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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10 Comments

Filed under Between the Lines

10 responses to “CITY VIEW – More short takes focused on news coverage

  1. Paul

    You missed one member of OPIRG – One K Farbridge who used to be on staff there (the Director). I am surprised that the students at Guelph do not rise up to stop the “voluntary” expense that is included as one of the student fees to fund OPIRG and pay the salaries of these individuals some of whom are dedicated to obstruction and protest.
    Very sad,

    • Paul – No, I did not know that our Mayor was once a director of the Ontario Public Research Group. Isn’t that an interesting fact, it must explain why the Hanlon Business Park occupation in 2009 by members of that organization was handled by the Mayor and council with kid gloves.

      As a member of the Police Services Board the Mayor’s loyalties were placed in an awkward position. Council chose to support the alleged right of occupiers including members of OPIRG. The result was no police action to remove the occupiers who taunted and flaunted the police and the law.

      Despite damaging construction equipment and threatening the contractor, no action was taken by the city except to challenge the occupier’s reason for blocking development of the park. It was all about saving the rare Jefferson salamander. The Ministry of Natural Resources conducted extensive monitoring to discover the salamanders and there was no evidence they existed on the site or nearby.

      That nasty demonstration of extremism gone wild cost the taxpayers an additional $1 million as the contractor was unable to keep his schedule and the work wasn’t completed until the following year.

      If University of Guelph students are required to pay through student fees to support this organization they should protest.

      OPIRG is nothing but a front for creating havoc through urban terrorism and obstruction of justice. There is plenty of evidence, including criminal convictions of members, to question the mission of this group.

  2. Scott Tracey

    Ah Gerry, still not letting facts get in the way of a good screed, I see.

  3. Scott Tracey

    The most obvious example is the four-year budgeting, which is not, as you suggest, a forecast of tax increases but rather a forecast of the annual increase in the operating budget.
    As you know, these are not the same thing.
    The 3.87 per cent does not represent a property tax increase, but rather (as my story clearly stated) represents the amount of additional money the city will need from one year to the next. Property taxes will make up some of that, certainly, but a significant portion will also come from other sources such as increased assessment (i.e. more properties paying into the pool)
    It is therefore terribly inaccurate, in my view, to characterize this as a 16.4 per cent tax increase over four years.
    I disagree with some of the other content of your post, but as it is opinion (not unlike my Jury of One column) I’ll leave you to it.

    Thanks
    Scott

    • Scott Tracey – Are we not splitting hairs here? Mr. Horsman is recommending a 3.87 increase in the 2014 operating budget. Based on the current operating budget, that would be an estimated $712,080 increase in the operating budget. Some 94 per cent of that comers from the taxpayers. But wait, there are some serious unbudgeted liabilities the city faces including the potential $19 million judgment awarded to fired contractor Urbacon, builders of 95 per cent of the new city hall. As usual, the city has kept mum about what the replacement contractors were paid to finish the Urbacon contract and the legal cost of defending the city in a six week trials earlier this year. Frankly, Mr. Horsman and his staff are to be commended for trying to bring order from financial chaos of the past six years. Thanks for the opportunity to debate the issues. The final decision will be made in the fall of 2014 when the people have their say about how their city is to be run.

  4. Glen N. Tolhurst

    Scott et al: Let’s not forget that the MPAC increases guarantee a boost in property taxes of nearly 4% annually over the coming 4 years due to the rise in assessments. Anything the band of happy tax & spend councillors and administration add is compounded upon that higher base. Check your take home pay before defending tax increases!!!

  5. Steve

    It’s increasingly clear that very few people have the basic arithmetic skills to comment on the issues of taxation and budgets.
    Budget increases are based on absolute dollar amounts, which fail to take into account the effects of growth or inflation. A 4% budget increase would be accounted for by 2% inflation growth and 2% population growth (it costs more to provide services to a larger population). The resulting tax “increase” seen by the average taxpayer would only be the 2% inflation factor, because the growth factor would be offset by spreading the total increase across a larger taxpayer base.
    Unfortunately, this reality doesn’t fit with the preconceived biases of some people so it’s conveniently ignored.
    The MPAC assessments are only used to determine mill rates. If the average assessments increase faster than the budget, then mill rates actually decrease. This has happened several times over the past few years, and a simple check of published municipal mill rates (or your old tax bills) will prove this.

    • Steve – Interesting points. Using the two per cent increase in population is misleading in the case of the city of Guelph. In fact is that from 2006 to 2011 the population growth has been 5.8 per cent. That’s half of your projections. During that time there was a freeze on assessments as dictated by the McGuinty government. At the same time city expenditures rose from $226.8 million in 2006 to $317.7 million in 2011 or a 40 per cent increase. On the revenue side in 2006 some $302 million was collected compared with $379.9 million in 2011 or a 25.8 per cent increase. Among the sources of revenue, the most came from property and business taxes. The greatest of course are residential taxes that represent 94 per cent of city revenues. In 2006, taxes collected were $127.8 million. In 2011 tax revenue was $176.8 million or a 39.1 per cent increase. You are right about most people not understanding how the system works. You can’t blame them as financial statements and regular reports are strictly controlled and limited let alone being couched in laymen’s terms. Thanks for your input.

  6. Steve

    Yes, 2006 to 2011 was a slow growth period for Guelph. Most current projections looking forward put growth at 2%. But my point is that “tax increases” as reported by newspapers and bloggers every year at budget time fail to recognize either growth or inflation and leave their readers with the mistaken idea that anything above a 0% budget increase is evidence of financial mismanagement. The truth is that 4% should be expected to maintain the same level of service due to growth and inflation, and only half of that will be visible to taxpayers on their bills.

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