By Gerry Barker
December 8, 2016
The news from council, by a 9 to 3 margin, approved the 2017 budget with the cost to citizens of 3.13 per cent. Since March 2015, the Guthrie administration has increased property taxes 10.08 per cent. The three principled councillors who voted against the budget were Christine Billings, Bob Bell and Dan Gibson.
But that’s not all, folks. It does not include the extra fees we have to pay to turn on the lights; get potable water to cook and bathe; pay to service the city storm water control system; the Wynne government’s carbon tax starting next month that will be buried in you hydro bill; the hidden cost of ever increasing assessment on your property; and now the property tax levy that is in place for ten years in which the council can increase at will annually.
Our mayor, the one who most citizens voted for in 2014, and who promised to keep property taxes at the rate of inflation has, in two years, failed to control expenses. It was the key point made by Guelph resident Pat Fung, CPA, CA who prepared an eight-page analysis of the city finances. His underlying data showed that expenses and operating costs, i.e. overhead, could be reduced to a point when a property tax levy would not be necessary to repair the aging infrastructure. The Guthrie administration turned a blind eye on Mr. Fung’s analysis. Instead, the mayor voted for acceptance of the budget along with eight other members of council.
I spent three hours Wednesday afternoon, December 7, watching our city councillors approve the 2017 city budget. I apologize; the Mayor announced at 5:10 a 25-minute break to allow the staff members to scarfe down pre-ordered pizza.
I confess, I couldn’t take another several hours of wrangling, spite, childishness and self-serving missions.
I returned to my car and was ticketed for $30 for failing to pay for parking in the Wilson street parking lot to attend a council meeting. P.S. I tried to use my credit card but could not read the instructions on the poorly lit instruction screen. I assumed with the shambled conditions entering the Wilson parking lot that the enforcement bunnies would lay off. Boy! Was I wrong?
It makes one wonder why the city can enforce its bylaws but fail to get rid of the geese polluting the public parks. But I digress.
In my time spent, watching the councillors perform; I realized that some need adult supervision.
Here are some examples:
There was no specific mention of replenishing those reserves that were tapped to pay the Urbacon Settlement. There is still no explanation about those 2015 pay increases received by the three top executive of the city. Still few details of the Guelph Municipal Holdings Inc (GMHI) wind-up, as announced a couple of months ago. There was no explanation of the 2016 budget variances and if negative, what is the source of funding?
Cuncillors June Hofland and Mike Salisbury got into a hissy fit about not being informed of some funds coming from unexpected sources two days before the meeting. CAO Derrick Thomson said the Guelph Hydro Dividend would be $1.9 million this year, a $400,000 increase. The councillors’ responses were lively and critical of the CAO for not telling them until the eve of approving the 2017 budget.
It gets better. Coun. Christine Billings, a council appointed member of the Health Board, when questioned, says the Public Health Board sent out an agenda Monday night for consideration at their meeting Wednesday night. The briefing notes to council representatives Ms. Billings, Ms. Hofland and Mark MacKinnon stated that there was consideration to return $751,000 to the city as a one-time return of capital for the building of the Public Health headquarters on Stone Road and in Orangeville.
Ms.Hofland pouted that she told the Public Health administration that she could not attend the meeting due to her obligations to attend the city budget meeting.
She admitted not reading the briefing note but still complained that she should have been advised before the budget meetings.
While all this wrangling was going on, the Health Board had not approved any rebate to the city. The briefing notes indicated a vote on rebating $751,000. A report said that the amount was $770,000 approved by the Health Board and would be transferred to the infrastructure reserve fund along with the extra $400,000 from Guelph Hydro.
Two issues that passed
Two important issues approved by a majority of council directly affecting citizens, were the 1 per cent property tax levy. The staff recommended a .5 per cent tax levy for ten years to repair and maintain the city infrastructure that had been neglected by the previous administration. The motion stated that the 1 per cent levy would be divided with half going to infrastructure and the other half going to “city buildings.”
So what “city buildings” are the proponents talking about?
As a public service here is my take on where the money is going.
Earlier in the meeting the council agreed to shelve a $700,000 charge in the 2016 budget for buying new parking meter heads. Instead, use $650,000 to pay for a South End Recreation Centre design to include hockey rinks, library, swimming pools, senior centre, and community activity rooms.
During the discussion it was asked about the lifespan of the final design plan of the project and the Staff said five years. So, a faction of council pushed to use a tax levy not just to replace leaking infrastructure but build the South Ed rec centre. That levy at current rates will earn about $13 million over ten years. It’s a drop in the bucket if there is not additional financing to start the project within five years because of the inflation factor. That project will cost much more than $60 million in five years.
This is another example of pure political theatre that is practised with your money without any say in the matter.
The other increase was hiring more full-time staff costing $999,150. It includes four additional Para-medics for Erin Township ($351,808) that is part of service agreement with the County of Wellington; four senior employees earning more than $100,000 and two lower paid Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) employees.
The staff recommended 13 new positions of which council rejected three.
It would seem that with some 1,440 FTE’s working for the city that surely some of those jobs could be filled internally with the exception of the Para-medics. It is yet another example of staff adding more to the overhead.
The staff proposed an operating budget for 2017 of $222.9 million compared to the 2016 budget of $216 million. It is a 3.1 per cent increase or $6.9 million.
The Ward 6tag team of Councillors Wettstein and MacKinnon, persuaded council to proceed with a detailed design of the proposed South End recreation centre.
The hitch is there is no provision in the capital budget to pay for the project. The current estimate is $60 million that will increase annually before the shovels hit the ground. Note reference above.
Oddly enough, Coun. James Gordon. who sits on the Library board was silent during this discussion. That’s another $60 million for a new downtown Library. The Mayor said there is a possibility that both projects could be completed with a 3 P partnership with private investment holding partial ownership.
Citizens should be concerned when the Mayor pats himself on the back stating this was the smoothest preparation of a city budget he’s ever seen. After approving three consecutive budget increases totaling 10.08 per cent, he’d better start thinking about the next one, the 2018 civic election year.
The wild bunch
Meanwhile, council let’s get back to basics and do something about those wild geese occupying our parks. Speaking from personal experience, the breeding season begins in March. My wife, Barbara, has counted 127 geese wintering in Riverside Park today. That’s a potential of 64 females laying eggs to create from six to eight goslings. That’s a potential 496 hatchlings in just one park munching and pooping on the fresh new grass in the park.
Even the mayor agrees with me on this.