Saturday, October 24, 2009

Time for Trusteeship ?
Were you shocked by yesterday's news that the estimated cost of Ottawa's proposed rapid rail transit scheme is now $2.1 billion ? And there's likely more to come. This is only the cost of the first phase.
Those of us who thought the initial price tag of $1.8 billion was beyond reality are no longer fazed by cost predictions coming from city hall. We've come to accept that no one down at the "hall" seems to understand (or care, for that matter) that ratepayers want to know what they're getting into in terms of immediate and future impact on their property taxes when major projects are proposed. In this case, a $700 million increase apparently is a mere bagatelle to those in charge.
Transit Committee Chair (and mayor wannabe) Alex Cullen opined after yesterday's committee meeting that thanks to funds raised by the city going into debt, plus contributions from the other levels of government and gas tax revenues, there would be no immediate impact on property taxes. The key word here is "immediate".
Earler in the week, Councillor Cullen was quoted as saying he wouldn't be falling down from a heart attack once the rapid rail transit cost figures were announced. Of course he wouldn't. Tax and spend is his mantra.
The news about spiraling rapid rail transit cost projections came on the same day we learned OC Transpo needs another great whack of our money next year. Those running this dreadful operation want a12.7% increase in their budget. They say they need more cash from our pockets to pay wage increases, cover Para Transpo costs related to the growth of this service and to make up a $8.1 million employee pension fund shortfall due to stock market fluctuations.
This last one really irritates. What does this say to ratepayers who saw their pension plans and retirement savings eroded by fluctuations in the stock market a year ago ? What does this say to ratepayers whose employers have told them the employer can no longer make pension contributions ? What does this say to former Nortel employees who don't know from one day to the next if they'll be receiving that pension cheque ? What does this say to the countless number of ratepayers in this city who don't enjoy gold-plated pension plans ? Maybe it's time some of those well-paid OC Transpo employees, and that includes bus drivers, bit the bullet.
OC Transpo is the same outfit that will run the rapid rail system if it ever gets off the ground. That's guaranteed to turn it into an even bigger albatross around the necks of ratepayers who are currently subsidizing its operating costs to the tune of more than 50%
OC Transpo doesn't pay its way now and one has to wonder what crystal ball the proponents of rapid rail transit and tunnels under the downtown core are consulting if they think OC Transpo will pay its way in the future. Maybe Tarot cards are telling them OC Transpo's ridership will magically increase to the point where fare box revenues will cover all costs and a subsidy from property taxes will no longer be required. Fat chance !
Ratepayers in Phoenix, Arizona bought into a rapid rail transit scheme a few years back. The cost of the electricity required to run this system has turned out to be prohibitive and Phoenix ratepayers now rue the day they ever went this route. Citizen Ellie obtained this information from someone who lives in the Phoenix area.
Fortunately for us, Municipal Affairs Minister Jim Watson is standing on guard. He says the $2.1 billion price tag for the first phase is likely unaffordable.
Once again he's expressed the provincial government's concern about what appear to be never-ending cost increases. But no one down at the "hall" is listening.
The province's finance minister, Dwight Duncan, outlined Ontario's serious financial situation earlier in the week. The province is looking at cutbacks -- including cutbacks to social services, health care, education etc. and even the Ontario Drug Benefit isn't sacred. The feds aren't in a much better position and we haven't heard Transport Minister John Baird jumping up and downj with glee over the fact this mass transportation project is going to cost more ....much more ! So why would anyone in their right mind think the two senior levels of government are just panting to pour money into into the rapid rail transit sinkhole in Ottawa ?
According to Ottawa Sun columnist Sue Sherring, the city's on a rapid road to financial ruin. She notes that already $1 million has been allocated in the city's 2009 budget and this will be spent by the end of the year just to get us to this process.
"The money," she wrote in today's column, "appears to flow faster than citizens can pay. Without traying to be alarmist -- it's incredibly scary. And there's no one there leading or reassuring the taxpayers this plan will both work and be affordable."
