10/9/14

The Real Facility Costs


Ribbon cuttingAnother misleading statement was made during one of the all-candidates’ meetings last week: that our new recreational facilities – the Central Park Arena and the Centennial Aquatic Centre – cost $20 million and that the pool was 30% over budget.

Neither is correct.

According to our treasurer, Marjory Leonard, who replied to my emails this week, here are the actual numbers:

The original quote for the building alone: $3,425,000.
Council later approved an increase of $1,300,441. This included the therapeutic pool approved October 15, 2012 in Staff Report PRC 2012-22 – $550,000. It included the pool tank enhancements approved February 11, 2013 – $583,000, and the unanticipated construction costs of $88,000 for asbestos, pipe rerouting and soil removal.
The total budgeted amount was thus $4,725,441.
As of Dec. 31, 2013, the total cost was $4,917,739. This was $192,298 over budget. However, subtracting the donation from the Clippers Swim Club of $158,000 for pool enhancements, the total amount over budget was $34,298, or approximately 0.7% over budget. Most of this was because of unexpected problems with the site.
Note that the building costs did not go over budget: increases in costs were due either to unanticipated site works costs or council’s addition of features (i.e. the therapeutic pool).

As for the Central Park arena and rink, the figures are similar:

The original quote was $8,292,000 – Staff Report EMC 2012-01 (August 27, 2012)
This budget was $7,476,000 for the building alone, $316,000 for accessories and $500,000 for site servicing.
The 2013 Budget increased this amount by $57,050 for a total of $8,349,050.
However, council later changed the Hamilton Street entrance, an unanticipated project in response to local residents’ concerns about traffic and at an extra cost.
The actual cost as of December 31, 2013 was $8,571,479.
Again, the overrun was due to unanticipated site works: $222,429, not the building costs. That represents about 2.7% of the amount as approved by council in 2013.
Not included in the figures is the value of the additional audience seating, increased from 250 to 390, donated by Sprung at no cost to the town.

The total budgeted for both facilities (and approved by council) was $13,074,491 (which was paid for from the proceeds of the sale of a portion of Collus to Powerstream, not paid for from going into debt or raising taxes). The total cost was $13,331,218.

Centennial Aquatic centreThe two projects, combined were $256,727 – or about 2%  – over budget.

That’s $7 million less than the amount claimed by the candidate and at 2% a helluva lot less than the 30% inaccurately reported by this candidate at the ACM.

Costs above and beyond the building costs were either due to unforeseen site conditions (which any construction would be subject to) or council-mandated upgrades such as the therapeutic pool (roughly 1,000 user are in the aquatic centre every week – vindication that the addition of the therapeutic pool was a good idea).

Compare the cost of our new facilities to the proposed $35 million multi-use facility: even with the upgrades to the Eddie Bush Memorial Arena added in, it is still less than half the proposed “Taj Mahal” facility. The same candidate said that the figure of $35 million was “spun” by others in the election, but again that’s not true: the figure comes straight from the report by the steering committee itself – the same committee the candidate himself sat on. See my earlier post on that proposal for the actual page.

Candidates have a responsibility to the public to present accurate and truthful information. If they cannot or will not, they should step out of the race.

I eagerly await the correction and apology from this candidate for presenting this misleading information to the public.

10/8/14

Your Election Choices


CartoonAs the ballots start to trickle in, the campaigns wind down. The Collingwood election is essentially over – we’re just waiting for the results now. But if you haven’t cast your ballot yet, here are some things to consider before you make your choices.

This municipal election has been polarized along several lines, but your basic choices are fairly simple: binary choices, if you will, about what sort of local government you want for next term. Choices between good and bad.

The primary axis has been:

Positive versus negative

Some candidates have had a positive attitude, refused to engage in personal attacks, and shown civility and respect to other candidates. Others have accused, made allegations, belittled, insulted and been generally disrespectful to their fellow candidates.

It’s up to you, the voters, to decide which attitude you would rather have prevail in your next council. Do you want four years of continual negativity? Or a positive, healthy, respectful one?

I hope you consider me among the positive candidates.

Informed versus misinformed

A lot of misinformation has been flying around about the debt, about taxes, about the new recreational facilities, staff and other issues, most of it coming from the negative candidates. Figures from our treasurer and our auditor have been questioned. Actual facility and building costs have been ignored and wildly inaccurate figures tossed about as a scare tactic.

