Monthly Archives: December 2013

A metaphor of municipal incompetence

Posted December 28, 2013

The project started some two years ago. The rebuilding of the CN railway underpass on Wyndham Street was a key restructuring of a vital connection to major arterial roads north and south of the railway bridge. It is not just another line but the major rail link between Toronto and Windsor.

When the new underpass was opened it was discovered that large trucks could not use it because the height of the overpass between the new road and the bottom of the bridge was miscalculated. It was a bridge too low to accommodate large-scale commercial traffic.

Responsibility for this error rests with Janet Laird, the Executive Director of planning, engineering and environment.  Reporting to her was acting city engineer, Don Kudo. He has relinquished the job in favour of a new chief engineer recently hired.

Then there is the case of Rajan Phillips who recently resigned after 14 years on the job. Was he pushed or did he jump? He was a key engineer in charge of transportation issues and projects. Was the underpass project his baby, or not?

This bollixed project remains a metaphor for how poorly managed and dysfunctional the Guelph city staff has become.

It is mindful of the years of the old Soviet Union in which a dictator, Josef Stalin, imposed collectivization of planning and execution (unintended pun) by a group of loyalists to the principles of central control of all matters of state.

Today in Guelph, there are vestiges of these colossal Soviet past economic and social failures existing within the administration of our city.

First, a group of activists bundled together to form a formidable collective that succeeded in gaining control of our city government in 2006. They came from different spheres of interest including heritage, forestry, anti-development, waste diversion, bicycle access to major routes, isolationism, labour issues, environment, and assorted single issue special interests.

No shots were fired, no executions, just the seduction of voters with lies and promises.

Susan Ratcliffe, a staunch supporter of Mayor Farbridge and her administration, recently inferred in a column that taxpayer’s interests were not those of all “citizens.” It is another reflection of the classless society envisioned by those on the left.

This is the epitome of what has happened to our city as it spends wildly on dodgy projects and special interests, ignoring the fact that someone has to pay.

I know people are going to say that I’m going too far in blaming the administration for its Stalin/Leninist collectivization policies.

But stop and think about it.

There are the millions spent and about to be spent on a 20-year solid waste management plan.

There is the ten-year plan to spend $13.3 million on bike lanes.

How about the multi-millions spent, and to be spent in the Downtown Secondary Plan?

Then there is the plan to bury a geo-thermal heating and cooling system beneath the Baker Street parking lot to serve downtown buildings. We presume that won’t happen before the plan to build a new downtown library and cultural centre on the parking lot is underway.

There is the $16 million plan to create a new riverside park on the site of an existing strip mall and stand-alone veterinary clinic.

Let’s not forget the “Wellbeing” invovation to bring all Guelph lifestyles to a higher standard What has this to do with administering a city?

The granddaddy of these plans is the overall city strategic plan. There are plenty of other examples but one can see that planning and execution are two different things.

Former U.S. President Harry Truman had a sign on his desk that read: “The buck stops here.” Unfortunately in Guelph no one knows where the buck stops. Certainly not with our mayor who exists in an impenetrable bubble staying aloof from the madding crowd.

Her collection of executive directors is lax, failing to apply basic management principles then dodging the bullet when the stuff hits the fan.

A classic example of this is in his 2012 annual report of human resources, Executive Director, Mark Amorosi, said that initiatives were in place to control absenteeism and overtime. In 2013, the internal auditor reported that overtime costs would be $5,065,000 or twice as much in 2012.

To top it off, Amorosi told the audit committee that some 225 licences were purchased for the Kronos staff accounting software and many managers said they were too busy to attend the training sessions.

This is what happens when collectivization dominates the core of government, any government.

And we can only blame ourselves for letting it happen here.

