Fixing the shared services agreement

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Way too long!First, some history: for 15 years, Collus – now Collus/Powerstream – had a beneficial, mutually-agreed-on and successful agreement with the town to provide services back to the town at reasonable rates. These were things the town did not or could not provide itself for reasons of cost, staffing, expertise, equipment or interest. It was mutually beneficial to have Collus provide them.

The list of potential services included:

Reconnect & Collection, Meter Reading, Billing & Collecting, Customer Service, Information Technology Management, Data Tracking, Accounting, Engineering, Planning & Necessary Maintenance, Contracting with Developers, Customers & Others, Subcontracting Services, After Hours Response, Normal Hours Response, Emergency Preparedness, Provision of Supervisory Services, HR, Policy Development, Regulatory Assistance, Reporting and Capital Construction Activities.

The town, of course, had to request most of the services, and if they weren’t asked for, they weren’t provided, so the town wasn’t billed for them. What was asked for and provided was billed quarterly. These figures appeared in publicly accessible financial updates and budgets presented to council. Nothing secret here.

True, not all services on that list were provided all the time. That’s because the town never asked for that service. And it wasn’t billed for what it didn’t receive. Got that? No provision = no billing.

The agreement was supposed to be restructured in 2012 when Powerstream took over the 50% share of Collus. But the person responsible for doing so didn’t accomplish it in time and left. But Collus/Powerstream continued in good faith to provide services, billing the town only for what it did.

In fact, Collus employees have always gone well above and beyond what the service agreement stipulated. After all, the employees of Collus are also residents who love and respect their home town and want it to be the best it can be – a level of dedication one doesn’t expect from interim employees.

In July, 2014, the former council called for a new agreement to bring the contract up to date and see if there were any services to add or delete. The interim CAO was tasked with the job of having the agreement examined and recommendations made for it to be updated. Should be a simple task, right?

Instead, it resulted in the now-infamous report by True North and Beacon 2020 that condemned the agreement and Collus, publicly presented to the new council in December, 2014.

Council rightfully rejected the report and asked the consultants to fix it and bring it back with the facts straight. But that’s not what happened. I wrote about this botched report back in February, 2015.

The participants who were interviewed – including me – were asked to comment on the report and provide any corrections. My own response was 27 pages long. In total, more than 100 pages correcting inaccuracies and factual errors were presented back to the town by respondents.

The town administration chose not to include them in the final report to council, or to make them public. Administration didn’t even give them to council to review until under pressure, when they put the responses in a binder marked “confidential, not to leave this room,” secreted in the council mail room. I’m surprised staff didn’t hang a sign on the door warning, “Beware of the leopard.”*

The responses sat in the room for a few days. Number of councillors who actually took the 3-4 hours to sit in a small, airless, uncomfortable room in town hall to read the corrections over a weekend? One. Council received the allegedly “updated” report that in fact had little more than some typos corrected.

Council, now properly misinformed, tasked the interim CAO with crafting a new shared services agreement. The witch hunt was on. More consultants were hired, more of your tax dollars spent on outsiders. Then Expensive Lawyers were retained. The costs spiralled upwards.

A year later, it remains in bureaucratic limbo, but the invoices are still coming in.

(FYI, the town administration would not even allow Collus/Powerstream to respond to the latest report before it was presented to council and the public this week, but that boondoggle will be the subject of another post wherein I will wax lyrical about the bygone days of openness and transparency… last term…)

For more than a year, town administration hounded Collus staff for documents and details that were either provided numerous times or were actually the town’s responsibility to keep (Question: whose responsibility is it to keep council minutes and motions? Hint: Not Collus. Question: who should administration ask to get those records? Hint: Not Collus.)

The administration wanted to know all sorts of irrelevant and immaterial details, such as the salaries of every individual (the total salary costs were always in the annual, audited financial statements, but the administration wanted personal and even private details). The delay in completing the agreement was blamed on the lack of such irrelevant or useless information.

Surprisingly, the administration has not yet asked them what the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow is because administrators apparently need to know that sort of thing in order to move forward. **

A digression: Collus and Collus/Powerstream employees don’t work for the town. They are not town employees: they are peers and colleagues and should always have been treated as such: with respect. Collus executives report to the utility board, not to town administration. And as a corporation under provincial law, there are legal constraints as to what it can divulge in the way of personal information. 