Do you want to elect people who are either misinformed or have actually lied about factual information? Will you be able to trust what they say once elected? Or do you want a council you can trust?

I hope you consider me among the informed candidates.

Visionary versus critical

Some candidates have a vision. Positive candidates offer solutions, alternatives, directions, talk about projects and growth, plan for the future and identify opportunities. Some just criticize and complain; eagerly denigrate what others propose, downplay council’s achievements and demand things already accomplished – without offering any positive, beneficial solutions.

Which will best lead us forward next term: visionaries or their critics?

I hope you consider me among the visionary candidates.

You have some clear choices. You can elect a council that works well together, people who have shared vision, people who can work with and respect one another. You can elect a mayor and deputy mayor with experience, with passion for their role, and who believe in an inclusive council that engages all of its members to be their most effective.

Or you can elect a divisive, exclusionary, negative and critical group, fronted by angry leaders, hobbled by an inexperienced deputy mayor – knowing that the result of this choice will be turbulence and chaos through four years of ineffective governance and squabbling.

It’s up to you. it’s your future council.

PS. You don’t need to vote for ALL seven members of council. You can vote for fewer. Vote only for those who you think would be the best choices and if that is less than seven, don’t waste votes on anyone you’re not absolutely sure of. I hope I have your support and your vote.

10/8/14

Clarifying Municipal Taxes


CartoonSome candidates seem confused about municipal taxes this election. I thought I’d clear up a few facts about property taxes for your (and their) benefit.

Property taxes are made up of three components: the municipal portion (roughly 60%), the county portion (24%) and the education portion (16%). The rate (also called the mill rate) for each portion is set independently by its own body (the province sets the education levy).

The total rate is called the blended rate. The town’s portion is the town-own rate. Usually the blended rate is used because that reflects best what homeowners see. The rate depends on the type of property you own: residential, commercial, industrial all have different rates. Single-family and multi-residential are also different.

Let’s look at how taxes were calculated in 2014 for a single-family house valued at $200,000:

Total taxes payable will be $2,526.31, broken down as follows:

  • Education levy $406.00
  • County levy $608.00
  • Town levy $1,512.32

The value of your home – of every home in Ontario – is set by MPAC, the Municipal Property Assessment Corp. This is an independent provincial agency headquartered in Pickering. It sets the value of your home through a computer model that looks at the value of properties around you and at real estate sales in your neighbourhood.

This model means your home value can increase whether you do anything to it or not.

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10/7/14

The Myth of Block Voting


I was amused by a recent comment I had voted “95%” the same as others on council. This was followed by the inevitable accusation of “block voting.” The complainer apparently wants everyone to vote in some helter-skelter manner. God forbid we should all agree on anything.

It’s a tired old campaign tactic: to accuse your opponents of being a “voting bloc” simply because they can agree on things. Oooh, scary: people voting alike. Don’t vote for those people: they agree instead of fighting and arguing. Damning politicians for getting along.

The vast majority of things that arise for votes at a municipal council table are procedural, administrative or bureaucratic. We vote to approve staff recommendations and reports, to receive items for information, to accept tenders for previously-approved budget items, to accept committee minutes, to approve agendas and minutes. We even vote to adjourn. Scary!

There’s seldom more than a sliver of a reason to vote against these issues. When big or contentious issues arise – and they are seldom – at the table, we vote as our conscience dictates. Our municipal council is not a partisan body. Party politics do not play an overt role (despite the efforts of some former politicians to force them upon us).

Think about it: there are only TWO ways to vote: yes or no. For or against. Not nine: not a different way for every council member. Just two. There will ALWAYS be at least five people voting the same way on EVERY issue. Is that a block? If you think so, you really don’t have a clue about politics.

Many of us at the table campaigned on common issues: finance, budget, taxes, growth, the harbour, openness, and so on. Of course we will vote similarly when these issues arise because that’s what we stood for on the hustings. It would be hypocritical to vote against something you advocated for or campaigned in favour of.

Who wouldn’t vote yes to control municipal spending, reduce the debt, lower taxes, or improve our accountability? Does that make it a voting bloc? Of course not. It simply makes it common sense.

Maybe what the records show is that councillors often voted the same way because we generally agreed with one another. That we share a common vision for the greater good. That our strategic planning sessions helped outline our common priorities and we pursued them. That the votes reflect this council’s cooperation, effectiveness, and team spirit.

