What will the secret EPCOR negotiations cost us?

Shady dealsI was reading about the failed attempt by EPCOR – an Edmonton-based, for-profit corporation – to purchase half of Innisfil’s Power utility (InnPower) last year. Back in Sept., 2015, there was a story in the
Barrie Examiner that noted:

INNISFIL — Town council has approved the sale of 50% of InnPower (formerly Innisfil Hydro) to Edmonton-based EPCOR to create a new ‘strategic partnership’.

At a public meeting to discuss the sale (remember public meetings and public engagement? Those are processes you got last term… this term it’s all about secrecy), PowerStream’s CEO, Brian Bentz commented on

…the “exclusivity clause” in the EPCOR offer, which precludes consideration of other deals for a period of six months…

EPCOR, you may recall, is currently trying to buy the town’s half of Collus-PowerStream. The administration has been negotiating behind closed doors with EPCOR for the better part of a year. Earlier this year, the administration signed a deal to start the buying process. Is there a similar clause in the agreement with Collingwood?

In Innisfil, the public was given a chance to openly comment on the proposal (an event unlikely to happen here in Secretive Collingwood under The Block). Former Innisfil mayor Barb Baguley spoke out about the process (Barrie Examiner):

During the open forum portion of Tuesday night’s meeting, former Innisfil mayor Barb Baguley took exception to the town even considering such a partnership for water and wastewater services and questioned why residents weren’t better informed about the potential partnership discussions.
“The issue of selling any part of it is something I’m really concerned about,” she said. “My question is, if you are going to sell the safety of water and the protection of Lake Simcoe with wastewater treatment, shouldn’t we be talking about that? Shouldn’t we be having a conversation with the public?
“I’m not sure if it’s good or bad. There’s not enough information for people to make a somewhat educated opinion,” she added. “It had not come out that clearly…”
“I don’t think we have to know every paragraph in a contract. We need to know the intention and why we need to do this,” she said. “I’m not saying I’m for or against (a water and wastewater services partnership). I’m saying I don’t understand.

At least the residents in Innisfil were given the opportunity to ask questions and make comments. Nothing like that has happened in Collingwood, although the discussions here have been going on behind closed doors since January 2015.

And look the whole public engagement Wasaga Beach has gone through over the sale of its utility this term: open, active and transparent. The complete opposite of what Collingwood has done.

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Volte-face on water

janus facedOn Tuesday, Simcoe County Council voted to “… begin negotiations with the 16 municipalities regarding a “future role” for the upper tier in water and wastewater operations – a municipal domain.” The county wants to bring water and wastewater under its wing to standardize services and improve operating efficiencies much the same way it has done with housing and emergency services. Our deputy mayor voted in favour.

The only story so far on this appears in the New Tecumseth Free Press.*

Not a bad idea to explore, for public discussion and input, weigh the pros and cons. But the problem is that the issue of giving up control of the municipal service to an upper tier has not been given any attention in the local media. Nor have our county representatives – the mayor and deputy mayor – brought it to public attention, nor have they asked for public input or consultation on the issue.

And who gives the county report at the council table? That’s right: Deputy Mayor Saunderson.

Well, that doesn’t surprise you, of course. The Most Secretive Council Ever is always reluctant to tell the public anything. And public input? So far there has been absolutely NONE allowed this term on major issues such as selling our airport, privatizing our water and wastewater, selling our share of the electrical utility, Block 9, taking over water and IT services, the hospital redevelopment – so why would The Block want it now? Your opinion has never mattered to them.

But while the town is getting under the covers with the for-profit corporation EPCOR in a snug deal to privatize our water and wastewater services (in a 99-year lease?), our deputy mayor seems to have made an about-face. He voted in favour of the motion for the county to start the process to take over those services.

Without public input, of course. The best interests of this community? Not even a hint that that might be under consideration.

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The EPCOR sales pitches

Big Brother
I’m told the interim CAO is distressed – apoplectic, really – that I am aware of his sales pitch information sessions in which he touts the wonders of EPCOR to town staff. Two sessions that I know of. At the most recent one he brought along EPCOR representatives to schmooze the staff.

Apparently he is not winning them over.

It might be because, as I have been led to believe, Mr. Brown has few fans. I’m told he is generally disliked by many staff. As he is, I’ve also been told, by our municipal partners, our neighbouring municipalities, the hospital board, some local developers and a few others. Thus he may be unable to sway anyone with his blandishments.

Bringing along EPCOR doesn’t help. That’s like bringing foxes to a meeting about managing the hen house after it gets sold to the foxes. It’s made doubly worse because it’s all happening without any public input or consultation.

At these meetings Mr. Brown warns staff not to get their information from unnamed “bloggers” – me, of course – and warns that such information is false. Ooh, scary. Like I’m some local Kellyanne Conjob. Well, I’m flattered he bothers to read my posts because he has said in the past that he doesn’t. Always nice to recognize another reader.

But I’m just doing what you could – and the media should – do: go online and research the company, read the news, drill down through the archives. Read what others say about privatization, about the selling of public assets, about the loss of control, about the gobsmacking rate hikes and customer dissatisfaction that follow. I don’t need to make this stuff up, like Kellyanne does.*

True, I add a bit of editorial comment, some of my own opinion and analysis here and there, but the source material is linked for you to read for yourself and make up your own minds. I hope my own years as a reporter and editor give my posts at least a patina of credibility. If our local media did any real reporting, any investigative journalism, I wouldn’t have to do it for them.

