Council Just Waves Its Hands

Hand-wavingCouncil waving its hands. Making ineffective flapping gestures. It sounds like it should be some sort of metaphorical phrase. Something from the Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra episode of Star Trek. But hand-waving is actually a metaphorical term that means failure to deliver the goods. And also trying to deflect attention from your failure. Wikipedia describes it as,

… a pejorative label for attempting to be seen as effective — in word, reasoning, or deed — while actually doing nothing effective or substantial.

Oh, boy, does that ever describe to a “T” our council with its collective, increasingly desperate, yet wildly inept hand-waving efforts to promote the Saunderson Vindictive Judicial Inquiry (aka the SVJI). The Oxford English Dictionary gives us this definition:

The use of gestures and insubstantial language meant to impress or convince.

Insubstantial. That surely describes their efforts to make the SVJI seem relevant and worth the millions wasted on it.

I came across the term while reading Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better, by Clive Thompson (Penguin Press, 2013). While I’m not in complete agreement with Thompson’s arguments about the benefits of technology, his description of “hand-waving” as a term for presenting codswallop and claptrap instead of substance immediately made me think of our local politicians. Hand-waving, all of them.

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Floccinaucinihilipilification in Collingwood

Floccinaucinihilipilification*, the longest non-technical word in the English language, is when you consider something to be unimportant, worthless, useless, or generally valueless. Basically, it means it’s rubbish. As Robert Heinlein wrote in a 1951 scifi novel:

Digby was a floccinaucinihilipilificator at heart—which is an eight-dollar word meaning a joker who does not believe in anything he can’t bite.
Robert A. Heinlein, The Puppet Masters (1951).

I was thinking of that word as perhaps the most wittily appropriate to describe the report from the Saunderson Vindictive Judicial Inquiry (aka the SVJI), the promotion of which our council and staff happily continue to lavish money on. Even though the events investigated are well past their best-before date (from 2011-2012), council continues the “well-worth-spending-your-tax-dollars-on-it” song and dance. And to throw more money at desperately trying to shore up its sagging credibility.

All the while in town our roads decay, sidewalks crumble, the terminals fall apart, the waterfront remains drearily unimproved, and businesses and workers suffering over lengthy lockdowns have received no financial aid from the town. But hey, we got an important-as-clean-drinking-water report instead. I’m sure you’ll agree that’s much more valuable than, say, fixing potholes or keeping local businesses from closing. Me either.

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The $100 Million Mayor?

Your tax dollars at workIn a story on CollingwoodToday, our mayor, Brian Saunderson, shrugs off the costs of his Vindictive Judicial Inquiry (the SVJI) as being but a drop in the bucket for the town’s annual budget:

He noted the town’s annual budget is nearly $100 million, and the inquiry costs amount to less than ten per cent of the yearly budget.

Perhaps he was flustered by being challenged over the egregious waste of taxpayers’ money on the SVJI and just pulled that budget figure out of his hat. Perhaps he plans to spend a LOT more of your tax dollars on reports-about-the-report-about-the-report so we end up with a $100-million budget. Perhaps he just wanted to inflate his own status so he looks more important as he campaigns to be the next MPP while he stays in office as mayor. But the town’s actual budget, according to Collingwood’s audited financial statement for 2019, shows a revenue of $61.6 million, with expenses of $60.3 million. However, you really need to read an audited report to understand the town’s costs and revenue streams, not simply the projections in a budget.

Yes, I suspect you’re wondering, too, if our mayor is clueless about the town’s finances. After all, $60 million is hardly an unsubstantial amount. In fact, it seems outrageously high for a small town with 24,000 residents. But it’s still a long way from $100 million. And you’re probably wondering why the media didn’t call him out on that, too. So am I.

The town also collects taxes for the school boards and the county: these get passed along to these authorities and are NOT part of the town’s operating budget. In fact, the town’s own operating budget is considerably less than $60 million: page 24 of the audit shows it was $34.1 million in 2019.

You should spend a little time reading the audit, or at least more time than our mayor seems to have spent on it. You might find some interesting data, like how much the town really got from the sale of the airport (page 26): $2,067,531, or about half of what Saunderson and the former council said we’d get (the selling price was $4.1 million). Given that the airport was assessed at around $6 million a few years back, I’d say we lost a LOT of money on that sale. But I digress.

