Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Dispatch From The Southwest
(COTTONWOOD, AZ.) Citizen Ellie has been reading the Arizona Republic of late and it's surprising how many similarities can be found between what's going on here in Arizona and what's going on back in Ontario.
Arizona is in deep financial doo-doo. So much so that state parks are being threatened with closure as a budget-balancing measure. Given Dalton "The Deceiver" McGuinty's provincial deficit, can our provincial parks be far behind ?
In Phoenix, the police force expects pink slips to be handed out next week. Currently some 300 police officer positions (vacant due to attrition) remain unfilled and with the pink slips, a total of just over 400 officer positions will be eliminated.
The chickens have come home to roost here and surprise, surprise -- the League of Arizona Cities and Towns (which met yesterday to discuss how local governments are managing unprecedented budget shortfalls) is calling on state government to live within its means during these tough economic times.
Apparently during the past year, cities and towns in Arizona have cut staff, scaled back services and learned to be more efficient to navigate a drop in revenues due to the recession.
According to Scottsdale Mayor Jim Lane, city governments "got fat, dumb and sloppy" when times were flush, creating inflated staff levels. Doesn't this sound familiar ! Look at what's happened in Ottawa since amalgamation. Dowries (surpluses) from the smaller municipalities forced by the province into the shotgun marriage with Ottawa have been squandered, staff and salaries have increased and taxpayers, especially those in the rural parts of the city, are royally pissed off ! Taxpayers in the urban areas (where market value assessment hits hardest) are angry too.
Scottsdale's Mayor Lane says the downturn has allowed his city to "go back to where there is a SUSTAINABLE level of government which will carry forward savings for years to come."
In Phoenix, they're talking about recalibrating the city's economy -- moving away from being a second option for Californians and speculative real-estate investment, focusing instead on economic diversity and creating good jobs.
In Citizen Ellie's view, Ottawa needs to get beyond dependency on the federal government (which will shrink over the next few years as the feds cut programs and services in order to eliminate the deficit), construction and the tourism industry for job creation. Ottawa should become more like Houston, Tex., which has moved its focus beyond its core energy sector to fields such as international trade and medical services. Inertia -- the tendency to wait for things to come back the way they were -- doesn't cut it any more.
Ottawa's city council is currently in the midst of budget deliberations. Any tax increase beyond the rate of inflation is not acceptable to the majority of ratepayers, and in this election year, councillors would do well to remember that. "SUSTAINABILITY" should become the new mantra especially when there is evidence that times are not so flush in Ottawa after all !
New postings after February 16

