The Block are privatizing our public assets

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sneakySo Brian and his Block minions want to sell our airport. Our publicly-owned asset. And they’re doing it without even the pretence of the courtesy to tell us why. No public input, no public engagement, no open discussion over it. In the flaccid Connection story, it notes,

In November, 2016, deputy mayor Brian Saunderson asked Clearview Township Deputy Mayor Barry Burton if his municipality was interested in taking over operation of the airport.

As usual, the slavish local media drool over their buddy Brian, but cleverly neglect to point out that Saunderson is neither the spokesperson for the town (and has no authority to make such a request), nor does he even sit on the airport board. Any such request should be made officially by the town to Clearview Council, as a group. And yet the paper has no critical comment about how sneaky and underhanded this process has been. Ah well, local media gave up its credibility years ago.

Now, I know that egregious secrecy on The Block’s part doesn’t surprise my readers by now. In almost three years of their term, The Block have never once publicly divulged the reason for any of their destructive rampages through our community. They – who promised us openness and transparency during the election campaign – have rightfully earned the nickname The Most Secretive Council Ever. And several less printable but equally deserved nicknames, of course. But they just love secrecy and conniving in back rooms. They’re addicted to it, a habit they can’t break.

The Block have not told us why they want to sell our public utilities to a private, for-profit corporation out of Edmonton. They have never told us why they are in a libertarian frenzy to privatize our public assets and utilities without public input. They didn’t tell us why they created a new IT department in town hall, hired three new staffers and are spending two-three times the cost to operate it than we used to pay for in the shared services agreement. They didn’t tell us why they illegally fired the water utility board, or the electrical utility board and replaced them with their own secretly-chosen patsies (or put themselves on the board, instead). They didn’t tell us why they separated the water utility from the effective, efficient, 150-year-old working partnership with the electrical utility (and now the water utility is in chaos). And they didn’t tell us why they threw up roadblocks to stop the much-needed hospital redevelopment.

So no one really expected them to start acting all open and transparent now, over the airport. They are, after all, The Block. They live up to their name at every meeting.

First a bit of history: Two years ago, a developer at the airport came to council and asked for a letter of intent to negotiate access to the airport runways so he could move forward with Ontario’s biggest rural industrial development since the 1960s. It would create 300+ permanent jobs, attract businesses, and the increased fuel sales would allow the airport to break even. Good news all around, right? Yet The Block said no, without, of course, telling us why. Now they want to sell that very airport, again without saying why. I’ll return to that, so hold the thought.

The developer first approached our airport board. This is populated by councillors from Collingwood, Clearview and Wasaga Beach, as well as a public representative, and given autonomy to make decisions on behalf of the facility. The Clearview Aviation Business Park developer wanted a letter of intent stating that the airport and the developer would enter negotiations about access to the runway in the future. No more than that: just that they would talk soon.

The board agreed unanimously to support his request for the letter of intent, and wrote a letter to Collingwood Council requesting their support. The Block turned them down. For no apparent reason – except that, being good soldiers, they were doing what they were told to do by a higher power.

The interim CAO, I have always been led to believe, doesn’t believe municipalities should own airports (or, apparently utilities) and, since Brian and The Block have always followed his lead blindly, never questioning his alleged wisdom, and always nodded their heads like good little bobbleheads in time with his wishes when the issue was raised. Which beggars the question: what will their little heads do when he’s gone? (He “resigned” Friday, although he’s still being used as a “consultant” to see his legacy through to the end…)

What was most notable about that vote at council is that Collingwood Councillor Mike “Where’s My Spine?’ Edwards – who is also the airport board chair – voted against the board’s recommendation and for The Block’s rejection. Again not too surprising to council watchers, since Edwards isn’t known to stand up and fight for anything, and has launched exactly zero initiatives in his 14 years on council. He never seemed to learn the basic lesson that elected representatives are at the table to represent the people, not the administration. My sources tell me since his pusillanimous vote at council*, Edwards is not well respected by the airport board or the respective councils of neighbouring municipalities.

And now the airport is for sale, although who our Blockheads think will buy it is a mystery. Clearview has said no, they don’t want it. Simcoe County said no, too. So that leaves a private owner. Another public asset privatized by The Block without even the pretence of public engagement.

Clearview Council has since approved all the permits for the CABP development, a stick in the eye of the surly Collingwood reluctance to move forward. Collingwood and Clearview both got appraisals of the property (Collingwood also had one last term, to which I was privy, and got a second one this term). The value of the property was estimated at about $6 million last term, and sources outside the municipality tell me it’s somewhat less than that now. But that’s a Big Secret, so don’t pass it along (although why an appraisal of a public property should be secret, only The Block can say, but they do love their secrecy, don’t they?).

You should read the interim CAO’s report on the airport, keeping in mind it was written by the guy who has wanted his tame Blockheads to get rid of the facility from the start of this term. It opens with a clunker:

After having given careful consideration to the Town’s seriously challenged financial situation…

When did this “careful consideration” take place? I can’t recall any public debate over the issue. Was it in another back room session, like all the rest of their discussions?

