Monthly Archives: September 2013

City waste management is a $50 million blunder

Posted September 13, 2013

Thursday, September 12, the Guelph waste management invited the public to review the city’s waste management initiative and recent five-year record of performance.

The soiree was held at the Cutten Fields country club where the room was lined with display boards that detailed the progress of the waste management system that was approved in 2008. At the time it was labeled as a 25-year Solid Waste Master Management Plan or (SWMMP). The purpose of this open house was to review progress in the past five years that has become a 20-year solid waste master plan.

The city also provided some tasty Nanaimo bars and bottled water.

Conspicuously absent during our attendance were elected officials, the Executive Director of Waste Management, Dr. Janet Laird, or senior members of her staff. Instead, the job of informing the public was left to the hired guns, the consultant group conducting this dog and pony show.

Some dog and some pony.

A woman questioned a representative asking why the Organic Waste Processing Facility (OWPF) was built with a capacity of three times the city’s needs. Response: It was built to meet the future needs of the city.

Then the lady asked why two thirds of the capacity was sold to the Region of Waterloo who have not used their quota? Response: They must pay for the contracted tonnage whether they use it or not.

The lady then asked if the city was in this for the money or to deal with its own waste?

Response: Mumbled, incomprehensive.

That brief exchange really sums up the mess the waste management department has made diverting solid waste from the landfill.

Here are some facts.

The $33 million organics waste facility financed by the taxpayers of Guelph, needed the support of other municipalities. What other reason could there be for building a facility that was triple the capacity of Guelph’s current and future needs of processing wet waste materials?

It has yet to reach capacity of processing 30,000 tonnes of wet waste per year.

In 2012, the OWPF processed 17,338 tonnes of which 15,048 tonnes was usable organic material. Some 3,414 tonnes of compost or 19.69 per cent of all wet waste processed at the plant, was sold for an undisclosed amount to an unnamed third party.

The Region of Waterloo delivered 9,100 tonnes of its contracted 20,000 tonnes in 2012. Prospect of this increasing is slim because collection of wet waste in the Region is voluntary in which only 35 per cent of households participate. Guelph supplied some 8,238 tonnes of wet waste

To offset the Region’s shortfall, Guelph waste management announced it was seeking other customers to use the facility because the Region is not meeting its commitment of 20,000 tonnes. The question remains, can the city sell capacity that contractually belongs to another party? Legally, this could be interpreted as “unjustified enrichment.”

Wherein lie figures and figures lie

Let’s go back to the original estimates that prompted city council in 2008 to approve this system. It was stated that Guelph would provide 10,000 tonnes of organic materials for processing. This has not occurred and in fact it fell short of the original estimate by 1,762 tonnes in 2012.

So when the lady questioned the rationale of building an organics facility that was triple the current needs of the city, she was told it was to meet future needs of Guelph. This was total misrepresentation of the facts.

First, the Places to Grow policy of the provincial government established the population of Guelph at 175,000 by 2030. That’s an additional 47,000 residents or 37 per cent of present population of 128,000 (StatsCan).

Doing the math that indicates that by 2030 the OWPF would process just 13,700 tonnes of organic material from the city that built the plant. That occurs some 17 years from now. The kicker is the facility has an estimated lifespan of 20 years. That will mean replacement or major retrofitting in 2030 dollars.

It is obvious the Farbridge administration is attempting to create a legacy of Guelph being a world leader in composting wet waste. The insult is that this ego trip is on the backs of the unsuspecting taxpayers.

This project was built with little regard to the waste management needs of Guelph. Taxpayers were only the means to the end. The waste management officials had to attract other users to make it work. Significant landfill diversion has yet to be proven. In 2012, 105,915 tonnes of waste and recyclables was processed at the Waste Handling Centre. Of that, 48 per cent or 48,540 tonnes, went to the landfill.

When the Mayor claims that a survey last year revealed 97 per cent of the 409 respondents were in favour of diverting material from the landfill, she is whistling past the graveyard considering the city’s attempt to meet that challenge that has failed dismally.

One thorn in the side of reason, is that 6,400 Guelph residents do not have city garbage pick-up but pay for the service. Private contractors haul away the waste of those homes, most of which goes directly in the landfill.

Words cannot describe how serious this misguided exercise is and it has already cost taxpayers millions. And it’s not going to get better. The city has put itself in a position where it is financing and guaranteeing a wet waste operation that is dependent on organic waste from other municipalities or commercial users.

It also ignores the collection needs of a large number of taxpayers.