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Random Thoughts....
Councillor Marianne Wilkinson is bringing a very important motion to city council tomorrow, calling for a financial sustainability summit involving council members, city staff and members of the public. She has the support of nine council members. Notably, the chardonnay socialists, the "tax and spend" gang are not on this list.
What's the purpose of such a summit ?
It would determine if current property taxes plus user fees plus the current debt load are affordable -- in other words, can Ottawa ratepayers continue to meet these costs. To do this, a comparison would be made between growth in costs to date resulting from amalgamation and projected growth over a long-term period into the future.
It would examine core services, non-core services and capital projects from the perspective of what the ratepayer can afford. A variety of service delivery models would be looked at as well as financial controls for high-value projects.
It would generate a list of recommendations as to how property tax affordability can be achieved, and it would be left to present and future councils to implement some/all of the recommendations. Today's budget process is based on the current calendar year's rate increase along with new revenue opportunities. The summit would focus on long-term affordability for property taxpayers, reducing costs and achieving high value for tax dollars.
The time is right for such a summit and Citizen Ellie hopes councillors will see the benefit of achieving a ratepayer buy-in for future tax planning.
While it's generally thought that Ottawa's been recession-proof, the truth hardly bears out that belief. One would have to be blind, deaf and dumb not to get the message that times are bad for a lot of Ottawans. This message was pounded home on a daily basis in December by the various NGOs operating in the city as they tried to raise funds for Christmas relief.
And those who think the city will continue to grow at the rate seen over the past 20 years should give their heads a shake. The tech sector has lost jobs. And while there have been some small tech start-ups, they don't make up for the loss of Nortel and the disastrous impact that company's shut down has had on its few remaining employees and its pensioners. The feds now have a huge deficit, thanks to a variety of bail-outs which saved this country from the worst of the recession's effects. But make no mistake about it -- steps will be taken by the feds to reduce the deficit and that means cut-backs in programs and services with a corresponding cut-back in number of employees. They may be able to do it through attrition as large numbers of federal public servants are due to retire over the next few years. But this means those retired federal employees will be living on reduced incomes and far less likely to support property tax increases which outpace the rate of inflation. Ottawa has the second-largest senior population in the country --only exceeded by Victoria, BC. The only sure growth coming our way is increased numbers of pensioners on fixed incomes and this surely must be a major consideration when looking at financial sustainability along with the fact that good-paying jobs are disappearing from the Ottawa scene.
There are several costly projects on the drawing boards, not the least of which is the proposed LRT system. The province has earmarked $600 million as its share and Premier Dalton "The Deceiver" McGuinty has made it clear that there ain't no more coming from that source. The feds haven't spoken as yet -- when they do, they probably won't exceed $600 million either. The LRT's costs are already way beyond what was initially projected and if it goes ahead as currently planned, there will be a humungus shortfall to be shouldered by Ottawa ratepayers.
If for no other reason, the LRT's cost alone justifies a financial sustainability summit. Let's hope all councillors do what's right for the taxpayers who are paying the freight.
If the proverbial "Man from Mars" had descended on Ottawa last week, he could hardly be blamed for thinking he'd arrived in the midst of a coronation or a second coming, at least. And second coming it was -- the second coming of Jim Watson, lately a provincial cabinet minister, now a mayoral candidate.
While his entry into the fray will make the campaign more interesting, Citizen Ellie finds the fact he's being joined by three former staffers to be truly fascinating. A "Watson slate" ? Not on your life says he, with his three former minions joining in a chorus of protest.
Citizen Ellie likes these guys. They're youngish, but not as young as now long-in-the-tooth Peter Hume, Rick Chiarelli and Michel Bellemare were when they were first elected.
Perry Simpson is going after the Kanata South seat; Mark Taylor wants to fill Councillor Alex Cullen's shoes in Bay Ward; and Stephen Blais is having a go in Cumberland.
The three all support term limits for councillors -- two four-year-terms is sufficient, they say -- sitting on council should not be a job for life. That in itself is a good reason to elect them.
If only there was an ex-Watson staffer to run against Councillor Jacques Legendre in Rideau-Rockcliffe. Perhaps Citizen Ellie will have to bite the bullet !
Citizen Ellie departs early tomorrow for the southwest where, among other things, she'll have the opportunity to get a first-hand look at LRT systems in Phoenix and San Diego -- where the taxpayers are now complaining about these systems' operating costs -- electricity being somewhat more expensive in the southern U-S than it is here. Posting will resume mid-February.
Posting will resume on February 19

