Posted April 26, 2015
Recently Mayor Cam Guthrie addressed a breakfast meeting of the Guelph Chamber of Commerce in what was billed as the State of the City. He was elected leader and took over as Mayor approximately 100 days ago.
He demonstrated that he was a far better communicator than his predecessor. His message was one of promise and a lot of “thank you’s” and acknowledgements to the senior city staff, members of council, but only those attending the breakfast, also a blanket thank you to city employees and those Chamber members in attendance.
He launched into his vision for Guelph over the next four years. “I am working with a professional staff who are providing their best advice and recommendations. My vision and my challenge over the next four years is to ensure that while Guelph is livable, it is also affordable.”
His vision of what is affordable for taxpayers took a left turn March 25 when his council voted to increase property taxes by 3.55 per cent, the highest increase since 2010. That figure was upgraded to 3.96 per cent when certain adjustments were made to shift portions of the tax burden from multiple-use residences (hi-rise condos) and industrial, to the residential sector of the tax roll.
“The best way to ensure Guelph is affordable is by attracting jobs and investment.”
How does Mr. Guthrie square that statement when his city council just approved the highest property tax increase among 14 peer municipalities? Only the Mayor and Councillors Dan Gibson, Andy Van Hellemond and Christine Billings had the guts to vote against the 2015 budget. A budget that denied the wishes of the majority of citizens to change the way the city was being managed.
Remind us, did not candidate Guthrie campaign on holding property tax increases to the Consumer Price Index? That figure for 2014 was 2.2 per cent. Here’s some food for thought. Mayor Guthrie may have won the election but lost control of council by five votes in the ward three election of devoted Farbridge supporter, June Hofland. Ms. Hofland also donated $250 to the former mayor’s campaign.
The utter failure of the economic development department to increase industrial and commercial assessment will only be more apparent as the years roll by. The problem lies in two factors, Guelph has the reputation of being a high-tax city and city-owned business park’s land costs fail to be competitive with surrounding cities.
So why would these two factors encourage new business investment in Guelph?
The mayor did not mention the role of the Guelph Municipal Holdings Incorporated (GMHI). This organization, set up and controlled by the previous administration, has one large asset, Guelph Hydro. In the last few years, Guelph Hydro has paid “dividends” to the city that is funneled through to operate GMHI. The company now has a general manager with a salary of $132,000, plus additional staff. It is charged with operating Envida Corporation to develop subterranean geo-thermal heating and cooling for certain areas of downtown and the Hanlon Business Park.
Why is GMHI even necessary? Who is paying the bills? Does it have a separate budget and bank account? Why did the city staff recommend hiring two senior asset managers on staff to cost more than $240,000, when that is the alleged role of GMHI, to manage the city assets? When does GMGI report its activities to the people?
There was no mention in his speech of the final costs of the Urbacon affair. In fact, he never brought it up, like it never happened. There was an unfortunate 11th hour motion by Coun. Karl Wettstein to reduce the promised repayment to the depleted reserve funds, used to pay off Urbacon’s settlement of $8.39 million.
CAO Ann Pappert said, after the settlement announcement, that property taxes would not be affected by the city’s costs of the agreement to settle. She said that the reserves would be replenished over five years at a rate of $900,000 per year from the operating budget. Mr. Wettstein’s motion changed that to $500,000 in the 2015 budget and asked the staff to come up with a new repayment plan.
In polite circles that is known as “kicking the can down the road” to avoid fiduciary responsibility.
Oh! The budget includes $600,000 for “multi-paths” to be constructed on a section of Woodlawn Road to appease the Active Transportation lobby of cyclists and pedestrians. Initially $300,000 was approved by the former Farbridge administration in 2014. Even they had the wit to cancel the spending in an election year.
Then along comes newly elected councillor Mike Salisbury, like true grit out of the west, who had a dream that council should spend $600,000, composed of last year’s allotment plus this year’s. It was approved.
The mayor spoke well and used anecdotes to bolster his presentation. But it now appears nothing has changed. Taxes are as high as they have ever been, spending has reached new heights and the same staff and majority of council are still in charge.
Well, Mr. Mayor if you expect to be around in 2018, you’d better pull a “Carpe Diem” – seize the day – before it’s too late.
The 19,000 plus voters did not elect you to be Farbridge-lite.