Monthly Archives: March 2014

The seven-year itch hits Guelph politics

March 22, 2014

Not content to bleed the taxpayer’s ability to pay, our Mayor now wants to force property taxpayers to pay special levies to redevelop the Baker Street parking lot and stimulate commercial/industrial development.

Seems the administration has finally awakened to find the cupboard bare and is now looking for ways to increase revenue to meet its array of dodgy projects and surrealistic long range planning. The level of debt has maxed out that option because the city has to cough up $34 million for a new police headquarters.

The Farbridge green team is strong on long range planning but fails in the ability to pay for its cock-eyed dreams of a social state nirvana.

The litany of broken dreams and promises smothers the city like hot fudge on a birthday cake. Trouble is, the administration is the fudge, and citizens are the cake.

Using the levers of power, the Mayor and her team have by-passed real public input and comment. Instead their staged events are either loaded with supporters, staff or consultants but rarely elected officials.

This is how we get a multi-million dollar waste centre, the thing we used to call the dump that fails to meet the needs of the city but whose services are offered to other municipalities. Your tax dollars went into this project without your say or input or knowing to this day how much it costs to operate it.

A $15 million cart-based waste collection system was arbitrarily imposed on all city residences and businesses and fails to service more than 6,400 households.

While this and other projects may please some, there are a lot of residents who feel too much of the city’s business is conducted behind closed doors. To say that the public is fully informed of the administration’s decisions is a charade.

The city’s communications are carefully composed to lull you to sleep. The two local newspapers are complicit at times with the city message and often fail to offer both sides of the story.

This results in a situation of controlling the message at will with no ability to question or be informed of those decisions that affect all citizens.

In the past few months, the administration hired a Toronto consultant to advise them on how to operate an open and transparent government in Guelph. The cost of this exercise was $100,000

After almost eight years in office, the Far bridge-dominated administration seeks professional advice on how to run an open and transparent government.

The odd part of this decision is why now and what will change?

Is this not an admission that for all that time, the administration did not operate in and open and transparent fashion? That was a key platform issue that Karen Farbridge promised on the eve of her election in 2006.

This is classic Farbridge tactics, to use the people’s money to reinforce her message image and track record.

Remember when she promised to “put Guelph back on track?”

That is some record and some track.

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Hits, runs and errors, the Empire strikes back

Posted March 21, 2014

If you ever want a metaphor on the seven-year hitch of the Farbridge administration, you don’t have to look farther than the green Living Wall in city hall.

This was a proud benchmark for the green team, aka the Farbridge control group on city council. Now we learn that it isn’t easy being green. The Living Wall has not stood up too well in its city hall environment. In fact it died and had to be replanted.

Its care and monitoring, staff reported, is costing $1,000 a month. Heck, it’s a small price to pay for principle, you think? A similar experiment failed when the green team put plants on the roof of the new city hall. That too proved to be unsuccessful and a reported $250,000 was spent to replace it.

Which brings us to an article written in the new Guelph Citizen blog. The author was Andy Best, last known as president of the Guelph Civic League, still remembered for its ramrod support of the Mayor and her team of greenies in 2006.

Mr. Best was extremely critical of GrassRoots Guelph, calling the organization a “struggling” advocacy group. For a year, he charged the volunteer citizen’s group was looking for a conspiracy under every rock in town

What he failed to realize was not only was his statement pure hyperbole, but the GRG easily uncovered real problems in the green team’s financial reporting. In fact, the Ministry Officials admitted that the numbers in the petition were accurate.

Andy, you are a naughty boy. Your misguided diatribe against a legitimate citizen’s group, that has raised real concerns about the way the city has been run for the past seven and one half years, is not journalism but propaganda.

Here are more OOPS! As written in your GCL editorial.

OOPS!  GRG never, ever said the administration was “cooking the books, lying to citizens and generally making a mess of things.” What was said was professional accountants might interpret manipulation of financial data by an administration could be “cooking the books”.