Now is that a bad thing? Of course not.

Voting blocs? Piffle. Just the opposition trying to deflect your attention from what matters this election.

So what kind of council do you want next term? A positive, cooperative and effective one – or an ineffective group, beset by the bitterness, bickering and divisions that fragmented the previous council? It’s easy to see which candidates to vote for if you choose the positive.

10/7/14

Their Shoddy Potemkin Villages


Dirty PoliticsIn 1787, the Empress Catherine II took a long trip to the Crimea along the Dnieper River. She wanted to see how her subjects lived. Not wanting her to see the actual poverty and hardships of the peasants, her lover – and the region’s governor – Grigory Potemkin, had pretty, fake villages of canvas and clapboard built along the way, with his own people acting and dancing the roles of happy peasants. After she visited one, the village was disassembled and rushed down river by barge to be rebuilt further away.

These have become known as Potemkin villages. According to Wikipedia, the term is used today,

…in politics and economics, to describe any construction (literal or figurative) built solely to deceive others into thinking that some situation is better than it really is.

But there’s also the opposite: when it refers to an imaginary construct that is negative: when such constructs are used to divert attention from an embarrassing situation or condition. Or, in some cases, an inconvenient truth.

Politicians have been accused of creating Potemkin villages to embellish situations and put a Pollyanna face on social or political ills. But their opponents – especially during election campaigns – also create their own facades to make the reality look worse. They create shabby Potemkin villages; cardboard slums, ugly-looking facades simply to make themselves look good by making the incumbents look bad.

Collingwood’s municipal election has its own shoddy Potemkin villages. Opponents have created a shabby, fake facade on the economic situation, on the recreational facilities, on economic development and on this council’s many achievements. They would have their followers believe that little if any good has been accomplished this term. They’ve erected not a few of these faux derelicts on social media.

As the Vermont Political Observer blog notes

See,that’s the problem with Facebook: it only takes one person to erect a plausible a Potemkin village.

Here are some of the campaign’s rickety Potemkin villages we’ve all heard during Collingwood’s municipal election, and the more solid truths they attempt to hide:

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10/3/14

Promising to do What’s Already Done


AccomplishmentIt’s good for councillors to know we’ve already accomplished so much that everyone wants to emulate us. Listening to the all-candidates’ speeches and reading the campaign literature is a real boost to the ego.

A lot of new people are promising to do what’s already been done. Incumbents can comfortably sit back and say, “been there, done that, accomplished that already.” We don’t seem to have left a lot for the newcomers to accomplish.

It’s been a very productive term – remarkably so given that we have so few meetings that last more than two hours. (For a list of just a few things we accomplished this term, see my ACM speech.) But still, some candidates seem to want to repeat our successes.

Take for example the promise to “diligently manage our finances and assets…” Check. Already done. We have an asset management plan in place and we started the long-term financial management strategic plan. But we’ve made our finances sustainable this term, so we don’t have to fret so much about them in future. Our practice of replenishing reserves through internal loans rather than just spending them is one example. (Read more about that practice here)

Same with the promise to “Stop the waste by developing a long-range financial plan and transparently evaluating all capital investments.” Aside from the mystery of how one evaluates “transparently” (does that mean invisibly?), we have an asset management plan in place and the strategic financial plan is in the works.

Staff do any evaluation, by the way – councillors only read and comment on their efforts. And any such evaluations would always be public.

As for waste – this council has trimmed the budget and cut spending for the past four years. We’re kept tax increases down to a blended average of only 0.45% per year – less than the cost of living. We saved taxpayers more than $400,000 a year by stopping the rail service (while keeping the line active for future transportation opportunities). And we topped up reserves from $19 to $30 million! No waste here!

Ditto for creating a “plan that looks at our long term financial health.” Initiated by this council, thank you, and will, I expect, be completed before this term is over. We made financial stability a priority at our first strategic planning session in 2011, reinforced that priority at our second strategic planning session in 2013, and we achieved it.

“Manage our high debt load…” Thanks for the advice, but we have paid down $7.5 million of the $45 million debt we inherited this term without raising taxes. We controlled spending and instituted a sustainable plan to finance projects from reserves through internal loans. And we topped up reserves, too. So cross that one off, too because we’re one step ahead of you.

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