How a failing Guelph administration is protected by a Mayor defying criticism

By Gerry Barker

October 3, 2016

When Mayor Guthrie announced his intention to run for mayor in January 2014, he talked about “For a Better Guelph.” He also mentioned the “Guelph Factor” as part of the problems facing the city and his reason for running.

But then, he campaigned on holding property tax increases to two percent or the

Consumer Price Index (CPI) that in 2015 was 1.1 per cent. In 2015, his first year in office, the Guelph property tax increase was 3.96 per cent including the effect of the assessment increase on properties.

On December 10, the Mayor presided over a closed session of council that approved paying four senior staffers $137,894 in salary increases for 2015. As this was a closed session, the reasons for including the discussion and vote have yet to be made public.

The four senior managers, CAO Ann Pappert, DCAO’s Mark Amorosi, Derrick Thomson, and Al Horsman received excessive increases that became public with the publication of the Ontario Sunshine List last March. Mr. Horsman resigned in August 2015. Ms. Pappert resigned last May. Mr. Thomson also resigned in April to take another job but was brought back to take over the CAO position in June.

Is this the Mayor’s new interpretation of “A Better Guelph?”

Then along comes a Guelph resident, Pat Fung, CPA CA who examines the audited Financial Information Reports published by the city for the previous four years. He also examined the 2014 BMA consultant’s report of city operations.

This culminated in a detailed analysis of the city’s operational costs, compared with similar sized cities. It broke out the costs of the various departments and institutions of the city and compared them to the Ontario averages.

Mr. Fung, acting as a concerned citizen, sent each member of council a copy of his analysis August 18. Last Monday night, he made a five-minute presentation summarizing his findings. The council response was zero, although the large crowd in attendance applauded the presentation.. In fact, the Mayor shut him down when he directed a question to DCAO Amorosi.

The Mayor followed it up commenting: “I find it a bit disturbing that people would come in here and challenge our staff in this way.”

What does Mayor Guthrie mean when he adds, “in this way?” Are the people he represents not supposed to complain when accurate facts of financial mismanagement are exposed? Which “way” should the people react and respond?

Our Mayor seems to have drifted away from the people, who supported him, to go out of his way to protect the hired help. Does he seriously believe that there aren’t people in the city who clearly understand the gross mismanagement of the city that he promised to correct?

How does a credit rating reduce operational costs?

If the Mayor doesn’t understand the financial state of the city, how does he fulfill his promise of a “Better Guelph?” Does he believe that an AA+ credit rating by Standard and Poors (S&P) makes it all better?

You remember the S&P rating company. Between 2006 and 2008, it gave inflated credit ratings to mortgage-backed securities sold by most major U.S. and global banks. The S&P ratings nearly collapsed the global economy when millions of so-called investments were found to be worthless, except for the people who sold them using S&P credit ratings to support their validity.

Some Questions: The staff reported that S&P gave the city the AA+ credit rating in 2013 same as it is today. Did the city pay for this S&P report and how much did it cost? Why is there a three-year gap between the reports? How does this pat on the back credit rating affect operational costs of the City of Guelph? Answer: It has nothing to do with operational costs. Finally, when the city borrows money, it backs the debt with the assets of a $500 million corporation as collateral. This applies to most Ontario municipalities who borrow money. But then, Guelph already exceeds its debt ceiling as set by city councils.

Aren’t the city staff and some members of council applying the same tactic to misinform the citizens and lull them into not complaining? It appears that the Mayor has joined in that chorus of dumbing us all down.

Which brings us to the public financing of the Guelph Mercury Tribune

When Pat Fung took his report to the Tribune for publication, he was told they couldn’t run it because it was “too long and too political.” At no time did Editor Doug Coxson offer to have a reporter review Pat’s analysis to develop a news story.

By any interpretation, it is a news story and worthy of coverage.

I spoke with Pat and suggested we take out an advertisement in the paper to print the details of his report. I also agreed to raise the money for the ad.

I delivered the copy to the paper last Tuesday that the ad representative accepted and downloaded from UBS drive. I also presented a cheque for $2,083 to pay for the ad. On Wednesday morning, I checked to see a finished proof of the ad and was told there were “red flags” about the copy. And there had to be changes.

I asked if the ad was to run Thursday and was told no, not until the paper approves the copy. I requested the objections in writing and was told they would not comply but the ad rep would give a brief summary of the objections. These included lack of documentation, inflammatory content and details of who was placing the ad and contact numbers.

It was obvious, Metroland Publishing, the owners of the paper, had made a decision not to support the Fung analysis, either in the editorial section or a paid ad.