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Small town rules

Small Town RulesIn their book, Small Town Rules (Pearson Education Inc., USA, 2012), authors Barry Moltz and Becky McCray explain seven rules for businesses that use the model of a small town to offer advice on growing and maintaining a business n the “connected economy.” And while most of their rules are aimed at businesses, I suggest some are equally applicable to small towns like Collingwood.

Don’t get me wrong: a municipality is not a business and despite some common functions and shared accounting techniques, a municipality cannot be run in the same manner as a for-profit business. For a start, we have split roles between management (politicians and administration), and the political role – even of the head of council – is only part-time in the vast majority of Ontario municipalities. Plus no single member of council has more authority or power than any other (one vote per person), unlike a corporate president or CEO.

Municipalities, unlike corporations, cannot run deficits. And they are responsible for a large array of services that are not, nor ever will be profitable (parks, for example, but also social housing, public transit, sidewalks, garbage pickup, libraries, museums and so on). But all of these services contribute to the quality of life than makes living here so wonderful, and on which we have come to depend.

And more than depend: municipalities that have lesser service levels or lack services entirely don’t have the economic advantages that those with those services have. That’s important when trying to attract new businesses to your town, or to retain existing businesses. Those services help create the municipal brand that people come to associate with your community.

Corporations are responsible to their shareholders and pay dividends only them, where municipalities are responsible to the entire community, and serve the greater good (or should do so, this term notwithstanding).
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More costs pile onto the SVJI

Pie in faceIt seems Saunderson’s Vindictive Judicial Inquiry (SVJI) is eating up taxpayer money rapidly, with a little help from other town departments. It was originally estimated to cost taxpayers between $2 and $6 million – and now it seems that could be much more thanks to this latest farcical chapter.

Saunderson’s Vindictive Judicial Inquiry needs space, not just your cash, to conduct its business. Lots of space, it seems. The SVJI crew had set up shop in town hall, and were occupying office real estate therein, but it wasn’t enough: they needed room to expand. With space in the building already at a premium, they looked around town for some larger, commercial space to occupy. Space to spread out all that paperwork and put up posters of Saunderson’s Most Wanted (aka the previous council).

And last month, the SVJI people found just the space they needed in the Sheffer Court building. The town sighed a quiet ‘hooray’ and promptly signed a lease for them. Everyone in town hall eagerly looked forward to the move so they could get their desks and copiers back. Until someone in the Saunderson  cabal caught wind of the new address.

It seems that’s the building once occupied by the Block’s antichrist, Paul Bonwick. And even through he’s long gone, the Block fear Bonwickism is a transmittable ailment that might lead to brotherly associations with the mayor – one of The Block’s principal targets of their bile and hatred this term. Or maybe it’s his Liberalism that could be catching. Heaven forbid: the SVJI members might start hanging pictures of Justin Trudeau or even Jean Chretien on the walls.

Either way, someone had a hissy fit over the closeness of the SVJI to the ghost of Bonwick past.

In full Blockish “sky-is-falling” mode they ran into town hall screaming hysterically, and demanded the move be stopped. Now! This instant! Cancel the deal! Cluck, cluck, the sky is falling! 

But the landlord said, No way. We had a deal. You signed a lease; the offices are yours for the year. And he wouldn’t let the town off the hook. So tenant or not, taxpayers still had to pay for the offices. And the SVJI still needed space.

The solution was worthy of the Marx Brothers : move the town’s entire treasury department and staff out of town hall and into the offices instead. That’s right: take all of the people, furniture, phones, computers, copiers, files, chairs, desks,filing cabinets, Rolodex cards and printers they needed to function and move them down the block. Then install security locks, new phone lines, and new internet and network cables both there and in town hall for the SVJI folk. And, of course, we taxpayers shoulder the moving and installation costs.

It’s not Saunderson’s money, so why should he care? After all, he and his minions have raised your taxes four times this term already – another four years of him will provide the opportunity for another four tax hikes to pay for their wild spending habits. And, of course, for their mandatory pay raises they vote themselves each time they raise your taxes.

Surely the treasury department is as vulnerable to the taint of Bonwickism as the SVJI staff, but the Block don’t seem to have noticed that little inconsistency in their plan during their collective cluck, cluck, clucking.

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Doherty’s Magic Money Fairy

the money fairyAt 3:55:20 in the video of Monday’s Collingwood Council meeting, Councillor Deb Doherty utters the self-congratulatory claim that she is “glad” the costs of the upcoming judicial inquiry to pursue the Block’s maniacal conspiracy theories are not coming out of “taxpayer funds on an annual basis.”

