Thursday, January 27, 2011

Feedback and Taxes

Feedback Season on City Issues

So for those us out there who are still in need of a New Year’s Resolution, or have given up on getting in shape less than one month in to 2011, why not make increased civic engagement your goal for this year. There are, coming up, a few ways to get started.

First, the budget process gets rolling on Monday with the regular city council meeting. On the agenda that evening is an overview of the tax-supported operating and capital budgets. Think of it as a sneak preview of coming attractions; a little sample of things to come. No delegations will be heard on the budget this meeting and no decisions will be made, but for background, this is a good place to start.

And if you want to get deeper into the budget, the actual “meat and potatoes” of the process, you better cancel your Valentine’s Day plans (or move it to the lunch hour) because that night is the official presentation of the tax-supported operating and capital budgets from all City departments. As well, separate budget presentations from Guelph Police Services, Guelph Public Library, Guelph Museums, Social Services, Social Housing, Health Unit will continue the next night. Want to have your say? That’s the next week on February 22nd. If you want to be heard as a delegation, you’ll have to book your spot in advance with the Clerk’s office. Keep your eyes peeled to the City Hall section of

If Guelph’s historical heritage is more your speed, then you’ll want to get out to Harcourt Memorial United Church, 87 Dean Ave, at 7 pm tonight for an Open House about the Heritage District Brooklyn College Hill. The open house is being sponsored by Heritage Guelph and will provide information regarding the potential for a Heritage Conservation District Study Area to be established within the Brooklyn College Hill area. (Not sure where that is? It’s the Gordon St. corridor that covers areas south of Wellington St and north of College Ave.) Community members are being invited to learn about what’s required to study and conserve heritage and cultural resources in the area. Public input is being requested and the interest level of area residents in such a study will be gauged.

Guelph Tax Rate Debate Round 3

Following last fall’s election there was some question as where exactly the Royal City ranked amongst municipalities its size in terms of taxes. The assertion of many city officials is that Guelph is one of the lowest in the province, while a study last fall apparently showed that Guelph is third behind Toronto and Ottawa as the taxiest place in Ontario.

Last week, the City sent out a press release citing a recent study from BMA Management Consulting Inc, which compared municipal taxes, water and wastewater rates in Guelph with those in 10 similar cities across Ontario. The results, apparently, hold up the City’s version of this debate, concluding that the tax burden in Guelph is among the lowest in the survey. The findings were presented to the Corporate Administration, Finance and Emergency Services Committee last Tuesday.

"The full study compares over 80 municipalities in Ontario and is expected to be published later this month,” said City Treasurer Margaret Neubauer. “Today, BMA presented an in-depth comparison of Guelph, Barrie, Brantford, Burlington, Cambridge, Kingston, London, Oakville, St. Catharines and Waterloo. BMA uses this group of comparator cities based on growth patterns, location, size and governance structure."

The report also said that the average amount of property taxes paid by the City last year went up, but it was close to the average of the 10 cities, The average bungalow owner in Guelph paid the lowest property taxes, and the average senior executive owner paid the third lowest. Indeed, tax rates for multi-residential properties in Guelph are higher than the average, but Neubauer points out that the City has lowered the tax ratio on multi-residentials by 10.5 per cent the last two years, and that will continue over the next two years.

The study also suggested Guelph needs to spend more money to maintain capital assets, and that the City should increase its savings in order to help maintain its infrastructure. It also said that recent policies relating to debt management and long-term financial plans are making a positive difference in the City’s financial health. The financial dashboard and the presentation by BMA Management Consulting Inc can be seen on the City’s website at

Thursday, January 20, 2011

A Tale of Two Projects

The new year brought with it some rather immediate concerns about one proposed construction project and the status of a major tourist attraction and possible city intervention. This week’s Guelph Beat will examine two very different matters that have come to the public’s attention these last few weeks.

Discord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Given how much time, effort, and energy is expended in this City about student housing and the assortment of disruptions this creates, one might think that the idea of creating a place to get 1,500 of them in one spot would be received with a degree anticipation. Not so for Abode Varsity Living of Mississauga and the revelation of their plan to demolish the Best Western (formally the Ramada) at the corner of Gordon and Stone Road, and turn it into two high rise apartment towers.

This proposed project (emphasis on ‘proposed’) from Abode will see a 16-storey tower and a 14-storey tower built on the grounds of the Best Western containing 341 four or five bedroom units that will house 1,500 students. This would require the land to be rezoned to allow for two giant (by Guelph standards) towers to be built there, not to mention the landscaping and traffic concerns that would come with the construction of such a large scale project. Naturally, response has been fierce.

Several neighbourhood groups in the area have been vocal in their protest and have begun organizing against the (again) proposed project. Increased traffic, scope and size of the towers, and the canonization of the area as a “student ghetto” are the most persistent reasons why this project won’t move forward without a fight.

