Was former Mayor Karen Farbridge ahead of her time, or was blinded by personal ambition?

By Gerry Barker

May 21, 20119

Opinion

In her eighth years as the head of council, Ms. Farbridge launched a composite of advanced environmental projects. She recognized the effect on the city of global climate change. She was also a masterful political strategist who made mistakes along the way. Despite her skill sets and vision she made one big mistake.

Read on and learn or recall the history of a Mayor consumed by all things environmental and turning Guelph into a world leader in self-sufficiency of waste management, banning fossil-fueled vehicles and weed whackers, stopping the use of pesticides, anything plastic that was non-bio-degradable.

She was determined to get us onto bicycles as basic transportation, sort out waste, protecting the tree canopy of the city, revitalize the downtown, building more bike lanes and reduce vehicle lanes to accommodate wider bike lanes, hiring more staff to carry out her numerous polices and projects. Finally, the cost of all this was annual incremental property taxes and user fees.

Whew! How did we survive?

In 2009, the Farbridge city council entered a three-tier government infrastructure plan in which the city was responsible for one third of the approved projects. As it turned out, the city overspent its share by adding projects including $2 million for bike lanes on Stone Road and a new $75,000 time clock in the Sleeman Centre.

These so-called environmental projects included a $34 million organic waste processing facility, to turn wet waste into compost. The facility was financed by the public since 2011, has been run by a wholly-owned subsidiary of Maple Reinders, the company that built the facility. This company also sells the capacity to other municipalities.

I requested information about the operation as to what has been the payback to the city. I was told that it was not expected to be profitable as it was a city waste management facility and not intended to make money.

This recent explanation summarizes the disregard that the city administration at the time, denied public information. The plant was overbuilt being licensed to process 60,000 tonnes of wet waste per year. The city of Guelph’s 10,000 tonnes of wet waste per year is miniscule. Today, the facility is accepting wet waste from the Regional of Waterloo and other municipalities.

It now appears that the city made a terrible deal and a high price to process its own wet waste in the past eight years.

Well, somebody is making money in this deal, and it’s not the citizens of Guelph who financed it. We can’t even access the finished compost that is sold privately by the operating company.

The $23 million mistake that took six years to explain

On September 18, 2008, there was that moment of mayoralty pique when general contractor, Urbacon Buildings Group Inc. was ordered off the construction site of the new city hall and renovation of the old city hall into a provincial offenses court.

The details are too many and complex to cover in this post, except that the original contracted price for the project was $42 million in 2006. When the dust settled in November 2014, the CAO revealed the cost zoomed to $65 million.

This dispute lasted for six years, a lengthy trial that found the city guilty of wrongful dismissal and it cost the Mayor her job losing to a rookie councillor, Cam Guthrie.

There was a municipal exhale following the election in which 43 per cent voted. Most folks pleased that the Farbridge era was over, my wife and I included.

In those heady days of electoral joy, there was a huge Farbridge controlled plan to use a small city-owned corporation called Guelph Municipal Holdings Inc. (GMHI) to take over Guelph Hydro to create radical new plans to make the city self-sufficient generating its own electricity and burying pipe underground to supply hot and cold water to a small number of building near the Sleeman Centre.

The mayor’s plan was to install solar panels on all public buildings to be installed by a subsidiary corporation of Guelph Hydro. Installing two natural gas pumps in the Sleeman Centre and Hanlon business Park cost $11 million.

The impact of the GMHI activities were chiefly unknown by the public. In late 2015, council engaged the accounting firm KPMG to conduct a consolidated audit of GMHI. In May 2016, the management of GMHI told council the bad news that the GMHI finances were in disarray and prospects of saving the components was remote. On May 26, 2016, The Chief Administrative Officer of the city and Chief Executive Officer of GMHI for four years, Ann Pappert, left the city staff.

In July a staff investigation of GMHI painted an even more divesting report of the GMHI performance in four years.

KPMG’s audit showed a shareholder’s liability of $60 million.

The disposal of Guelph Hydro

In 2017, city council appointed a Strategic Options Committee to sort through the options to dispose of the city-owned Guelph Hydro that in its 2016 financial report showed a book value of $226 million.

To this day, I maintain this was a giveaway of our power distribution system for peanuts. I believe it was to help wipe out the huge GMHI liability for which the city was responsible. What other reason would there be?

In October 2018, Council voted to accept a merger proposal with Alectra Utilities. January 1, this year the deal closed with the approval of the Ontario Energy Board.

But in 2015, Farbridge loyalists retained the majority of the new council and remain there today. In the October civic election the Farbridge group retained the majority. Only 33 per cent of eligible voters went to the polls compared to 42 per cent in 2014..

These issues will be revisited in a future GS post. The city council still clings to the Farbridge initiatives as our taxes and operating overhead increases every year.

One closing example: Some 23 new employees were hired in the 2019 budget costing annually $9.2 million.

Result? We got a majority Farbridge-inspired council because the majority of voters did not bother to vote last October.

 

 

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