Let Them Eat Cake


The Continued Arrogance of Brian Saunderson

Saunderson getting chubbyOur gormless backbencher, the CONservative MPP Brian Saunderson, recently exposed his egregious arrogance in a comment to CollingwoodToday about the province again burdening municipalities by downloading more costs onto them. For Collingwood, that means another $615,000 added to our expenses.* He didn’t even bother trying to explain — let alone justify — the downloading, merely shrugged it away.

That’s arrogantly disrespectful of how the town deals with spending and what burden it puts on our residents, Saunderson said the additional, unexpected costs were “not that big compared to the overall budget for Collingwood, which is proposed at $153.5 million so far…” In other words: “Let them eat cake!

Saunderson, who has the well-deserved twin reputation of being both the worst deputy-mayor and worst mayor in the town’s recent memory, is best remembered for wasting more than $10 million of our taxes pursuing his personal vendetta against councillors and staff who upset him in 2012. He was so unpopular here that he opened his MPP constituency office in Alliston, 60 kms away, rather than in the town where he served as mayor.

That story of petty but expensive personal revenge I’ve covered here many times (search for the Saunderson Vindictive Judicial Inquiry or SVJI). That $10M could have improved our roads, our parks, repaired the corroding lampposts along First Street, created affordable housing, fixed infrastructure, helped fund an arts centre, or done any number of positive things that would benefit the community. Benefitting the community was, however, never one of Saunderson’s goals: personal ambition tops all.

Saunderson’s myopic obsession with revenge also led to the councils he controlled (both larded with a majority of his sycophants when he was DM and mayor) killing the previous deal to build a new water treatment plant in 2015. The 2014 council had it studied, documented, planned, and an agreement with municipal partners on the pipeline (in which Bradford would pay $45 million of the estimated $60 million cost) made by Marcus Forman, former COO of our water services.

The subsequent, feckless council of DM Saunderson and his Block of sycophant puppets (along with their administration lackey) was too focused on furthering Saunderson’s personal agenda to have time for anything as important and complicated as our troubled municipal water system, so the deal fell through. The costs ballooned from $60 million to $121M because of their neglect, but now sits at about $270 million. It may easily top $300 million by the time the shovels are in the ground! As one developer noted:

“That’s going to affect the costs of housing as well, so even as a buyer, I think it’s going to be a bit of a shock to the system,” Blair said.

That’s a $280-$300M cost local taxpayers now have to carry. Our hapless current mayor seemed surprised despite having had staff warnings when she was a councillor about the needed upgrade and rising costs. Maybe she should have paid more attention.

“We thought, well, it’s going to be over budget, but we didn’t all expect it would go from $120 million to, you know, almost $270 million,” said Collingwood Mayor Yvonne Hamlin.

Over budget? Wait… the mayor knew it was going to be over budget but didn’t warn the public? How deceptively Saunderson-ish of her.

Had Saunderson shown even a modest concern for the community when he was in office here, this debacle might have been avoided and we would have had a new plant completed several years ago. Well, not the full eight years of his terms: in January 2021, when Saunderson announced he was running for the nomination as the PC’s next candidate here, he basically abdicated his role and his responsibilities as mayor (aside, that is from the paycheque, which he continued to collect) so he could campaign.

Even with his best effort, Saunderson couldn’t win his nomination against a better, more popular candidate, and required anti-democratic interference from Ford to get the nomination. But, given the damage he and his council cronies did to the community, perhaps his absence was for the best.**

Readers might also recall how, as mayor in 2021, Saunderson shrugged off the $10 million costs for his spiteful inquiry as being a mere drop in the bucket of a $100 million budget. He loves to belittle the costs to local taxpayers. It wasn’t his money he was spending, after all. Notice, by the way, that he was mute when the OPP closed their own expensive investigation into the events behind his vindictive judicial inquiry. The police said there was simply no cause for any charges. No one broke any laws but it still cost millions of taxpayers’ dollars to prove that. Any cost to taxpayers was worth even a chance of revenge, right Brian?

Wading through the budget

You can read the town’s proposed 2024 budget here. Sort of. It’s a 134-page obfuscatory document dense with bureaucratese; no simple summary, no linked table of contents, no index. But if you wade deep enough through it, on page 17 you’ll find that the operating budget (paying staff, services, policing, fire, etc.) is $68.2 million (increasing from $52.1M in 2016 and from $27M in 2014!). That’s where that $615,000 will be dumped on.

Capital costs are $85.3M (bloating from $15M in 2016 and this is without the new water treatment plant included). In part, it’s so high because maintaining our infrastructure was not council’s focus during Saunderson’s time in office here. Of the total, $40.286M will come from already-stressed local taxpayers, the balance to be raised through reserves, development charges, loans, and fees (many of which are why houses cost so much in Collingwood).

Some of the eye-opening details of the budget requests were reported by CwoodToday: a “part-time administrative assistant to the mayor and council” for $50,000 (imagine how much a full-time assistant would cost us… but let’s not forget that Saunderson’s council stripped away the mayor’s admin assistant in 2018!)! Affordable housing master plan recommendations — even though Simcoe County has the staff, the plans, and the authority for housing — $224,000! An advertising feasibility study for $100,000 (Why TF does the town need to study advertising?)! A short-term accommodations program for $254,000! Another asset management plan for $1,824,000 (we’ve had at least two such plans in the past decade and why does a plan cost so much?)!