I can hear your head shaking. Where does she think money comes from? And since taxes are calculated yearly, is there any other sort of taxation aside from an “annual basis”? Well, read on…

This bit of financial wisdom comes from the same councillor who last year expressed bafflement over what dividends are and complained that the town wasn’t getting one from the utility to which it had caused excessive operating costs. This from a person charged with helping manage the town’s financial well-being.  Maybe she has other talents.

The costs of this inquiry were estimated at $1.4-$1.6 million in a staff report presented to council April 30. That estimate was vague because it didn’t include the costs of staff time to prepare reports, gather documents and appear at hearings, and possibly other expenses. A similar inquiry held in Mississauga was also estimated around $1.2 million ended up costing the municipality $6.2 million instead!

Doherty made her comment during a discussion on how to pay for the judicial inquiry that Deputy Mayor Saunderson demanded – without anyone (including him) bothering to figure out how to pay for it or even include it in the current year’s budget (Saunderson himself wasn’t at the meeting to answer questions, and my sources tell me he didn’t bother to inform anyone he wouldn’t be there!). So the costs get passed on to the next council (one that will, mercifully, be shorn of Blockheads).

Well, we all know finance has never been The Block’s strong suit. Or ethics, responsibility, openness, public consultation, fairness – but they are huge in conspiracy theories. Yuge, as Trump would say.

So how will the town pay for the inquiry? By taking the money from reserves. And how does money get into reserves in the first place? Yes, you’re going to tell me it gets funded from taxes which we, the taxpayer shell out every year. But clearly Councillor Doherty doesn’t understand that rather basic concept. I suggest she likely believes a Magic Money Fairy flies by at night and with a touch of her wand refills the coffers The Block have depleted.

As soon as she had uttered these words, Councillor Edwards corrected her, noting that “any money we spend comes from the taxpayers’ pocket.” *

True, but that apparently escaped Deb, who retorted that it wasn’t coming from taxpayers’ funds “this year.” So it seems no tax revenue went into reserves in 2018, at least in her mind. Need I tell you how utterly incorrect she is? Or that The Block initiated a fixed, extra 0.75% added to annual taxes to fund reserves? For which she voted? Which has been in the annual budget three times? For which she voted each time ? Okay, stop laughing.

It seems her Magic Money Fairy will simply fill up those reserves regularly so The Block can continue their spending-like-a-drunken-sailor-on-shore-leave-in-a-brothel tactic of financial management. While giving themselves a pay hike every year.

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The report The Block don’t want you to see

Huge reportLate last year, BMA Management Consulting produced a hefty 517-page report called Municipal Study 2017* that examines a wide variety of socio-economic indicators in more than 100 Ontario municipalities: taxes, user fees, population, average home value, water/sewer, economic development programs and more. As Owen Sound notes on its website:

The study identifies both key quantifiable indicators and selective environmental factors that should be considered part of a comprehensive evaluation of a local municipality’s financial condition. Use of the study over a number of years provides trends to allow decision-makers to monitor selected indicators over time. Trend analysis helps to provide interpretive context. In addition, context can be provided by comparing a municipality’s own experience with the experience of other municipalities. In 2016, 105 Ontario municipalities participated in the Study.

Sudbury also notes on its website (with links to studies from 2011-17):

In 2017, 102 municipalities participated in the study which provides comparisons of financial information, select user fees, tax policies and rates, sewer and water services, and taxes as a percentage of income.

Collingwood data is listed among those 100+ participating municipalities (see pages 10 and 25 of the full report). But as far as I can tell, we were not presented with a copy – at least not for public consumption.
Did we even participate? If so, why hasn’t the report been released to the public? Are The Block hiding it from us? (I know what you’re going to say: because The Block encourages the culture of secrecy in town hall, they don’t ever like to release ANYTHING). A search for it on the town’s website turns up as much as you’d find in our Blockheads’ grey matter: no results.

Or was the data merely lifted from an earlier study BMA did of the town? By my count, we have used BMA for at least four such reports (Jan. and Dec. 2014, Nov. 2015, and Nov. 2016). I cannot find any record that these were actually put out to tender, but given The Block’s and the administration’s eagerness to sole-source everything and hand out contracts like party favours, I doubt it.

Maybe the town declined to buy it because some folks in town hall didn’t want it to be made public because it might reflect badly on their policies and practices.

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Brian suddenly realizes there’s a budget process.