The city employees running the show refuse to reveal financial details including operating costs per tonne, debt financing, contracts with third party operators of the facility, sources of revenue and depreciation, just to name a few.

To perpetuate this alarming charade has the potential of bringing city finances to its knees in the next few years.

Note: This is yet another example why GrassRoots Guelph was initiated by concerned citizens. The organization is dedicated to informing citizens of the operations of their city. The primary purpose is to increase the numbers of voters in the next civic election in 2014. The response to joining the organization has been overwhelming. Why not join today. GRG is non-partisan, non-profit and incorporated, Send your name, address, email address and telephone number to grassrootsguelph2014@gmail.com Welcome aboard!

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Who was minding the store when this city-financed indoor soccer deal was hatched?

Posted September 12, 2013

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Build an indoor soccer pitch in Centennial Park and they will come.

Five years ago, Mayor Farbridge opened the facility that was to be operated by Guelph Community Sports with the Guelph Soccer Club as tenants.

Nobody considered that soccer is a warm weather sport that is played outside for seven months of the year in Canada. During that time the soccer dome sits idle with little revenue. The argument provided was that the dome, built in Centennial Park, is not air-conditioned.

In July, Guelph Community Sports told the city it could no longer make the payments on the $900,000 mortgage that has $500,000 still outstanding. In fact, the August payment was not made and the mortgage is now in arrears.

It is not clear who owns this structure. It is built on city land but who is the registered owner?

The taxpayers of Guelph are now on the hook for that amount because the city guaranteed the loan. Guelph Community Sports is also a guarantor but they apparently have no money. Guelph Soccer refuses to guarantee the mortgage although it would use the facility for the next ten years if a deal could be salvaged.

City staff has been negotiating a solution that includes extending the mortgage amortization period to 15 years to reduce the mortgage payment by 50 per cent.

This is where it gets sticky. The playing surface has to be replaced in 2018 and the Dome itself must be replaced in 2023. Both those fixes are expensive and must be completed before the mortgage is paid off.

This project was star-crossed from the beginning. It is apparent there was no business plan that nailed down the obligation of Guelph Community Sports. Such questions as the ability to pay down the mortgage and maintain the building for the original amortization period, come to mind.

Was there any monitoring of the operations, in the past five years, on the part of the city staff? Was there any reserve for repairs and replacement in the original budget?

Was it ever considered that playing soccer all year round is a very expensive proposition, particularly in a country like Canada?

Does the city not provide playing fields for soccer enthusiasts to enjoy during the warmer months?

What was the thinking behind guaranteeing taxpayer support to allow soccer to be played year around?

Even city hockey facilities close down during the summer months.

It is another example of special interest groups receiving taxpayer support for their projects without a careful analysis of the financial consequences.

This is a similar situation to what occurred during Mayor Fabridge’s first term, when the now known as the Sleeman Centre, was turned over to a Calgary company to operate the facility. That deal also fell apart when the operator failed to pay the mortgage on the building and meet other obligations. It eventually cost the taxpayers $4 million to return the operation to city control.

Somebody must watch the store if this soccer deal is to be rescued.

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Where heritage gets in the way of reasonable lifestyle

Posted September 11, 2013

A letter writer complains that it is a mistake to demolish the Wilson farmhouse that now sits in the middle of a designated park in Guelph’s northern reaches.

The chief of the Heritage Department of the city of Guelph testified at a hearing that the farmhouse was a bonafide heritage site and should be retained. Coun. Andy Van Hellemond, who represents citizens in the area, consulted with residents to determine their views. He worked hard to convince the city that the building was derelict and would cost more than $350,000 to restore.

Furthermore, the majority of resident’s wanted it removed as it was an eyesore and dysfunctional.

Despite his efforts, the city held fast until this week when staff recommended demolishing the building.

This is reminiscent of what happened with the Guelph Heritage group, led by Coun. Leanne Piper, that saved the derelict Loretto convent located on someone else’s property. That exercise cost taxpayers more than $16 million plus to renovate it into a civic museum.

Somehow, saving buildings that are perceived to be of value for future generations to understand our beginnings has become an obsession with heritage aficionados. It often overrides common sense and the wishes of the people.

A certain faction of this city council have made it their business to spend taxpayer’s money pursuing their dreams of preserving the bricks and mortar of our past. So much so that the city now has a paid staff of six Heritage employees dedicated to that task.

There is definitely a place for preservation of historic buildings and to receive public input, pro and con. But it should be managed by the city Planning Department where building and architectural values are professionally considered.

This designated public park is for the use and enjoyment of the residents in the area. That’s what they expected when they purchased their homes. To suggest the park is too large for the area is a specious argument.

