By Gerry Barker
October 17, 2019
Here is the headline in a local media outlet regarding the 2019 capital budget:
Council shows restraint as balanced capital budget presented
It did not explain the degree of “restraint and balanced” in that headline but the number was $87,370,100. It was approved January 17, 2019 at a council meeting held on a Wednesday night.
The 2020 capital budget, (Capex) proposed by staff is $151.6 million or 75 per cent higher.
That was less than ten months ago.
That’s odd. The new announcement recommended by staff for just one project is priced at $197.4 million.
What about the other capital projects, and in today’s costs?
In a news release last Friday, just before the Thanksgiving long weekend, the city administration announced the staff recommendation to spend $197.4 million on a new consolidated operations campus (Opscam) located on a 70-acre site adjacent to the Dunlop Drive waste processing plant.
Hmmm! Was “restraint” exercised here? What happened in the 10 months to select the Federal Election Day as the only date available to conduct a special meeting?
How many closed-sessions were conducted to shut down any criticism from the media or the public?
It’s funny that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Let’s take a look at the capital projects that have epithet been staff recommendations or already approved by council:
The Downtown Library – $67.7 million
South End Recreation Complex $69.3 million
Two new wells construction $30 million
Wilson Street Parkade $22 million
New Operational Campus $197.4 million
Guelph Innovation District $12 million
Infrastructure $450 million
Total $844.4 million<
Estimated Soft costs not included $84 million
* Time of completion of Oscar – 2045
Staff predicted 2045 city population – 192,000 – Is the growing part-time contingent population of University and College students included?
Just what are soft costs?
I call them the unintended consequence costs that include inflation effect on long term projects; developer fees used for capital costs; consultant, legal and licensing fees; connections to vital city services including water, electricity, sewer, treatment and processing facilities; performance of contract costs; increased cost of police, fire and EMS to service the growing city; changing financial costs; insurance; reduced senior government support.
Then there are the change orders in a capital project that can be under contraction for years. Look no further than the Urbacon new city hall project, (six years) during which the administration ordered more than 300 contract changes.
I am aware that these capital projects do not always happen together and are started at different dates. That is, a different council for different reasons can change the Capex schedule.
I believe in long-term capital planning but why do I get this queasy feeling that the downtown library is not included this year or next or the year after that?
Using development charges to finance Capex projects
For some time now, Guelph has jacked up developer fees intended for the soft cost charges. Instead, the fees are used as a source of funding capital projects. That’s why Mayor Guthrie complained about the Ford government’s plan to limit development fees charged by many municipalities.
The Premier was concerned that these municipal- imposed development changes were inhibiting the growth of badly needed housing in the province, particularly the major cities.
The threat could kill the goose that has laid the golden eggs in previous projects, including the police HQ renovations to be completed in December, five years after a Capex cost of $34 million being authorized by council in 2014.
So, how are we going to pay for these capital projects?
ell, let’s start with the $197.4 for the operational campus that the staff report says will be completed by 2045. Also, if council approves the $197.4 project next Monday, some $11million provided in the new 2020 capital budget to launch the 25-year project.
The staff report stated that the new Guelph Transit facility would cost $80 million to bee spent between 2024 and 2028. That does not include the $11 million proposed in the 2020 capital budget.
The city is expecting senior government grants for the new transit facility of $34.7 million as part of infrastructure programs. The remainder of funding will come from development fees ($58.2 million) and tax reserve funds of (99 million).
There is no explanation of what and when these funds are available.
If the tax reserve fund has $99 million sitting in the reserve, why have successive city administrations increased property taxes more than 3 per cent every year plus the one per cent infrastructure levy?
If that’s true, then I want a property tax rebate.
This proposal binds future councils to a Capex agenda not of their making
This is a sloppy 25-year Capex commitment that breathlessly ignores today’s capital needs (see list above) and not 25 years from now.
It is apparent that the staff and council do not want public participation in this major decision. That’s why the meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. next Monday, Federal Election Day.
It’s when most people sit down for supper. Then there are hundred of citizens engaged in the election. Some voters will miss the meeting to go to the polls and cast their ballot.
By the time the polls close, the emergency special meeting will be over because council has already decided it previously possibly in closed-sessions.
City Clerk, Stephen O’Brien, the senior staffer in charge of planning, arranging council meetings and reporting the minutes, said that it was too difficult to hold the special meeting on another day.
It was general knowledge among most Canadians that the federal election had to take place in October. When Parliament was dissolved and the writ dropped, there were more than six weeks to avoid calling the meeting on Election Day.
Vote suppression is not unique to Guelph
So, here’s my take. Mr. O’Brien did not make this decision on his own. The Mayor and some members of council expressed their view that, I suggest, was purely political to avoid the disasterus public reaction the night council approved giving Guelph Hydro away to Alectra.
I believe this was a classic move to suppress public opinion and participation.
Why was the meeting date announced Friday the day before the Thanksgiving weekend? How was that decision made and by whom?
Why start the meeting at 6 p.m. when citizens are busy and involved in the election?
It can be no surprise that a project of this size and projected cost, based on the needs of the next five years of capital projects presents a political danger if the public is allowed to participate. Not at the end of the planning but details produced during the gestation period. And this did not occur overnight.
Again it is a deliberate move to pretend the public was informed and participated but it’s all a shameful display of misused power.
It’s a lesson that this city administration has yet to learn or even advocate.