Get ready for the 2017 budget dance that threatens civic enlightenment

By Gerry Barker

October 13, 2016

The city staff is busy these days to create the proposals for two main operational budgets for 2017.

There is the tax-supported budget that includes much of the operating expenses of the city including all city employees, as well as city, police, fire, and EMS. This cost consumes 80 percent of all property tax revenues. According to the analysis done by Pat Fung, CPA CA, in 2008, total city operating costs were $246.801 million. In 2015, the last full Financial Information Report (FIR) available, the city spent $385.611 million an increase of $138.810 million in eight (FIR) reporting years or an increase of 56.2 per cent.

The Consumer Price Index (CPI), increased by just 11 per cent, the city population increased by 8 per cent in the same period. The non-taxable services including the cost of electricity, was increased by 42.5 per cent in just the past four years. Water as well, exponentially increasing by an average of 4 per cent every year since 2007 despite the reduction in consumption.

Now, the city is adding a levy to pay for maintaining the storm water sewer system to be paid through your hydro bill. Along comes Premier Wynne’s new carbon tax also being added to your hydro bill starting in January. Let’s not forget the $5 charge to dump your yard waste at the Waste Management centre on Dunlop road.

Property taxes are only the beginning of citizens’ costs to live here

So let’s get this straight. In 2017 citizens will face paying separately for five required services. Its just more user fees loaded onto residents who are already paying taxes through their property values.

When you think about it, it’s paying a tax on a tax just to live in this city. We have to have electricity, water and waste removal. These are essential bread and butter costs to citizens.

Take this new Wynne carbon tax. If you own a car, motorcycle, motorized boat, snowmobile, gas-fired lawnmower, anything you own that uses fossil fuel including natural gas and oil-fired appliances; you are already paying a carbon tax on your usage of fossil fuels.

In the case of gasoline, the city receives a rebate on the federal gas tax that amounts to some $2.5 million. Now it appears that may be reversed as the Wynne carbon tax takes its place. Anyone wonder where that tax is going, the city or the province?

Regarding the Guelph 2017 budget, the elephant in the room is the huge bill to replace aging infrastructure, some of which may be 200 years old. The Association of Ontario Municipalities, (aka AMO), has estimated the cost of infrastructure repairs and replacement in Guelph is $205 million. That is a large chunk of change.

Last December, city council held a closed–session meeting, before the open public one, in which it decided to push a staff proposal of a 2 per cent, ten-year surcharge on property taxes into 2017. This staff proposal would increase Guelph property tax rates to more than 5 per cent for 2017.

Council agreed last December to kick the can down the road.

Looking back during the eight years of the Farbridge administration, there was little effort to tackle the aging infrastructure problem. But they managed to build more bike lanes, shrink major roads to provide more bike lanes. The administration concentrated on environmental services such a waste management, alternative energy sources, and downtown revitalization.

The single largest cost on the city books each year was for environmental services.

There are a lot of mistakes that were made managing this area including the deal made with a Detroit contractor to process recyclables in the Guelph recycling plant requiring an extra shift to do the work. The quality of material for recycling from Motor City created sorting problems and the deal fell apart leaving taxpayers with a bill of more than $1 million.

Then there is the decision to build an organic waste processing facility costing $34 million. The capacity was approved to process 30,000 tonnes of wet waste per year. Guelph only produced 10,000 tonnes per year so other sources were invited to send their wet waste to Guelph. Chief among them was the Region of Waterloo that committed to providing $10,000 tonnes paying less than the operating costs of the facility. Trouble was they couldn’t provide their contracted supply. Today, it is not known if the organic waste plant is running at capacity or not. If not, the city taxpayers are picking up the bill.

The financial costs of operating this facility have never been revealed. The plant is manned by employees of Aim Environmental, a subsidiary of Maple Reinders, builders of the plant. Another Maple Reinders subsidiary, Organix, sells the mulch produced from the wet garbage.

The people of Guelph get bupkiss from this deal except to pay the operating costs of the plant, forever.

Then along comes building a new Downtown Library, again

Preparing this 2017 budget is fraught with problems. In July, the Mayor managed to get council to pass a resolution to include the new downtown library in the 2017 portion of the capital budget.

What I don’t get is Chief Administrative officer (CAO) Derrick Thomson has already stated that the ten-year, capital-spending budget, is already under-funded by $170 million. So where is the money coming from? There is no attached source of funding for this project. The irony is that Karen Farbridge promised a new library 15 years ago in her first term in office. The estimates of paying for this ranges from $60 million to $93 million.