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The Guelphspeaks prayer for 2014

Posted December 24, 2013

May our bridges and underpasses be engineered to accommodate our traffic

May all citizens have their garbage removed by the city

May Mayor Karen Farbridge lose the surly bonds of City Hall and get out and about

May our postal services be privatized and home delivery restored

May Mike Duffy get a job at Walmart as a greeter

May Coun. Ian Findlay stop pushing resurrection of the Wilson farm house

May heritage maven, Susan Ratcliffe, discover that taxpayers are citizens too

May Stephen Harper make up with former Chief of Staff, Nigel Wright

May the Guelph Police Services Board discover who pays the bills in our town

May the loonie exchange rate never drop below 90 cents to the U.S. dollar

May my car start in the morning

May Toronto Mayor, Rob Ford, receive the 2013 Richard Pryor comedian of the year award

May MPP Liz Sandals realize the $6 billion McGuinty gas plant hangover is for real

May the Guelph Mercury recognize there are two-sides to every story in our naked city

May internal auditor, Loretta Alonzo, be recognized as city employee of the year

May the costly Farbridge inspired “well-being” program be put out of its misery

May this be a bad year for dandelions, grasses 4, weeds 0

May the ten-year $13.3 million bike path funding go to Guelph Transit

May the proposed 20-year solid waste management plan be turned into a four-year plan

May the culture of excessive overtime and non-attendance at City Hall be reformed

May residents. in areas where student lodging houses exist, get relief from the city

May the Maple Leafs win the Stanley cup with Morgan Reilly scoring the winning goal in game seven

May the people of Guelph get off their butts and vote next October 27th

May we wish citizens a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, happy holidays and a Lexus under your tree

 

 

 

 

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A citizen cuts to the chase on budget leadership

Posted December 18, 2013

The following is an edited version of a letter sent to members of Council and the Guelph Tribune. Reprinted with permission.

As happens every year at this time, the Guelph mayor, councillors, and administration play the game of floating a potential property tax increase and then low-balling it to appear they are diligently serving the citizens. The result is an increase that not only outstrips the Canada Price Index increase, but is an unsustainable pillaging of taxpayers wallets.

From 2000 to 2013 the compounded property tax increases have been 85.7% while the compounded CPI increase has been 31.5%. The increases have become so egregious that even the Guelph Chamber of Commerce head honcho realizes they are not sustainable.

Now on top of all this comes the demand for $34 million for Guelph Police Services HQ renovations. At the same time, Chief Bryan Larkin is reportedly withdrawing staff from the recently opened Clair Road facility, jointly shared with the fire and emergency medical services.

If council acquiesces to this outrageous $34 million demand they have two courses of action: Eliminate all other capital budget items or burden citizens with unbearable legacy costs. The aggravating factor is that if council turns down the funding request then unelected people, such as the Chief and Police Services Board, could appeal to an unelected provincial tribunal seeking approval.

There has been blathering in the media about building a business case for the renovations. As it’s time to cut to the chase, following are the essential steps to resolving the funding request.

First step, tell the Chief to cease and desist any talk about or spending of funds on any renovations while reminding him he is an employee of the city who serves at their pleasure of the council.

If he will not comply with this, take the second step and terminate him for cause and hire an interim Chief who will be fiscally responsible and do the bidding of the council. Note that crime rates have been steadily falling in Guelph for the last decade or more.

The third step is to initiate a study by competent individuals on the integration of the police, fire, and ambulance services.  The resulting savings would eliminate duplicate support services in the areas of accounting, human resources, procurement, and related functions. These could potentially be sufficient to establish a future new joint services HQ.

Who amongst the mayor and councillors have the backbone to stand up and show fiscally responsible leadership in this area? Remember, this is in essence a lame duck council heading into civic elections in October 2014. Those who continue the outrageous tax increases will be held accountable by the electorate.

Glen N. Tolhurst

Guelph

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Has the time come to form a taxpayer’s union to protect our interests?

Posted December 18,2013

There is growing evidence that public sector unions are taking greater pieces of the public pie to enhance their salaries, wages and benefits plus bountiful pensions. In Guelph it is no different where 80 per cent of our civic staff is unionized. Staff compensation costs now consume 84 per cent of the total city tax levy.

When you consider that the municipal property taxpayer pays 94 per cent of all city revenues, it is apparent that the taxpayers are on the hook to maintain this exponential growth of employee costs.

Isn’t it time for taxpayers to get a slice of the pie?

