Thursday, June 18, 2009

New Tecumseth's Ward Boundary Review

Initially published in the Alliston Herald on June 18, 2009

There is nothing particularly glamorous about a ward boundary review. Indeed, the disinterest exhibited by the residents of New Tecumseth in response to the town’s recent (yet long overdue) review process was reflected in the form of blank stares, yawns, and several poorly attended public meetings. Apart from a handful of the usual suspects, the public stayed away from the meetings in droves.

Notwithstanding the yawn factor, the issue has actually generated some rare drama these past two weeks at New Tecumseth council chambers. Gosh, those who listened to Tottenham Coun. Jim Stone’s impassioned pleas in opposition to the proposed changes might well have been tempted to stock up on canned food, powdered milk and bottled water in anticipation of the pending destruction of our town.

The ward boundaries were in desperate need of review and, as it turns out, a major overhaul. The wards that were established at the time of amalgamation almost 20 years ago were no longer relevant and failed to account for significant shifts in the population.

As an example, whereas Ward 2 (the area that includes Green Briar and Briar Hill) Coun. Dennis Egan was elected in 2006 with a total of 995 votes (out of 1,493 votes cast), Ward 3 (which encompasses the southeast part of the town) Coun. Barbara Huson was elected with a meager 293 votes (out of 563 cast).

A similarly silly (and illogical) feature of the old system was that whereas the majority of the wards elected one councillor in a traditional “first past the post” system, the residents in Alliston and Tottenham were permitted to elect two councillors “at large”. The independent consultant retained by the town to review the ward boundaries specifically acknowledged the inherent unfairness of a system where a person who happens to live in one part of the town is entitled to choose more members of council than a neighbour.

The consultant who reviewed the system also appeared to recognize the potential that councillors might be motivated by self-preservation or self-interest in arriving at their decisions. He therefore encouraged council to remain objective by asking the question: “How would we decide if none of us were going to run again.”

This comment evidently mortified the mayor who immediately expressed his displeasure. At the same time the mayor injected some humour (I believe) and observed that any suggestion council was not objective might result in someone writing a cynical article or column that questioned the motives of council. Surely not! Everyone knows that politicians are never motivated by their own self interest. But I digress.

What follows is a brief assessment of some of the “winners” and “losers” arising from the new ward boundaries.

Winner No. 1: The farming and rural communities. At present, one out of the seven wards (14 per cent) is predominantly rural. In 2010 this will change to two out of eight wards (25 per cent). The significance of this fact cannot be understated. Expect the councillors from these wards to have a much more powerful voice as advocates for rural interests.

Winner No. 2: Donna Jebb. As a former councillor and farmer in the newly created rural ward, she automatically becomes the favourite to become its first representative. Given the interest she has shown in the review process, it’s hard to believe that a council seat isn’t on her radar screen.

Loser No. 1: Tottenham Coun. Jim Stone. It’s unlikely that Stone would be able to defeat his counterpart, Jess Prothero, in a head-to-head battle in Tottenham. It therefore came as no surprise that Stone was the most vocal opponent of the changes. His doom and gloom scenario included comments that we’re “going backwards”, “destroying the community” and “dividing one street against the other.”

The “What Were You Thinking” award: Barbara Huson. Notwithstanding the population disparities, Huson objected to the addition of a councillor for Alliston as “ridiculous” and echoed some of Stone’s doomsday predictions.

Contrary to the sentiments expressed by councillors Stone and Huson, our community, even the south, will survive this “ordeal”. There is no need to stock up on Kraft Dinner quite yet. In fact, a week or two from now we’ll have forgotten all about it.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Light at the End of the Pipeline

Initially published in the Alliston Herald on June 4, 2009

Several months ago I wrote that the New Tecumseth Improvement Society ("NTIS") - the corporation that formally owns the Georgian Bay Water Pipeline - owes the Town of New Tecumseth the sum of $10 million related to the town's investment.

In response, the mayor and senior town staff claimed, rather emphatically, that I was wrong. My suspicions were aroused, however, when the town adamantly refused to produce copies of the financial statements of NTIS (after initially saying they were available) on the basis it is a separate corporation.

This past week the town, in response to a Freedom of Information request by an unknown third party, released a report prepared in March 2008 by the accounting firm Deloitte & Touche. The report contains a detailed review of NTIS.

Happily, the Deloitte report includes the financial statements of NTIS for 2007. These statements clearly identify the outstanding debt payable to the Town of New Tecumseth as $10 million. In fact, this is consistent with the mayor's own representation of earlier this year that there is a total of $31.3 million of outstanding debt related to the pipeline. The $10 million owed to the town is included in this total.

The Deloitte accountants specifically acknowledge the existence of the $10-million debt owed to the town as well as the accuracy of the financial statements. Not only that, the Deloitte professionals add the following gem: "...we have reviewed the records of the Town and there is no indication that the Loan Receivable from NTIS has been reduced...". Furthermore, it turns out that town staff advised Deloitte that "...the Town has not forgiven" the $10-million loan owed to it by NTIS!

The good news is that Deloitte concludes, contrary to an earlier legal opinion, the town is not on the hook for the $21 million owed to the Ontario Clean Water Agency ("OCWA").

However, what is highly bothersome is the staff report that accompanies the Deloitte document. This report appears to confirm my fears that there is a plan to walk from the $10 million owed to the town by NTIS and, at the same time, unload the incredibly valuable pipeline asset.

By way of background, it is critical to remember that NTIS was set up for the benefit of the residents of our Town. In fact, the corporation's letters patent specifically identify the existence of the corporation as being for the "...benefit of the residents of the Corporation of the Town of New Tecumseth."

Ironically, although the town previously refused to provide the NTIS financial statements on the basis it was a separate corporation, the town now, as reflected in the staff report, appears to assert that NTIS needs to be replaced! Town CAO Terri Caron writes, "NTIS as a corporation... must be replaced with a new financially viable and sustainability governance structure that will ensure the appropriate asset management and future operational requirements are achieved..."