Be that as it may, nothing Mr. Brown says can disguise the fact that this process stinks, and has done so since day one. To my eye – my vision coloured by a dozen years in local media and three terms on council – it has been unethical, immoral and illegal.

The secrecy, the back room conniving, the lack of public consultation, the lack of openness and transparency – these are the hallmarks of The Block’s abysmal behaviour since they took office. But the buck stops at the interim CAO’s office because he is in charge; he oversees the process. And since he has told staff and council that all inquiries have to go through him – he controls the process and the dissemination of information, too.

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EPCOR’s rate hikes create unrest

Corporate takeoverIt seems EPCOR isn’t the most beloved utility service out there, despite the glowing comments the interim CAO made to staff recently. I was given a recording of his hour-long talk (aka sales pitch) for EPCOR and I can only say I hope no one listening fell for it (I’ll review his talk in another post).

Despite his stumbling blandishments, EPCOR’s management style isn’t all that popular. And if you do some searching for unflattering news stories about the corporation, you can find the following online:

Global News had this one on Feb. 2, 2017: Tabor took back their water from EPCOR after a 68% increase in water rates:

Taber Town Council has decided to end its 20-year utilities contract with EPCOR just nine years into the agreement.
EPCOR was under contract to provide Taber with its water and sewage services.
The move to end the working relationship comes after the company proposed to increase utility rates by 68 per cent. All 10 EPCOR employees will now work for the Town of Taber to ease the transition.

Sixty eight per cent increase in water rates in one year! There’s a customer-friendly business model for you. I have no doubt we can expect that sort of increase here once The Block privatizes our water to EPCOR. And yes, it will be privatization, not simply management and a disaster for the town.

Closer to home, Adjala-Tosorontio is also considering outside management for its water and wastewater services. According to a story on Simcoe.Com, dated Feb. 3, 2017,

Two companies, EPCOR and Clearford Water Systems, have submitted bids through a request for proposals (RFP) process to design, build, finance, operate and maintain the system.
In one scenario, where no developer’s contributions are assumed, the wastewater user rate would cost about $2,800 a year if the project was financed by Clearford, or $3,350 a year if it were financed by EPCOR. The figures in the financial analysis were presented in 2019 dollars, which is assumed to be Year 1 of operation for the system. Council said the current rate is a flat charge of $1,313.

A little calculation reveals that under EPCOR’s management, residents’ water rates would go up annually by $2,037! That’s a 155% increase in a single year!

These are just two recent Canadian scenarios, but imagine how YOU, dear reader, will react when The Block sells our water services to EPCOR and YOUR bill jumps by 68% Or worse, 155%! Or more!

And you don’t think it will happen here? Well, read on…

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Monetizing our public assets

ConsequencesIn the town’s disingenuous press release (really just a sales pitch for EPOCR) about its obsessive drive to privatize our utility services, it has this paragraph:

The Town’s RFP process solicited proposals from a wide range of potentially interested parties that could maximize the value of the Town’s remaining investment in Collingwood PowerStream Utility Services Corp. Given the terms of the existing Shareholder’s Agreement with PowerStream entered into by the previous Council, the Town has very limited options regarding how it may monetize its remaining 50% investment in the local electricity distribution company.

Monetize a public asset? Since when was that the policy? It wasn’t even raised during the election; it’s something The Block cooked up in one of their secret meetings. The very notion of “monetizing” a public asset is some American Ayn-Rand-libertarian wet dream, a wacky laissez-faire approach to enrich corporate interests that has nothing to do with standard business or professional practices of any Canadian municipality I know of.

Privatization of public assets was big in the USA, with poorly-run and inefficient municipalities thinking they could buy their way out of debt by selling everything they could. The result has not solved anything, but instead created an Orwellian nightmare where the residents are in thrall to profiteering private corporations that control their services, utilities, recreation and police while being told they are freed from the responsibility to run them.

(Let’s see… what poorly run, inefficient Canadian municipality with a myopic council comes to mind? Ah, I see…)

But what does monetize really mean? It sounds like something that makes a profit, an investment that gives us increasing dividends – but that isn’t true. It simply means selling what we own. You can’t hide that behind another word. We will be selling our water and wastewater services. And not even to the highest bidder: it will be sold to the already-anointed one. And once sold, it’s gone for good. And if we wanted dividends, The Block would have stayed with PowerStream rather than engage in its two-year witch hunt that killed the annual dividend from the utility.

(Just think of the public outcry that arose over privatizing Hydro One).

And yes, the town had “very limited options” because it’s a partnership. Clearly the author of that dreck doesn’t understand what a partnership means. You know: working together towards common goals, that sort of thing.

Fifty percent of the utility was sold to PowerStream. The goal of that sale was stated in public: to enhance customer service, create better efficiencies in billing and service but to maintain control over the service and rates. Selling more would meaning losing that control. No one who was interested in partnering submitted a bit for less than 50%. So of course you have “limited options.” That isn’t a bad thing: it’s GOOD because selling those controls is incredibly selfish, shortsighted and stupid.

But that’s The Block for you.
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