Many people are blaming the University of Guelph and saying that the project is getting rubber stamped because the U of G is behind it, but both assertions are facetious. The university has nothing to do with the development, and has, in the past, noted that such a development is unnecessary given current student needs. On the approval end, no decision about the project’s approval has been made yet, and in fact, this past Monday’s council meeting is the first official hearing of the proposal before the horseshoe. “There’s still a lot of work to be done,” on a project “of this size and complexity,” Ward 5 Councillor Lise Burcher told the Guelph Mercury.

Jumping the Tracks

But if people think there is a nefarious cabal at work trying to blot out the sun for people living south of the University – which is a genuine concern for one letter writer to a local paper who worried that the towers would block his view of the sunrise despite the fact that the towers are west of the street he lives on – then they’re already aware of the unbridled evil in City Hall that killed the local tourist train.

Destiny Tours and its owners John and Rita Carroll ran the Guelph Junction Express, which made train trips between Guelph and Campbellville along the old Guelph Junction Railway lines. I say ‘ran’ because it appears that the New Year’s Eve trip of the train was its last. After numerous letters and petitions to various city departments, supervisors and politicians, in which the Carroll’s requested for support of their business in the form of various infrastructure improvements, this Express train is one that they can’t afford anymore.

What were the requested improvements? Basically, the Carrolls were looking for a loading platform with wheelchair accessibility, access to local water and power and appropriate signage to direct passengers to the loading area. On the surface, this is all perfectly reasonable and probably wouldn’t have cost the city all that much, so what was the malfunction? Provincial Law. More specifically the Municipal Act which makes it illegal for a municipality (like the Guelph) to help out a private, for-profit business (like Destiny Tours).

Some have called B.S. on the City for such lame excuses, and for leaving the train gang out in the cold. They cite the City’s assistance to Skyline and the reconstruction of the Gummer Building, and Orangeville’s Credit Valley Explorer Tour Train as reasons why City Hall could have helped out. But again, we hit fallacy road as the Credit Valley train was started by the Town of Orangeville before they passed on management to a newly formed corporation that was created with that purpose. As for the Gummer Building, it is possible for the city to differ taxes or other fees on the basis of fostering development or protect historic buildings. Nothing new under the sun, as they say.

So that’s a lot of heat so early in the new year and in the dead of winter. One wonders where we’ll go from here.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Rewind, Be Kind

In the spirit of the season last month, Mayor Karen Farbridge laid a smack down on Ward 1 Councillor Bob Bell in one of the first meetings of the new term. It began with Bell who wanted council to reopen the subject of the new transit hub downtown to debate a potential redesign before construction recommenced in the spring. When confronted by a staff report that said reopening the hub’s design was a bad idea on numerous levels, Bell now famously, said to Guelph Mercury reporter Greg Layton that, “I stopped believing everything that was written in staff reports years ago.”

Flash forward to a couple of days later at the meeting, where right from the top, Mayor Farbridge laid down the law: Bell’s comment violated council’s values and the Code of Couct, which is signed by all councillors, by saying things that could “injure the reputation” of staff. “If there are any comments this evening that cross over that line I will censure you,” she added.

Bell apologized and said it was all cool. He didn’t mean to offend anyone, he was just saying that “there are times when the information is not accurate or is misleading…” No big deal, really. To which Farbridge said, no, really, do you want to be censured? Because I’ll do it right here in front of everybody.

Aside from fun with illation, the affair did yield an opportunity to take a new look at that Code of Conduct. Certainly Farbridge saw it that way when on a recent blog post at she talked about professional disagreements between council and staff. The Mayor pointed to a specific section of the Code of Conduct, which was developed last term by a citizens’ committee. In it, this clause says council can approve budgets, policy and committee processes, but be mindful that staff doesn’t work for them, but for the City of Guelph as a corporate entity.

“Members shall be respectful of the fact that staff work for the City as a body corporate and are charged with making recommendations that reflect their professional expertise and corporate perspective,” it continues. “Accordingly, no member shall maliciously or falsely injure the professional or ethical reputation, or the prospects or practices of staff, and all members shall show respect for the professional capacities of the staff of the City”.

So basically, saying that you “stopped believing” staff reports because they’re “not accurate or is misleading” and doing so in the public sphere of the local newspaper or the live broadcast from the floor of city council, is a C-of-C no-no. Does this mean that council can’t have disagreements about staff as per a particular recommendation or policy brief? Farbridge gave an emphatic ‘No’ in her blog post adding that it is a councillor’s responsibility to question staff reports, but that they should be able do so while not violating the “integrity or professional competence of staff.”

In the recent election there was a lot of discussion from the various challengers that there was “too much agreement” between council and staff last term, or that council would “rubber stamp” any and all of staff’s recommendations just because they came from staff. Bell has always been outspoken, and I hate to imply conspiratorial motives, but such a blatant and openly on-the-record rebuke of staff seems almost a response by a veteran city councillor to those complaints.