History shows that that pie has been consumed by not only staff costs but capital projects that have questionable direct benefit to the taxpayers. Frequently, these projects inconvenience or isolate segments of the population.

That explains to some extent why seven years of the Farbridge administration has increased property taxes by an estimated 28 per cent. During that same period, the population has grown by only 5.8 per cent. In addition, the administration has failed to increase the 16 per cent commercial/industrial portion of total city property assessment to lighten the 94 per cent load carried by residential taxpayers.

When you toss in the appalling sweetheart deal made by the Provincial Government in 1987 to restrict post secondary property taxes to $75 per student, in lieu of property taxes, it exacerbates the growing crush on the property taxpayer.

The City of Guelph is unique in this egregious sucking of property tax potential at a level that has not changed in 26 years. Is the $75 paid in 1987 the same dollar in 2013?  If only the province had factored in the rate of inflation in that 26 years the per- student cost today would be $1.32 paid to the city in lieu of property taxes.

Now picture in your mind the growth of the University of Guelph in those 26 years. By growth we mean hard assets such as buildings and facilities, plus staff, faculty and support services and the development of the Stone Road corridor. Add in the city’s increasing responsibilities in terms of emergency services, infrastructure and transit costs. The $1,650,000 paid by the University in 2013 in lieu of property taxes wouldn’t pay for one third of the cost of $5,067,000 city overtime costs this year.

It’s another reason for a taxpayer’s union to protect the interests of those who pay the bills.

Far fetched, you say?  Let’s swing over to the private sector. In unionized, comparable sized companies with the equivalent number of employees; (2,065 civic staff in Guelph in 2012), the board of directors and senior management are responsible for maintaining fair wages and benefits.  They also must answer to the shareholders who seek a return on their investment. It’s a system that works because there are checks and balances installed to make it work. The formula is not rocket science: Maintain a competent and content workforce, a happy customer base and a reasonable return to the shareholders.

In Guelph, we have a small group of senior managers who have taken over control the operations of the city. The board of directors, i.e. the elected City Council, has subverted many of its responsibilities to the “executive team”.

The shareholders, the taxpayers, have little or no say in major policy and operational decisions. Indeed, the Byzantium systems employed in the day-by-day city operations only obfuscates and confuses the electorate to whom they are responsible. The volume of reports and documents sent to members of council is staggering.  The system is sick and is in need of reform.

Council debates are rare because the combination of staff recommendations and supporting paper work is vetted by small committees of councillors who move the process to the council chamber for ratification. Trouble is, the public is denied input at the committee level simply because the meeting agendas are not made fully public and are conducted at inconvenient times.

Coupled with this is the accusation that much council business is conducted behind closed doors or even off premises. The Ontario Municipal Act is specific in how an elected council may conduct its business and it is illegal to do so without the public, who they represent, being present.

A recent article in the Toronto Star quoted the Provincial Ombudsman, Andre Marin, as stating that municipal council’s are addicted to secrecy and going to great lengths to keep their residents in the dark. Does that sound familiar?

Back to the proposed taxpayer’s union. Why can’t the taxpayers, aka stakeholders, customers or suppliers, share some of the same benefits enjoyed by their employees?

Perhaps a percentage of their property tax contribution could be invested in an individual Registered Retirement Benefit Plan (RRSP) to enhance their retirement. Management of the plan would be by a qualified third party, i.e. a bank or trust company, with the city collecting the funding on a quarterly basis.

If the taxpayer moves out of town, he or she may take their portable RRSP with them but no longer can receive the taxpayer contribution.

The potential effect of this plan would stimulate economic development that has been stymied in Guelph in the past seven years by policies of the present administration.

Like the lyric from Dr. Doolittle: “A little bit of sugar makes the medicine go down.”

Interested in this suggestion? It is one of a number of innovative recommendations to be made by GrassRoots Guelph in the coming months. Non-partisan, non-profit GRG is composed of citizens and open to anyone to participate in bringing change to Guelph City Hall. Contact grassrootsguelph2014@gmail.com.

