Monthly Archives: October 2013

How many people does it take to turn out a city press release?

Posted October 31, 2013

There are two methods of communication that city hall practises. Ten staffers in the communications department generate the carefully controlled information.

Their communiqués tell us what they want us to know.  They never communicate what we need to know.

This has been the pattern of the Farbridge administration since it was elected in 2006. The current catch phrase in politics is “openness and transparency” in conducting the business of the people.

Have you noticed that when an Election Day approaches, there is a scramble to identify those in power with being “open and transparent” in its deliberations and decisions?

It’s happening in Ottawa where the Conservatives are scrambling to prevent a meltdown in confidence of the Prime Minister and his office before the Calgary Conservative convention.  Premier Kathleen Wynne recently announced measures to open the dialogue regarding her administration’s decisions.

Here in Guelph, the Farbridge administration, in its zeal to lead up to the 2014 October election, has hired a Toronto firm to develop a “an open and transparent” plan for her administration to follow.

Two things are important here: One, why is it costing $100,000 in taxpayer money to state the obvious? Two, why do they need such guidance now after seven years in office?

The answer my friends is because the GrassRoots Guelph (GRG) petition requested an audit of the city finances and operations by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing (MMAH).

The rumours are flying around city hall about who knew what and when about the GRG initiative to obtain an independent study on what the petition has carefully outlined to warrant such a procedure.

The administration is in full denial mode, as to be expected.

But the evidence is there that this administration did not consult with city taxpayers about spending $53 million on solid waste collection and management. Even now, the city will not reveal the operating costs of this wasteful adventure.

There are two reasons: Either they cannot determine the costs, or the costs are so far out of line that they do not want to reveal any details. If you challenge the Mayor on consulting the public she will always bring up the many public consultations related to city spending that the administration has conducted.

The trouble is citizen committees; boards and public advisory groups are heavily larded with Farbridge supporters. This may be politically expedient but the taxpayers are mostly shut out.

In a gathering of adherents to the Farbridge initiative referred to as Community Wellbeing, held in the River Run centre, it was revealed that most of the crowd attending were city employees. Further, the Mayor admonished the audience that although the consultants were there, there would be no questions.

For more on this, check out the GRG Journal newsletter at GrassRootsGuelph.com.

The four basic anchors in the GrassRoots Guelph playbook are clear and concise: Over spending, Taxation, Student rentals, Waste management.

Just as important are the GRG goals to bring transparency and clarity to all city operations, bring fiscal responsibility and create programs to attract businesses to the Royal City.

Given the experience of the past seven years, this is not hard to understand.

And the Farbridge administration goes down the rabbit hole, denying the charges and complaints.

How do you feel about how Guelph taxpayers have been treated? Make your voice heard by joining GrassRoots Guelph and join the hundreds who have already made that choice. Send your name, full address, email address and telephone number to grassrootsguelph2014@gmail.com.

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Sigh! Another award for a job not well done

Posted October 29, 2013

The City of Guelph applied for an award from the Recycling Council of Ontario for its waste diversion and communications accomplishment.

And it received a gold rating.

The trouble with these self-serving awards is that the facts are left out.

Let’s start with waste diversion, one of the benchmarks for the gold award. Without regard for the criteria, the application failed to explain that 6,400 households in Guelph do not have their waste picked up by the city. Most of this is removed, unsorted, by private contractors and goes to the landfill.

The new $15 million automated cart/bin collection system cannot navigate to service hundreds of residences because the trucks cannot maneuver.  Wonder if they explained that the city scrapped an existing collection system and bragged they would save $500,000 a year with the new system. The cost benefit in that calculation is baffling. Spend $15 million and save $500,000 a year?

Does that warrant a gold rating by the Ontario Waste Minimization Award selection committee?

Did the committee consider the cost of operating an Organics Waste Processing Facility (OWPF) that was built three times the needs of the city for the next 23 years? Did they point out that the organics waste processing capacity of the plant is 30,000 tonnes annually but failed to meet that target in 2012? It missed the mark by 12,400 tonnes.

They weren’t told? Neither were the taxpayers.

Winning the gold for communications is almost laughable. The waste management planners imposed a $52 million system on the taxpayers without consulting them. The city entered into contracts with suppliers of which the details are secret. This includes cost of operations, sales of finished material, sales agreements and bonuses, consultant costs and debt funding details. All of which should be made public.