Now this deliberate blocking of free expression is going to be forwarded to the National Press Council for adjudication. The complaint will name the owners, TorStar Corporation, its subsidiary Metroland Publishing and The Guelph Mercury Tribune.

It’s astonishing, that in this day and age that a newspaper, enjoying a monopoly as the only paper in the City of Guelph, refuses to print a legitimate and accurate analysis without even attempting to review it or write a news story.

Instead, the paper published a news story with the heading: “Persistent city finance critic rebuffed at Guelph Council meeting.” Had the reporter read the Fung analysis? Did the editor even consider doing a news story about a citizen, trained and experienced in his profession, regarding the financial status of our city?

The answer my friends, is simple. The Mercury Tribune receives an estimated $350,000 to $500,000 a year from the city for publishing the “City News” pages in every edition of the twice-weekly newspaper. Those ads are paid by public funds so we have forcibly become partners with a newspaper. A newspaper that is biased favouring its city ads client and refuses to recognize its responsibilities to its readers who have legitimate causes and deserve space in the paper.

Citizens are victims in this unholy alliance between the city administration and this newspaper.

So much for democracy and free speech.

*            *            *            *

An important message from the editor

Dear Donor:

In the last three weeks, I solicited funds to pay for a full-page advertisement in the Guelph Tribune to reproduce the excellent analysis of the City of Guelph’s financial condition, compiled by Guelph resident, Pat Fung, CPA, CA.

I regret to inform you that the Guelph Tribune refused to publish Mr. Fung’s report as editorial comment using the excuse it was too long and too political. But then, the paper refused to allow citizen’s to purchase ad space to expose Mr. Fung’s details of the state of city finances.

I am personally embarrassed over these developments that I believe is nothing but planned suppression of the news that affects our community. I made a commitment to all donors to ensure that more residents would receive the Fung analysis. I can say now that it won’t happen, using the Tribune.

But, there is active planning to pressure the Tribune and extend the reach of www.guelphspeaks.ca, the only consistent critic of the city administration and supporter of the Fung Report.

We are appealing to the National Press Council to adjudicate a complaint that the newspaper, restricted fair comment by denying accommodating coverage of the Fung report on the news pages, but denied our attempt to publish the details in a paid advertisement. This is a clear violation of journalistic ethics and responsibility to the readership by suppressing information of vital public concern and interest.

We are not going to let up spreading details of Pat Fung’s analysis of the financial condition of our city. Doing this will require accumulating funds to inform residents of the details. Without access to the newspaper, we must seek other means of communication to express our points of view, both in print and social media using the Internet.

Accordingly, I will refund any donation made for this cause, if requested.

Please email gerrybarker76@gmail.com if you want your donation refunded. Please include your full address and email ID.

Remember why we are here. There will be an election in 2018. If we fail to plan and fund our point of view now, the outcome will not be attractive.

Next time we have to be sure. This is only the beginning of a long march to create real change.

Thanks again for your support and I hope we can count on you in the future.

Sincerely,

Gerry Barker

Editor, http://www.guelphspeaks.ca

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22 Comments

Filed under Between the Lines

22 responses to “How a failing Guelph administration is protected by a Mayor defying criticism

  1. Joe Black

    I think the job for is too big for Cammie he won’t be around for the next election ( not by my vote)such a disappointment.

  2. Anyone remember Jimmy Jones? Is this not smelling more and more like “Just drink the Kool-aide!”? If the mayor doesn’t wan’t criticism of secret meetings to increase already bloated salaries, I’m not sipping one drop.

  3. Elaine

    I voted for Guthrie thinking he might make a difference but so far his actions (inactions) have been very disappointing. (I doubt he will get in again.). It’s time he got his head out of the sand and started to lead this City out of the financial mess it’s in. Council as a whole would do well to follow. Pat Fung laid out a plan to do this without increasing taxes or losing services. It’s been shown time and time again that the city is way overstaffed with high priced managers, deputy managers and staff as compared to cities of similar size. The time is NOW to rectify this problem so Guelph can again become a great place to live.

    Myself (single) and several people I have spoken too are finding with each year of property tax increases Guelph has become a city we can no longer afford to live in. For example, I live in a 1940’s bungalow of less than a 1000 square feet (no garage) situated on a small corner lot in Ward 5. The taxes for this year were over $3200. With a tax increase plus an additional proposed levy a lot of Guelph taxpayers will be hard pressed to cover the cost of living in Guelph. Any increases in salary or minute pension increases are already eaten up in hydro, water, heat and ever increasing food costs.