But the mistaking of civility for collusion is an all too frequent meme in the modern age of politics. Any person that doesn’t see eye-to-eye with you, no matter the issue, is your political enemy. Even if you should happen to agree on other issues, they’re still your enemy. There is no room for compromise because compromise is weak. I’ve started to think that that this might account for lower voter turnout at all levels. People expect that their point-of-view with a given candidate should line up 100 per cent, but if you can only agree with someone on nine out of ten issues, then how can you in good conscience vote for them?

I suppose as New Year’s Resolutions go, no longer insinuating professional misconduct of city staff in local media is as good as any other. In the tumultuous debates to come, let us keep in mind that most politicians and civil servants are good, honest, hard working people doing their best despite obstructions and limitations that can be physical, legal or jurisdictional. No matter what their position on an issue, most people are working for, it what their opinion is, the best interest of the City of Guelph. Or as Abraham Lincoln once said, “If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend.” But what does that guy know?

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Stories to Watch for in 2011

1) Signs and Rumours of Dollar Signs.

Unless the City of Guelph discovered the lost city of gold while digging up every other road in town this past summer, then we’re likely facing a similar budget crunch as the deliberations for 2010. Budget packages won’t be prepared for council until January 31st, but delegations won’t be heard on matters of the budget until the February 22nd meeting and a final vote won’t be taken on the capital and operating budgets until March 2nd. But those are the stats, the real question is what’s going to happen? Dominate economic trends haven’t changed much in the last year, and since all the councillors, as candidates, campaigned on smart fiscal management, the balance of spending and taxes is more precarious than ever.

2) All Systems GO

Let the countdown begin because hopefully, by this time next year, when I have to go to Toronto on a weekday morning, I can sidestep the increasingly frequent two-and-a-half to three hour commute and take the GO Train. It’s been a long time in coming and as a bonus it was announced last week that the City is looking at discounted fares for GO riders taking city buses to their trains. I’ve taken a bat to the City of Guelph for its treatment of transit and transit users this year – repeatedly – but this is a brilliant move. I hope this is the start of good things for transit users in 2011.

3) Dark Ford of the Sith?

The most talked about local politics story of the year may not have anything to do with Guelph. The election of Rob Ford as the Toronto’s Top Politico came to extreme disappointment to a lot of Hogtown progressives, and in return Ford has yet to fail to disappoint their disappointment. Ford’s latest trick is to muse an abolition of the 5 cent plastic bag fee, a “tax” (as Ford’s people call it) that according to some sources has spared the globe the garbage created by about a billion little plastic shopping bags. In an interview with the Guelph Tribune, Mayor Karen Farbridge says that she and other mayors of Ontario municipalities will be watching the Ford revolution in Toronto carefully to see what works, and more importantly, to see what doesn’t work.

4) To Vote or Not to Vote…

The Prime Minister may be planning a cabinet shuffle, if he hasn’t implemented one already, but the real question is if we the voters are going to get the opportunity to shuffle the government this year as well. Certainly since the Fall 2008 Federal Election there have been rumblings and grumblings of votes of no-confidence and possible replacement coalitions, but in the last two years, a lot of those opportunities came to not. (Certainly, we all remember the big anti-proroguing protests this time last year.) And the opportunities don’t look too bright in the near future. The Liberals seem perpetually stuck in neutral and the by-election last month in three ridings didn’t prove much. Although there’s been some talk of a showdown over the Federal budget this spring, no one party has the heft or reason to force an election. But if they were, the spring would be a natural time to do so since the nation’s most populace province will have other concerns in the fall…

5) …Like An Actual Election That We Know Will Take Place

One election that we do know will happen for certain in the next calendar year is the Ontario General Election, which will not only determine whether or not our MPP Liz Sandals will keep her job, but will determine if her boss, Dalton McGuinty, does as well. A third re-election for the provincial Liberals is not a sure thing though, especially in a year that saw the implementation of the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) and the announcement of higher hydro rates.

Having said that though, McGuinty’s government wasn’t as slammed over the HST as the B.C. government where referendums and court action have followed the HST turnover. In a recent Ipsos Reid poll in November, Tim Hudak’s Tories was up 41 per cent over the Liberals 32. But it’s worth noting that in an Angus Reid poll around the same time in 2009 had the Tories at 41 and the Liberals at 27. By mid-February, the Liberals were back up to 41, but it’s been a slow slide back down ever since. In other words, it’s still anyone’s ball game.

By the way, our local provincial and federal representatives will be holding a New Year’s levee on Sunday January 9th at the Italian Canadian Club from 2 pm till 4 pm. Who knows, it may be Sandals and Valeriote’s last levee together. Stay tuned.