Friday, February 27, 2009

How Your Tax Dollars Are Spent (1)
March will be upon us on Sunday and what do we have to look forward to in addition to ice blasting on the Rideau River and gaining another hour of daylight ?
March is tax time. It's when the dreaded envelope bearing the city's return address hits our mailboxes. The first property tax installment is due in March.
But wait-- you say -- I thought the city had decided to hold off issuing tax bills until April.
Indeed, during the recent labor dispute involving OC Transpo, city council toyed with the idea of postponing sending out the tax bills for a month. This delay was supposed to help alleviate financial burdens on Ottawans caused by the bus strike.
"Toyed with the idea" is the operative phrase here. In case you missed it, council did an about-face, changed its collective mind and reverted to the original plan. Tax bills would go out in March, as usual. What you have here is another shining example of the decision-making process so loved by current council members. It's a wonder they didn't spend another $100,000.00 to hire a consulting firm to tell them what to do.
When you receive your tax bill, pay close attention to the "transportation" line. That's how much you're paying to subsidize OC Transpo. Should be about 20% of the total.
School boards used to be the biggest gobblers of property tax dollars. Education at the primary and secondary levels is now funded by the province -- like hospitals. And, like hospitals, there can be no deficits. There can be no running back to the taxpayers for more money. In hospitals, balancing the budget can mean bed closures and layoffs. In education, balancing the budget can mean school closures and layoffs.
OC Transpo has now replaced the school boards as the gaping maw into which large bundles of property tax dollars must be stuffed.
Most of us realize it's unrealistic to expect that property taxes will never increase. If, during the last municipal election campaign, you believed zero meant zero, then Citizen Ellie has some swell Florida swampland you can have for but a song !
It is, however, realistic for property ratepayers to expect that those operations funded with their tax dollars are managed in a cost-effective, efficient manner.
Can we say this about OC Transpo -- an organization which has yet to come up with a set of numbers accurately reflecting what the bus strike cost ? For once, Citizen Ellie agrees with Councillor Cullen -- the city's auditor-general should get right on this one !
The fare box accounts for about 50% of OC Transpo's revenues. The plan for 2009 was to increase revenues coming from the fare box to 55% of the total -- meaning that an increased share of the cost of transit services would be provided by the users of the service, rather than from property taxes. This was to be achieved by a variety of means -- increasing ridership, providing additional service on high demand routes, delivering consistent service, reorganizing the management structure by bringing bus maintenance and purchasing into the OC Transpo organization, realizing approximately $12 million in productivity improvements through a series of targeted efficiency improvements and developing a new relationship with front-line employees to build job satisfaction and reinforce service excellence. All airy-fairy stuff --no talk of fare box increases here.(This information has been taken from the city's budget 2009 background paper -- option 4.)
We all know what's happened to these stellar goals -- gone with the bus strike which paralyzed the city for nearly eight weeks.
So what's left ? The only option to achieve the 55% cost recovery target -- and in this economic downturn it should still remain a 2009 goal -- was and still is fare box increases and reducing service. If that means layoffs, so be it. Nurses, commercial airline pilots, even TV personalities get laid off. Why not bus drivers ?
Naturally there would be a huge outcry, and if there's one thing current members of city council don't like, it's huge outcries. It's easier to stick it to the property taxpayer. Never mind that he or she is already groaning under the burden.
Meanwhile the arbitrator's report is still to come. There is no guarantee that the city's position will be upheld. There's every chance that the union will come out of arbitration with all of its demands intact -- and maybe more.
When contemplating this arbitration, a read of Auditor-General Alain Lalonde's 2007 audit of the city's labor relations practices is not comforting.
He found the city had a poor track record in upholding the employer's position through the grievance procedure, especially at arbitration. "Collective bargaining mandates are not driven and developed from long-term strategic plan objective -- they are bottom-up, short-term and operational mandates which do not anticipate and pave the way for true business transformation." (You can read this for yourself on the city's web site -- -- click on "auditor general".)
Stay tuned. There's more to come.
Overtime Can Make You Very, Very Sick !