This is yet another example of mushroom management that prevents the taxpayers from learning and understanding how their money is being spent.

This award is nothing but a shallow photo op for the Mayor and her cohorts.

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Planning by Guelph Police Services Board is above its pay grade

Poasted October 28, 2013

To avoid potentially costly legal expenses, the Guelph Police Services cut a deal to allow a disgraced police officer to receive an additional seven months pay and benefits before he resigns. This officer was convicted of illegal drug possession, usage and stealing drugs from evidence to feed his habit.

Then, in another questionable decision, the price of the addition to police headquarters shot up from $13.6 million to $34 million. Naturally the taxpaying public was outraged.

Seems that an architect experienced in designing and costing police administration buildings, determined the $13.6 million. Last year council accepted this proposal and approved the project.

Then another architect, was brought in and following a number of in-camera sessions, came up with the $34 million extension costs. The mystery is why two members of the Police Board, ,Mayor Karen Farbridge and Coun. Leanne Piper kept their silence. Was it because they might have their special police ID pass taken away?

Did they not object to this latest proposal, the one that city council has to approve and pay for? We’ll never know because for security reasons, the meetings were held in secret with no public knowledge or input.

The only curious comment came from Coun. Piper to the extent that council will have to decide whether to build the South End recreation Centre, Downtown Library or police headquarters — “we’ll have to figure out how to massage that.”

It should be noted that both the mayor and councillor receive extra pay for serving on the Police Services Board.

Does it not occur to them that a $23 million increase in the cost of a project over what they originally approved might get people a little upset? Disillusioning particularly those people in the South end of the city waiting for a recreation centre or the patient supporters of a new downtown Library. The library project, particularly, has experienced more punts than the hapless Jacksonville Jaguars.

This is yet another example of how out-of-control spending of public money is in this city. The examples are many and the latest is the attempt to dip into the public trough to spend $500,000 to convert a broken down, derelict farmhouse into a community centre. This proposal comes from Coun. Ian Findlay in an effort to save the building that currently sits in a new public park.

Readers should be reminded that another of Coun. Findlay’s ideas was to set up pissoirs downtown so men could relieve themselves after the bars closed. Women were not accorded the same relief service. Then they measured the amount of waste to determine… what? That exercise came at the price of Findlay and former Coun. Mike Salisbury doing a research trip to Edmonton to inspect that city’s handling of the downtown public urination problem.

They should have picked Las Vegas for all the good that trip did. Not great value for the taxpayers.

The police headquarters issue is important. There is obviously a need as the force expands and the prisoners can be unloaded inside because the transporting vans are too big to go in the garage. Something had to come first. Was it the garage or the vans?

Does this remind you of the Wyndham Street underpass that trucks can’t use because, after two years of construction, the underpass isn’t low enough?

Do you get the feeling that planning is not prime time at the Police Services Board?

After two architects have studied the project, they each have wildly different costs associated with the extension. This project should broken into three stages over a five-year period to lessen the capital cost-load on the city. During the construction period, some of the officers can function in the new public safety building in the south end.

The fact that little liaison existed between the city engineers and planners, reflects abandonment of responsibility by the two council members serving on the Police Services Board.

If they won’t stand up for those who elected them, whom do they represent?

 

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More short takes on bridges, budgets and a business plan

Posted October 25, 2013

A bridge too low?

The city takes two years to rebuild the lower section of Wyndham Street including installing crash guards under the CN rail bridge over the street.

Unfortunately, the city brain trust did not measure the distance from the bottom of the crash guards to the newly laid pavement. Result is there have been four collisions with trucks smacking the guards.

This prompted city engineers to close the street trying figure out what the problem was and to put signs up to warn truckers once the real height is determined.

Meanwhile the street is subject to intense investigation until a solution is found.

It only took two years, eh?

When Janet Laird speaks, is anyone listening anymore?

The dilemma of 6,400 condominium residents in the city not having their waste picked up by the new-fangled automated cart collectors, was not helped by comments by garbage poobah, Janet Laird.

Dr. Laird flatly said there is an understanding at city hall that introducing private collection of waste won’t be considered by Guelph. Not until “efficiencies” of the new system are established.

