Water: Our most precious resource

Standard of careDid you know there were water restrictions in Collingwood this summer? No? Well, there were. And that underscores the vulnerability of our community to climate change when a community situated on the Great Lakes has water restrictions.

The notice on the town’s web page said we were “experiencing drier than usual conditions” this summer – without explaining what “usual” conditions means, and whether the condition still applies. Well, the failure of communications this term and the need to communicate better and more effectively next term is the stuff for another post. This one is about water. The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources wrote:

In Ontario, climate change is anticipated to result in milder, shorter winters with earlier snowmelt, less ice cover on lakes, changing rainfall patterns and increased evapotranspiration. All of these factors have an impact on the normal variation we experience in water supplies and will affect water infrastructure capacity and design… Changes to water supply will be difficult to predict and could mean that there may be less water available for residential use, agriculture, industry, waterpower generation, transportation, or recreation. Ecologically, changes to water supply will impact Ontario’s biodiversity, our wetlands, our shorelines and our forests.

Our municipal water system is good, but like most in the province, it was not designed to handle the increasing challenges of climate-related stresses we now face. 2018 is shaping up to be the fourth hottest year on record – the three hotter ones were the previous three years! Extreme heat encourages people to use water more – for lawns, golf courses, gardens, drinking, filling pools. Increased demand for water can empty water towers and reservoirs faster and the system can’t fill them as quickly as the demand drains them.

But water use is just one issue.

Toxic algae is in the news every week. In many parts of the Great Lakes – and in Ontario’s inland lakes, too – there have been warnings about swimming and drinking because of blue-green algal blooms (cyanobacteria). Only last week, a family’s dog died after swimming in Lake Ontario and ingesting algae. Lakes Erie, Ontario and now Superior all have serious problems with algae this year (Erie has had them for many years). A media story this weekend had the headline, “Hot summer resulted in blue-green algal blooms on Ontario lakes.”

We’re extremely fortunate that it hasn’t happened here.

Yet.

It’s likely we will see algal blooms in Georgian Bay. Even when you can’t see them, the algae are already in the water, just not in significant amounts. But algae thrive on the nutrients used to fertilize crops, lawns and gold courses. And we have a lot of farms, homes and golf courses in our region to contribute to the runoff. It’s only a matter of time.
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Timeline of the original Collus share sale

VindictiveWith the pending yet pointlessly vindictive Saunderson judicial inquiry – a punitive, self-serving exercise expected to cost local taxpayers of between $2 and $6 million (and potentially much more!) – I thought it might be useful to reprint in one post the timeline of the sale of half the share of Collus to PowerStream in 2011-12. I’ve posted much of this previously, in separate posts, but I also spent several days combing through online sources and archived documents to ensure I had a comprehensive timeline.

There are a few related notes included that underscore the electricity market in flux in 2011, the reasons for the sale (and for a strategic partnership versus a full sale) and the criteria used to determine the best partner. Some of the links in the timeline may no longer be valid (the Enterprise Bulletin, for example, folded, although some pages are archived on the Internet Wayback Archive), but the majority remain active.

This is a long read, because it is very detaiiled. Keep in mind a few things as you read this:

  • The process last term was fully open, and included public consultation and considerable media coverage and our neighbours in Clearview kept informed – the very opposite of this term’s secretive and deceptive privatization of our once-publicly-owned electricity utility;
  • During the process last term, the public was made aware that the town intended to sell up to but no more than 50% of the utility in order not to lose local control over rates and service. There was no public outcry or comments in the media opposed to this, no demands to sell 100%. None of the bids came in at lower than 50%. There was no opposition to the sale filed through the Ontario Energy Board (OEB) over the sale or the process, even after the winning bid of 50% was announced. This term there have been numerous complaints filed to the OEB over the sale and the secretive process;
  • No sole-sourced consultants or lawyers were hired by council last term; quite the opposite of this term where sole-source contracts have been handed out like party favours to buddies without even the pretense of an RFP;
  • Our two utilities (electricity and water) were both active and respected partners in the process; consulted, but never once harassed, confronted or bullied by the council or the administration; quite the opposite of the way they have been treated this term;
  • The goal of the sale last term was to engage a PARTNER who would work cooperatively and collaboratively with the town and the utility for the benefit of our residents, not just to grab the cash; quite the opposite of the backroom cash deal arranged this term with a for-profit, out-of-province corporation that benefits only the sole-sourced lawyer who arranged it (the same sole-sourced lawyer who was hired to provide the ‘market analysis’ and then recommended the sale of the utility);
  • The entire process, including all financials and agreements, was overseen and approved by dozens of people, including the lawyers, accountants, auditors, CAOs, clerks, treasurers, mayors, councillors, board members, CEOs, CFOs and managers of four municipalities, two utilities, KPMG, PLUS those at the Ontario Energy Board and Energy Probe. The process to privatize the utility this term was all done behind closed-door using one sole-sourced lawyer, without anything close to that level of scrutiny;
  • The administration and some council members have said publicly that they don’t have all the documents about the sale. Yet I was able to find all of this documentation with no problem. Did any of them even look? As for SPTT meetings – those were the TOWN’s responsibility, not the utility’s. If those minutes are missing, ask the clerk where they got to: it was her job to record the minutes and store them.

