Monday, July 27, 2009

Whichever Way The Wind Blows
What qualities should we be looking for in our next mayor -- when the next municipal election is held in November 2010 ?
Citizen Ellie would like to see someone in the job who's had experience running a business and meeting a payroll. Someone who can make a decision and live with it, not changing their mind whenever some group comes along which doesn't like it. Someone who's prepared to put the interests of property taxpayers first, not kowtowing to special interest groups. Someone who recognizes that not every property taxpayer in Ottawa enjoys the comfort and security of a well-paid government job replete with a rich benefit package. Someone who recognizes that senior citizens on pension have seen their incomes drop by 20% since last September, that 19,000 Nortel pensioners living in the area may soon have no pensions. Someone who understands the difference between "must haves" such as snow removal, storm and sanitary sewers, garbage collection, police and fire protection, road and infrastructure maintenance and "nice to haves" such as city-funded community gardens, city-funded museoparks, city-fundedconcert halls etc. Someone who is prepared to say "No".
There's a lot of politicking going on at City Hall right now even though council is hiatus for the summer. The politically ambitious, sensing they might get a leg up on opponents, are angling to fill the mayor's chair on an interim basis should Mayor Larry get bad news on August 12.
In Citizen Ellie's view, councillors who have made the decision to seek the mayor's chair in November 2010, should declare themselves now and step aside -- letting someone else take on the interim role. The playing field should be level, going into the next election. Occupying the seat on an interim basis creates an unfair advantage.
And do you really want someone in this post -- even for a short period of time -- who makes decisions based on whichever way the wind is blowing ?
Take Councillor Cullen, for example. As chair of the city's Transportation Committee -- the committee which oversees all things OC Transpo -- he voted in favor of raising the price of student bus passes. There was some flak from U of O President Alan Rock and some student agitation -- particularly on behalf of aging post-graduate students. Apparently one can be in one's 40s and still qualify for a student bus pass if one is attending uni. (Citizen Ellie must look into this. Are student passes cheaper than seniors ? If so, Citizen Ellie will immediately register to pursue her Spanish conversation classes at the university level rather than continue them at a city facility.)
Then there was Councillor Cullen, on TV, wearing a cycling suit, stating that he'd experienced an epiphany and would move reconsideration at the next council meeting. Was the cycling suit for real or was he wearing it to show support for the five who were seriously injured in the March Road incident only days earlier ? Citizen Ellie thought Councillor Clive Doucet had the cycling fraternity in the palm of his hand.
These epiphanies are frequent at city hall and Councillor Cullen is not the only one who "sees the light" from time to time. Problem is that said epiphanies tend to end up costing us taxpayers money.
There's also been talk of bringing back someone with experience -- such as former Mayor Bob Chiarelli to fill in on an interim basis. Personally Citizen Ellie would prefer it if former Nepean reeve/mayor Andy Haydon would step in should it become necessary to fill Mayor Larry's shoes.
Summer posts usually on Mondays

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Go Ahead -- Laugh and Jeer. The Last Laugh May Be On You !
What should we make of the effort on the part of some city politicians and local columnists to portray individuals and organizations as kooks and weirdos, lacking credibility because they dare to express concern with the high level of property tax rates in Ottawa ?
Should we back off, stifle ourselves -- as Archie Bunker used to say ? Or should we keep up the campaign ?
It's interesting to note once the word got out that the Ottawa Taxpayers' Advocacy Group was planning a series of bus ads on the subject of property taxes, the city's largest union -- CUPE 503 -- immediately sprang into action with an ad campaign of its own. CUPE 503 must have a huge war chest as it can afford TV ads during prime time. A favorite spot is on Ottawa's most watched newscast -- with Max and Carol Anne at 6 p.m. on CTV. These spots don't come cheap. Could it be that CUPE 503 is worried ? Is this a sign that Ottawa's property tax fighters are gaining an audience and rather than lacking in credibility, they're building up a base of like-minded citizens?