Guess that’s what she has to say seeing she is the author of the $52 million waste management system that doesn’t work. It fails to serve some 6,400 Guelph residences and the organics plant is unable to reach its planned capacity of 30,000 tonnes of wet waste processed annually.

Her response is “we have offered solutions to all condo developments for dealing with the cart system.”  Tell that to the owners. These are the same owners who purchased their property that had been approved by the city officials to receive all services including garbage collection.

Don’t expect this administration to resolve this serious problem, if Dr. Laird has any say.

Coun. Ian Findlay and the Wilson Farmhouse magical business plan

Ian Findlay, ward 2 councillor, is a small business owner downtown. He now proposes to have the city finance $500,000 to renovate the Wilson Farmhouse into a community centre and “green living showroom” for the whole city.

The business case states the conversion will turn a profit of $17,000 a year. Ian please, that won’t cover the debt-servicing let alone the liability insurance and other variable operating costs.

This has to be the dumbest idea for the good councilor to mastermind since his trip to Edmonton a few years ago to study how that city addresses the public human waste problem. Remember the downtown pissoir experiment that barred females from using the temporary facility, only men? Guess it seemed like a good idea at the time. Ka’ching Ka’ching!

Current public interest in Guelph has the “greening” of the city at the bottom of the family bucket list.  There is far more interest in reining in spending, controlling tax increases and stopping the cuckoo ideas that council members keep bringing up.

Findlay’s proposal deserves a decent burial. It may be fun running the city business and spending other people’s money but politically, it can be a dangerous exercise.

Crafting a city budget for 2014 requires tight public scrutiny

We are approaching the last year of this council’s life. Already the staff has stated that the starting point for the 2014 budget is a 3.4 per cent property tax increase. Hey! That’s an improvement over last year when the staff recommended an 8.5 per cent increase.

There is a major cloud hanging over the city’s 2014 budget gyrations. It’s a petition by taxpayers for an audit of the city’s finances and operations. The Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing received the petition and has revealed that it will investigate to determine what led up to the citizen demand for an independent audit.  The non-partisan GrassRoots Guelph organization, of which the writer is a member, has made serious charges of documented financial mismanagement.

In the event some or all these charges are proved to be accurate by an independent audit, this will severely affect the 2014 budget that is to be wrapped up in late November.

Another factor affecting the 2014 city budget is the judgment that is forthcoming involving five lawsuits over the construction of the new city hall. This could result in a liability of more than $20 million including legal costs.

Any thoughts by the Farbridge administration that the 2014 budget will be a good news budget loaded with promises of money for the minority special interests and base of supporters can be devastating at the ballot box next October.

Is the party over? Turn out the lights.

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Is the Wilson Farmhouse shaping up to be another costly heritage debacle?

Posted October 24, 2013

It all came to a head when city council was deadlocked over whether to demolish the derelict Wilson Farmhouse sitting in a city park.

Coun. Ian Findlay, who voted against demolishment the house, is quoted as saying: “The Wilson farmhouse park be confirmed as a park in its entirety, is exactly my position.”

Ian, Ian, some clarity here. Are you saying the park should be a park without the dump that’s sitting on it? Or spend an estimated $500,000 to convert this over-hyped heritage site with a footprint of only 820 square feet into a community centre?

The Wilson farmhouse project’s business plan, published in Coun. Findlay’s blog is an amateurish, convoluted document that wouldn’t stand five minutes scrutiny by a junior financial manager.

Yet the costs of extensive renovations to convert the house into a hallmark of green technology, are not stated.

It is the objective of this administration to promote causes dear to its heart – environmental issues, senior services, heritage, wellbeing, childcare, anything green or self serving.

Further the renovation project claims to create four jobs, with a payroll of $170,000 and facilitate $1,00,000,000 in economic activity annually. The income statement shows revenue from renting space and estimated sales for a café and kitchen with total income of $107,000.

This is what Coun. Ian Findlay voted for revealing his close ties with the Guelph Civic League.

Not even Mayor Farbridge fell for this one as she voted to tear the building down. Nor did the city staff that recommended it should be demolished.

Taxpayers should be wary of a scheme to preserve the house when the supportive statement for retention that says: “At minimal dollar cost to taxpayers, using limited city “in kind” service support and financing.”