Similarly bothersome (if not entirely absurd) is the newly asserted claim by the town that the pipeline (which was paid for by the equity/debt of the Town and NTIS) was created not for the benefit of our town but was rather constructed for the benefit of our "region."

Specifically, the most recent assertion advanced by the town is that: "The pipeline was constructed as regional infrastructure and not solely for the benefit of New Tecumseth" (emphasis added).

As I wrote back in February, openness and transparency need to prevail. If there is a plan to "walk" from our $10-million investment and hand over the pipeline to a "regional" entity (as advocated by the province), the taxpayers are entitled to know. Smoke and mirrors are not acceptable.

Sadly, if this comes to fruition it will only reinforce the town's well-earned reputation as that of a patsy for the provincial government.

I suspect that the "Pipeline Giveaway" is not far off. Even if it isn't, I believe the town's ill conceived and short sighted memorandum has severely compromised our negotiation position.

Alas, that is fodder for another column.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Initially published in the Alliston Herald on April 29, 2009

The Good: Several weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend the graduation ceremony of the OPP's D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program for the Grade 6 class at Alliston Union Public School. It quickly became apparent that the instructor for the program, OPP officer Harry Lawrenson, has a remarkable chemistry with this impressionable age group. The passion and conviction with which several of the students spoke, together with the conduct and behaviour of the class as a whole, seemed compelling evidence that the message got through.

The Good - Part II: A friend recently inquired whether I was upset by letters to the editor that are critical of this column. The answer: "absolutely not". The fact that someone has taken the time to express their opinion is hardly a reason to sulk. Dialogue and debate should always be encouraged. When a person is motivated to sit down and put his/her thoughts to paper, whether they be positive or negative, they should be commended. It shows they care. Our biggest enemy is apathy - when no one can be bothered we have a problem.

The Sad: One of the letter writers referred to above took issue with a recent column (Guergis says one thing and does another, April 9, 2009) where I was critical of the failure of our MP to honour her commitment to pay the costs of a newsletter that was delivered after the start of the election campaign.

The writer was apparently upset by the column and referred to my criticism as being about "some chicken-crap issue". It is sad to see an individual whose expectations of politicians has apparently sunk so low that an issue which goes to the very root of a person's character (namely, keeping your word) is described as "chicken crap".

In the same manner that apathy is a danger, so too are such low expectations of our elected representatives.

The Curious: At the most recent committee of the whole meeting, New Tecumseth town council was deluged by a dental/medical lobby urging council to reverse its earlier decision to remove flouride from Tottenham's water supply. The fervour and intensity exhibited by this group might have led some to wonder whether they were in the midst of an Elmer Gantry revival meeting.

The decision was portrayed as so critical, and the health issues so important, that I was tempted to question (tongue in cheek) whether the streets of Tottenham might soon be lined with hundreds of corpses (with bad teeth) if the decision was not reversed.

I do not feel as though I possess enough information to be either "pro" or "con" on the issue. There are, however, a couple of facts that I believe merit attention.

First, Tottenham is the only community in Simcoe County that adds fluoride to its water supply. Second, there is a body of credible medical opinion, including the head of Preventative Dentistry at the University of Toronto (Dr. Hardy Limeback), that oppose the use of fluoride in public water systems.

The issue that left me scratching my head following the several deputations was this: If fluoride in our water is so critical, where have all of these medical professionals been the past decade? They certainly haven't been lobbying for fluoride to be added to Alliston's water.

From my perspective, if the professionals can say with absolutely certainty that there are no significant health risks associated with the use of fluoride in our drinking water then it is hard to object. However, if there is the slightest bit of doubt, if there is the slightest bit of evidence that fluoride could harm our children, then surely the benefits of its use do not outweigh the risks.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Another Instance of Guergis Doublespeak

Initially published in the Alliston Herald on April 9, 2009

It certainly appears that our member of parliament does not have a very high regard for the intellectual capacity of the inhabitants of Simcoe-Grey. It is hard to reach any other conclusion when one considers the dubious “explanation” provided by Helena Guergis as to why she has chosen to ignore the commitment to have her campaign pay the costs of a four-page “householder” that was delivered in the course of the most recent federal election.

You will recall that this past September Guergis was subjected to criticism for delivering the householder after the election had been called. Guergis initially claimed that the householder had been ready several weeks prior to the election call and that it was not possible to stop. This claim, however, was exposed as less than credible when closer inspection revealed the literature referred to an event that was announced on Sept. 5, 2008 – just two days prior to the election call.

Given this little “pickle” both Guergis and her campaign manager made public pronouncements that the cost of the householder would be paid by the Guergis campaign.

Alas, when Guergis filed her election return the costs of the householder were nowhere to be found. When she was faced with the inevitable inquiries from the media, Guergis, consistent with her reputation for ducking questions, remained mute for several weeks.

This past week Guergis finally acknowledged to another newspaper that her campaign, contrary to her earlier commitment, did not pay for the householder. The reasons provided by Guergis are meandering, verbose (coming in at more than 800 words) and less than persuasive.

In effect, Guergis claims that the “auditor” advised she could not claim the householder as an election expense. Guergis apparently arrived at the same interpretation and concluded that the householder was not an election expense on the basis that it did not promote her candidacy.

First, it should be pointed out that the auditor is not associated with or employed by Elections Canada but rather a person affiliated with the Guergis candidacy. Second, Guergis appears to have completely (or selectively) ignored Elections Canada guidelines as to what actually constitutes “promotion” and thereby qualifies as an election expense.

The rules say: “the concept of promoting... a candidate in a given electoral district is defined as including naming the candidate, showing the likeness of the candidate... In addition, any item discussing the work or accomplishments of a Member of Parliament will also be considered to be directly promoting the Member of Parliament...”

Anyone who remembers the householder would be hard pressed to suggest it was not promoting Guergis pursuant to these rules. Conveniently, Guergis has selected the far less tenable interpretation as the explanation for why she will not honour her commitment.