Andy, a word for the wise, GRG does not make stuff up. We don’t have to. With expert digging into the city’s financial statements and reports, it is apparent that there is financial manipulation to mask reality and support excessive taxation and spending. The two top city officials charged with accounting and reporting the state of the corporation finances, neither has a formal degree in finances. During the Farbridge administration, there have been three Chief Administration Officers and five Chief Financial Officers.

OOPS! So Andy, you say GRG is bad for the city and civic engagement.  Under your claim, there should be no citizen protest or criticism of an administration. Those administration policies and confrontational tactics with other jurisdictions have damaged the reputation of our city far and beyond what GRG is alleged to have done.

OOPS! Let’s talk about taxes. Out of 444 Ontario municipalities Guelph property tax rates stand 19th. Still think that’s middle of the road? Why did the council announce the property tax increase for 2014 would be 2.37 per cent when the real figure is 4.36 per cent because of the increase in assessment? Oversight or lying by omission?

OOPS! GRG doesn’t hate anyone, particularly your boss and mentor Karen Farbridge. This isn’t grade five anymore, Andy. The group does object to the Mayor’s operation of the city and that was the genesis of the formation of GRG. It was those ‘Vision” statements by the Mayor that made peoples’ financial sphincters tighten.

OOPS!  The petition is far from dead and more and more people are signing it. You’ll be hearing more about this later.

OOPS! Andy, by spending several paragraphs claiming GRG reports are lies, demonstrates a paucity of clear thinking. What possible purpose would GRG achieve if it represented falsehoods?  We certainly cannot speak for Deloitte and Touch, the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing or Cam Guthrie. But we can praise internal Auditor Loretta Alonzo who uncovered the $5 million 2013 scandal of excessive employee overtime and attendance to the job. Hmmm, wonder why Deloitte failed to pick that up?

OOPS! Sorry Andy, But excessive taxation and service charges, waste mismanagement, student housing and spending on mindless programs are major issues the GRG will examine and reveal to citizens.

OOPS! A number of citizens are wondering about who is paying the bills for the Guelph Citizen and the editor. GRG is a volunteer organization that depends on its members to fund the operation. Nobody gets paid. There are no major donors or angels just ordinary, taxpaying folks who want to change the way our city is being run.

Your trouble is, to paraphrase Jack Nicholson, “you can’t stand the truth.”

Of course you haven’t been around town that much.

 

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The growing threat of hidden costs of public sector pensions

Posted March 20, 2014

There is widespread concern among taxpayers across the country that public employee pensions are growing faster than those in the private sector.

The Ontario Public Sector Disclosure Act (PSDA) requires all 444 municipalities in Ontario to report the salaries and benefits of those public employees earning more than $100,000 a year. It’s called the Sunshine List and the city-originated report must be filed before March 31. This year the City of Guelph stated in a news release that 144 of city staffers made the list. That did not include police services employees and there are 55 of them making the grade.

In 2013, 199 Guelph employees earned more than $100,000.  That is compared to 178 in 2012 or an 11.79 per cent increase in one year. The city says it controls staff compensation by not filling vacant positions. If true, then the city staff establishment needs a drastic review to reflect the actual staffing needs of the corporation.

Bill Tufts of the Fair Pensions for All organization says the Sunshine list fails to list 25 per cent or more of additional benefits including pension contributions, sick time, vacation payouts, pensions and free retirement healthcare.

All of these unreported benefits plus salaries, wages and reported benefits are paid by the taxpayers.

The alarming growth of staff in Guelph, now 2,069 full time employees, up from 1,450 in 2006, is 42.68 per cent in seven years. When coupled with the annual increases awarded in labour contracts by the administration, it is easy to understand that the taxpayers have already been placed in a precarious position when it comes to supporting the rapid growth of staff and compensation.

And Guelph’s civic staff is 80 per cent unionized.

How the system is gamed

Here’s what the Brookings Institute think tank says about galloping public sector pension costs.

“There are three basic problems with (the public sector) pension system. With a combination of high unionization, lots of money, and low voter turnouts, public sector unions now control the political process and election results in Canada.

“Public sector unions are often highly involved in raising funds and donating to the campaigns of political candidates, often with the goal of preserving the pension status quo.”