Let’s convince city council to build the library downtown

Perhaps there should be an organized public effort by the Friends of Library to engage in fundraising by approaching the service clubs, and other community organizations to show the city administration that they are ready to subsidize a new downtown library. Never mind these handouts through the wellbeing policy of the previous administration; the Library is a vital and important part of our social connections in our city. The numbers are there, so we must act. If citizens care enough to raise enough serious money to convince the council to stop stalling and build the new downtown Library, then what are we waiting for?

Why not start with the city including a $1 million annual commitment for the next five years toward the library project? Include it in the 2017 budget and not just a bookkeeping entry but cash deposited in a special segregated account. This should galvanize the citizens to build a beautiful downtown library to broaden the reach of our real sociability for young and old.

But folks, history has told us that we must take action now. The powers at 1 Carden Street will get it.

A modern Library is not just about books. It’s about connecting people to encourage cultural events, to hold conferences and workshops, even a snack stop … it’s a meeting place and keeper of who we are and who we can be.

The Farbridge administration, in its wisdom in 2007, spent some $16 million renovating a decrepit unused convent on Catholic Hill owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Hamilton.

Construction took five years to complete the project that was, by city admission, over budget by $3.3 million and has less than a tenth of the traffic of the outdated downtown library.

Trouble is, the heritage element of council, supported a decision that used the excuse that it was saving a pre-Confederation building that today has little resemblance to the original. And, It was taken and renovated on someone else’s property.

So Mayor Guthrie, why not tell us the whole story? Is this part of your legacy to create a 3P deal, a joint project of public and private investment, to combine the library with a redevelopment of the Baker Street parking lot?

If that happens, what does council do to replace all that lost parking spaces in the downtown where parking is already a serious problem?

With the record owned by the city in building major projects that had cost overruns and delayed completions, it is difficult to assume that anything will change within the present administration culture.

These star-crossed city managed projects include the Wyndham Street underpass; bike lanes that start nowhere and stop nowhere; the farmer’s market renovation; the Waste Management Innovation Centre; The new City Hall project; the Guelph Municipal Holdings Inc attempts to install alternative energy solutions costing some $37.1 million; the civic museum (see above).

Managing cultural sites at a loss, is that why the city can’t build a new library?

The city management of two major cultural edifices, The Sleeman Centre and the RiverRun theatre complex is subsidized by $781,000 of taxpayer money every year.

This is not a credit to Guelph. Nor is it fair to the taxpayers.

We have people on council who believe that these two sites are investments. Those among us see it as a total failure of management. Particularly since the Mayor praised the recent ten-year contract between the privately-owned Guelph Storm Hockey Club that has reduced their rent by $50,000 a year taking the city subsidy of this facility to $299,000 a year or $5 million over 10 years.

There is a vacancy of clear thinking; judgment and basic understanding how the city works on the part of the majority of councillors.

We can’t do much about it now.

But think. In the next two years if citizens will band together and raise say $10 million, do you think those elected officials will go to the polls ignoring the debris of their basic functionality?

If they fail to support the downtown public library project and the role of citizens, they do so at their own peril in 2018.

Let’s do it Guelph! The politicians need to have their lamp ignited.

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5 Comments

Filed under Between the Lines

5 responses to “Get ready for the 2017 budget dance that threatens civic enlightenment

  1. Milton Burns

    The budget process would be more meaningful if after establishing a budget, that the staff operated within the budget. Sadly that has not been the case. In the past 7 years , actual expenditures have exceeded the budget each and every year. The cumulative totals $67.6 million.
    Hey, that’s nearly enough to finance a library

  2. Louis

    https://www.facebook.com/Guelph-Speaks-556377707897286/ page is ready , emailed ya, unsure if it went through. But yea, invite your readers to spread the posts on Facebook ,

  3. Barry

    Milton you hit the nail right on the head in my opinion. I’m not against a library given today’s social media but imagine a rationalization exercise for all City Departments and some jobs being lost and as you said that money each year could go towards a new library.
    I advocate one Councillor per ward, full time, all with some kind of financial experience and with one vote. The Mayor however, should have two votes in addition to the ability to terminate incompetent staff which he can’t do at the present time
    Run Council like a real business because that’s what it is.

  4. Lurka

    October 19th at 7:00 PM- Ward 5 meeting at St Michael School on McElderry Road ( everyone welcome) re: the upcoming 2017 budget, OMB reform process etc… There is no information on the City’s website for the 2017 tax supported budget They’re still “crunching numbers” was the wording, so I printed the approved 2016 budget, and have several queries for Cathy and Leanne . It might be an interesting evening, we shall see ! Come and join us if you are so inclined.

  5. James

    Best part of the arena deal is the city raised the prices at the concessions up to 25% higher.

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