    In closing, Mayor Guthrie and Council it’s time to get your act together and think about the citizens instead of your own agendas!

    Elaine

    • Elaine: I share your concerns because my wife and I voted for Cam Guthrie. His silly admonishment of citzens daring to challenge the senior staff management saying he was disturbed was, doubly disturbing to the people who elected him. Of course, giving the Guelph Storm hockey club a $50,000 reduction to use the Sleeman Centre for the next ten years, is something we should be disturbed about among others. That deal was negotiated by DCAO Colleen Clack who, in her previous job, was in charge of the Sleeman Centre and RiverRin Theatres. Taxpayers have been subsidizing both facilities by $780,000 a year. So, what’s another $50,000? On top of that, the two senior managers of Guelph, CAO Derrick Thomson and DCAO Mark Amorosi, don’t even live here. I don’t think they have any skin in the game, like the rest of us.

    • Sue

      Elaine, I live in a similar type of house and pay a similar amount of taxes. My perspective is a little different than yours, though. I see that for less than a dollar a day per year, I receive a lot in return. My 77 cents a day ensures that my garbage is picked up weekly, and that much of it is recycled. If I have to call the police, ambulance, or fire department, I know that someone will show up, and in the case of a real emergency, it will be within minutes. I can go to parks, splash pads, the library, and the market – to name a few examples – for free. I can walk or cycle on many different trails. My snow is cleared in winter – not always as quickly as I’d like, but within reason. I don’t use all the services that tax dollars support in Guelph, but I’m sure many others appreciate things like the sports fields, Storm games, school crossing guards, etc., and they contribute to the overall quality of life in this city, and I think it’s fair to pay for them.

      The actual increase I pay in taxes each year has been in the range of $100 – $120 per year. (I think percentage increases always sound larger than actual amounts.) I’m sure that people who live in larger, newer houses than we do pay a lot more, but …. they live in larger, newer, more expensive houses!

      Like you, I am on a fixed income, and like you, I am concerned about the rising costs of essential items like food and utilities. Realistically, however, the costs that go up for an individual also go up for any user of those items – including the city.

      I think there have been some very unfortunate financial decisions made by our municipal governments over the years – but I also feel that much of the dialogue on this site overstates the problems and fails to acknowledge the positives. Reality check: Guelph is not on the verge of financial collapse. Costs go up. We get things in return for paying taxes. And, yes, I’m sure there is room for improvement in controlling city expenditures, but I bet it will make a difference of a few cents a day to your budget.

    • Sue: I am pleased that you are so happy with the city and all the “free things at your disposal. Unfortunately, we cannot escape the “mistakes” you mention. How do you think the city financed the $23 million cost overrun of the city hall and provincial courthouse? Take the latest $37.1 million co=generation plan under the umbrella of Guelph Municipal Holdings Inc in charge of the Community Energy Initiative. You okay with spending another $60 million to make the system work? Sorry, I don’t want to belittle your point of view. I live on a street that is a land condominium with 22 homes. In 14 years the city has refused to pick-up our garbage or plow our street. Yet we not only must pay for these services through our property taxes but hire a private contractor to pick-up our garbage and another to plow our street in winter. We don’t ride bicycles or use Guelph Transit, or watch the Guelph Storm. But we have to pay $5 to use the dump. I suggest that not everyone in this city receives all those “free” services you enjoy.

  4. Elaine

    Gerry: I totally agree, the waste of tax dollars is criminal. I also think that if you’re an employee of the city you should reside in the city.
    There should be no subsidies handed out. If the Sleeman Center and the River Run Center can’t make it on their own they should be sold, but then who wants to buy a white elephant – and Guelph has lots of those.
    Thank you for writing this blog, it’s always informative and it seems the only way the citizens get the picture of what goes on at city hall.
    Elaine

    • Sue

      Gerry, I don’t seem to be able to reply directly to your comment of today, but here goes. I agree that condo owners who pay for city services yet don’t receive them have a legitimate grievance, and the city should be doing something more to address it. That just seems fair.

      However, I think we have different perspectives on the value of paying taxes – as I said, I appreciate the services I use which are funded through my property taxes, and I understand that as part of that social contract, my taxes will also help support services that other people use. I don’t ride transit or watch the Guelph Storm, either, but I still think I get a lot of value for the amount of property tax I am paying. Just because I don’t use a particular service doesn’t mean it’s not important to others!

      I acknowledged the unfortunate financial decisions made by past councils – and we all suffer the effects of those decisions – but I sometimes get the feeling that the perspective of this blog is that all taxes are inherently bad …. and that’s just not true.