Andy’s Ward Two bench mate, Ian Findlay, still sticks to renovating the building. But then his interests lie downtown where he operates a business. After ten years, he thinks there should be more consultation. He disputed that the majority of neighbours wanted the building demolished saying he had heard privately from those wanting a restoration.

Why didn’t they speak up if they were so convinced of their cause? Isn’t that the way democracy is supposed to work?

The letter writer should understand that all politics is local. If you don’t participate, you don’t count.

Kudos to Coun. Van Hellemond for his efforts to do the right thing.

Bring on the demolition crew.

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City admits its financial management is off the track

Posted September 11, 2013

Just about 10 months ago the city staff was ordered by city council to find efficiencies in operations of $500,000 to keep the property tax increase to 2.96 per cent.

In June, staff announced that only $126,000 in cost cuts had been found of which the majority were increases in revenues. And the real property tax increase turned out to be 3.74 per cent according to the finance department

Now that same staff has been told by its executive managers to cut another $2.4 million due to annual budget overspending and revenue shortfalls. Part of the deficit will by mitigated by tapping into reserves at the end of the year.

Some of the spending excesses occurred in legal services, $300,000 plus another $350,000 coping with winter control of snow and a major ice storm. Then the Planning Department estimated a $300,000 revenue shortfall from declining application processing fees.

One of the most egregious examples of overspending was in Guelph Transit in which $960,000 was spent in overtime. To make matters worse, there was a decline of $320,000 in revenues due to “dropped runs and service issues”. This may be part of the reason that the general manager of Guelph Transit was fired recently although it is not believed to be the primary reason.

Then there is the $170,000 drop in waste management revenues due in part to competition for recyclables and lower revenues from the organic waste management facility. The problem with this department is the lack of credibility because financial details have been shrouded in secrecy.

Throw in the overall budgeted revenue shortfall of $700,000, and one must believe there is a lack of checks and balances in operating the city and its finances.

If ever there was a graphic example of financial mismanagement particularly the budgeting process, executed by city staff, it has to lie in this confession of rank incompetence.

Depressingly, this is only the tip of the iceberg that will crush city finances for years to come. The soaring cost of employees is creating a growing pension benefits liability that will dwarf today’s costs. Every employee added to the staff progresses through the years receiving increases automatically, not for performance but because of years on the job. Throw in 21 days a year of sick leave that can accumulate if unused and paid at retirement, it’s easy to see the looming crisis in employee costs.

In 2012, this city paid 170 employees more than $100,000 a year in salaries and wages, not including total compensation of other benefits.

And this administration has added more than 400 fulltime equivalent employees since 2007.

It now ironic that executive management has now ordered a 90-day pause in staff hiring and halting hiring “no-mandatory” consultants for the remainder of the year. Is it not an oxymoron that a non-mandatory consultant is even hired in the first place?

This is serious business that points to a damaged administration that is incapable of accurate budgeting and accounting or monitoring what is going on regularly.

It is amusing when city Coun. Cam Guthrie, chairman of the audit committee, says that the city is being “really, really well run”. It displays the depth of his knowledge of what is happening right under his nose.

In major projects, costing millions, there is evidently neither business plans nor risk/reward analysis done before committing taxpayer’s dollars.

And this is not the first budget deficit the city has experienced. In fact, in the previous four years the budgets have encountered deficits, every year. The total in that period of time, not counting 2013, is $24,771,000 in budgets overspent by the people who run our city.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel. GrassRoots Guelph, is a citizen’s organization to effect increased citizen participation the next civic election. Also dedicated to bringing transparency and common sense back to city management. Interested and want to contribute? Send your name, address, email address and telephone number to grassrootsguelph2014@gmail.com.

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Get ready for the dog and pony show at Cutten Fields

Posted September 10, 2013

The city waste management people are holding a public information soiree at the Cutten Fields country club, Thursday Sept. 12, to show off their 20-year waste management strategy.

And guelphspeaks wouldn’t miss it for the world.

This proposal, and let’s hope that’s only what it is, or has it already been cooked in the backrooms of power? It seems odd that this particular time (5 to 8 p.m.) was chosen to expose the details to the public. For many people, it’s an inconvenient time particularly for parents with children.

It gets even creepier when you consider the city’s waste management’s track record since 2008 when the concept of diverting waste from the landfill had its beginning.

The only evidence of how this system works diverting waste from the landfill was revealed in a consultant’s report earlier this year. As it turns out the city is still shipping tonnes of unsorted and material not suitable for use in the new, $33 million composting facility.