Right on, Susan. It's downright scary. And since nobody down at the "hall" is listening to Minister Jim's warning, maybe it's time he dusted off his copy of the legislation which allows the senior level of government to step in and take over, putting the city under trusteeship. Unfortunately some fiscally sensible councillors would be impacted, and some councillors' pet special interest groups would howl, but most Ottawa ratepayers would probably welcome the move. They've had it with this council and its free-spending ways! A previous provincial government took such a step when The Ottawa Hospital couldn't get its financial house in order and it turned out for the better. The timing is right -- the next municipal election is a year away -- time enough for a thorough housecleaning.
New posts usually on Fridays.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Beyond Boondoggling
Citizen Ellie does not normally comment on provincial affairs, there being no dearth of municipal hoo-haw to fill this blog and then some. The E-Health scandal, however, bears comment.
You may think that Ontario Premier Dalton "The Deceiver" McGuinty's management of the province has no direct impact on you. Wrong. As a result of a previous Ontario government downloading a number of formerly provincially-funded social service programs on the municipalities, our property taxes have skyrocketed. (Citizen Ellie refers to Premier McGuinty as "The Deceiver" because he deceived Ontario voters in his first election when he promised there would be no new taxes but implemented the Ontario Health Tax almost immediately after taking office.)
There's a provincial funding formula to guide municipalities in regard to their share of the cost of these social services -- 80% paid by the province, 20% paid by the municipality. That's how it works in most Ontario municipalities -- not so in Ottawa where the generous chardonnay socialists on council thought 20% was not enough in some instances and increased the city's percentage.
Municipal Affairs Minister Jim Watson ( who may be contemplating another run at the mayor's chair) likes to crow about how the McGuinty government is taking over the funding of the social service programs which were previously downloaded and relieving the poor property taxpayer of this onerous burden. In 2008, that amounted to some $12 million. In 2009, the province will pick up $7 million. In 2010, $19 million will become the province's responsibility, with a further $19 million beling picked up in 2011.
You might think that the uploading would lead to a reduction in property taxes or perhaps no increase. Not on your life ! Ottawa's Long Range Financial Planning Committee directed that these savings be used to first replace unsustainable (one-time) revenues which had been built into the budget; secondly to fund an increase to the contribution for capital works; and thirdly to reduce the impact of inflation on the city budget. No one at City Hall apparently gave thought to reducing the impact of inflation on the property taxpayer's budget. They will, however, tell you that if the city hadn't used the uploading savings to offset elimination of one-time revenues, ratepayers would have faced a 6% increase rather than a 4.9 % in 2008. In other words, we were given these savings back in the form of a lower tax increase. But it should not be forgotten that property tax revenue earmarked at the municipal level to pay for social services freed up loads of bucks the McGuinty government could spend on other things !
And spend they did at E-Health ! With no controls. According to the province's auditor-general, the folks running E-Health had an expense account field day, swanning off to the dog races at Sarasota and other exotic places; billing for every second spent on their coffee breaks -- where they consumed designer muffins and $7 lattes while us taxpayers counted our pennies to find $1.49 for our once-a-week treat of a small double-double and donut at Tim's. Expensive consultants were hired -- who also billed for every second of their coffee and lunch breaks, mileage, and lord knows what else !
It turns out no one was minding the store. It also turns out people were playing fast and loose with E-Health's $800 million computer -- downloading games and using it for other personal activities. The one Citizen Ellie likes best is the Toronto doctor who used the computer linkup in his practice to download an "extreme fighting" series through the $800 million computer. But all is well, taxpayers. The doc has promised he won't do it any more.
Has anyone been fired as a result of all this ? The provincial health minister has resigned, but continues to warm his well-paid seat in the legislature. The E-Health executives have all been sent on their way with golden handshakes. But that's government for you. Heads roll uphill or out the door, pockets stuffed with taxpayer dollars.
Meanwhile the premier smirks his way around the province refusing to call a judicial inquiry into the activities at E-Health. "The Deceiver" faces the electorate in 2010.
Let's hope the electorate has a long memory.
