his four years on the job. The taxpayers paid his travel expenses, including overnight stays in Guelph hotels.

There was no push by the administration to demand he live in Guelph.

Then he announced his retirement that turned out to be the long goodbye. The city hired a headhunting consultant to search for a Loewig replacement. The cost of that exercise was allegedly $45,000.

Apparently council was comfortable paying Mr. Loewig his full salary of $203,000 plus benefits for almost nine months after his announced retirement while the search for a replacement was conducted.

The result of the search came up with 10 candidates deemed to be qualified. That list was winnowed down to three among them Ms. Pappert and Executive Director of Human Resources, Mark Amorosi, plus one outsider. That individual changed his (her) mind and backed out of contention

To this day, no one outside of an exclusive group of elected officials knows why Ms. Pappert who lived in Waterloo was chosen over Mr. Amorosi, a resident of Hamilton. The public was never told the details of her qualifications for employment or her benefits and bonuses. Her starting salary has since grown to more than $200,000.

The daily paper keeps referring to “industry” standards that apply to hiring senior public servants to bolster its opinion that Ms. Pappert’s hiring was “entirely appropriate”.

Public service is not an industry. Governments of all shapes and sizes determine public service salaries and benefits. And the taxpayers pay those employment standards. It’s a big difference from that of private industry.

The facts are that public service employees have a cast iron security in their employment. They have seen their remuneration creep up beyond comparable private industry positions in many cases.

If the paper is interested, it should expend its resources to do comparative reporting on what public servants in Guelph are earning and those in private industry. Before welcoming Ann to Guelph, it should point out her professional qualifications were adequate when she was Executive Director of community and social services. But her new position carried more responsibility including a thorough understanding of financial management that a CAO needed to perform. During that previous period of employment with the city, the issue of relocation was never raised because there were other senior managers who did not live in the city that pays their salaries.

Further the daily paper never reported the relocation bonus paid to Ms Pappert. It came from the blog world. So why the sudden interest in it now? The cat’s already among the canaries. Have we reached a point where we have to bribe talented people from out of town to work in the city administration?

The decision to have the new CAO live in the city was made following revelations and public criticism about the sweetheart deal made with Hans Loewig.

It is true that choosing where to live is the job seeker’s choice not the prospective employer. But this council leadership made a mockery of hiring the new CAO by spending thousands in a charade when the final choice was just sitting down the hall.

Is it any wonder the people are growling?

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CITY VIEW – If this is the Farbridge train, it’s time to get off

Posted April 15, 2013

Putting it together, you discover why our city is lagging provincially mandated rates of growth. The Places to Grow Act of the provincial government set out time lines for population growth. In Guelph’s case the target was set at 175,000 by 2031. In order to meet this goal Guelph requires a specified pattern of growth that calls for 1,100 new homes per year.

The city has fallen short of this target for several years. That means that the city’s population must grow by 47,000 in the next 18 years. To achieve that figure today, the city will have to produce 1,850 new homes per year. Because the city has not met its Places to Grow targets for the past six years, the number of new home starts needed every year grows exponentially.

This council has been unable to even meet the 1,100 new homes a year to meet the provincial mandate.

So what’s the problem?

The record is dismal when taking the past six and a half years of the Farbridge Administration’s scorecard in promoting development both residential and industrial commercial. First, in January 2007, the new council let it be known its policy would be to curtail urban sprawl. That sent a cold message to developers.

Then development fees for new home construction were jacked up to almost double, which further slowed development. The result was driving up home prices as the builders passed the new charges to the purchaser.

Then a large swath of lands were designated “Heritage Lands” and most were owned by private citizens. This narrow policy squeezed available raw land for development.

But some developers have fought back and a record number of appeals of city planning decisions are on file with the Ontario Municipal Board. The city promised a litigation status report in March but has delayed release allegedly because of the legal department’s workload in managing the legal issues files.

Infill and brownfield lands are mostly unsuitable for single-family homes. As a result of the 185 starts in the first quarter this year, only 41 were for single detached homes. The rest were for linked town house projects.

Failure on the part of the administration to not only maintain the level of residential development but since 2007, to seek out and attract industrial and commercial development. Guelph’s ratio between residential assessments is 84 per cent with only 16 per cent for industrial/commercial assessment. Well-run municipalities look to a ratio of 60 per cent residential and 40 per cent industrial/commercial.

As a result of these failed policies, the load keeps building on the shoulders of private property owners and businesses. City revenues are dependent on property taxes with 94 per cent making up city income.

Now, the city financial department has produced a four-year tax increase scheme that limits increases to 3.87 per cent. When compounding these proposed increases, taxes will rise by 16.4 per cent in only four years.

While the idea of proposing long-term tax increases as a public service, it is sheer stupidity. How can the city finance department make such assumptions? The city is relying more and more on the taxpayers to shore up its library of social engineering schemes, undocumented capital spending, unknown budget liabilities and pension guarantees.

The record is clear and despite the Farbridge propaganda machine turning out glowing reports of its accomplishments, the real story is masked in obfuscation, secrecy and amateur manipulation of the facts.

If you were a businessman wishing to locate in Guelph it would not take long to figure out that there are too many hurdles and obstacles facing your application. Two independent consultants have stated that Guelph is a difficult place in which to do business.

It’s one of the reasons that the $10 million Hanlon Business Park has not attracted new industrial/commercial development. It goes back to the anarchist occupation of the Park in 2009, when construction was halted, equipment was damaged, the contractor was threatened, and the police watched from the sidelines.

Yet the city council did nothing to condemn the illegal occupation and it cost at least one councillor his job in the 2010 election. It also cost an additional $1 million to complete the Hanlon Business Park.

These are some of the reasons why Guelph lags in developing our city with new housing and new job–creating industry and businesses.

The latest Farbridge gambit is to offer a holiday of development fees to high-rise projects downtown. The idea is to encourage housing in the city’s core. Wonder if other developers and builders are being offered the same juicy arrangement. The irony is the holiday is internally financed by taking funds from the brownfield restoration fund.

Sure the developers will eventually pay the non-indexed development fees. But that could be ten years from now.

Another example of voodoo economics that is burying the city’s reputation and financial future.

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