This comment refers to a BMA report presented to the town early in the term. It was spun by The Block and the administration as presenting a “sky is falling” picture of our finances, when it actually was quite tepid about its conclusions. But it was skewed to support the administration’s claims, so it was used to rationalize, among other things,  raising property taxes three times in three years (while The Block gave themselves a pay hike each time, as a reward…). Like other reports I’ve read from BMA, it’s bullshit dressed up with pretty charts and buzzwords meant to bolster the administration’s agenda.

Similarly, buzzwords and bafflegab are at the core of the interim CAO’s report on the airport, too. But none of The Block questioned it, of course (like everything else in print they receive, they didn’t actually read it… and they never, ever, EVER questioned the Holy Wisdom of the Interim CAO…)

It says on page 2,

…taxpayers from Collingwood have contributed heavily to both its infrastructure and operating costs…

The airport runs cost the town about $150,000-$195,000 a year depending on fuel sales and traffic: less than what The Block have been paying for the interim CAO’s salary and benefits. As a choice between him and the airport, I’m sure most people would agree we get more value out of the airport. A lot more. And the best way to lower that deficit would be to actively promote the airport and encourage more use. But that never seems to have been suggested as an option.

On page 3, it notes:

Staff recognize that transforming CRA from its existing status to a significant aviation and commerce centre of excellence, capable of attracting major operators currently using Toronto facilities, will not only require extensive capital infrastructure improvements at the CRA but also the addition of highly experienced administrative and operational management.

He doesn’t identify the “staff” here who agree with his speculations, but I can find no reference in his report to any comments from the town’s Economic Development and Marketing Office about the importance of the airport to the town’s long-term economic sustainability and viability. Surely that should be a consideration? Or comments from the airport board manager. Why wouldn’t he ask the guy who actually manages the airport for input?

And why do we need to hire extra staff to operate it? That’s a slap in the face against the current, competent and experienced management. I don’t recall anything in the interim CAO’s resume that suggests he has experience managing  airports (or managing electrical or water utilities, or economic development, or hospitals…), so how is he qualified to say what one needs? But for The Block his lack of qualifications is irrelevant: he walks on their water.
The Block're realtion with the interim CAO

The report doesn’t even mention the possibility of a public-private partnership with the Clearview Aviation Business Park who have been trying to negotiate access and their future at the airport for almost three years. Apparently the town – or at least the interim CAO – isn’t interested in discussing the airport’s future with them or its other users. Yet every progressive municipality in the province is pursuing PPPs for cooperative developments.

Yes, I know, The Block don’t have a collective head for things like economic development, jobs, finance, business, commerce, industry, entrepreneurship, money, taxes, or partnerships. None of them exhibit any interest in – much less have knowledge of – such complex issues. These topics make their heads hurt. Even those who manage to stay awake during meetings usually sit in sullen, bewildered silence when they are raised by others. Little wonder the CABP proposal baffled and confused them.

Then on page 6, he blusters:

The Airport has never been able to cover its costs, operational or capital, resulting in an annual cost to the Town’s already burdened taxpayer. CRA has been, and will continue to be, an ever increasing unfunded liability for which the Town’s taxpayers will have responsibility.

Hmmm. That “already burdened taxpayer” didn’t seem to bother him or his sycophants when they raised our taxes three times this term. Or at any time while they’ve been handing out more than $1 million in sole-sourced contracts to lawyers and consultants to justify all their conspiracy theories. Or when the costs of creating a new IT department in town hall after the service was taken from Collus doubled and tripled. That taxpayer has also paid his highly inflated salary (more than the premier of the province makes) and will continue to pay for the interim CAO as a “consultant” even after he has left office. So this quote sure sounds pretty hypocritical to me.

Public facilities DON’T MAKE A PROFIT. Nor do public services. That’s not just here: it’s everywhere. Ontario’s Municipal Act (sec. 390-399) only allows municipalities to impose fees and charges to recover costs “.. related to administration, enforcement and the establishment, acquisition and replacement of capital assets.” Best case is break-even. And we could achieve that, if The Block had any interest in doing so.

We pay taxes for those facilities and services because that’s what taxes are for: to support and maintain public facilities, services and assets. We are equally “burdened” by paying for public transit, the swimming pool, our arenas, curling club, roads, sidewalks, downtown, harbour, docks, parks, traffic lights, streetlights… the airport is not special in that way. The reality of why we pay taxes seems lost on The Block who, aside from wasting money on frivolous conspiracies and personal agendas, have continued to employ the overpaid interim CAO while wondering why their fiscal blundering cost them the dividend from the electrical utility.

But the airport does have an advantage that roads and buses and arenas don’t have: it has the potential to do better. It can expand, to grow, to be an economic stimulator, create jobs, attract tourists, develop regional relationships (it is, after all the Collingwood REGIONAL Airport…)… Yes, I know: that sort of talk would have The Block’s eyes glazing over in confusion and trepidation. This is alien territory to them (as is everything not directly related to their own benefit).