Just a note to those OC Transpo drivers scheduling themselves to work double shifts etc. etc. According to a study published in the latest edition of the American Journal of Epidemiology, based on analysis of 2,214 middle-aged British civil servants, those working more than 55 hours a week had poorer mental skills than those who worked a standard work week. And it gets worse. There were problems with short-term memory and word recall and the effects were cumulative. The study concluded that long working hours may raise the risk of mental decline and possibly dementia.
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Friday, February 20, 2009

Election Fever ? Relax ! Take A Pill !
If one good thing has resulted from the bus strike ( incidentally, we still can't find out the true cost of the strike) it's that Ottawans are turning their attention away from Parliament Hill, directing it to City Hall -- unless U-S President Barack Obama is on the Hill !
Many citizens used to hold the view that the only important political action occurs on Wellington Street --thus the lack of interest in municipal politics which translates into a dismal turnout at the polls when municipal elections are held every four years. The bus strike lesson is that the really important political decisions -- the ones which have a major impact on daily life -- are made in that building on Laurier Avenue.
There's a lot of anger in this town.
Word on the street is that Mayor Larry wouldn't be the only one getting his walking papers if a municipal election was held tomorrow. A number of councillors could be seeking new employment as well.
There's much speculation about which of the current crop of councillors might seek the mayor's chair come November 2010. Some are already salivating about the prospect of wearing the robes and chain of office, even though it would only be in an acting capacity while Mayor Larry is in court in April.
Councillors Alex Cullen, Clive Doucet, Peter Hume, Diane Deans, Jan Harder and Rick Chiarelli are said to be in the frame. Some have even gone so far as to seek the blessing of previously defeated mayoralty candidate Alex Munter. Or have they been seeking reassurance that Munter wont run again.........
All this election talk begs the question: should a seat on council be a job for life ?
In fact, a job for life is what it's become for many Ottawa councillors. Peter Hume and Rick Chiarelli are good examples. They've been in municipal politics since they were small boys.
There are 23 members of council plus Mayor Larry. Some 16 of these started their political careers at the municipal level prior to the millenium. Not all of them have served all their time on Ottawa's council. Some were on Nepean and Gloucester councils and others came from the rural municipalities outside the greenbelt as a result of amalgamation.
Take Glen Brooks, for example. He's been around since 1977 when he was first elected to Rideau Township Council. Doug Thompson, Gord Hunter, Bob Monette and Diane Holmes have been in municipal politics since the 1980s. Michel Bellemare, Jacques Legendre, Rainer Bloess, Diane Deans, Peter Hume,Rick Chiarelli, Alex Cullen and Georges Bedard -- elected in the 1990s. Of the "old guard", Clive Doucet is a relative newcomer, first elected in 1997. Marianne Wilkinson, another example -- spent 17 years representing electors in March Township and Kanata before taking a break and coming back in 2006.
The real "newbies" -- councillors elected since 2000 -- include Peggy Feltmate, Maria McRae, Rob Jellett, Eli El Chantiry, Shad Quadri, Steve Desroches and Christine Leadman, And of course, Mayor Larry, elected in 2006.
Some people might believe longevity in public office equates with good government. After all, these folks have decades of experience. And that's a good thing -- right ? Not necessarily so. Longevity on public boards and in elected office can result in what human resource professionals refer to as "zombie culture" -- no matter how inept the performance, the career cannot be killed.
The current council is more than halfway through its four (4) year term. It has not distinguished itself. The bus strike disaster, the LRT fiasco, the dithering about Lansdowne Park's future, the scandalous state of the city's social housing, and allowing raw sewage to run right into the Ottawa River are just a few examples of just how ineffective this council has been in serving the needs of the electors.
While council presented a united front (with one notable exception) during the bus strike, they're reverted back to their old ways. Some of them are still out to "get" the mayor. The chardonnay socialists and liberal freespenders who represent inside-the-greenbelt wards would like to kick their rural, fiscally conservative colleagues off the island. Some have trouble understanding the issues which are important to taxpayers. Others are not listening to the taxpayers --continuing to put so-called "entitlements" of special interest groups ahead of the taxpayers' ability to pay. Definitely disfunctional ! And you thought Question Period on the Hill was bad !