Citizen Ellie is not ashamed to admit she voted for Larry O'Brien. Not because she believed in "zero means zero". That was unrealistic and she knew it. Instead, she wanted to see someone in the mayor's chair who had some business smarts, who would run city hall like a business, who would treat taxpayers as shareholders and not as cash cows to be milked in order to please every special interest group that comes along, looking for a handout.
What's wrong with expecting the city to act like every other enterprise in these tough economic times --tighten budgets and decrease expenditures. Common sense dictates that's what you have to do during a recession. Lord knows we've all had to do it at home and at our place of business -- unless city hall's your place of business. (Rumor has it that belt-tightening and expenditure control have even come to major media outlets-- which makes it hard for us ordinary folk to understand why applying the concept at city hall would be so foreign.)
Instead, we've had to listen to the same old guff from columnists and "he who wants to be mayor", Councillor Alex Cullen. We're told that our taxes are high because the province downloaded social programs such as housing and welfare on to the municipalities. True -- the formula is 80% paid by province, 20% paid by the municipality. Every Ontario municipality has had to deal with this. It's not unique to Ottawa. But Ottawa didn't have to exceed the 20% mandated by the province. That was a decision taken by our overly-generous city council.
We're told the feds don't pay their share. We get grants in lieu of taxes. City pols and columnists wail that if property tax was paid on every federal building in the city, more revenue would flow into city hall and our property taxes would be less. That mouldy oldie's been around forever. But nobody talks about the extras for which Ottawans would have to pay if we weren't the nation's capital. Do you honestly believe there would be five world-class museums, a world class art gallery, a world class performing arts centre, an experimental farm, manicured parks, flower-lined parkways and a national park within a half-hour's drive if the tab for all these amenities wasn't being picked up by the taxpayers of Canada ?
City council approved a 4.9% increase in property tax this year. But nobody -- city pols or columnists -- talks about the "hidden" revenue which flooded into the city's coffers as a result of the lifting of the provincial freeze on market value assessments in January. The 4.9% increase is small beer compared to the double-digit tax increases seen in the older sections of the city where market value assessment has had a dramatic effect on property tax levels . Just wait until next year -- market value assessments will increase once again and you may find yourself in the unfortunate position where your property tax exceeds your mortgage payment. Can't happen ? Don't be so sure. Will you be able to sell your house for its asessed value ? Don't be too sure of that either. One thing you can be sure of -- there will be no tax refund if you don't.
So what is council spending our money on ? Perhaps the new finance and audit committee will shed some light on why we're being taxed into the poorhouse -- if they can get their act together.
Thanks to attending some meetings during the budget process last fall,Citizen Ellie knows why. Councillors listen with interest when special interest group representatives take the microphone, but their eyes glaze over when someone tries to plead the taxpayers' case.
Electoral Reform ? Not !
Kingston's city council rejected a proposal to eliminate the ward system and elect councillors-at-large by a 9-4 vote at its July 14 meeting.
Proponents of the change say they're going to make it an issue when the next municipal election rolls around in November 2010.
Something's not right about leaving question of electoral reform to be decided by those who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Naturally they're not going to favor any change which might affect their prospects of re-election.
A better way would be to allow the electors to have a say -- by putting a proposition on the ballot at election time. Wouldn't cost much and might have the benefit of generating more interest in municipal elections where voter turnout can be described as dismal at best.
Summer postings usually on Mondays

Monday, July 6, 2009

Kingston An Example
Kingston's city council meets next on Tuesday, July 14. That's an important date for anyone interested in municipal electoral reform.
Kingston is currently governed by a mayor and 12 councillors, each representing a ward. Same as Ottawa -- except that we have more councillors.
A proposal coming to next week's council meeting in Kingston would see -- if approved -- elimination of the ward system, a reduction in the number of councillors and a great saving to the taxpayers in terms of councillors'salaries and expenses. Councillors would be elected at large. The advantage -- they would, when making decisions, have to look at the effect of said decisions on the city as a whole -- rather than on their own little ward bailliwick. Again, another opportunity to reduce taxpayer costs by eliminating the endless public consultation, second-guessing and decision-reversing which seems to paralyse Ottawa's council when a major project is contemplated and ends up costing the ratepayer considerably more when the project finally gets off the group. That's how Ottawans' tax dollars are wasted.