What’s even more fascinating about the lengthy Guergis missive is that it appears to contain an acknowledgement that the householder left her hands after the election was called. Specifically, Guergis states: “...we determined also that any householder sent out within 10 days of the writ being dropped does NOT have to be declared an election expense but I still requested that we make this move...”

The statement that the householder was sent after the election call is corroborated by a letter from Andy Beaudoin, the campaign manager for Guergis, published in the Alliston Herald on Sept. 24, 2008 (17 days after the writ was dropped). Mr. Beaudoin said, “MP Helena Guergis has just released her annual fall householder. We felt it was important to inform you the costs of releasing this householder (are) covered by campaign budgets and not taxpayer’s dollars.”

Why is timing an issue? It’s because Elections Canada has been quite clear that in such circumstances a householder will be considered an election expense that should be declared.

Finally, I leave you with the following quote from Guergis that is quite remarkable and once again reflects on her credibility: “I was doing everything I could to characterize this as an election expense.”

Sadly, this appears to be but the latest example of our MP saying one thing but doing the opposite.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Initially published in the Alliston Herald on March 26, 2009

The Good: Paul Whiteside has served as the chief financial officer for the Town of New Tecumseth since its creation in 1991. He served in a similar capacity for the Town of Alliston for almost a decade prior to amalgamation. By all accounts Whiteside is hardworking, dedicated and extremely able. Over the years he acquired the reputation of being a vigilant guardian of New Tecumseth tax dollars. Sadly, at Monday's committee of the whole meeting Paul announced his resignation. He will be missed.

Council Quote of the Week: "It's one of the greatest con jobs of the 20th century." - Tottenham Coun. Jim Stone on the promotion of the use of fluoride in public water systems.

Council Quote of the Week No. 2: "You couldn't put this stuff into a dump legally in Canada" - Coun. Stone again speaking of fluoride.

The Bad: In the course of the most recent federal election campaign, Helena Guergis faced questions about the delivery of a four-page newsletter after the election had been called. Initially Guergis claimed that the newsletter had been ready several weeks prior to the election call and that it had not been possible to stop. Closer scrutiny, however, revealed the literature referred to an event that had occurred just two days prior to the election call - a fact that brought the claim of Ms. Guergis, and her credibility, into question.

In response to the scrutiny both Guergis and her campaign manager, Andy Beaudoin, emphasized that the cost of the newsletter would be paid by the Guergis campaign and not with taxpayer dollars.

Several weeks ago Ms. Guergis filed her candidate's electoral campaign return with Elections Canada. The return does not appear to include any reference to the Guergis campaign having made a payment to the Queen's Printer for the cost of the newsletter. Several members of the local media have noticed the same thing and made repeated requests of both Guergis and Beaudoin for clarification.

In particular, they have asked to be directed to the item in the campaign return that reflects payment for the newsletter. The inquiries have apparently been met with silence.

This is indeed peculiar. Surely it would be a simple matter for Guergis (or her campaign manager or Official Agent or other representative) to identify where payment for the newsletter appears on the campaign return. Silence, in this instance, is not golden.

The electorate is entitled to an answer. Has Ms. Guergis honoured her commitment to pay for the newsletter with campaign funds or have we been duped? The failure to address the issue in a direct manner is not acceptable.

The Ugly: The County of Simcoe charges each municipality a levy for waste disposal associated with the single bag of garbage we are permitted each week. New Tecumseth council has elected to collect this levy on an "assessment" basis rather than a "per-unit" basis.

The per-unit method contemplates that the levy is charged only to ratepayers that receive the service and on an equal basis.

In contrast, the assessment basis means that higher assessed homes pay more for their one bag of garbage than lower assessed homes.

Although the County of Simcoe staff has recommended the per-unit charge as being more justifiable, it is a recommendation that has been persistently ignored by New Tecumseth council much to the chagrin of Coun. Dennis Egan.

Evidently all garbage is not created equal - the Previn Court stuff is much more expensive.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Initially published in the Alliston Herald on March 19, 2009

In the mid-1990s a municipal councillor from Toronto was charged with several counts of breach of trust and receiving commissions. It turns out he had taken more than $200,000 in "gifts" from a real estate developer. The councillor eventually resigned in disgrace and was ultimately convicted of several of the charges. Happily, he even spent some time in prison.

The reminder of this incident led me to give some thought to the type of qualities and characteristics that I personally find desirable in a politician. What follows is an entirely arbitrary and non-exhaustive list of seven such traits. For your amusement, characteristics of the "anti" politician are referred to in parenthesis.

To add local interest I've identified one politician in each of the seven categories, either past or present, who appears to possess the positive characteristic. This does not mean there is only one. In fact, there are no doubt too many to name. It's just that I only have 650 words.

Intelligent (Intellectually Challenged): In this day and age politicians are often called upon to approve transactions and/or arrangements that involve complex facts, concepts and terminology. An elected official with the intellectual capacity of a rock will not understand the complex facts and concepts and will, almost always, defer to the bureaucrats who make the recommendations. God bless the politician who can think independently and ask intelligent questions. A local example: Alliston councilor Jamie Smith.

Open Minded (Partisan Troll): Not surprisingly, one observes the partisan troll most frequently at the federal and provincial levels. The troll dismisses or disregards every idea that comes from his/her opponent for partisan reasons. In contrast, the open minded politician recognizes that his/her adversaries (or colleagues in the municipal context) are capable of good ideas and is prepared to consider them all. A local example: former Alliston councillor Bob Marrs.

Humility (Egotist): The politician with a monstrous ego is an offensive and objectionable creature. The egotist is not generally loaded with brain cells (see above) and tends to forget that they are elected to act on behalf of the public. The dead giveaway of a politician with a monster ego is when he/she talks about "my career". A local example of a humble politician: Tottenham councillor Jim Stone.