Finally, as we learned on Thursday, the latest draft of this long-overdue agreement is finally in the hands of Powerstream for examination. If the stars and planets all align, it might even make its way back to the town later this month. A version may even be presented to council in mid-May. Almost two years since the former council first asked for it to be investigated.

Meanwhile, Collus/Powerstream has continued to provide services to the town, always acting in the best interests of everyone. Morale, however, has fallen, so I’ve been told.

Several of the services are no long viable because this council split the water utility away from the joint operation with hydro, causing a loss in the revenue for Collus/Powerstream (and additional costs for the town). That will be reflected in dwindling or even loss of dividends from hydro to the town in future years. But hey, it’s only money and council will simply raise your taxes to compensate.

Why you ask, would a town council try to destroy its own business? No one knows. Some beasts eat their own young. Some councils destroy their community. It’s a mystery.

More than a year to craft what should be a one-page agreement seems egregiously long to me. I could have hammered one out in an afternoon, over a beer, with someone from Collus/Powerstream to help with the numbers.

I have two suggestions about how to proceed.

My first is for Collus/Powerstream to tell the town to take a hike and set a deadline for stopping all services to the town under the former agreement. Just walk away.

The town has acted in such an adversarial, confrontational, invasive manner about this that the once good, mutually appreciated and respectful relationship between Collingwood and its utility is in tatters. As I understand it, there is no desire for anyone in the utility to work for or with the town. Most, I’m told, don’t even want to come downtown any more, let alone enter town hall.

So just end it. August 1 looks to me like a good date to say goodbye.

Sure it will cost the town millions of dollars to find replacement employees, hardware and equipment, but that’s clearly what most of this council wants. It’s part of its agenda, otherwise why would they have created such a hostile environment?

Council will have to find money to pay for the fallout from its witch hunt, but they haven’t been shy about raising your taxes to date. Expect whopping tax hikes in 2017.

If that’s not a viable option, then my second suggestion is: draft a short, sweet contract that says something like this:

Here are the hourly rates we will bill the town for the following services if and when the town requests such services from Collus/Powerstream, to be billed quarterly. Overtime will be billed at 1.5 times the rates below, holidays and weekends at 2 times:

  1. Reconnect & Collection, $XX/hour,
  2. Meter Reading, $XX/hour,
  3. Billing & Collecting, $XX/hour,
  4. Customer Service, $XX/hour,
  5. Information Technology Management, $XX/hour…
  6. …Equipment and hardware purchased for the town to provide these services will be billed at X times the market value, plus all applicable shipping and taxes, to cover costs of procurement (1.2x? 1.25x? 1.5X?).

And so on. If you want help with the wording, give me a call. Or feel free to copy and paste the above.

Cut out any service that employees or management don’t want to provide or provides no profitable return. Get a lawyer to add the requisite bureaucratese to make it legal.

That’s all anyone ever needed to do from day one. No confrontation, no erosion of trust, no recriminations and Expensive Lawyers to pontificate in front of council at taxpayer expense.

This has dragged on too long. Time to sort it out and stop harassing Collus.

~~~~~

* From Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:
“But, Mr. Dent, the plans have been available in the planning office for the last nine months!”
“Oh, yes, of course. As soon as I heard, I went straight round to see them. You hadn’t exactly gone out of your way to call much attention to them, have you? Like telling anybody, or anything?”
“But the plans were on display…”
“On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”
“That’s the display department.”
“With a flashlight.”
“Ah, well, the lights had probably gone.”
“So had the stairs.”
“But look, you found the notice, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard.”

** From Monty Python and the Holy Grail:
Bridgekeeper: Hee hee heh. Stop. What… is your name?
King Arthur: It is ‘Arthur’, King of the Britons.
Bridgekeeper: What… is your quest?
King Arthur: To seek the Holy Grail.
Bridgekeeper: What… is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?
King Arthur: What do you mean? An African or European swallow?
Bridgekeeper: Huh? I… I don’t know that.
[he is thrown over]
Bridgekeeper: Auuuuuuuugh.
Sir Bedevere: How do know so much about swallows?
King Arthur: Well, you have to know these things when you’re a king, you know.

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