In 2012 the first problem was the plant only processed some 17,000 tonnes of usable wet stuff to be turned into compost. The tonnage from the City of Guelph fell short of its predicted amount. The 20,000 tonnes contracted to come from the Region of Waterloo only provided 9,100 tonnes. Nevertheless, the Region had to pay the full amount. It was reported that it was costing the Region $1.6 million a year for wet waste not delivered to Guelph’s new organic facility.

In the wake of that revelation, the waste management leaders announced they would seek to fill the tonnage gap selling it to other providers. Now if the Regional of Waterloo has contracted to supply 20,000 tonnes, two thirds of the plant’s current capacity, they own that tonnage regardless of whether it was delivered or not.

That apparently did not deter the eager beavers at waste management central. Here’s some free legal advice: Shut up! If not, beware of the deadly legal argument that could be made if the matter goes to court known as “unjustified enrichment.” There is plenty of precedence to strengthen the argument that you cannot sell something for which you have already contracted.

So there have been gawd-awful miscalculations in striving to divert waste from the landfill.

They built a facility that has the potential of processing six times the wet waste produced in the City of Guelph.

Built with tax dollars, the plant took a year and a half to come into production due to construction and design flaws.

Then another $15 million was spent to supply three carts to every household plus automated trucks to dump the carts on collection day.

It was never explained why the trucks take almost twice the amount of time to execute the robotic maneuver than the crews picking up the sorted plastic bags that have served the community for more than ten years.

But it gets better. Now there are 6,400 condominiums in the city, both horizontal and vertical in which the city refuses to collect their waste. So, unsorted, off it goes to the landfill.

This is landfill diversion?

The bottom line: This was all done in secret. In 2008, the Farbridge controlled council passed the necessary regulations that created this garbage nightmare.

The public has no knowledge of the costs associated with the operation of the plant and collection systems; details of the contracts made with contractor Maple Reinders and subsidiary companies; and what are we getting for the sale of compost and recyclables?

Finally, do we really want this $52 million debacle to turn into a 20-year operational and financial disaster?

Doing the rough math it is conceivable that such a plan could cost upwards of $200 million in waste management costs in its 20-year lifetime.

It brings to mind the great line in the movie Jerry McGuire: “Follow the money.”

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Media watch points to the funny, the absurd and the misjudgment

Posted September 7, 2013

Scott Tracey nailed it in his regular Friday column in the Mercury about how adding bicycle lanes on repaved streets are squeezing space for vehicles. This is a favourite talking point with guelphspeaks.ca (GS). It began more than seven years ago when Norfolk Street was rebuilt, a job that took three years to complete.

The result was a narrowing of the street between Paisley and London Road, from four lanes to two lanes including bike lanes. With few cyclists using the street during rush hour, it has resulted in long line-ups of vehicles.

It’s the old story; you cannot pour a pail of water into a narrow necked bottle without spilling it. Its yet another expensive legacy project that will take a ton of money to fix, if ever.

Sigh! It’s another case of city mismanagement.

* * * *

The Tribune ran a nice story about GrassRoots Guelph (GRG) and its opposition to Karen Farbridge’s almost seven years of city administration. GS is one of the founders of GRG and supporter of the ever-growing organization that is dedicated to increasing voter participation in the 2014 civic election.

Then the paper ran a cartoon showing two fully armoured knights facing off with lances poised. One is labeled Guelph Civic League and the other, GRG. It’s an interesting depiction but not accurate. We believe the Civic League is moribund and has morphed into a front organization called 10 Carden Street, that espouses the “amazing” policies and strategies of the Farbridge administration.

GRG’s main thrust is informing people of the back stories of the unbridled spending the Farbridge administration has foisted on the city and its stakeholders. In the coming months GRG, through an innovative communication program, will reveal how the city finances have been recklessly mismanaged and common sense abandoned.

Don’t count on that happening with the Guelph Civic League, or whatever is left of it.

* * * *

The most recent financial muck-up featured in the Mercury is how the city is now on the hook for a $500,000 mortgage on the domed indoor soccer pitch. Five years ago, Mayor Farbridge opened the indoor playing field, built on city property, and guaranteeing repayment of the mortgage.

Now, the two soccer organizations that operate the facility say they cannot maintain the financial obligations because the dome pitch is not air conditioned and it’s unused for five summer months of the year. One organization refuses to guarantee the mortgage while the other is a guarantor.

Again, this is another example of the city getting into a project without a risk/reward analysis accompanied by a business plan. You’ll recall the advocacy of a business plan for every capital expenditure, by former chief financial officer Margaret Neubaur. That was one of the reasons she was terminated. She got in the way of the administration’s version of fiscal management.