Charismatic (Dullard): The inclusion of charisma on this list is not intended to suggest that someone who lacks charisma is incapable of being a good politician. It's just that much easier when the politician is able to comfortably engage and interact with his/her constituents. A local example: Beeton councillor Richard Norcross.Practical (Heartless Prig): According to Fowler's Modern English Usage a "prig" is a believer in red tape who "exalts the method above the work done." I expect we have all experienced or encountered an individual who insists upon certain "rules" being followed no matter how silly, absurd or nonsensical they may be. The practical politician looks for solutions and isn't beholden to tradition or "rules" that defy common sense.

Strong/Tough/Fearless (Coward): A politician should not be afraid to stand up for what is right even though it may be unpopular. One who folds at the first sign of adversity or under the threat of an Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) hearing is likely to be forever labeled as a cowardly lion and fearful of conflict. A reputation for weakness will not serve the public well. Sometimes you just have to be willing to fight. A local example of a strong politician: former Tottenham councillor Betty Aldridge.

Independent (Toady): Be wary of the politician who places him/herself in a position where they are identified as being "in the pocket" of a particular person or special interest group. It could become a slippery slope as the councillor from Toronto discovered. A local example of an independent politician who we need not worry about being in anyone's pocket: New Tecumseth Mayor Mike MacEachern.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Initially published in the Alliston Herald on March 12, 2009

The Good: Shortly after moving to New Tecumseth in 1999 I became aware of the existence of the Community Living Association for South Simcoe (CLASS) - an organization dedicated to helping those with developmental disabilities live and participate in their community.

The organization's staff appear, from my perspective, to be extraordinarily hard working, dedicated and professional. They deserve a great deal of credit for how CLASS and its clients remain a fixture and valued part of our community.

The Bad: After countless volunteer hours and the passage of many years, the Alliston and District Humane Society (ADHS) is, to its credit, ready to construct a shelter in Adjala-Tosorontio.

Unfortunately, the ADHS have encountered a variety of hurdles including an insistence by township council that bars be installed in all of the windows.

The ADHS has indicated that the new facility will not be used to store cash or narcotics. Nevertheless, in what can only be described as a bizarrely paternalistic attitude, council has, at least until recently, insisted upon the bars as protection from vandals.

Given the apparent desire of Adjala-Tosorontio council to protect rural buildings from vandalism, why do the windows at their own municipal offices not have bars? Surely the photographs of town councils from years past are at greater risk of theft (well, at least the frames) than "Bessie" the 13-year-old Beagle who suffers from flatulence.

The Ugly: The saga of the water pipeline becomes more murky and clouded with each passing day.

At last week's council meeting we learned that the town is the guarantor of the $21.3 million debt owed by the New Tecumseth Improvement Society (the entity that was set up for the benefit of New Tecumseth taxpayers as the "owner" of the water pipeline) to the Ontario Clean Water Agency (OCWA). Given that NTIS has not made a single payment to OCWA towards the debt (and is therefore in default or at risk thereof) it's not clear how this little tidbit has escaped notice of the town's auditors. Is the existence of the guarantee in these circumstances not something that ought to be factored into the town's borrowing limits?

The Puzzling: At Monday's meeting CAO Terri Caron referred to an intention that the pipeline debt would repaid through the town's purchase of water from NTIS. The statement left me scratching my head. In particular, to use 2004 as an example, we know the town paid NTIS "rent" in excess of $1.5 million that year in order "to service the debt obligations associated with the pipeline." Yet we also know from OCWA that none of their $21.3 million debt has ever been serviced and we know there is another $10 million debt payable to the town (which, given the size, would appear never to have been serviced either). What's going on?

The Bad: In 2005 an Ontario Water Strategy Expert Panel recommended that the Province assume the Collingwood pipeline assets and debt. It was a proposal that was heartily endorsed by Mayor MacEachern in a subsequent news release. Unfortunately, the discussions that followed (and apparently remain ongoing) appear to have occurred under a cone of silence with only a handful of senior staff privy to the details.

The pipeline asset is incredibly valuable. The asset is worth far more than the cumulative debt. Accordingly, any contemplated transfer of the pipeline to the province must ensure that the town receives adequate compensation for the asset.

It would be irresponsible for the town to simply hand over the asset and walk from the debt. That would not represent fair or adequate compensation. It would be tantamount to giving it away.

If this is the mayor's intention we need to be told about it now.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Mouseland: Part III

Initially published in the Alliston Herald on March 5, 2009

There was trouble in Mouseland. There was a shortage of peanuts. There were no peanuts to pay for a hole where the Tottenham mice could put their doo doo. There were no peanuts to pay for more fire mice. There were no peanuts to fix hundreds of mouse paths. The mouse paths in Mouseland looked like swiss cheese.

Even the mouse pool leaked. There were no peanuts to fix it.

Mouseland used to have peanuts. That was when the mouse called "Larry" was head mouse. Larry was a tiny, secretive mouse who loved to spend peanuts. It was his most favourite thing to do.

Larry the Mouse paid millions of peanuts for the water hose that brought the Japanese mouse company fresh water to build things. Then he borrowed millions more. There was monster peanut debt.

Larry even had Mouseland buy property with the bald mouse called "Newman". Newman the Mouse kept the good parts that made peanuts. Mouseland got the empty parking lot. Now Newman's tenant mice use the parking lot for free. It wasn't such a good deal for Mouseland.

When Larry the Mouse was no longer head mouse he liked to volunteer. He became President at the Gibson Castle and helped spend the Castle's peanuts. Larry still likes to spend peanuts.

The deputy mouse did not worry too much about the peanut debt. He mostly worried about becoming head mouse again. He even coloured his fur yellow to make it seem that he was not too old to be the head mouse.

The Mouse House mouse from the Briars had some ideas about how to fix the peanut problem. But whenever he talked in the Mouse House the other mice would cover their mouse ears and say, "La la la la la la la." They did not want to listen to him.