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The secret costs of the EPCOR deal

Scheming BlockheadsWhether or not The Block sell our share of our public electrical utility to the for-profit, Edmonton-based EPCOR, it will still cost taxpayers millions. And I don’t mean just the rising costs of sole-sourced lawyers and buddy consultants the administration has hired (well over $1 million already, and the bills keep coming in). I’m talking about the hidden costs The Block won’t divulge because they don’t want taxpayers to realize how really bad a deal they’ve made with this devil.

And it all happens behind closed doors, Monday, Oct. 23, 2017. No public input allowed on the sale of our own utility. The Block intend to privatize our utility without informing the public of the costs or the consequences.

My industry sources tell me there are many costs associated with the sale that will be built into the selling price, but paid back to the buyer after the sale. In other words: it’s a shell game. We taxpayers will pay the buyer’s costs and their fees, but these will be hidden in the contract, which will be kept secret, so you won’t know what they really are. Sneaky and underhanded – The Block’s way.

Let’s start with the transfer tax: the Ministry of Finance applies a 22% tax to sales made to out-of-province buyers. So if the sale of the town’s share is $8 million as it was in 2012, the MoF will demand a $1.76 million transfer fee. But the buyer will probably offer more, an inflated value of, say, $10 or even $12 million, and the town will repay the buyer the tax from the total. So the town doesn’t actually get the extra cash: that pays the buyer’s taxes. Did I mention the shell game?

Then there’s the “break fee” or termination fee we will pay even if the deal falls through. This happened to Innisfil when its council decided not to sell InnPower to EPCOR (as I recall from media stories, the amount was $1.2 million, but I may be incorrect). Wikipedia tells us this is:

… a penalty set in takeover agreements, to be paid if the target backs out of a deal (usually because it has decided instead to accept a more attractive offer). The breakup fee is ostensibly to compensate the original acquirer for the cost of the time and resources expended in negotiating the original agreement. A breakup fee also serves to inhibit competing bids, since such bids would have to cover the cost of the breakup fee as well.

Which my industry sources tell me has already been agreed upon – in secret of course – by The Block and the town administration. We’ll pay it even if we decide not to sell. How much will it cost us? It really depends on what sort of slimy deal The Block cut, but again my industry sources suggest it will be between 8% and 13% of the offer.

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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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The onerous burden of responsibility

Drinking waterImagine you’re in high school one day around the end of the year. It’s warm outside, sunny, and you want out of the stuffy classroom. You’re not paying attention. You’re looking out the window, fidgeting. Daydreaming, miles away. The teacher drones on and on but you don’t hear a single word.

Then, the bell rings. Just before the class leaves, you hear the teacher remind everyone that you are responsible for their safety, you are responsible for their wellbeing, for their health. For all the kids in the school. And their parents, too. And if you don’t do everything right, if they get hurt or sick, they can sue you and your parents and take everything you own and even send you to jail. You, the daydreamer, the class clown, the gossipy one who never paid attention.

What? How the hell did that happen? When was this ever raised? You have no idea how you found yourself in this position. Responsible for everyone? You’re never been responsible for anyone or anything in your entire life. How could you suddenly become responsible for everyone, for people you don’t even know? Is someone making this all up?

And what is it you’re supposed to do? Did the teacher say something? You don’t know. You weren’t paying attention. You never pay attention. Whatever it is you’re supposed to do, if you screw it up, you get sued. or worse: sent to jail. But how can you be expected to do something you don’t know anything about?

One big, burning question occupies your thoughts: How do I get out of this? Somehow you got yourself into it, got boxed in. Now all you can think about is how to get out from under the heavy weight of responsibility.

And that’s exactly the position The Block found itself in this term. In the first year, The Block fired (unethically and illegally, by the way) all the members of the town’s water utility service board. An in their places they put five of their own members. Five Blockheads without the slightest interest in, understanding of, or experience in water or utilities.

But they hadn’t been paying any attention. They never paid any attention. They were always too busy gossiping, making wisecracks, clowning around, daydreaming. And then they got scared. Trembling, hide-under-your blankets-and-pee-your-Spiderman-PJs kind of scared.
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