PerplexedOver on BBFFWS (Brian’s BFF’s Web Site) is a sort-of-a story about Collingwood’s 2018 budget. It’s really just some comments about a document this council won’t even get a peek at until sometime in late January, and won’t get through the approval stage until late spring or even early summer. Even though all of our municipal neighbours, the county and indeed most of Ontario, have already approved their 2018 budgets, Collingwood continues to slog along, months behind the process curve. And nary a word of complaint from The Block. Well, to be fair, nary a word they even noticed was uttered.

But apparently the news that there is actually a process involved in budget approval surprised The Block, who had in the past three years merely raised their hands to hike taxes at staff’s request (while, of course, granting themselves a pay hike at the same time). I suspect the idea that there may be something deeper, something more complex, something that involved reading, bemused them. Maybe even shocked them.

Who knew budgets could be so difficult? Well, everyone except our Blockheads.

This week the treasurer told council that there is already a surplus of $1.75 million. That over-taxation represents about a 6% tax increase. In other words, had anyone on The Block been paying attention, they could have held taxes at zero percent these past three years, or even (gasp) lowered them. But paying attention isn’t their forte. Like actually reading the full budget isn’t a practice they have adopted. Or ever will.

Of course, a lot of that surplus will be used in paying off the excessive costs the town shouldered when it broke the shared services agreement, created a new IT department, bought tons of new hardware, hired three new staff persons and then still had to contract out some of the services we got from Collus IT staff for a third the cost. Oh and then there’s the pesky costs of the sole-sourced layers and consultants the administration hired to justify selling our publicly-owned electrical utility to a private for-profit corporation (without any public discussion, or course). Plus the costs of paying the former interim CAO a consultant’s fee after he “retired.” And hiring new staff in the treasury department (yet which department still can’t produce the budget on time). Plus there are hundreds of thousands more in legal bills to come to go through the legal application process to sell our utility. And then there’s the promised $700,000-plus savings from taking the water utility away from its partnership with the electrical utility – which instead seems to have become an expense to taxpayers, not a savings.

So will we really have a surplus for 2018? Not likely. If that were true why would the treasurer have asked council to approve an automatic 1.7% cost-of-living increase on our taxes this fall, months before the budget was even discussed? And that, by the way, was ON TOP of the automatic annual 0.75% levy The Block approved previously.

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Taking credit for the work of others

PlanningA short while ago, I received an unsolicited email from the interim (and soon to be departing) CAO, John Brown, with the subject, “Ideas. Observations. Musings  . Opinions  . Facts ?” (yes, written just like that…). Although he says he never reads my blog, it inspired me to write this post.

He wrote (copied in its original form and punctuation):

I  was wondering if you might  be interested in the towns (sic) recent building permits statistics  reflective of  highly positive growth  in the tax base during the recent past ?  As you are aware from your time on council our financial position has not been  robust in the past  however you will be glad to hear that  it is now showing clear signs of significant  improvement  .

Last  year the total construction value was   115,560 999 dollars – the highest ever I believe  .  I am advised that this year is tracking  , potentially  , higher  . A good  news ‘ economic development ‘  story about the high level of investment in the town based on confidence in the local economy  , based on facts  ,  might be of interest  ?  You can let me know  and I will have them forwarded to you.

(Yes, I too wince at his inability to communicate effectively in writing, but at least he seems to have learned how to use the shift key since his last emails to me, even if the apostrophe still eludes him. But proofreading and clarity are likely overrated… just assume it’s all labelled ‘sic’…)

Now, anyone who follows municipal politics at all knows that council has little if anything to do with private building or construction (unless you’re voting for your brother-in-law’s projects). It is the work of developers, it is not done overnight, but generally part of long-term planning and investment over several years, especially where subdivisions and large scale projects are concerned. So this council cannot take any credit for recent construction. Balmoral Village, just as a single example, was approved last term, although the fees are collected this term.

Plus the fact that none of The Block have ever advocated, championed or even suggested anything resembling the whisper of a ghost of a hint of an economic policy should be considered at any time this term. Not just growth-related: crafting ANY economic policy has so far escaped their attention and grasp. Not surprising, since the collective business and economic acumen of The Block is somewhat less than that of the average anteater.

So why try to pretend this growth is the result of anything The Block has accomplished? To date their greatest intellectual achievement is a bylaw that prohibits throwing birdseed on your driveway. Everything else they have done has been utterly negative, selfish and destructive.

What, then, was the interim CAO’s motive to inspire me to write about this? Surely he knew I’d present a factual counterpoint to his spin.

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