By Gerry Barker
Posted December 10, 2015
After a marathon debate last night, the majority of council rejected the city budget as being too high
It was about 12:50 am this morning when Mayor Cam Guthrie said a four-letter word in response to Coun. Leanne Piper’s asking if he would support the proposed 3.42 per cent property tax increase. It was an insulting, request that bespoke of the lady’s insecurity when the chips are on the line.
It occurred at the end of a marathon eight-hour deliberation.“Nope,” the mayor told her. He added to another councillor’s similar question that the rate was too high.
A few minutes later the vote to approve the budget was defeated by a 7 to 6 margin. These councillors voted against approving the budget: Mayor Guthrie, Andy Van Hellemond, Christine Billings, Dan Gibson, Bob Bell, Mark McKinnon, Karl Wettstein. Those members deserve the support of citizens for having the determination to reduce the property tax increase by rejecting the final operating budget.
Those voting for the budget were Councillors James Gordon, June Hofland, Phil Allt, Mike Salisbury, Cathy Downer and Leanne Piper.
It was a victory for the people who have felt powerless for the past nine years to face increased property tax rates, water and electricity fees, other user fees, inflicted by an administration bent on imposing its ideological agenda without recourse.
That came to an end last night.
The thin edge of council majority held by the Farbridge Gang of Seven was shattered when Coun. Karl Wettstein defected. In fairness, Mr. Wettstein has always said he was neutral sitting on council. But Wednesday night, he expressed his concern that property taxes cannot continue to increase at a plus 3 per cent annually.
It was a civil but messy debate throughout the night with some give and take. The Mayor went out of his way to allow all councillors to speak. There were many votes to approve and disapprove the various budget line items recommended by the staff under the leadership of Chief Administrative Officer, Ann Pappert.
The costs kept climbing
As the evening wore on, it became apparent that the budget item numbers were climbing increasing the tax -supported operational costs. Mayor Guthrie repeatedly asked Janice Sheehy, General Manager of Finance and Treasurer for the impact of each approved or rejected item on the property taxes.
The trouble began when the staff’s non-recommended items were considered and the additions started adding to the tax percentage as reported by Ms. Sheehy. In the final half hour, the rejection votes were increasing as councillors realized they had to stop increasing spending, but it was too late, so to speak.
After all adjustments, Ms. Sheehy reported the final 2016 operating cost was $217,336,736, creating an increase over 2015 of 3.42 per cent. When this figure is matched with the 3.96 percent approved last March for 2015, it would total 7.38 per cent impacting property taxes over two years.
“Nope,” said the Mayor and a majority of council agreed.
Tonight, the budget debate will re-open starting at 6 p.m. at City Hall. There will have to be give and take by all councillors. But it’s now clear that the property tax rate must be reduced to at least 2.5 per cent, closer to the rate of inflation.
There were winners and losers last night. The staff’s recommended expansion budget was split in two, one part contained the staff recommended items and the other the non-recommended items. Why it was done that way, bespeaks of an attempt to make the staff look responsible and doing its job. Instead it opened the door for some councillors to add the staff rejected items to the new budget.
This budget process, designed by the staff, was a dismal failure. Why would they tell council that they were not recommending a number of items? Why not just recommend what they deemed necessary and leave it like that?
There were more ulterior motives swirling around than a carnival merry-go-round.
Who were the winners last night? First and foremost are the citizens of Guelph. Then Mayor Guthrie who stood firm when he had to and stopped the accelerating spending. And those councillors who believed that living in Guelph is too expensive and that spending has to be arrested.
The losers: The six councillors voting for the budget increase who still don’t understand that the people voted last year for change. Last night they got it and now all members of council must work together to adopt new ideas to increase efficency, destroy the culture of the previous administration and go down in history that this council finally got it right.
Tonight there will be some major spending changes to reduce the 3.42 per cent tax rate defeated last night.
Let the slicing and dicing begin
I have two items that need to be pulled from the budget. First, is the Staff Rationalization Study, approved at $250,000. This is a staff recommended item that seconds its management responsibility to a third party to support its own job performance. Not needed now and instead commence a program, department by department, to analyze performance and job descriptions. The internal auditor can make a major contribution in those processes provided she has a free hand.
The second is the $264,000 cost of maintaining the Open Government Action Plan that was approved in September 2014. The city has already spent $100,000 to a consultant to create the plan. Last July, the city hired Andy Best, a key supporter of the former mayor, to manage the plan. It was reported to be a one-year contract paying $92,000.
Now this has morphed in 2016 paying, $117,000 to Mr. Best, a tidy $25,000 increase to someone who has been on the job five months. Then there is $147,200 allocated for goods and services. There was no justification offered for that item.
This is a hangover project created by the former administration. Guelph does not need this after what occurred last night. We have a council that is more open and transparent than the secretive, manipulating former administration it replaced.
Two senior staff members need to refresh their management targets to meet the demands of the people. There is a culture of entitlement existing at City Hall, the Guelph Police Services Board and the Fire department. It’s a culture that senior staff must correct to meet the demands of the people and those councillors who the people elected to represent them.
Notice that the EMS was not mentioned. They asked to hire another paramedic to speed up response times and the $84,000 position was voted out of the budget.
But they did vote to add a zoning inspector costing $128,000
The words you never heard in eight hours were “Urbacon” and “Sunshine List.”
In 2014, CAO Ann Pappert said the $8.96 million settlement of the Urbacon lawsuit would not affect property taxes. How’s that working for you? She then said the settlement money was taken from three unrelated reserve funds. She said that the city would replenish those reserves by paying $900,000 a year for five years.
That didn’t happen and there was no reference to it in the staff recommendations.
The Ontario givernment’s annual Sunshine List keeps on growing naming all civic employees earning more than $100,000 plus taxable benefits. This year, Guelph will report an additional 15 to 20 new staffers to the 2015 list reported in 2016.
At least now the spending brakes are engaging.
Tomorrow, guelphspeaks.ca, will publish the final budget figures.