  5. Gerry, please keep my donation and use it against the upcoming expenses that will be incurred in this battle to project our City. David Starr

  6. Laura

    Gerry – I am glad you finally have started to shine the light on Cam Guthrie and he needs to be called out for his lies. He has been a total disappointment as our Mayor. Under his reign, he has not been able to convince his fellow councillors to keep taxes at the rate of inflation or properly run the corporation. However, he did convince them to quickly hire Derrick Thompson (even though as I just learnt he doesn’t live in Guelph), to also give the millionaire owners of the Guelph Storm an extra $5,000,000 of our property taxes, without any business plan which he has asked for on every other project. To start charging us $5 to drop off our yard waste at the dump, and soon will start charging us $4/month for storm water fees on our water bill. On top of that, he couldn’t convince Bob Bell supposedly one of his own council supporters to stop the district energy spending. And at the same time presided over a closed meeting as you reported, to give senior management a raise and then more recently, rammed through approval of the Cork street tennis courts so-called seniors apartments zoning amendments, without even asking if any senior or disabled person can even walk up Cork street hill or even if this building’s architecture design qualifies to get city garbage pick up or not. I’m sure if “affordable” residents have to factor in condo fees for garbage collection on top of paying property taxes for the same service but not receiving it – won’t make these that affordable after all. What kind of mayor is he when he so quickly drinks the Kool-Aid as you so put it. If he doesn’t have the brains to ask the tough questions then why doesn’t he allow Pat Fung’s questions? At least we knew what we got with Farbridge we unfortunately don’t know what we’re getting with Cam and he cannot be trusted.

  7. Jerry please keep my donation and apply it keep against the up coming costs of giving our great city a new direction. David Starr

  8. Elaine

    Sue: Let me get this straight, you think it’s just “unfortunate” that the city wastes millions of dollars when those dollars could have been spent on needs such as decaying infrastructure. You must be a Farbridge/group of seven supporter and merrily follow along like sheep.

  9. guelphspeaks reader

    It’s great when Sue gets all preachy on here. I’ve not read Gerry say anything close to “all taxes are inherently bad”, so not sure where she gets that from. However, there has been some coverage on “unfortunate financial decisions of past councils”, taking them much more seriously than she seems to. Sue belongs to the “oh well, let’s just move on” camp, which I think also includes councillors like Phil Allt, June Hofland, Karl Wettstein, and of course, tax-paying’s biggest cheerleader, James Gordon. I don’t think any commenters, even the most angry, has ever said “all taxes are inherently bad”. Now, ridiculously high increases that exclude things like a service rationalization (which is a million dollars many Guelphites would welcome chipping in for, yet a ‘hill Mayor Guthrie wasn’t prepared to die on’) and things like an additional 2% slapped on top of regular increases for the next TEN YEARS, to pay for the so-called “bad decisions by past councils” are seen by many to be in fact quite a problem. You know, like the people who haven’t had a raise in a while, and who never get one indexed to inflation like many of the unionized city workers do, and forget about benefits, and moving expenses, and being defended from criticism in their jobs, no matter how poorly the do them, or how much self-interest is reflected in their recommendations that are, of course, paid for by taxpayers. Staff recommends hiring more people…what a shocker! City Hall employs more people in “communications” than all local news outlets combined….anyone who has one word of criticism is labelled “disturbing”. I, for one, find it disturbing when both the Mayor and his ideological opposites are all talking in the vague yet aggressive and factually lacking language patented by Donald Trump. And we all know what he thinks about paying taxes.

    • Sue

      I do take those ‘unfortunate financial issues’ seriously, but all we can productively do is move on and try to make good decisions about spending that balance long and short-term needs. The money is gone. Can’t change past events, no matter how outraged they make you in the present.

      In my particular case, I don’t think $100 a year is a ‘ridiculously high tax increase’. I’m sure that’s not the same dollar amount or situation for everyone.

      I apologize for overstating Gerry’s feelings about taxes – it would be more accurate to say that he thinks any tax increase over the level of inflation is inherently bad.

      My opinion of the Farbridge administration is that it was often overly focused on a big, long-range vision – some of which it accomplished, to the city’s benefit – but lost sight of some of the lower-profile, practical elements required to keep the city functioning well ‘on the ground’, and those mistakes were expensive. However, going too far in the opposite direction and prioritizing low taxes above all else isn’t the wisest option, either, because it’s too narrowly focused on the short-term – which often ends up costing a lot more money in the long-term.

      Guess that makes me a preachy sheep looking for balanced civic leadership, informed decisions, and fiscal responsibility.