Ottawa ratepayers are invited to a gathering at 10 a.m. tomorrow (Saturday, October 17) on Parliament Hill to protest the E-Health scandal.
Election Help From "The Beyond"
November is municipal election month in Quebec. You've got to hand it to those Quebeckers. They know how to liven up an election campaign.
News from the Saguenay this week that one mayoral candidate has artists in the communities (Chicoutimi, Jonquiere, La Baie) which make up this regional municipality creating voodoo dolls in the likeness of the incumbent mayor, who he hopes to defeat. The dolls are being distributed among the electors. Presumably they come with the necessary pins.
What an idea ! No doubt some of you would like to see Mayor Larry's likeness on voodoo dolls come election time. Citizen Ellie thinks there are other, far more worthy candidates for the honor both at the provincial and municipal levels.
New posts usually on Fridays

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

They're Damned Mad !
No one should be surprised at the level of anger being expressed at the Lansdowne Live public consultations.
The future of Landsowne Park is not entirely the cause of this anger. It's the catalyst that's bringing it to the fore. And Citizen Ellie hopes it continues into the upcoming round of public consultations on the budget.
What's the real cause ?
For the 100,000 or so who voted for Larry O'Brien in the last municipal election, they're mad because nearly three years of this council's term has been wasted thanks to a small group of conspirators who decided they didn't care for Larry's politics and set out to "get" him. Instead of dealing with important issues, council sessions became platforms for those who hoped the heat would be such that Mayor Larry would step down, leaving an opening for someone from within to fill the mayor's chair.
For others, the current punitive level of taxation is the bugbear. Pensioners, in particular, are especially concerned because no matter how well one plans for retirement one must face the fact that city taxes are the biggest uncontrolled expense faced by any household because property tax is not tied to household income.One of Citizen Ellie's sources says the city's current operational model results in at least a 5-plus percentage increase every year. The "official number" might be 4.9% as it was last year, but that doesn't take into account the additional bucks flowing into city coffers from that great money-grab, market-value assessment. It doesn't take into consideration the additional bucks flowing into city coffers from water and sewer charges,development fees, user fees and the myriad other surcharges the current council has imposed on taxpayers in recent years.
For others, its the never-ending waste and boondoggling surrounding city projects such as the LRT.
And for others, especially those living in the rural parts of the city, they're angry because they haven't seen any benefit from amalgamation. They are paying city-sized taxes for services they have yet to see. Paved roads, sidewalks, water and sewer come immediately to mind. Most chose to live in what have now become the rural areas within the city's boundaries because they didn't want to pay for a whole mess of services (such as OC Transpo) which they would never need. They've seen their taxes skyrocket.
The good news is that people are starting to organize. There are at least two groups which have taken up the taxpayers' cause -- the Ottawa Taxpayer Advocacy Group (Ottawa TAG) and the Carleton County Landowners' Association. And it looks as if these two groups are joining forces. Great. There is strength in numbers.
You might be surprised to learn that Ontario has never completed Ottawa's amalgamation process and there will be a city-wide forum on governance for Ottawa next year. Mayor Larry, mindful of this, commissioned a study on governance which is gathering dust on a shelf at city hall bcause the "lifers" on city council take the poition that they, and only they, know what sort of governance is best for the citizens of Ottawa. (The sort of governance which keeps them in their jobs !)
The Carleton County Landowners have organized three events to help prepare rural input for said forum. Retired Senator Eugene Whelan will speak at the meeting on November 19 at 7 p.m. at the Carp Fairgrounds. Ade Olumide of Ottawa TAG will speak at the November 26 meeting at 7 p.m. at the Richmond Ciommunuity Centre. Councillor Clive Doucet (who has embraced the cause of de-amalgamation) will speak at the meeting on December 3 at 7 p.m. at the Kinburn Community Centre.
One of the problems Ottawa TAG and some members of the Carleton Landowners' Association have is a lack of knowledge of the Ontario Labor Relations Act and its impact on such approaches as privatization. And this goes to the credibility of the organization/s. Take OC Transpo, for example. Some think the solution is privatization -- sell it to a private sector operator who will lower wages, cut staff and implement efficiencies, making the system profitable.