 

 

 

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The dirty little secret the Mayor doesn’t talk about

Posted December 15, 2013

In an effort to compare Guelph’s financial situation with that of Windsor, Mayor Farbridge failed to reveal the real costs of Guelph’s staff compared to that of Windsor.

In her blog, the mayor says that home values in Windsor are declining because the population is decreasing while Guelph’s population increased by 5.9 per cent from 2006 to 2011.

The Mayor blithely ignores that Guelph council has consistently increased annual taxes on average by 3.5 per cent since her election in 2006. She also ignores the fact that in her seven years in charge, there has been no change in the ratio of residential assessment to commercial/industrial assessment of 84/16. That means that the residents of our city are carrying the vast majority of city tax revenues.

What does this mean? The ideal ratio between residential and commercial/industrial assessment is 60/40. That provides more balance to municipal revenue streams and takes the heat off the residential sector.

The Guelph ratio occurred because the Mayor and her cohorts on council have spent taxpayer’s money on projects that have been poorly planned and executed. Most of the time it has happened without serious public input. That’s the main reason our taxes increased.

The Mayor’s ego often gets in the way of pragmatism. Most citizens are not interested in investing in projects that are “world-class” or having the city branded as having great progressive leadership.

But here’s the dirty little secret that is never mentioned let alone discussed.

The exponential cost of staff is placing the city in a serious financial condition that will impact residents over the next 30 years. Something must be done to rein in these growing costs. These include progressive salary and wages increases, hiring staff at higher and higher rates; all this will create a huge liability on the taxpayers in the future.

There is evidence by outside agencies that track the zooming public employee costs across many municipalities in Canada. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation gave the city a “D” rating for its excessive executive compensation. The  Fair Pensions for All organization has delivered examples of how public servant salaries and wages and total compensation is creating huge future liability to taxpayers.

We do not have to look too far to see what unbridled spending has occurred in the Ontario Power Generation Corporation. Three senior executives were fired for giving themselves huge increases in pay and bonuses. The most egregious fact was they awarded themselves a 4 to1 ratio when calculating their pensions. One of those dumped would have received a $750,000 annual pension for life.

There is already evidence of this happening in Guelph where senior managers are receiving regular increases without any oversight regarding on-the-job performance. Oh, there are performance reviews but rarely is there any denial of increases in pay or benefits for poor performance.

So you all understand, each year that passes, the liability for Guelph taxpayers increases exponentially. In partnership with municipal pension funds, the city is required to guarantee that retiring and retired workers will receive their pensions plus the Canada Price Index incremental annual adjustment.

The largest of these pension funds is the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement  (OMERS) plan that covers some 268,000 municipal employees in Ontario. The average retiring age of a public employee as a member of OMERS is 58 years. But there is more. The municipal employer guarantees, include accumulated unused sick days plus a bridge amount to cover the equivalent of the Canada Pension Plan benefit until the retiree is 65.

The problem OMERS is facing is it is underfunded by more than $10 billion, principally because of dwindling returns on investments and some bad management decisions in the past.

Some 80 per cent of Guelph’s employees are members of unions and chiefly, are members of OMERS. The city must pay the same amount that the employee must contribute. The problem is that allowing employees to retire at 58 means the municipality must guarantee their OMERS pension for the rest of their life.

A more recent example was the retirement of the Guelph Police Chief. He left the service with a guaranteed pension of $138,000, annually indexed to the CPI and received more than $40,000 in accumulated unused sick days. His life span is statistically expected to be 20 years to 85.

Meanwhile the new chief is on the job and contributing to his pension as well as we the taxpayers. He has a generous benefits package to go along with his salary.

Theoretically, taxpayers could be on the hook guaranteeing pensions for two retired police chiefs plus a third active chief drawing a substantial pay package.

With a labor force of 2,065, you do not require a doctorate in math to figure out why your taxes will increase exponentially over the next 50 years.  Unless these overly generous, defined pension plans are reined in, the result could be disastrous for residents of Guelph and hundreds of other municipalities in Ontario.

It’s the mayor’s dirty little secret.

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This is what the lady said but this is what she meant, I think

Posted December 13, 2013

We all fall into it. Misspeak and misconstrue the words that come back to haunt us.