Bill Tufts says “One of the things I think the unions and politicians have gotten onto is they can put more into those packages and it’s not going to show up because it’s not reported on the Sunshine List and also doesn’t come up in compensation agreements.”

When Guelph’s city employee compensation costs take up 80 per cent of the city’s property tax revenue, it’s no wonder that taxpayers have faced an average of 3.6 per cent increase in property taxes in the past seven years.

In 2014, that jumps to 4.36 per cent due to the increase in property assessments. As your assessment goes up, so do your taxes.

The one candidate for Mayor, Karen Farbridge, has received support from the municipal unions in her last two elections.  This is an example of how employee numbers and costs have soared under her stewardship.

The Brookings Institute put it this way: “There is no daylight between them (management, legislature) and labour. They are on both on the same side of the table, and this creates a serious principal agent problem. There is a real void between the legislatures and every other actor on pensions and so it’s not surprising we have a mess.”

Those comments have great value and resonance with a growing number of informed citizens. The combination of overstaffing, the growing percentage of unreported staff benefits, and too generous increases and benefits are slowly strangling our city.

So far, large annual tax increases and user fees have barely been able to keep up.

But here’s the direction our city is headed. House prices will go up along with higher taxes. Because of high costs, this will discourage people from moving here and more important, will make it increasingly harder to attract business and industry to the city.

We are already one of the highest taxed municipalities in the province.

It’s something to think about next October 27 when you cast your vote.

Stay up to date with events that affect your city and your financial security. Join GrassRootsGuelph.com. It’s a non-partisan, non-profit citizen’s group with members, just like you, determined to bring fiscal responsibility and common sense to the council table next October.

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Trying to turn a turnip into a community jewel

On the 20th of this month, the window for proposals to renovate the Wilson Farmhouse will close.

One of the main contenders held a meeting recently to invite ideas and suggestions to renovate the building into a community centre of sorts. Regardless of what the people who live in the area want – almost 100 per cent want it demolished – this group persists in trying to turn a turnip into a jewel.

It claims the building is in good shape in contrast to city inspectors who say the foundation is built with stones, is occupied by a variety of vermin and is full of black mould.

Despite this, the proponents feel they can persuade the neighbours that their project is viable. This group is strongly supported by Coun. Ian Findlay, His fellow ward Councillor, Andy Van Hellemond, favours demolishing the house, as does Mayor Karen Farbridge.

Which brings us to a statement contained in a press release by this group.

“Wilson Farmhouse would be renovated and operational without spending a penny of taxpayer money. A social enterprise model would be imported with membership from at least four successful Social Enterprise Community Centres, from as far away as the Atlantis Leisure Centre in Oban, Scotland, and as close as the Guelph Youth Music Centre, whose renovation was also financed by a loan, using the building as security, resulting in a mortgage payment for the Centre.”

Okay let’s play banker.

This bunch strolls in and asks for a mortgage of $300,000. The purpose of the loan is to renovate the building to be used as a public structure that will become a community centre.

First, their so-called security for the mortgage is on a property they don’t own. The city owns it.

Second, will they pay the city for the property at a market value of $150,000 to obtain ownership?

If not, will the bank request the city guarantee repaying the mortgage?

What is the exact use of the building and supporting documentation of anticipated revenue?

Has the group had professional engineers and builders inspect the state of the building and the estimated cost of renovating?

This looks like another dip into the public trough

The city is not unfamiliar with this kind of proposal. It experienced a similar proposal when it agreed to guarantee the $500,000 mortgage on the indoor soccer dome. Last year the operator could not make the mortgage payments and city staff had to renegotiate new terms. Taxpayers are still on the hook for 15 years. To top it off, the dome and playing surface will need replacement by 2020.

This is nothing but a thinly disguised attempt to save the building as a heritage site. This council did the same thing in 2007 when it agreed to convert a derelict convent building into a new Guelph Civic Museum. The cost of this adventure will never been known because general operating funds were used over the five-year construction period to deal with serious, unanticipated construction problems. The published cost is some $16 million. There was money spent that was not attributed to the convent renovation.

That experience was a harbinger of the Farbridge administration’s determination to change Guelph into an overstaffed, debt-ridden and waste management disaster that citizens will be paying for, for years to come.