This ranks right up there with the financial screw-up of renovating the Farmer’s Market in which city staff under estimated the cost by $330,000.

Is there an end to all this?

* * * *

It is noted that in August, there were 12 collisions between bicyclists and motorists in Guelph. Does this not send a message that perhaps the whole city bicycle plan should be revisited with the emphasis of licensing bicyclists or anyone else that uses the public roads?

* * * *

The Mercury community editorial board has a number of writers who lean sharply to the left. It would serve the reader better if all members were identified in a more complete manner such is the case with other columnists in the paper.

* * * *

Shameless plug department: GrassRoots Guelph is off to a flying start. It is a news and commentary outlet for all the people to share their ideas, suggestions and beefs about city government. It is in favour of helping to elect fresh, qualified candidates who will return the city administration to common sense, fiscal responsibility and transparent operations. Send your name, address, email and telephone info to grassrootsguelph2014@gmail.com. We will get back to all who send their information. Look for regular reports and the GRG NOW newsletter sent to all members soon.

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It’s Loony Tunes time at City Hall

Posted September 6, 2013

It comes as no surprise that Mayor Karen Farbridge is advocating abolition of the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). Because of her absolute control of her council, the OMB thwarts her because of her Loony Tunes ideas that frequently do not serve the community as she sees it.

Her reputation at Queen’s Park considers her one of the most litigious municipal leaders in the province. And she has the legal bills to prove it. The biggie yet to come is the cost of the Urbacon (new city hall) lawsuits in which judgment is due this fall.

If ever a Guelph council needed the OMB, it is over the past six and one half years. All governments are subject to checks and balances something absent in the Guelph administration.

Her worship is frothing over the hold-up of her natural heritage plan in 2010 that has been tied up at the provincial level and in the courts. You will recall this was a council decision to designate private lands around the edges of the city as natural heritage. This would freeze any kind of future use of those lands if approved.

One of the more stupid ideas was to oppose building of a student housing project at the corner of Gordon and Stone Road. The city planners joined with the university and a neighbouring housing development, to stop the project to be built by Abode Varsity developers.

The OMB tribunal saw through the facetious arguments opposing the development and ordered it to proceed. Why did the city oppose development if the off-campus student multi-lodging houses, sprinkled throughout single-family zoned areas, created a searing social problem among property owners?

This will be a major election issue next year particularly in Wards five and six. Two councillors who are employed by the university represent Ward five.

The irony is that the city plans to license these student-lodging houses with the costs passed through to the student occupiers. It fails to address the behaviour problem that is frustrating legitimate owners in the affected areas. When police are called, most of the time they are told there are no officers available. The law cannot be enforced so the neighbourhood loses its natural state of peace and quiet.

This is a Mayor who has overseen an administration that has forced developers to leave the city because of the red tape involved in doing business. There are 43 approvals that a person must complete just to build a house.

In one case, an individual building a small house requested the city to cut the curb at the driveway. Shortly after, a crew arrives broke up the existing curb and poured a new one. Days later, another crew arrived and cuts the curb. Cost to the owner, $600 for this city service.

While only one example, it illustrates the level of civic management incompetence that thrives in a city where there are few checks and balances.

Thank goodness there are some checks and balances at the provincial level to put the brakes on when needed. The most important check in our city is at the financial management level.

Allowing overspending its budget for the past four years in a row with an accumulated deficit of $24,771,000 reflects a desperate call for control and responsible leadership.

Abolishing the OMB would be a disaster for Guelph under it present leadership. For the may to complain about the legal costs to the city to argue its case to the OMB is laughable. Those hearings are self-inflicted as the city tries to force its misguided views on the taxpayers. Look inward Mayor.

The scary part is Mayor Farbridge has another 12 months to force her policies on to the city and its taxpayers with more social engineering and special interest projects that could end up costing millions.

You don’t have to look too far. The waste management complex on Dunlop Drive has sucked up more than $39 million in just 72 months. Add the cost of the waste collection system of more than $15 million, that fails to serve 6,400 households, and you get the idea that some really bad planning has occurred.

The reason the OMB exists is to protect the taxpayers from its elected representatives making the kind of mistakes that has brought this city to its financial knees.

We can only look in the mirror to see why this happened. With only 36 per cent of eligible voters voting in 2010, we got the government we deserved because two-thirds of those eligible did not bother to vote.

The new GrassRoots Guelph citizen’s organization is determined to inform and influence more citizens to vote in October 2014.

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