The current jockeying for the mayor's chair could have an unfortunate result for Ottawa property taxpayers. The city could be pipped at the post in the infrastructure/incentive funding sweepstakes.
Toronto has received its money for transit. Brockville has been awarded cash for its waterfront project. Even tiny Merrickville will be renewing its water treatment facility thanks to federal/provincial dollars.
If you were in John Baird or Dalton McGuinty's position, would you dole out millions to a city run by a bunch of people who can't see beyond their ward boundaries ? There's a shortage of big picture thinkers in this crowd.
People are starting to talk about limiting municipal politicians to two consecutive terms of office.. The talk is not limited to Ottawa. It's the subject of conversation in Toronto too. It's an idea whose time has come as more and more citizens become increasingly disenchanted with how their cities are being run and how their property taxes are being spent. What starts as a whisper frequently becomes a groundswell, especially when people are mad as hell and don't want to take it anymore!
As for the "long in the electoral tooth" who are casting lustful glances at the mayor's chair and considering their options (translation: will I still have the security of my council seat to fall back on if I don't make it as mayor ?) here's another option for you: give us a break and retire when your term comes to an end! Move on ! Get another job ! It's time for new blood from the top down!
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Friday, February 13, 2009

Who Can Do The Math ?
Mayor Larry thinks the city needs a committee to oversee its finances. Good idea. Even Citizen Ellie, who considers herself to be a mathematical genius, is having trouble with all the numbers floating around in conjunction with the bus strike.
Early on in the strike, Ottawans were told the city was saving $3.5 million each week the buses didn't run. The strike lasted 53 days -- just short of eight weeks. Let's say seven weeks weeks at $3 million -- that would mean a saving of $21 million. Ratepayers were delerious at the thought some of this saving might be passed on to them in the form of a property tax rebate ! Alas, it was not to be.
The $3.5 million figure was put out by OC Transpo boss Alain Mercier. It turns out he is badly in need of a new calculator as he now says his original figure of $3.5 million was a "rough estimate." He now has a "more realistic" estimate but what it is, no one knows. Was there a saving ? Inquiring minds want to know.
Then there's the $13.4 million figure initially attached to the cost of compensation and incentives to get people back on the buses. Apparently that number wasn't correct -- the package apparently cost closer to $10 million, some $7.6 million of which has already been collected on bus passes not used during the strike. This leaves $2.4 million to pay for the compensation/incentive package -- but apparently that figure is wrong too. The package cost has been re-estimated at $1.5 million .
Magic calculators ? Smoke and mirrors ? The old shell game ? Just what is going on here ?
Yes, a finance and audit committee is badly needed to oversee city finances. But a committee only made up of councillors and city staff smacks too much of putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.
Some independent third parties -- i.e. taxpayers --should be on that committee too. Here's a tip, Larry: find people who know how to add and subtract, multiply and divide, and read a balance sheet !
Smart Folks
The Citizen Ellie Good Judgement Award this week goes to the Renfrew County Council whose members recognize their constituents are having a tough time in the recession and that they should set an example.
They've decided not to send anyone to the annual Federation of Canadian Municipalities meeting this spring in Whistler, B.C. and have passed a one-year moratorium on attending conventions.
What a contrast to the haste about a dozen Ottawa councillors demonstrated in signing up to attend this convention ! Country mice are pretty smart.
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Friday, February 6, 2009

Powerful Words
U-S President Barack Obama has a way with words.
"Shameful !" "Obscene !" "Irresponsible !" "Insensitive !" "Uncaring !" "In bad taste !" That's how he described the actions of some CEOs in the financial industry who were in the process of using taxpayers' bailout money to purchase new corporate jets and redecorate their offices.
He could have been describing the dozen or so Ottawa councillors who would like to attend a municipal conference in Whistler, B. C. on your dime and mine. Betcha if the same conference was to be held in Cornwall, Mayor Larry might have had to beat the bushes in order to find a travelling companion.