These policies have choked off many parts of the city because of the administration’s emphasis on turning the downtown area into a “vibrant place” for all Guelph citizens to enjoy. A place in which millions have already been spent in human resources and infrastructure projects. The city bribes developers to build condo towers with tax inducements and deferred development fees.

Memories are made of this

The administration failed to build a new downtown library they promised in the 2006 election campaign. Or start the Wilson Street Parking garage. Or build the South End recreation centre that was promised more than 10 years ago.

But they did reconstruct lower Wyndham Street over two years, with an underpass that will not accommodate large commercial vehicles.

Friends, have faith. The administration spent $10 million on the Clair Road emergency services centre that police now are vacating. Instead the council will give the green light to the $34 million facelift of police headquarters before the fall election.

Do you believe it’s time to stop this excessive spending and taxing of citizens? Join GrassRootsGuelph.com and link up with fellow citizens determined to return fiscal and common sense responsibility to the next council.

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When a good old story becomes news again

Posted March 16, 2014

By Gerry Barker

In a recent article in the Mercury, it was announced that the  “Exercise is Medicine”  (EIM) program had arrived at the University of Guelph. The article proclaimed this was a relatively new movement in Canada.

EIM encourages doctors to prescribe exercise by patients as a component of lung and cardiac disease prevention and treatment.

Well, it isn’t quite as new as described in the article. Dr. John Schaman operates a clinic for heart and lung patients to revitalize their lives through an exercise program that also includes dietary advice.

Dr. Schaman has been practising his life-saving methods for more than 35 years at his clinic, known as the Ontario Aerobics Centre, located near Brezlau. Several of his patients living in Guelph were perturbed that the article did not mention his work and accomplishments in the field of heart and lung preventative medicine.

While his work is recognized around the world, his experience as a sports medicine physician including some years as doctor of the Canadian National Ski team, make him a leader in heart and lung disease treatment.

One of his more innovative methods is to use the harmonica to increase a patient’s lung capacity. His programs of making music with the harmonica are easily adopted by many of his patients. A healthy lung works in concert with the heart to support an exercise program in order to stay healthy and alive.

Over the years, his accomplishments have been recorded in the media including the Mercury.

His selflessness has extended the lives of thousands of patients who have arrived at his clinic for guidance, encouragement and exercise. Many are from Guelph as well as Kitchener-Waterloo and areas beyond.

This oversight failed to recognize the work of Dr. Schaman. The University of Guelph’s Communications Department should have researched the Schaman EIM experience before releasing the news to the media.

Why do I know this? I have been a patient of Dr. Schaman for more than four years. I can personally attest to his drive to make people better and in control of their lives through exercise and counsel.

Dr. Schaman’s closing statement: “Look after yourself because nobody else will.”

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Coun. Ian Findlay and the Wilson Farmhouse fantasy

Posted March 14, 2014

You can bet the mashed potatoes that Wednesday, March 20, the council will again defer the city staff recommendation to demolish the Wilson Farmhouse. There are apparently three proposals being submitted to restore the crumbling eyesore.

It’s more evidence of a tired Heritage support’ tactic called “paralysis by analysis”.

Ian Findlay’s role in helping their cause flies in the face of 100 per cent of the taxpayers who must stare at this dump that is long past its due date.  The first so-called business plan called for the city to invest $500,000 to restore the place turning it into a community centre with café, meeting rooms and learning facility.

It was so badly put together that they forgot where to park their cars.

The city already spent more than $30,000 just to keep the place standing. It is rife with vermin and dangerous mould. Staff recommended last year to tear it down, as it is a hazard. But the council heritage mavens including Mr. Findlay, plumped for public submissions to restore the building.

Mayor Farbridge voted for demolition.

Among those voting to give the joint another life were councillors from Ward Six, Todd Dennis and Karl Wettstein, representing the ward at the other end of town. These two muffins wouldn’t know a heritage building from a Volvo but they soldiered on with the council heritage majority to SAVE THE WILSON.

Why not spend more time saving the city? Or, even a recreation complex in your ward that was planned more then 15 years ago?