The legal mouse from Alliston liked to use big words when he talked about the peanut shortage. He would say, "The paucity of the arachis hypogaea is iniquitous." The other Mouse House mice didn't know what he said. They hardly ever knew. They just wished he would speak Mouse.

The girl mouse from Alliston also seemed worried about the peanut shortage. She even stopped giggling when she talked in the Mouse House.

The large mouse from Beeton loved to spend Mouseland peanuts to buy shiny toys and objects. He was like a pack rat. As soon as he got one shiny toy he scurried around to spend more peanuts on another. When he got the Beeton library he wanted the Beeton field. When he got the Beeton field he wanted the Beeton field house. When he got the Beeton field house he wanted a new Beeton arena. He was a happy Beeton mouse.

The youngest Mouse House mouse from Tottenham liked to talk about saving peanuts. He would say, "We need to be responsible with our peanuts" and "We need to look out for the taxpayers of Mouseland."

It made him smile when he said these words. He liked it when he sounded responsible. But he seemed confused. After he said these things he would vote to spend peanuts on whatever shiny objects the Beeton mouse wanted.

The oldest mouse from Tottenham was very generous. He didn't seem to worry much about the peanut shortage. He just wanted to give peanuts to old mice.

Some mice thought that Mouseland should sell the water hose to fix the problem. The water hose was worth a lot of peanuts to the cats and rats who liked to build mice nests for thousands of mice. That would lower the monster peanut debt. But the head mouse had a different idea. He wanted to give away the water hose to the land called "Queen's Park". The Queen's Park mice must have put a spell on the head mouse.

To be continued...

Friday, February 20, 2009

Town Turns Off Information Tap

Initially published in the Alliston Herald on February 20, 2009

In advance of my Jan. 30, 2009 column on the dreadful state of New Tecumseth's financial position, the Herald inquired of Mayor Mike MacEachern as to the amount of debt that was "still" owed in relation to the water pipeline. The mayor's response: $31.3 million. A subsequent column referred to the pipeline debt and suggested that the town is poised to walk away from the asset and instead hand it over to a designate of the province.

The mayor evidently did not like the assertion and a series of e-mail communications between he and I followed where he complained that my facts were wrong. In particular, he advised that $4.5 million of the $7.0 million loan (made by the town as its contribution towards the construction of the pipeline) has been repaid.

Now, as you might imagine, I take an assertion that a column is not factual quite seriously. In the circumstances, I invited the mayor to provide me with copies of the financial statements of the New Tecumseth Improvement Society (NTIS), the corporation that was set up for the benefit of New Tecumseth taxpayers and is the formal owner of the pipeline. I advised that if these financial statements confirmed the mayor's claim then I would be quite willing to correct any error.

I regarded this as a reasonable solution given my experience that accountants tend to be a rather diligent and responsible lot and are trained to accurately depict the financial affairs of a corporation at a particular point in time. If any portion of the debt owed by NTIS to the town has been repaid, the NTIS financial statements will absolutely reflect this fact.

The mayor replied to this request and advised that if I wanted the financials I should "get them" and that "...the information is available should you want it." Given that NTIS was set up for the benefit of the residents of our town this response made sense.

Unfortunately, my efforts to obtain the documents from town hall have been met with a stone wall. Notwithstanding the earlier invitation, the town now refuses to provide the financial statements on the basis that they are those of a private corporation.

Well, as you might imagine, refusing to provide relevant documents to a litigation lawyer (especially after being told they are available) is akin to placing a steak in front of a hungry dog. It sets off every warning bell imaginable. Open and transparent it is not!

Several sources have now confirmed that the $31.3 million pipeline debt referred to by the mayor in January 2009, consists of $21.3 million payable to the Ontario Clean Water Agency (OCWA) and $10 million payable to the Town of New Tecumseth (which is more than the $7.0 million identified in the initial column as the town's contribution). In fact, OCWA's portion of the debt ($21.3 million) is specifically referred to in its own financial statements.

I understand from town staff that the most recent financial statements available for NTIS are for 2007. How much do you want to bet that these statements reflect a liability of $10 million to the town? I'll give 100 to one odds to any takers.

If the assertion that $4.5 of the $7 million (which we now know to be $10 million, not $7 million) is no longer payable to the town, I suggest that such news will come as complete shock to NTIS and its accountants - professionals who are duty bound to accurately portray the financial position of NTIS. Indeed, if any part of the $10 million has been paid off, why do the mayor and town staff continue to refer to the total pipeline debt as being $31.3 million?

No matter what manner of internal accounting the town may use to claim some of the $10 million has been repaid, the proof is in the pudding of the NTIS financial statements - documents that the town now refuses to produce.

It's time for the town to end the vague mumbo jumbo and provide a full and complete explanation as to what's going on with the pipeline debt and the asset.

Openness and transparency need to prevail. If there is a plan to "walk" from our $10-million investment the taxpayers are entitled to know.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Initially published in the Alliston Herald on February 13, 2009

The Good: Over the years I have occasionally poked fun at Tottenham Counc. Jess Prothero and in the process he has revealed a relatively thick skin. Prothero also appears to possess a characteristic that is particularly admirable in a politician. Specifically, if he commits to support you, or advance a cause on your behalf, or vote a certain way, he will honour that commitment come hell or high water. He will follow through no matter how unpopular the decision may be. It's a refreshing contrast to some who have a fence firmly planted in their bottom and lift a leg from one side to the other with remarkable, yet predictable, frequency.

The Bad: Last year Councillor Dennis Egan resigned from several committees. The decision, and the fact it was picked up by the press, did not go over well. Egan subsequently acknowledged that he regretted the resignations and has expressed a desire to return. By all accounts Egan was a dedicated member of the committees on which he sat. Further, it is not as though there is a long line of individuals seeking the positions - the work is often time consuming and thankless. Unfortunately, although Egan has made it clear that he wants to return, his overtures have been met with stone cold silence! Surely it's time to let him return and do the work he is eager to resume.