Page 7, the interim CAO refers to a legal opinion from John Mascarin, of Aird & Berlis. I was unaware that Mascarin was an expert in airport management (his online CV doesn’t mention it). In 2013, Mascarin made a presentation to Markham council’s Development Services Committee “n support of recognizing the existence and potential expansion of Markham Airport.” That strikes me as quite the opposite of what he says in his comments in the interim CAO’s report. Maybe you CAN suck and blow at the same time.

Readers of this blog (and those who attended the embarrassing “public” meeting at Georgian Manor where the town put up more roadblocks to the hospital redevelopment) know Mascarin for three reasons: 1. He doesn’t work for the firm that we pay to be the town’s current legal firm and advisors: he’s just another unnecessary, sole-sourced outsider feeding off your tax dollars. 2. He gave an cringe-worthy pro-administration opinion about the hospital redevelopment at that meeting, offending hospital supporters, board and staff, and 3. He is the lawyer who personally recommended John Brown to the town for the position of interim CAO – the sorriest, worst decision any council ever made.

Mascarin slavishly supported the interim CAO’s opposition to Councillor Lloyd’s pro-hospital development motion, back in March (read the report in the agenda). Mascarin’s current airport opinion seems to me just like his hospital opinion: oleaginously pro-administration. He has zero credibility in Collingwood these days among those I speak with.

On page 12, the interim CAO concludes by piling the bullshit to ceiling height:

In conclusion, the Town of Collingwood is simply not capable of funding or operating a commercial / industrial centre of aviation of the magnitude envisaged, nor should it stand in the way of a potential development opportunity which could benefit the entire regional area…

First, the town IS capable of operating the airport and has been for many decades (and will be for many more, especially once we stop shelling out money for his buddy layers and consultants). Second, the “envisioned” magnitude seems to be his alone – I cannot recall any public presentation from the airport joint services board (and I sat on that board for 7 years) that discussed these upgrades or even presented a cost analysis of potential growth like this.

His argument seems to be simply that he can imagine the sky is falling, therefore the town should run away as fast as possible. And The Block are running about with their hands over their heads.

The interim CAO actually lets one slip (p.3):

In the absence of any comprehensive business plan having been prepared to quantify such costs, their likely timing, or determination as to who will have the responsibility for them, the following costs are considered to be a good starting point.

There is no indication from any credible industry source that any of these upgrades are necessary, or even desired, or what the timeline is for adding them or even where the costs came from (did he make them up?). Nor does he seem to have discussed any of this with CABP or the other municipalities on the board. Nor with the town’s Economic Development officer. I don’t see any comment from the town’s real estate firm in the report that would suggest there’s even a market for airports or who would consider buying it.

Wouldn’t it be more logical and sensible to first ask the airport board to examine these issues and come up with a business plan that plots the future and potential growth BEFORE telling us why it’s impossible? Wouldn’t it make sense to ask the people we pay to advise us on real estate matters if this was a viable option?

Apparently, in more than four years in his office, the interim CAO didn’t ask. Maybe he was too busy chatting with his sole-sourced lawyer buddy over the sale of our electrical utility to bother with something as insignificant as an airport. You would think it was the CAO’s job to make sure a publicly owned asset had a business plan. To ensure that every public asset and facility had comprehensive asset management and business plans. After all, didn’t the buck stop at his desk? Yet it seems that since the idea of the sale was first floated, almost three years ago, he never asked for one.

I know, I know: that sort of common sense would interfere with the agendas at play here. And there are personal agendas and vendettas at work below the surface, as there is in every Block activity.

One of those agendas is Paul Bonwick. The Block hate Paul because 1) he’s successful, 2) he’s the mayor’s brother and 3) he’s a Liberal (and former MP). The Block despise success because, simply put: they don’t have any. Jealousy eats at their core when they encounter someone who is or has been a success, anyone has accomplished something, who has community respect – all things they will never achieve. They despise the mayor and have done everything in their power to sideline her, sidestep her, disrespect her and ignore her, to act without informing her and avoid following protocol and procedure.They extend their puerile uncivility to her family because that’s the way bullies roll. And The Block are all inflexible Conservatives, so they despise anything to do with another political party simply because that’s what their rigid, divisive ideology demands.

So the airport is up for sale and, like with everything else The Block have stuck their grubby fingers in, they didn’t engage the public. They never asked the owners of the facility what we thought of the airport before deciding to sell it out from underneath us. But, hey, we’re just the taxpayers, so what do we matter to them? Why should The Block start acting ethically now, after so many years being assholes?

Collingwood deserves better.

~~~~~
* Not at the recent council meeting, of course. Edwards was conveniently away from council when the vote came to privatize the airport. Even though he is the chair of the airport services board, he wasn’t there for perhaps its most important vote. But then he never did like controversy. The vote against the airport board decision goes back to 2015. 

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