  10. guelphspeaks reader

    Sue, to say prioritizing low taxes is the main theme here is a continuation of your understating and oversimplfying interpretation..

  11. CD

    I think he realizes his hands are tied at the moment, and the best thing for him to do economically is to just support his team and try to stop the bleeding as best he can.
    If he starts throwing too many people to the wolves then the entire castle comes crashing down and nobody wants to cooperate.
    His job would get a lot more complicated and a lot less would benefit the tax payer if this were to happen.
    If you follow him on social media he is more than willing to admit his faults and wrong doings. I feel like this article is only seeing him from one side of the coin and not the entire picture.
    As I mentioned, if he starts publicly admitting the entire administration isn’t doing their jobs then it all will come apart at the seams and nothing will get done.
    I am sure he is publicly supporting the management teams decisions but then chastising them behind closed doors, as any good leader would do.

  12. Stephanie

    Sue you raise a different perspective, but you are forgetting how many people across Guelph voted for Cam, who campaigned on keeping taxes tied to inflation. I believe it was twice the amount of votes Farbridge received. You also seem to be quick to move on and be happy for your services, but how do you stop these bad decisions from happening again and again. I am not happy that I have to now pay $5 to take my yard waste to the dump, when for the past 100 years it was always free (or covered by everyone’s property taxes). I am not happy I now have to pay $4/mo to repair storm water sewers when for the past 100 years it was always free (or covered by everyone’s property taxes). Why did they make these changes now? If taxes were reduced to make up for these increases I would be okay with it, but they aren’t. On top of this, they are wanting to apply a 2% for 10 years on top of regular property taxes to fix an infrastructure gap. Why didn’t previous managers fix the infrastructure? Who got fired over mismanagement? Where did the property taxes get spent on? How do you hold managers and councilors accountable if you continually allow them increases on citizens pockets books which are larger than any salary, wage, or pension increase we get? I’m a renter and my landlord increases my rent to pay for his property tax increases every year, (I am scared about the 2% infrastructure levy as I won’t be able to stay where I am) and I guess I now get to look forward to an extra $4/month on my water bill. I work full-time at Linamar and get $14.75/hr. I used to work at Woods until they went bankrupt. I have not seen a wage increase since 2011 and I do not get any pension or rrsp contributions and I co-pay 50% of my medical plan. My monthly bus pass has gone up. Guelph Storm tickets have gone up even though the city gave them $5,000,000, so I can’t afford to go to as many games anymore. Maybe if the city didn’t put money into the Guelph Storm, the district energy, the urbacon lawsuits, and other mis-managed projects, the people who live in condos would get garbage pick up, we would have more bike lanes and sportsfields or a cheaper bus ticket – did you know it costs the same amount to ride the TTC as it does to ride a Guelph bus. How does that make sense to anyone when we don’t have the subway or streetcar infrastructure and are a fraction of the geographic size of the TTC. Its also great you can call an ambulance, have it show up and afford to pay the $60 fee to take you to the hospital. I can’t and have to really think about it before calling that ambulance.Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and I respect yours, however, you are also fortunate to have an house you OWN and cash in your equity by selling it if you need to. I and a lot of others don’t have that luxury. We don’t qualify for welfare or public housing (nor do I want it) and we are getting squeezed by these bad decisions. It affects a lot more than you being happy to have garbage picked up and snow shoveled and a nice bike land to cycle through town to get to your hockey game. The basics aren’t being dealt with cause they have are too busy spending on their pet projects.

  13. capricorn

    There is an excellent, repspectful conversation going on here. Hopefully, many of you are also sending your thoughts to council and the mayor. If they hear from enough people, it “may” help at budget time. I know I’m not holding my breath, but, if we don’t let them know, we can’t complain.

  14. Sue

    Thank you very much for your thoughtful response, Stephanie – you’ve made a lot of really good points, and I hope you share your message with all of our city council members. I know that I’ve been fortunate to have had a good job, and to have been able to buy an affordable house, but you’ve made me conscious of the fact that I am probably part of a comfortable minority who don’t have to worry very much personally about the issues you’ve described. I will try to remember that.

  15. Guido

    Maybe we need an Auditor General, for Guelph, Pat would make a good one!

    • Brent

      Right on Guido! Pat would have been a much more intelligent hire to fix the financial mess than throwing good tax money after bad by blowing more hundreds of thousands on the mystery work being done by Andy Best and his rather lengthy pursuit of OPEN GOVERNMENT….seems little more than expensive window dressing to me!

  16. guelphspeaks reader

    The service rationalization that was blocked from the 2016 budget would have been a great place to invest a million dollars.

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