The Ugly: I don't purport to know all the details of why the town changed the locks to the premises it leased to Hutchinson Sports at the new recreation facility. I understand that Hutchinson encountered some difficulties when the expectations of the parties did not pan out and traffic at the new facility (especially during the summer months) turned out to be far less than anticipated.

Ironically, the town found itself in a similar predicament a few years ago when its expectations did not pan out and it was "unable" to sell water to another municipality. As was outlined in this column last week, the result was an inability to make payments to the Ontario Clean Water Agency (OCWA) towards the water pipeline debt. Fortunately, OCWA didn't turn off the water. Instead, according to its 2005 Annual Report, steps were taken to "write down" the pipeline loan.

The town's actions with Hutchinson were far less conciliatory. Significantly, Hutchinson had not asked the town to take a write down on any rent. Rather, a central feature of his recent proposal was the negotiation of terms that adequately reflected the reality of summer traffic. As he said in an e-mail this week, "To go through a second summer in a negative revenue situation was just not an option."

We should all be grateful the OCWA was more conciliatory than the town was with Hutchinson Sports.

More Ugly: Back when the initial request for proposal was issued for the pro shop, Hutchinson submitted a proposal that contemplated rent would be paid based upon a percentage of gross sales. In the course of the negotiations that followed the town declined to enter a deal on this basis in part due to "accounting" issues.

You might therefore imagine Hutchinson's surprise when the town entered into a lease agreement with respect to the operation of the new restaurant facility at the arena that provides for rent to be paid based on a percentage of gross sales.

The Good: Kudos to Ann-Marie Craig (president of the Alliston Soccer Club) and Chris Barnett (president of South Simcoe United FC), together with their respective executives, for taking steps to merge their rep soccer programs. It is a welcome move that I expect will make each club stronger.

The Final Ugly: Last week I referred to the current pipeline indebtedness as being $31 million. If one assumes that the current practice of not making any payments towards the debt continues, then the total pipeline indebtedness will be approximately $67 million when it becomes due.

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Pipeline Mess

Initially published in the Alliston Herald on February 6, 2009

It would appear that some at New Tecumseth town hall were not particularly fond of last week's column that focused upon New Tecumseth's rather enormous debt. As a result I have been told to expect a public rebuttal that will correct my alleged errors.

If the town should respond in this fashion we might consider the famous quote from Hamlet: "...thou doth protest too much, me thinks."

As the first line of attack one can anticipate an assertion that the $31 million debt related to the water pipeline from Georgian Bay does not belong to and/or is not the responsibility of the town. The explanation will no doubt be factually complex and thoroughly confusing.

As has always been the case, the formal "owner" of the pipeline is a corporation known as the New Tecumseth Improvement Society (NTIS). The transaction was structured in this manner for tax reasons. Indeed, past financial statements of the town have confirmed this fact by acknowledging that NTIS is "organized to benefit the residents of the Town of New Tecumseth."

New Tecumseth paid around $7 million (in effect, think of it as a down payment) towards the cost of the pipeline. The remaining funds came from various parties with the largest amount being a loan (think of it as the mortgage) from the province via an entity known as the Ontario Clean Water Agency.

The New Tecumseth Council Minutes from November, 2000 reflect the Town's investment in the pipeline. They refer to a transfer of up to $7.2 million from the hydro reserve fund to finance the "water pipeline capital project." The same minutes provide that proceeds from agreements with various developers in the Alliston Secondary Plan would replace, and replenish, the $7 million from the hydro fund.

Guess what? We've never seen the $7 million. We likely never will!

As for the pipeline debt, it was expected to have been repaid from revenues generated by the sale of water to other communities. Unfortunately, when a 2003 deal for the sale of water to Bradford was near, the Town of Collingwood started to grumble and claimed that this was not permitted.

Tragically, the town played the role of a weak-kneed patsy and folded like a cheap suit in response to this assertion. It gave up without a fight. Our town was analogous to Charles Atlas on the beach with the bully before Charles bulked up!

The deal with Bradford never happened as, it would seem, we were too stricken with terror to conclude the transaction. I fear that our paralysis on this issue is likely to haunt our community for decades to come.

Quite simply, the town's inability to deal with the pipeline debt in the future arises in large part as a result of the failure to stand up for its rights on this issue and instead appease more assertive third parties.

As a result, we have a mess on our hands. Lest there be any doubt that the debt is the town's problem, I quote from a 2005 press release issued by the town: "New Tecumseth Council has been working with the present government to address the pipeline debt problem."

The release includes a reference to the town's "...insistence that the burden of the pipeline debt must be removed from the water users in New Tecumseth...".

Unfortunately, it appears as though New Tecumseth is posed, when the debt becomes due, to hand over the pipeline - an asset that I suggest is conservatively worth more than $100 million - with no strings attached. In the process I expect the town's original investment of $7 million will be forever lost.

Why? I suggest it is because the town will be too eager to take the easy way out. In this case the easy way out means that we passively hand over this wonderful asset to the Ontario Clean Water Agency with but a whimper.

Let's hope it doesn't happen. If it does the biggest losers will be the taxpayers of New Tecumseth.

Friday, January 30, 2009

New Tecumseth's Ugly Debt

Initially published in the Alliston Herald on January 30, 2009

The good, the bad, and the ugly? Not quite. This week it's all ugly.

Ugly No. 1: The Town of New Tecumseth has one monstrous whack of debt. For starters there is the $17.2 million presently on the books. The total does not include the additional $3.5 million that is already factored into the 2009 draft budget. For those who are counting, we're at $20.7 million.

Another $23.0 million of debt (drawn upon a $36.0 million line of credit) needs to be added to the total for the wastewater treatment expansion facility. The tally: $43.7 million.