Friday, January 8, 2010

Another OC Transpo Screw-Up

Wonder why OC Transpo can't meet its operating costs through farebox revenues ?
Turns out the new electronic fareboxes aren't working half the time -- so those wishing to use tickets or pay cash get to ride for free !
Taxpayers screwed again ! And judging from OC Transpo boss Alain Mercier's smirking interview with CTV Ottawa's Norm Fetterly last night (Thursday, January 7)
it's nothing to be concerned about. In fact, Boss Mercier gave every appearance that it was a laughing matter. Well it ain't no laughing matter to Ottawa ratepayers -- who are subsidizing this transit "service" through their property taxes.
Thank goodness for Councillor Bob Monette. He's demanding answers. Where is the chairman of the city's Transit Committee on this issue ? Guess he's just too busy out on the stump promising that if elected mayor next October 25, Ottawans need not worry about another bus strike. There won't be one on his watch, he says.
Now this is one of the finest pieces of political prevarication Citizen Ellie has come across in a long time. Puts one in mind of similar promises made in Toronto during the last municipal election campaign four years ago -- when David Miller and a half-dozen others promised a new era of labor peace if they were elected. Torontonians fell for this garbage -- and what did they get in return ? Garbage ! Great mounds of it ! During the hottest period of the summer ! During the height of tourist season ! That's when Toronto's garbage workers went on strike !
It's interesting to note that David Miller is not seeking another term as mayor. It's also interesting to note that Toronto's council has now prohibited both corporate and union donations to municipal election campaigns so there won't be any in the upcoming campaign. Obviously somebody learned something down there in the "big smoke".
Mayor wannabe Cullen is the very same person who last year trumpeted good news on the transit front -- a deal had been reached between the city and the Amalgamated Transit Union to the effect that all future contract disputes would be settled by binding arbitration. Too bad he didn't have a good pipeline into the union rank and file. We all know what happened to this one. Firstly, union president Andre Corneillier (who apparently committed himself to this binding arbitration deal without consulting his membership) narrowly escaped defeat in last summer's union election. In September, Brother Andre was slapped down again when ATU members voted to retain the conciliation/strike option.
But back to the fare box issue. Presumably Boss Mercier recommended installation of these devices to the city's Transit Committee, which, as we all know, is chaired by Councillor Cullen who is all set to spare no expense on building a light rail tunnel on the fault line which runs beneath the city.
On Wednesday past, the Ottawa Taxpayer Advocacy Group (Ottawa TAG) sent a letter to City Council demanding Auditor General Alain Lalonde be empowered to undertake an audit of all activities related to transit.
Their concerns: cancellation of routes and service levels due to maintenance problems; purchase of articulated buses which can't handle Ottawa winters (who was the great genius who chose these ?); doubling costs of capital projects such as the garage-mahal currently under construction; doubling costs of projected projects such as LRT; doubling costs of automated bus announcement system(a cost made necessary by refusal of operators to call out bus stops and the apparent inability of OC Transpo management to discipline operators who refuse to do this part of their job ); expenditure on fines due to OC Transpo management's failure to enforce human rights tribunal decisions re announcing bus stops; questionable fuel purchase contracts; failure to properly monitor sick leave usage; failure to take steps to prevent scheduling operators to ensure maximum overtime; failure to take steps to prevent scheduling of operators when there are no buses to drive; and procurement of fare boxes that don't work -- among other things.
Ottawa TAG's request for a thorough audit has merit, especially since the city is ready to embark on a huge LRT project. Are those in charge at OC Transpo ready to manage a multi-billion dollar LRT system ? And what about the city's Transit Committee ? C'mon, councillors -- let's have a thorough examination of this operation. You want our property taxes to subsidize OC Transpo's operating costs ? Then prove to us with a thorough audit, as Ottawa TAG is requesting, that our tax dollars are being wisely spent by a tough, effective management team.
When citizens are left stranded at bus stops in January because buses aren't running -- allegedly due to maintenance problems; when fareboxes don't work -- resulting in free rides for those who don't use passes; when operators can still get away with refusing to call out stops despite Human Rights tribunal decisions and subsequent fines; when sick leave and ovetime costs are through the roof -- the average taxpayer gags at the thought of what will happen to his/her property taxes when this lot have electric trains to play with.
New posts usually on Fridays

Friday, January 1, 2010

And So It Begins.....

To all my bl-eaders: health and happiness in 2010.
The editor of the late, lamented, satirical magazine, Frank, coined a well-appointed phrase to describe election campaigns: "the running of the reptiles".
And given that this is the first day of January in a municipal election year, January being the month when candidates for city council normally declare themselves, we can safely say the "reptiles" are in the gate, waiting for the starter's signal.
Councillor Alex Cullen has already made a declaration of sorts -- but he could back off, especially if current provincial Municipal Affairs Minister Jim Watson decides to seek the mayor's chair. Watson and Cullen would split the liberal/leftie vote, leaving the field clear for Mayor Larry or some other right- of -centre candidate to fill the position. No doubt political strategists for the Cullen and Watson camps have already put their heads together to discuss who has the better chance of unseating the incumbent.
Rumor has it that at least eight of the current councillors will be replaced. At least one has already indicated he plans to retire. Others may choose to go this route too -- retirement being preferable to a trouncing at the polls. Let's see some new faces: some new blood; candidates from among the real movers and shakers in this community; candidates with solid business backgrounds, records of success in their chosen fields; candidates who are prepared to serve two terms and no more.
October 25 is the big day. That's when taxpayers have the opportunity to exact their revenge on a council which, since amalgamation, has squandered taxpayers' money; turned Ottawa into the highest-taxed municipality in the country; turned ratepayers into paupers; where homeowners' property tax bills exceed their mortgage payments; where seniors on pensions have to sell up and move to Smith's Falls or some other location where property tax is still affordable.
It will be an exciting year. Nothing of import will be accomplished at city hall as the "reptiles" attempt to solidify their positions in their wards-- but what the hey -- there's nothing new about that ! That's all this gang has done since amalgamation.
If you're looking to make a New Year's resolution, resolve to vote on October 25. By making the individual effort, you help to ensure a large turnout at the polls. Become a "revolting ratepayer" by joining the growing movement for change at city hall. Better yet, run for office. You are an army of one !
New posts usually on Fridays