During a meeting of the Planning, Building and Environment committee,  Mayor Karen Farbridge told fellow councillors  why she was not in favour of appointing a condominium advisory committee: “ It’s always difficult to say no, but I do think we have a fulsome process.” As recommended by staff, the committee majority voted to deny appointing a condominium advisory board composed of citizens .

This came as some 6,400 condominium residents continue to be denied garbage collection by the city. They are joined by the downtown businesses who don’t want to be part of the cart/bin collection system.

Executive Director of planning, building and environment, Janet Laird, told the committee the proposed citizen advisory committee was unnecessary. She said the proposed update of the solid waste management study would address the collection of waste from multi-residential developments.

But let’s get back to the mayor’s comment about a “fulsome process.”

The editor of the local daily, spotted the apparent aberration of language pointing out in his blog that “fulsome” is described in the dictionary as something foul or disgusting because it’s so excessive.

This caught our eye. So we consulted Webster’s New World Dictionary and the following is the definition of the adjective: “disgusting or offensive, especially because of excess or insincerity.”

These are two slightly different definitions but essentially meaning the same thing. Obviously our Mayor is not calling the solid waste master plan as something that is offensive, especially because of excess or insincerity.

We certainly hope not. That’s her baby we’re talking about.

We know the mayor didn’t mean that but the inadvertent use of the word “fulsome” seems appropriate when referring to the failed city’s waste management system and the millions that have been spent on trying to divert waste from the landfill.

The legacy of this misguided and over-hyped system will haunt the taxpayers of Guelph for the next 20 years.

Now, the people in charge are spending more money to update a plan that doesn’t meet the needs of the city and saddles taxpayers with huge costs well into the future.

We’ve already spent a stated $53 million and untold money employing consultants and additional staff. The organic processing plant that was overbuilt and is still not operating at full capacity, is cloaked in secrecy when it comes to reporting its operating costs per tonne.

The city has foisted a $15 million cart collection system that can’t be used by thousands of households and businesses. There appears to be no public input into why the collection system doesn’t work throughout the city. The level of planning, at the execute level, is close to seditious and the taxpayers are the fall guys.

This was a gigantic ego trip by Mayor Farbridge and her associates on council to brand Guelph as a world-class leader in waste diversion from the landfill.

Fulsome indeed. Maybe the Mayor meant what she actually said.

 

 

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How your money is being spent to re-elect the Farbridge administration

Posted December 10, 2013

Tracking the flurry of announcements coming out of I Carden Street these days, one can only assume that Mayor Farbridge and her seven cohorts are in full election mode. And we still have ten months before the October 27 election day. It’s a mixed bag of goodies and bad news. Rule: Always get rid of the bad news long before the election because people forget.

Let’s start with the announcement by Mark Amorosi, Executive Director of Corporate and Human Resources, that non-union and management employees (NUME) will include changes to the progressive pay system that ties in an evaluation of performance. Details are vague except the giving of three personal days.

The cost of the proposed increases is to be adopted by Council at its December 16 meeting and exceed $500,000. So here we have a relatively small group of some 230 (albeit most are in the high income bracket) employees out of 2,065, getting a generous bite of the taxpayer’s apple for next year.

This administration is so dependent on the staff that it has awarded not only egregious staff increases in pay and benefits but in the numbers of hires in the past seven years.

The result of this largess by city council is that total staff costs consume some 84 per cent of the total annual budget. Yes folks, that’s the whole city of Guelph’s annual spending! Amorosi claims the increases are necessary to stay competitive with rates paid to employees in other municipalities.

Do the math. Staff costs of 84 percent of the approved 2014 budget of $193 million is $162,200,000. Remember that figure while we parse some of the other costs next year.

For the record, the recent dismissal of three senior staff at the Ontario Power Generation, for excessive pay increases and bonuses, still left that huge organization with more than 9,000 employees costing only 58 per cent of its annual budget.

Consider the $34 million police headquarters that will be built regardless of what the taxpayers think. The Farbridge majority will ensure it. Then we have the cost of repairing the CNR railway overpass so that truck traffic doesn’t keep hitting it because of an engineering mistake.