The proposal is believed to have been prepared by the subsidiary of the Guelph Civic League known as 10 Carden Street. This is a taxpayer funded “community” activist group.

The Civic League played a role in the 2007 decision by the newly elected Farbridge-dominated council to renovate the Loretto Convent. It was a derelict and crumbling structure vacant for more than ten years. It took more than three years to convert it into a new civic museum. That excursion into preservation of privately held property ended up costing the taxpayers $16 million plus.

Or, how about the indoor soccer dome project where the city taxpayers guaranteed payment of the mortgage of $500,000 because the citizen operating group said it can no longer make the payments.. The soccer group in charge of the project complained that people don’t like to play soccer in the winter. Who knew?

The Civic League adherents are in the same outfit that pushed the city into renovating the Farmer’s Market. and that exercise cost $500,000 following a staff budget of $176,000.

This group fails to understanding that this city can no longer waste money on projects that the majority of people don’t want and never asked for.

Unlike the Civic League that represents people with a social leftist agenda, GrassRoots Guelph is an organization that is non-partisan and open to any citizen who share the view that taxes are too high, waste management is a failure, taxing of student lodging in single family areas and excessive spending.

The Wilson issue will be brought up again in council. It’s time to get serious and do the right thing. Tear it down.

Continuing to vote to restore the house presents political peril for those councillors who vote that way.

If the vote don’t fit, you have to quit…or something like that

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Ministry opens investigation into GrassRoots Guelph petition

Posted October 24, 2013

It is gratifying for all citizens of Guelph to be told that the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing (MMAH) will investigate details of the petition requesting an audit of the City of Guelph’s finances and operations.

That petition was presented to the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing on October 1, 2013 by GrassRoots Guelph (GRG), a non-partisan non-profit citizen’s organization. GRG’s steering group of 20 citizens formed the organization in the summer of 2012.

Announcing its existence in August 2013, GRG attached 162 signatures of Guelph taxpayers to the petition as required by the Municipal Affairs Act in which only 50 are needed. Today that number has climbed, as new members of GRG want to be included to sign the petition.

But the astonishing story is that GRG membership has grown to more than 500 since the middle of August. It is still growing as more and more people discover the administration’s mismanaged spending, waste of resources, extreme taxation and excessive debt.

To its credit, The Guelph Mercury contacted the MMAH asking about the status of the petition. What is baffling is that the story broke as the lead editorial in Wednesday’s paper. The editorial is an opinion piece. It is not a news story.

According to the editorial, the unnamed Ministry spokesperson says it wants to better understand the concerns that have given rise to this demand for an audit. Further the editorial says the Ministry wants to speak to the lead petitioner. That would probably be me as I signed the cover letter to the Minister on behalf of the organization. The failure of the paper to name the lead petitioner is puzzling.

I put my name on what I write. Was there some doubt at the paper about who was the “lead petitioner”? I am only one person of the 20 members of the GRG steering committee. It is not a one-man show as the newspaper suggests.

I have been a newspaperman all my life. I have worked as a reporter, reporter photographer, daily columnist, assignment editor, metro editor and assistant managing editor in the largest newspaper in the country, the Toronto Star. I know a little bit about the business.

I am retired and have written some 370 posts on my blog, guelphsepaks.ca. Additionally, I wrote a regular column in the Mercury from 2006 to 2011. That body of work questioned the actions of a council that was dominated by Mayor Farbridge and her supporters. Believe me, at times it was lonely out there as the two newspapers in town only paid lip service to their responsibility of reporting city news. Critical comment was rare as were follow-ups of city statements.

In all that time, I was never contacted by anyone in the administration to counter or dispute the content of my columns or posts.

As a courtesy, I will offer the electronic copies of all that body of work to the Ministry representative to better understand the concerns that caused this demand for an audit.

Here’s the skinny on what prompted this petition.

The Mercury editorial quotes the Mayor as saying the petition and GrassRoots Guelph are politically motivated. The paper added that’s it’s not difficult to regard that as fair comment given that GRG announced it’s intention to oppose the city hall administration in the next election.

That observation has the unmistaken stench of fear on the part of the Mayor and possibly the newspaper. It is a fear that finally, in Guelph, there is a growing opposition to what the Farbridge administration has done to our city. That’s fair comment.