Councillor Diane Deans ( currently serving her fifth term on Council) made polite noises to the media about the optic of the junket perhaps being bad. Bad isn't the word for it. Shameful would be more appropriate.
While the cost of sending Ottawa's travelling gong show to Whistler is chump change in the grand scheme of the city's budget, it's certainly in bad taste during this recession when people are losing their jobs and businesses are going bankrupt. Did any one of the junketeers give a thought to the Nortel workers who are being screwed out of their severance pay ? Did any one of the junketeers give a thought to Nortel pensioners who are living in fear their pensions are going to disappear ? Did any one of the junketeers give a thought to the seniors who've seen their nest eggs shrink by 40% ? Did any one of the junketeers give a thought to the residential taxpayers whose property values are starting to drop ?
Right now, people all over Ottawa are looking at their household budgets, red pencil in hand. They know a 4.9% increase in their property tax is coming. But it could be more -- market value assessment is set at 2005 levels, when real estate prices were higher, and there's still the OC Transpo settlement to come. So they're cutting. The newspaper subscription has to go; if the old dog or cat dies, there won't be a replacement as pets cost too much to feed and maintain; the contribution to the church has to be pared down; there won't be anything this year for the United Way or CHEO. Thrift is the new normal !
Thrift is one of the words councillors would do well to remember when they look at discretionary spending. Desperate economic times call for desperate measures.
Shameful, in bad taste, obscene, irresponsible, insensitive and uncaring are words taxpayers would do well to remember -- and use frequently in e-mails to or conversations with their elected representatives at city hall.
No Lunch for Larry
The Pitchfork Etiquette Award this week goes to the Ottawa Council for the Arts.
These folks decided to punish Mayor Larry for his hard line against arts funding during recent budget deliberations. So they disinvited him to their annual Sweetheart Lunch for the Arts.
His meal, however, will not be wasted. Councillor Diane Holmes (first elected to Council in 1982 and who has never met a special interest group she didn't like) and MP Paul Dewar(NDP) will share the honor of hosting the event. Don't know if they'll have to share what would have been Larry's meal.
Talk about churlish behavior ! But why should we be surprised ? Rudeness and ungraciousness are prevalent in today's society and rudeness and ungraciousness are too often characteristics exhibited by special interest groups -- the folks who truly believe they are entitled to their entitlements, and whose grasping hands are never far from taxpayers' wallets.
You may not like the person wearing the robes and chain of office. You may not like positions taken by the person wearing the robes and chain of office. But you should have respect for the office.
Back in the day, when Leonardo da Vinci was creating his magnificent works of art, artists had patrons who supported them financially-- usually wealthy people like the Medicis. Composers such as Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin also had wealthy patrons -- patrons whose names still appear as dedications on their scores for symphonies, sonatas concertos and the like.
When the Council for the Arts in Ottawa accepted funding from the city, every property taxpayer became a partron of the arts -- whether they liked it or no and whether the Council of the Arts liked it or not. And as patrons of the arts, many of us are not amused at this insult to the office of the Mayor. Shameful !
Arbitration 101
Here's a quick lesson for those of you who are not familiar with how binding arbitration works. Useful knowledge to have since your tax bill may be impacted by an arbitrator's decision regarding OC Transpo drivers and mechanics.
Because OC Transpo buses cross provincial borders, federal labor legislation governs and the federal Labor Minister, Rona Ambrose, will appoint the arbitrator. Arbitrators are usually chosen from a list -- they can be retired judges, lawyers with particular expertise in labor law, university professors.
The arbitrator will hear arguments from both the employer and the union. Each side will present their case. The arbitrator then will take the time to consider these arguments and reach a decision. Once a decision has been reached, it is binding on both the employer and the union -- regardless of whether they like it.
One key thing to remember is that the employer's ability to pay isn't a consideration in the arbitrator's deliberations. This was certainly the experience in Ontario's hospital sector in the 1990s, when a series of arbitration awards provided wage increases for hospital staff which put hospitals into an even worse deficit situation than they were already in, resulting in bed closures and staff layoffs.
And that is why private sector employers NEVER agree to binding arbitration as the way out of a labor dispute.
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