Or what will be the outcome of the lawsuits generated when the city threw the main contractor off the job that was 95 per cent completed? Judgment in this case should be made shortly and it could cost the city upwards of $19 million. Lurking in the background is the legal costs defending the lawsuits. We may never learn those costs because of the cloak of secrecy that prevents public access.

The hiring of a Toronto consultant to develop a plan for open and transparent government is truly puzzling after the Farbridge administration has been operating behind closed doors for seven years. That exercise is costing $100,000 of taxpayer money. It shakes one’s confidence in our administration that they needed an outside consultant to advise how to open their ongoing can of worms.

The Farbridge administration is dedicated to long-range planning. Take the ten-year plan to add more bicycle lanes to the city that will cost $13.3 million. A recent letter to the editor, written by a cyclist, complained that plan was wasting money and not needed. A sentiment shared by 99 per cent of the adult population of the city.

Another beauty is the 20-year solid waste management plan. That is being hand-held by a team of consultants who have conducted an open house, contacted some 400 residents for their opinion and are planning another open house. This kind of action is pure Farbridge.  She can then say we consulted the public but in most cases they just plow ahead and do what they want at your expense. We have never been told the cost of the first solid waste plan. Yet it clearly demonstrates that it doesn’t work. Witness some $53 million in capital spending for a composting plant that was built three times greater than the city’s need for the next 20 years and a cart waste collecting system, plus operating costs.

Then we come to the Downtown Secondary Plan. Another grand strategic plan to fulfill the Farbridge dream of a “vibrant and exciting” downtown Guelph. Once again the costs are buried. But a couple of items have been revealed. One is the deal made to the company that reconstructed the Gummer Building. For saving the fascia of the original building that was destroyed by fire. The owners received a ten-year tax holiday

To accelerate residential development downtown, the administration offered a ten-year delay in payment of development fees to a London, Ontario developer who is now building multi-storey condominiums in the downtown area. Those differed costs will be tacked on to the owners condo fees once the 10 years expire as the builder moves on.

This sweetheart deal totally ignored how residents in those buildings will cope with the new cart waste collection system.  The city already refuses to collect waste from a variety of some 6,400 condo households. Now they are bringing on stream an estimated 1,500 new condo households where there is no available storage for the carts or room to pick up.

Remember the overtime attendance report by the internal auditor that estimates it will cost the city $5,067,000 in 2013? That’s equal to $2,453 for each of the 2,065 city employees reported in the 2012 human resources annual report.

You see the city human resources department plays games with the numbers of employees. Coun. Gloria Kovach tried to get Amorosi to break out the total numbers of employees and was shot down twice by an irritated mayor. The category FTE or Fulltime Equivalent Employee is disguised to cover up the total number of employees. In 2012 there were 847 “other” employees in addition to the full-time employees but the HR annual report failed to break them out by category such as part-time, casual, contract fulltime/part-time.

This is only scratching the surface on how our city has been taken over by a group of activists and ideologues that have little respect for the taxpayers. They just keep milking the public purse to meet their personal agendas.

The administration has agreed to spend $200,000 setting up a city forestry department to increase the leafy canopy of Guelph from 20 percent to 40 per cent. Or hire a “Public Affairs Officer” to interface with other governments including provincial, federal and neighbouring Wellington County, What are we, a city state?

In recent years, there has been little opposition to the administration. The local daily primarily toadies to the administration while the twice-weekly tabloid occasionally breaks ranks and reports the news important to taxpayers. Both papers are part of the TorStar group of companies.

Since last August the new citizen’s group, GrassRoots Guelph (GRG), has stood up to the Farbridge administration producing critical commentary and news through its website and the guelphspeaks.ca blog. GRG is an incorporated, non-partisan, non-profit organization run entirely citizen volunteers.

If you believe there is evidence of careless spending and waste of resources by our city administration, then join the growing membership through the GRG website GrassRootsGuelph.com.

GRG is dedicated to informing the taxpayers and working toward increasing the numbers of citizens to vote in the 2014 civic election.

The GRG motto is: If you don’t vote, you don’t count.

 

 

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