Unfortunately this won't work. When an operation such as OC Transpo is heavily unionized, successors' rights clauses in the Ontario Labor Relations Act come into play. Unless the private sector operator is prepared for and can afford war, the private sector operator has to take the current employees along with their current union contract. Not too many private sector operators are prepared to do this. And unlike Britain's Margaret Thatcher who took on the miners, there are few, if any, politicians at the provincial and municipal levels in Ontario with the brass balls to take on sucessors' rights.
Credibility is a key issue for any organization wanting to take on the "lifers" on city council. And the least little gaffe which opens the door to councillors and their friends in the major media to point their fingers and adopt the familiar oh-so-patronizing attitude that while they work for us, we're too stupid to understand what they do. This can be the killer for any organization trying to change the status quo.
Citizen Ellie's advice to both Ottawa TAG and the Carleton County Landowners is to be very sure of what you speak. Building credibility is the key to success. And the time is ripe for a taxpayer revolt !
New posts usually on Fridays

Friday, October 2, 2009

Random Thoughts.....
Tooting own trumpet: In a June 27 post, Citizen Ellie quoted a source who told her the membership of the Amalgmated Transit Union (OC Transpo bus drivers etc.) were not interested in giving up their right to strike. The source said the union membership was divided on the issue of arbitration right from the get-go. Citizen Ellie also noted that union president Andre Corneillier and Councillor Alex Cullen were forgetting something important when they trumpeted that a new era of labor peace had arrived at OC Transpo. Like bloodhounds on the scent, they just had to rush to the media with the news that an agreement had been reached. What they forgot to say was that while they might have reached an agreement, it would have no weight until the union membership had the opportunity to vote on it. Given that Brother Andre barely escaped being put out to pasture by his members in June when the local election was held, Citizen Ellie opined that this did not bode well for an agreement substituting binding arbitration for the right to strike. ATU members voted on the issue last week. They didn't give up their right to strike. Was Citizen Ellie right, or what ?
They're not getting it: Municipal Affairs Minister Jim Watson has tried everything. He's raised the issue of costs. He's raised the security issue. No matter what he says, the powers that be at City Hall forge ahead with LRT planning which includes a tunnel beneath the downtown core. Time for a little plain speaking --in clear language so there can be no misunderstanding. Time to state once and for all that the province has no interest in a tunnel from the Bayview Yards to the University of Ottawa. Time to state once and for all that the province will not be contributing one red cent to the cost of building said tunnel from the Bayview Yards to the University of Ottawa. Time to state that the province recognizes that Ottawa property taxpayers are already overburdened. Save the taxpayers from this folly and they'll be erecting a statue in your honor. Get on with it, Minister Jim !
A sad sight: Citizen Ellie drives by the baseball stadium (previously known as Lynx Stadium) on an almost daily basis. It's been sitting empty for over a year, and it's reported that the facility is not being properly maintained. It's been suggested by some who've been in the place that the city is allowing it to deterioriate just like the city allowed the Civic Centre complex to deterioriate.
So there's no professional or semi-pro baseball in Ottawa any more. That doesn't mean the stadium couldn't be used for other revenue-generating activities. It would make a wonderful venue for small festivals, such as the jazz and folk festivals. It could have been used as the site for the provincial Little League championships which were held in Ottawa this past summer. It could have been used by a variety of baseball leagues in the city. A deal could have been struck with the nearby Hampton Inn re late night jazz sessions if the jazz festival was held there. A deal could have been struck with the Hampton Inn to accommodate and feed the Little League teams and their parents. These are the kinds of activities a private sector entrepreneur would organize at the stadium. These are the kinds of activities which would generate reveue for the city. Instead, it sits idle. That's what happens when you have a bunch of social engineers running the city. Maintaining assets owned by the taxpayers takes a back seat to exercises in wealth redistribution.
New posts usually on Fridays