(NB: Last term, Saunderson’s Block of obedient puppets killed the wildly successful Elvis Festival that cost the town a mere “47,000 to $50,000” a year, but was a massive benefit to the community, both economically and for the media attention it garnered. It put us on everyone’s event map; an advertising windfall for Collingwood; but some folk on council didn’t want others to have fun so they killed it. Now, in a collective facepalm moment, this council plans to spend double that amount on a study about advertising…)

It seems staff’s motto is Spend! Spend! Spend! And council appears content to go along with them. I don’t read a lot of council resistance to the escalating costs in local media. Remember all those election promises about fiscal restraint and responsibility? Right… dust in the wind.

Spend, spend, spend!

Some of these costs are gobsmacking. For example, IT services (p.117-120) used to cost the town under $150,000 a year through the shared services agreement with COLLUS/Powerstream. Since Saunderson’s gang privatized our electricity utility (without any public consultation but more than 30 closed-door meetings) and brought IT in-house, it now has 5 full-time employees, one part-time employee, and operating costs of more than $900,000 a year plus $348,000 in capital costs. Plus office space, parking spaces, office supplies… Almost a tenfold increase.***

Yet for all this money, Collingwood still has a user-hostile website that’s clumsy, obscure, fragmented, and difficult to navigate, as well as a vague, uninformative communications strategy that leaves most residents in the dark.****

(You’ll also see on page 6 that the town continues to undervalue the costs of the SVJI at $8.5 million because they won’t include the costs of the lawyers and consultants used to set it up, but the real cost when they are included is much more than $10 million).

On p.12, it says that the town is using a “median assessed” home value of $327,000, an amount unchanged since 2020. I’d love to see any home in Collingwood assessed that low, but that’s what the town disingenuously uses to tell you your tax hike won’t be all that high (a mere $48.11). In 2014, the treasurer said a 2.1% budget increase represented a $67 increase for the average household. With a budget now well over double that 2014 figure, the cost to the “average taxpayer” is likely to be a helluva lot more because all of our home values are well above that fictitious figure.

Greenbelt land grab for his developer buddiesThe real impact of the downloading that Saunderson blithely dismissed will be felt by local taxpayers. We each have to shell out for the $615,000 downloaded by the province — run by a government that has no problems enriching developer buddies for billions of dollars and no problems giving public waterfront land to a private spa at Ontario Place. Yet the PCs seem determined to make our municipal lives miserable. Fordnation’s government has been investigated by the Auditor General (and found corrupt over the Greenbelt land theft), is currently under investigation by the AG again for abuse of Ministry Zoning Orders, and by the RCMP for possible criminal corruption regarding the Greenbelt scam. Nice bunch Saunderson is in with.

Sure, when divided, the downloading may not be a huge addition to the bill for our already over-taxed residents given the already bloated budget, but it still adds to our individual expenses at a time of high inflation, increased electricity costs, increased food costs, increased mortgage and rental costs, and stagnant wages. And remember everything Mayor Saunderson did as mayor to help residents hurt by pandemic shutdowns and layoffs? Right: nothing.

As local resident John Megarry wrote in a recent letter to CwoodToday, our property taxes are significantly higher than those in our neighbour, Wasaga Beach (a town similar in population and services) but for no apparent reason:

I don’t perceive that the services and amenities provided are so very different. So why do we pay 21% more residential tax?
Our treasurer has stated that Collingwood has older, and therefore more expensive, infrastructure, and that may well be the case, but $14 million (21 per cent) more and 36 (22 per cent) more full-time staff?
I think it’s time for our elected council to dig deeper into this issue.

Good luck getting council to investigate. Maybe local media just isn’t reporting them being stalwart, but from what I’ve seen so far this term, there’s not a lot of spine at the table to stand up for residents against staff. Staff which, I might add, continues to grow in numbers while council nods its collective heads at every new hire.

Anyone having supervisory responsibility for the completion of a task will invariably protest that more resources are needed.
Hacker’s Law of Personnel, coined by Andrew Hacker in The End of the American Era, Atheneum, 1970.

But back to Brian: he’s what voters get when the majority can’t be bothered to vote. He got elected by a mere 22% of the electorate. When voters don’t give a shit about democracy, the dregs wash up in office.

Collingwood deserves better.

* The increasingly irrelevant and now digital-only Collingwood Connection didn’t even bother to report this insult to our municipality. Or anything else about the town’s 2024 budget. In fact, their news page for the town doesn’t show any council stories dated later than September 18, 2023, shortly after their parent company, Metroland, declared bankruptcy and stopped publishing more than 70 community newspapers in Ontario. Bemusingly, the tagline on the company’s page still says, “The Connection is Collingwood’s weekly newspaper, delivered every Thursday.” But readers can take heart that there is still relevance here: the site features an important new story that is sure to engage the audience of political watchers: “Barbie? Super Mario? Find out which Halloween costumes are the most popular in 2023.

** Saunderson resigned his role as mayor six months short of completing his term on June 6, 2022, leaving a rudderless, divisive, and ineffectual council of lacklustre sycophants to blunder and fumble their way into governance roles they were unaccustomed to and incapable of bearing effectively until the municipal election in October 2022.

*** And then there’s the dividend paid to the town that was lost when Saunderson’s cabal privatized our electricity utility: $250,000-$300,000 a year that could have helped reduce our tax burden.

**** In a recent letter to CwoodToday, another resident noted:

Town employees are not listed on the town’s website. Why? Maybe they don’t want to receive any questions from the taxpayers who pay their inflated salaries.

Good point: even trying to assess the total number of staff is impossible. But that might be the difficulty of getting actual information from the appallingly bad website. I was told by a town staffer that staff don’t use the clumsy search engine on their own site because it’s faster and easier to use Google search to find their own pages and documents. That speaks volumes about the quality of the website we pay so much to maintain.

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