There’s also a fear that an audit could be an embarrassment to the city administration. GRG believes that this political action is a win-win for the people of Guelph, regardless of the outcome. It will reveal the soft underbelly of the Farbridge administration that has mismanaged the Royal City in the last seven years.

But don’t take my word for it. We have lived here for almost 11 years. In that time, the city does not pick up our garbage. plow our street; pick up the leaves and yard waste, service the road or buried utility services.  And for all this, our taxes have almost doubled in that time frame.

And we are only one of 6,400 property owners and renters that the city refuses to collect its garbage. Instead we all pay for a private contractor to do so.

Mayor Farbridge is concerned that there is real opposition to her cozy cabal of councillors. There’s a monsoon of discontent building in the city that her brand has worn out its welcome.

 And she knows it better than I.

Gerry Barker

Citizen of the City of Guelph

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How your money is used to propel the city administration’s agenda

Posted October 22, 2013

It all started in January 2007 when the triumphant Karen Farbridge and her supporting cast of ten councillors took the reins of power in Guelph.

It was heady times as the new council set about turning the staff and, as it turned out, the city on its head. There was no shortage of opportunities to spend money on an agenda chock full of grandiose schemes and policies.

The Mayor had complete control of the operation of the city with only two councillors, Christine Billings and Gloria Kovach in opposition.

First up on the agenda was saving the derelict Loretto Convent building located next door to the Church of Our Lady.  Leading the project was Coun. Leanne Piper, who was the former head of the Guelph Heritage Group. The project was sitting on land owned by the Diocese of Hamilton. This did not deter the enthusiasm to save the building (the Diocese wanted to demolish it) and convert it into a civic museum.

In 2007, the staff estimated the conversion would cost $12,700,000. Some $6 million of the cost was financed by Federal and Provincial grants. Then trouble began. Two architects were involved. The final design had a three-story glass façade enclosing the front of the building. How this could be considered restoring the pre-confederation structure to its original state is a matter of conjecture.

Along came the engineering problem that the foundation had to be reinforced as it was crumbling. Other defects came to light as the load bearing of the floors limited the weight of exhibits. Then the custom display cabinets, ordered from a European supplier, were too close to the sprinkler heads.

The project took almost three years to allow the public to visit their new civic museum. The final cost will never be known because general revenue funds were comingled with budgeted funds to pay the bills during construction. This is typical Farbridge financial management. Take money from one project to pay for cost overruns in another.

The Farmer’s Market renovation is another example of how funds are switched from one approved project to allow completion of another where costs have esculated. In that case, when the cost leaped from $176,000 to $500,000, the staff took money from the West Recreation Centre’s approved project to install badly needed dehumidifiers for the swimming pool.

These are just two examples of how the Farbridge machine uses your money to enhance their hold on power.

One of the key political moves is to finance projects of special interest groups.

Two examples are the backing of the indoor soccer dome guaranteeing repayment of the $500,000 mortgage. Secondly, there was $750,000 dedicated to the bicycle lobby.

Some of that money was spent on the recent repaving of Stevenson Road between Eramosa and Speedvale. The lane widths were reduced from four lanes to two. A left turn lane was painted that runs full length of the street with only two intersections.  Bike lanes were widened. Despite this, the bike lobby continues to demand more spending on bicycle lanes.

The city contributes more than $250,000 to several community groups. The Mayor visits some of the groups to remind them of where their loyalty lies. This is a rarity for the Mayor as she stays out of the limelight and appears only when the occasion is secure. In fact her city hall office suite is locked at all times.

The Mayor’s link with the Guelph Civic League is the worst kept secret in the city. She is beholden to the league because of its role in the 2006 election that returned her to power. The league is connected to a quasi-community group called 10 Carden Street, that is a cover for political action. Five years ago, 10 Carden Street received a Trillium Foundation grant of $135,000 to “carry out work in the community.” More of your tax dollars at work.

These are just a few examples of how public funds are being used to foster a narrow political agenda.

That’s why GrassRoots Guelph was formed. It is a true non-partisan, non-profit citizen’s organization that is urging people to vote in the 2014 election. Its program includes standing up to the current administration and challenging the wasteful self-serving spending that has created a financial crisis in our city.

 

Contact grassrootsguelp2014@gmail.com and join the crusade for change.

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