Kingston taxpayers are fortunate to have elected a group of civic-minded folk who are not afraid to look at alternative methods of governance. Electoral reform doesn't scare them
We're not so lucky in Ottawa where a seat on council is seen as a job for life. Where the report of the Mayor's Task Force on Governance was given short shrift by the poobahs at city hall -- that same city hall where staff cheered when they heard the news that the Mayor's trial was going to continue. Where no one at city hall wants to talk about limiting council terms and where only one councillor, Steve Desroches, has limited himself to only two terms of office -- recognizing the need for new blood. Where no one at city hall wants to think about electoral reform, let alone talk about it.
Given that city council orders public consultation on just about everything else requiring a decision, why can't we have public consultation on electoral reform ? What are they afraid of ?
It's disgraceful that electoral reform is left in the hands of those who stand to benefit from the status quo -- current council members. It's also unfortunate that the provincial Municipal Affairs Minister, Jim Watson, is also disinclined to act -- preferring to leave matters in the hands of those same current council members who benefit from the status quo. Could this be because he's got his own personal electoral reform plan -- i.e. seeking re-election as mayor in 2010 ? Shame !
Kingston's city council is avante garde in other matters too. Imagine this: they have set up a citizens' committee to review council remuneration. It's relatively new, having only started its important work this year. The committee's purpose is to review future compensation for the mayor and councillors. It's an eight-member committee, one each from the business, health care, non-profit, education and organized labor communities, two representatives from the community at large plus a former council member who was elected after November 2000 when amalgamation occurred.
What's good about this ? It will ensure that compensation for the mayor and councillors remains in line with salaries/wages/benefits paid elsewhere in the community. And the public has a say.
Municipal electoral reform mavens will be watching Kingston's city council deliberations with great interest next Tuesday.
Taxpayer Revolt Coming ?
There's increasing evidence that Ottawa property taxpayers are getting restless. Blogs, such as The Pitchfork, taxpayer groups such as Eye on Ottawa and Ottawa Taxpayer Advocacy Group are examples of how today's angry, overburdened property ratepayers are using technology to get their message out and to connect with others holding similar views. The fact this is happening now -- a good year and some before the next municipal election -- should give sitting council members cause for alarm. After all, it was technological savvy that got Barrack Obama elected. And our technological savvy, including use of Facebook, Twitter etc. is what's going to change the face of Ottawa's council.
The Ottawa Taxpayers Advocacy Group web site can be accessed at www.OTTAWATAXPAYER.COM and it's a site well worth taking a look at. The organization is planning a bus advertising campaign in the fall. Good way to get the message out to lots and lots of people.
One of the questions the group asks is this: how is it that the city of Winnipeg has delivered zero budgets for 12 consecutive years while Ottawa has been unable to do this even once in recent years despite the fact Ottawa triple dips from properties (market value assessment, population growth, tax rate increase), user fees (bus fares, hydro, water, development charges, community centre, library fees) and government transfers(federal, provincial and NCC spending). Mayoral candidate and councillor Alex Cullen says it's because Ottawa has to carry provincial programs (social housing, welfare etc.) downloaded on municipalities by the Mike Harris Tories. Misleading.
According to the Ottawa Taxpayers Advocacy Group, the funds Ottawa gets from the feds, the province and through NCC spending more than compensates for the downloading costs. And they cite an example: in 2008, Ottawa received non-property tax revenues in excess of $1 billion; in the same year, Winnipeg received non-property tax revenues of less than $500 million. If non-property tax revenues are divided by population, Ottawa is getting 240% more non-property tax revenue than Winnipeg. How is it then, that Winnipeg manages to put together budgets without increasing taxes ? Inquiring minds want to know.
Summer posts usually on Mondays. Friday postings resume in September.