It’ll take another three or more months to eliminate the daffy proposals that call for city investment or loan guarantees. Councillors supporting a scheme to keep the issue going can kiss their re-election hopes goodbye in October 2014.

And that includes Mr. Findlay.

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Analysis shows we were overtaxed by $86,881,000 from 2010 to 2012

Posted March 13, 2014

When most people sit down at the kitchen table to budget their expenses and income, they make sure their income covers their expenses before spending.

Yet, the financial staff of the city of Guelph, in the last three reporting years, did exactly that.

They spent the money on various projects, operations and policies without regard to where that money was coming from.

But unlike citizens who must keep their expenses in line with their income, the city has a piggy bank that it can tap called property taxes. It is the ultimate safety net to cover their soaring, out of control costs.

In those three years, city staff underestimated its revenue by $105,955,000. That’s right, and it’s deduced from the city’s own financial statements. It represents a monumental failure to properly forecast revenues when preparing a budget.

Now imagine if your family adopted the same forecasting methodology as the city. That is, if you ran short of money on your budget, you could tap into some imaginary ATM machine to cover your added costs.

In the city’s case, it raised taxes and user fees that were irresponsibly excessive to cover its forecasted costs.

They underestimated their costs by a country mile

The city also bungled by undereestimating expenditures by  $19,074,000.That means it spent that amount over its own budgets in the same three years.

Now property taxes make up an estimated 46 per cent of that $105 million of underestimated revenue. The rest comes from user fees, water and hydro revenues, increases in property assessments (on which your taxes are based), and various government grants.

Matching both underestimated revenues to expenses in the official city budgets, taxpayers overpaid their taxes by $86,881,000 in three taxation years. Based on 45,000 taxpayer accounts, that averages out to $1,930 per property tax client that exceeded the needs of the city. Wouldn’t you like to have that back?

That isn’t going to happen. It illustrates how incompetent the city is in forecasting annual budgets. In fact, there are so many adjustments made during the budget year that defy logic and responsibility. As a result, the audited final figure, closing off a given year, is changed the following year and not carried over as is the case with accepted accounting procedures.

The situation has created concern among many citizens who are experienced in running operations with sound financial planning and management.

Community leaders express their concern about taxes

Frank Hasenfratz, founder of Linamar, Guelph’s largest private sector employer, is on record as saying that Guelph’s property taxes are too high. He said that two years ago.

Similarly, Lloyd Longfield, CEO of the Guelph Chamber of Commerce, questioned the rising property tax rates that, for the past seven years, far exceeded the Canada Price Index.

The fallout from this over-taxation is affecting growth of our economy by driving up housing costs and discouraging businesses and new residents from settling in Guelph.

The city’s financial management creates doubt among businesses and property investors interested in coming to Guelph when planning and accounting is so sloppy and unpredictable.

Without asking citizens, the $33 million Organic Waste Facility was build three times the needs of the city for the next 20 years. It is being used by outside sources without an accounting of revenue or costs of operation. Citizens are openly questioning the exorbitant policies that are destroying the city’s ability to grow in an orderly and financially sound manner.

They built it and they didn’t come

Building waste management facilities that, on paper, have already cost $53 million, still fails to serve an estimated 6,400 residences. The costs of operation are a secret. So secretive has the city been that we’ll never know the millions spent to create the Dunlop Road waste management facility.

The Farbridge grandiose future agenda now includes a $34 million rebuilt downtown police headquarters; a $16 million staff estimated riverside park, east of Gordon Street, that will mean destruction of a privately owned popular strip mall and pet clinic; a proposal to build under the city centre to supply thermal heat and cooling to downtown buildings and the cost is unknown.

Throw in the  $63 million proposed downtown library; the $37 million South End recreation centre, and the $33 million already spent subsidizing building downtown hi-rise condos. It is easy to understand why growing numbers of citizens are angry.

Join GrassRoots Guelph and work to change the administration

There is one organization that recognizes mismanagement of our city. GrassRootsGuelph.com welcomes any citizen who shares this view. Those who want to help elect representatives who will be fiscally responsible, and use common sense. The time has come to return the decision making power to the elected council, the true representatives of the people.

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