Further, although no one at the town level seems to be talking about it, New Tecumseth has enormous obligations associated with the Georgian Bay water pipeline - a debt that presently sits in the neighbourhood of $31 million. Not a single payment (interest or principal) has been made to the province since the pipeline was constructed and massive interest continues to accumulate. A balloon payment will become due a few years from now. By that time, in the absence of some form of bailout, the pipeline debt will hover around $40 million or more. For now, let's keep it at $31 million. The tally: $74.7 million.

If the remaining $13 million is drawn on the wastewater line of credit (and there is little reason to believe it will not), the total will be $87.7 million!

What's particularly worrisome (beyond the staggering interest obligations) is that the town's borrowing capacity for the next 10 years (assuming the 2009 budget is approved) is a meagre $7.0 million. If Beeton councillor Richard Norcross gets his way (and he usually does) we can expect another $5 million or so of debt financing for the new Beeton arena. The projected total thus becomes $92.7 million.

New development in this community has largely ground to a halt in no small part due to the high development charges. Consequently, any suggestion that new development charges will "save us" are not based in reality.

This miserable debt position is in part due to a series of bad deals and a penchant by town council, both past and present, to use taxpayer funds for projects ($1 million or so for medical offices; several hundred thousand to construct a restaurant at the new arena; $600,000 to acquire the Banting Homestead etc.) that ought to have been left to the private sector.

The Ugly No. 2: Last week, in a decision made in camera, town staff agreed to take a "hit" in the form of four unpaid days off in 2009. This kind gesture will save New Tecumseth taxpayers approximately $150,000.

Based on my observation of senior staff as they left the meeting I can assure you the decision was not unanimous.

Imagine how annoying it must therefore have been for these individuals, a few minutes later, to see some councillors lead the charge to increase the town's commitment for the construction of the Mel Mitchell fieldhouse from $50,000 to $200,000.

This is especially the case in circumstances where the field house project has morphed from a plan to construct washroom facilities into a much more elaborate project complete with a wrap-around porch where residents can observe the fields while they consume cucumber sandwiches with no crust (as suggested by councillor Jamie Smith).

The Ugly No. 3: At the same in-camera meeting council gave staff direction to investigate the possibility that the town assume the operation of the town's libraries in place of the New Tecumseth Library Board - the independent entity that is actually responsible for the operation of the libraries in our community.

The action was taken without the knowledge or direction of the Library Board (of which I am a member) and represents an outrageous and extremely offensive blindside.

Quite frankly, there was no justification for this direction to have been given in secret and behind closed doors. What I find particularly disturbing is that the two members of town council who sit on the library board were present at the in-camera meeting and voiced no objection to the direction.

The board has operated the library for many, many years in a competent and efficient manner. There is no reason for it to be pushed aside in response to a bizarre and inexplicable power grab. In fact, it is with some bemusement and irony that I point out the library board has managed to operate for many years without incurring millions of dollars of debt.

Given the debt position of the town, do you really want to give council responsibility for the libraries!

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Good, The Bad, The Funny...Again

Initially published in the Alliston Herald on January 16, 2009

The Good: The past year or so has seen extensive changes to both the administration and emergency department at Stevenson Memorial Hospital. Last Saturday was the first occasion I've had need to attend Stevenson since these developments. The new ER design represents a dramatic improvement to the haphazard and scattered outlay of old. Further, the administrative personnel, nurses and medical staff that I encountered were, to a person, pleasant, professional and competent. Although I have been harshly critical and expressed concerns over the governance structure that has been implemented at Stevenson, it will nevertheless be a slightly easier pill to swallow if Saturday's experience represents the quality of care our community can consistently expect under the new regime.

The Bad: Whereas Centre Street in Alliston has received most of the attention of late as being a road in dire need of repair, my vote for the worst road in the Town of New Tecumseth goes to Downey Street. While there are plans for work to be performed in the near future on a handful of streets/roads including Centre Street, there are no such plans for Downey and it appears destined to develop its customary 40-plus new potholes this spring. I invite readers to send me their own nominations for New Tecumseth's worst road. Perhaps in the spring we can organize a "Celebration of New Tecumseth Pot Holes" and name some of the "best" after our favourite politicians.

The Funny: You might imagine my surprise when a Christmas card arrived at my home from our Member of Parliament together with an invitation to her annual New Year's Levee. The family of our member has, after all, made no secret of their disapproval of some earlier columns penned on this page. Closer inspection of the envelope revealed that the card wasn't addressed to me personally but rather to a corporation (of which I am an officer) that had donated funds to her campaign in the past. I do confess to some puzzlement with the characterization of the event. A "levee" has historically been associated with a reception held by royalty. One definition describes it as: "A reception held, as by royalty, upon arising from bed." includes the following description: "Today, Levées are the receptions (usually, but not necessarily, on New Year's Day) held by the Governor General, the Lieutenant-Governors of the Provinces, the military and others, to mark the start of another year and to provide an opportunity for the public to pay their respects." Interesting indeed.

The Curious: The wacky reality of the amalgamation of three separate towns into one with a ward system means that there is an inherent tendency on municipal politicians to "get things" for their own wards. It seems that in New Tecumseth the focus has often been one of "acquiring" or upgrading recreational facilities. Alliston has a new $10,000,000-plus recreational facility; Tottenham has upgrades and expansions planned for the Community Centre; Beeton has a new field house planned for Mel Mitchell Field and $100,000 earmarked to spend on a study for a new Beeton arena. Further, the town recently spent thousands of dollars on a culture and recreation study that identified a swimming pool as a priority.

At the same time New Tecumseth has a multitude of roads in a disgraceful state of repair; part of the Town (Tottenham) that is not connected to the water pipeline; and, an entirely inadequate sewage capacity.

Further, as a result of the town's decision to increase development charges to deal with its limited revenues and ever-increasing expenses, new development seems to have grinded to a halt. It all seems kind of odd. After all, no one will be able to get to our recreational facilities if they're sinking in potholes and sewage!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Partisan "Gotcha" and Spin

Initially published in the Alliston Herald on December 12, 2008

Fifteen years from now our children, whether they be in high school or a first year political science course, will learn of the constitutional "crisis" of 2008.

