By Gerry Barker
Posted March 1, 2016
Some people wonder why I get angry over the operations of my city.
I am a retired professional newspaper executive. I am a resident of Guelph, who like most of you, pays property taxes, user fees such a water, in and out, electricity the costs of which has zoomed through the roof, and having to deal with increasing traffic congestion.
So, what are my wife and I receiving for the privilege of living in the Royal City?
We’ve lived here for 14 years and our taxes have doubled. Our use of water has increased by 75 per cent and the cost of power has zoomed to a point where it is difficult to estimate the huge increase in this basic Canadian need. All I can say is that when the water bills were removed from the joint billing arrangement with Guelph Hydro, our power bill was $255 and we were not even in the home for the billing month. The announcement of the split said the power accounting would commence in January.
So why do I keep complaining?
I’ve been writing about the Farbridge administration’s era eight years of mismanagement since 2007. My copy has focused on bringing critical analysis of the city administration to the attention of the citizens. In five years, I have written 749 posts on my guelphspeaks.ca blog.
The traditional media coasted along coexisting with the Farbridge administration. I wrote a regular column in the Guelph Mercury for four years until I was told my services were not longer required, a nice way of saying: “You’re fired!”
One of the triggers for my dismissal was that I established guelphspeaks.ca blog in 2011 to allow more frequent commentary than was allowed by the Mercury.
Fast forward: The TorStar subsidiary, MetroLand Publishing, owners of the Guelph Mercury, suspended the print edition of the paper this year. The entire staff was let go and paid off.
This unexpected development shook up the political scene in the city. Without hesitation, the decision has contributed to the downward spiral of administration mismanagememt that has led to a financial crisis.
In recent blogs, guelphspeaks.ca has detailed the mistakes, lawsuits and resignation of a key person in charge of financial management. These are not merely unfortunate occurences, but confirmation of a pattern of gross incompetence.
When I cover this pathway of self-destruction, it is easy to see the weakness in the way our city is currently being managed.
Here’s the absolute skinny:
Karen Farbridge was determined to fashion Guelph into a new city with world class sustainability, waste management, revitalizing downtown and adopting policies that defied logic and benefits to all citizens.
Let’s examine the Farbridge agenda and its impact on our city.
The former Mayor’s action plan included obscuring her intention, solidifying her support, particularly with the nine civic employee unions that represented 80 per cent of all civic workers.
She then, with a solid majority of councillors for eight years, introduced procedural and governance bylaws that locked in her powerful hold on the city administration, including the elected members of council.. She hired only senior staff that supported her agendas.
In eight years, she increased the staff by 50 percent despite a population increase of ony 7.5 per cent.
She authorized the spending of $34 million to build a wet-waste composting plant that is ten times the size of Guelph’s wet waste disposal needs for 20 years. Then she turned over the operation of the facility to a subsidiary of Maple Reinders, builders of the facility.
The untold millions were spent on the Waste Innovative Resource Centre (WIRC) on Dunlop Drive. This was the crown jewel of her “world class” plan to manage waste. The costs of operating this enterprise, to this day, are still unknown. We can only guess where the money came from, including the taxpayers, borrowing from the banks, raidingnthe reserves, or selling off city-owned assets. There has not been a third party audit of that adventure.
Next came the $15.5 millioin spent on a waste collection system using automated trucks costing $150,000 each and bins for households and businesses. Trouble is the system fails to serve and estimated 13 per cent of the population.
Pardon me if I get a little personal about garbage. In 14 years, we have paid a portion of our property taxes for waste collection. Instead, the city refused to enter our 22-home land condominium because the trucks could not turn around at the top of our street. So our small homeowners association pays more tha $6,000 a year for a private contractor to remove our unsorted waste to the WRIC where it is sent to the landfill.
An after-thought, the Guelph Fire Department driving its large fire vehicles does not have the problem of turning around on our street during its practice runs.
Why do I get angry? Because the waste of financial resources over the eight years was capped in 2014 when the city paid an additional $23 million to finish the new city hall and provincial court project’s original contract of $42 million. Then the CAO lied about how the $8.96 million, taken from three reserve funds, would be paid back.
This action by the former administration, also led to raiding other reserve accounts to pay for its mismanagement. Those affected reserve funds are now seriously depleted. The city’s consultants performing a review of operations described the situation as “red flag of caution.”
In the 15 months since Cam Guthrie was elected mayor, there is little difference in curbing the spending with property taxes, user fees and staff costs continuing to esculate. The city’s spending on operational and capital costs in 2014 was 50 per cent higher than either Cambridge or Kitchener.
A new study shows that in the past five years, if Guelph had allocated 50 per cent of the annual operational increases for infrastructure renovation, there would be no need now for a special two per cent property tax levy over the next ten years. Just at the beginning of the 2016 budget talks, this levy proposal was recommended by the staff. Coun. June Hofland quickly buried the proposal on a motion as chair of the finance committee.
I was at that meeting and was not aware that happened until the Tribune revealed the proposal after the budget had been approved some time later. Why wasn’t this tax levy discussed by council? Why did the mayor not allow discussion on this proposal?
Why did the citizens have to learn about this in the Tribune?
I get frustrated when I see seven elected members of city council voting the former administration’s agenda as a bloc. There does not seem to be any balance on this council that lacks informed public discussion and debate.
Our mayor says he only has one vote and has to get along with his colleagues.
That amounts to a tacit admission that he has decided to go along to get along.
It is now time to say no. It is time to tell the elected members of the administration to work togther to reduce the costs of running our city. There are many ways to accomplish this without drastically reducing services.
It won’t be easy when you hear comments from Coun. Leanne Piper who says “the low hanging fruit of cost cutting” has already occurred and there is nothing more that can be done to reduce costs.
The Guelph administration has reached the tipping point of financial collapse. It has reached the stage that revenues are tapped out while costs keep rising. You don’t have to be a Rhodes scholar to understand the outcome of this strategy.
A first step would be to replace at least four senior managers, all of whom were hired by the previous administration. For starters, hiring a new city manager and Chief Financial Officer should be a priority to achieve meaningful reform.
Please Note: Events move swiftly and to keep up, check out the guelphspeaks archives for recent posts. As always feel free to comment.GB