The provocateur of the crisis will undoubtedly be identified as Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Harper foolishly, in what can only be described as a game of silly partisan "gotcha", sought to eliminate the current system of funding for political parties and thereby deliver a potentially crippling blow to the opposition.

Commentator Rex Murphy perhaps said it best when he described Harper as being three-quarters effective national leader with the other-quarter being a "partisan troll" which "...periodically smothers every decent instinct in him."

If, as it seems to some, Harper is a student of Niccolo Machiavelli, the 16th Century Italian political philosopher whose name is synonymous with ruthless politics, it would appear that he overlooked one of Machiavelli's critical lessons. Machiavelli advised that if you must harm a rival, make certain to destroy him lest he be left strong enough to rise up and exact revenge.

Now, I'm not aware of anyone who actually believes the opposition claims that the coalition is all about the economy. Nonsense! The issue that served to unite these parties was, first and foremost, the elimination of the funding. On this issue I would have far preferred (I continue to be delusional in my expectation that politicians act with honesty and integrity) that the opposition acknowledge the real reason for their actions.

The concept of a coalition is entirely permissible in the context of our parliamentary democracy. As such, the hysterical cries by some that a coalition is a "coup" are truly absurd. Indeed, in 2004 Harper entered into detailed discussions with both the NDP and Bloc Quebecois with the same objective in mind. In fact, Harper specifically acknowledged the legitimacy of such an arrangement in a letter to the Governor General. It was not undemocratic then. It is certainly not undemocratic now.

There were, however, a couple of major problems with the notion of a coalition. First, the leader, Stephane Dion, seemed completely incapable of inspiring confidence in his ability to lead. Even when he had a seemingly distraught Stephen Harper in Question Period on the Monday following the coalition announcement, he did nothing to instill confidence in the public that "this is OK." When he faced an invigorated Harper the following day he more closely resembled a tub of incomprehensible goo. Public opinion seemed to turn dramatically thereafter.

Quite simply, the thought that Stephane Dion would be Prime Minister so soon after a rather clear defeat in the General Election was a source of discomfort for many Canadians including myself.

From the cycnical perspective, what is worrisome is that the battle digressed into one of public relations and spin with some, including one writer on these pages, actually buying into the hysteria and frenzy and irrationally concluding that the coalition was equivalent to a coup that should be considered as treason and would lead to the destruction of our democracy.

We are all in trouble if some members of the public are so gullible to believe that a legitimate exercise of rights by parties under our 141 year old democracy will lead to doomsday.

Friday, December 5, 2008

New Tecumseth's "Top Ten"

Initially published in the Alliston Herald on December 5, 2008

Before Political Cyni-Side appeared on these pages I prepared a list of 20 or so potential topics for a column of this nature. One such topic included an entirely arbitrary list of the "ten" most influential members of our town. Welcome to the first annual "Ten Most Influential".

1. Mayor Mike MacEachern: Although the two term mayor has been the subject of some ribbing on the pages of Mouseland, MacEachern has accomplished more than any mayor in the history of the Town. By virtue of his management style, there is virtually nothing in the manner that New Tecumseth is operated that doesn't have his fingerprints all over it.

2. Joe Sperdutti: "Joe Who?" you ask. Sperdutti is vice-president of administration at Honda of Canada in Alliston and the "face" that most commonly represents Honda in public. More often than not, Honda gets what it wants. In recent years the wish list has included the rapid closure of a major road (Tottenham Road) and the negotiation of favourable water rates.

3. Lou Biffis: There are not many individuals who can pick up the telephone and get the mayor or warden or MP or MPP on the line. I expect Biffis can. Each year Biffis, his family, and staff devote considerable hours to oversee a massive fundraiser on behalf of the Nottawasaga Foundation. Each year a new record seems to be set. The foundation has been a lifeline for many local charities that have benefited from its generosity.

4. Jim Wilson: Our MPP has never lost. He's never even come close. He routinely wins by some of the largest pluralities in the province. He's the most influential conservative in the area and, unlike his federal counterpart, his competence has never been questioned. One builds a great many relationships over the course of an 18-plus year elected career.

5. Jamie Smith: When this Alliston councillor and lawyer speaks at the council table the others stop and listen. Any councillor seeking to engage him in battle does so at their peril. His vocabulary alone is liable to leave 99 per cent (if not more) of the population scratching their heads in wonderment as to whether they had just been insulted.

6. Cassandra DeGrace: The spouse of Mayor MacEachern is his closest confidante and sounding board. No major decision is made without her input. Whereas MacEachern tends to be conciliatory in approach, Degrace has no hesitation expressing her views and opinions in a forceful yet coherent manner.

7. Richard Norcross: Yes, he has been spoofed in the "Mouseland" columns. Nevertheless, if one were to compare the tax revenues generated from his ward with the capital expenditures made in it, the latter would far exceed the former. By that measure alone he has been an extremely effective councillor for Beeton. Further, other than MacEachern, no councillor is more skilled at securing necessary council votes.

8. Hart/Marilyn Holmstrom: There is very little that goes on in this Town that doesn't involve one or more Holmstrom. Their reach extents from the Gibson Centre to the Stevenson Memorial Hospital Foundation to the Lion's Club and the local conservative establishment.

9. Mary Galbraith: The Alliston lawyer and former Ward 2 councillor is one of Mayor MacEachern's most trusted friends and advisors. Beyond the serious exterior, Galbraith has a lethal wit. Although one cannot be certain, she appears to possess a "Who's Who" of New Tecumseth society among her list of clients.

10. Darrin Shannon: Notwithstanding his accomplishments, the former National Hockey League professional and coach of the Alliston Hornets is remarkably humble and widely liked. Although Shannon is not known to publicly express his opinions in relation to town business, he is on the list by virtue of the weight his views would have if/when he decides to do so. I suspect that no name would strike greater fear in an incumbent politician (at any level) than Shannon.