Political Analyst and Observer, Bill Longworth's, Weekly "Eye on City Hall" Columns, as published in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada's Oshawa Central Newspaper

Monday, February 22, 2010


“Eye on City Hall”

A column of Information, Analysis, Comment, and unfiltered opinion
Bill Longworth, City Hall Reporter
February 22, 2010

This week’s column is about more reckless and irresponsible spending of your taxes, like a drunken sailor on shore leave, and is just another example of why Oshawa has the highest taxes in the GTA.

The issue of the week is Mayor John Gray’s personal approval for taxpayers to fund the MBA degrees for his politically appointed executive assistant, James Anderson, and for Councillor April Cullen, both of whom are studying for taxpayer funded MBA’s in Community Economic Development at Cape Breton University, which is ranked 98 out of 100 Canadian MBA Schools.

Neither of these individuals may be around after the next election with the outraged anger citizens are demonstrating at this wasteful and unethical expenditure which breaches city policy in every way.

Under the city’s corporate training and financial assistance policy, staff and council can use city cash, up to $2,000 in one year and $5,000 over three years, for “cost-effective training and educational opportunities.”

Any extra cost must be approved by the department head and city manager, but John Gray, not the city manager, signed off on both MBAs costing taxpayers $46,000— something he says he’s entitled to do as CEO of the corporation.

In a letter to concerned citizen, Melissa Kata, who has led the charge in illuminating this important issue, Rick Stockman, Commissioner of Corporate Services, stated in a Feb. 10, 2010 letter, “The Council approved “Corporate Training and Financial Assistance Policy” applies to Council members and staff. The policy requires that the City Manager approve any staff applications for financial assistance of the magnitude indicated. The approved candidates are few in number as any funding must be directed at career, organizational development or succession planning.

If approved, the applicant must enter into an agreement to remain with the City for a prescribed period or proportionally reimburse the Corporation if they leave prior to the end of the stated period.

In the case of the identified individual and Councillor, they fall under the Mayor’s Office, and the Mayor authorized the educational expenses in his capacity as the Chief Executive Officer.

If the approval of the councilor and his executive assistant do fall under the Mayor’s jurisdiction, as suggested, don’t you think that the mayor would be expected to give approvals under the same strict conditions as applied to staff?

In this case, John Gray personally approved $46,000 for Councillor April Cullen and his Executive Assistant, James Anderson.

Gray says he’s entitled to disregard established city policy.

This smells like Gray’s personal and private $40,000 spending approval for his own birthday party---the Colbert day.

He’s found a new way of governing our city---like a dictator, he’s making some expensive spending decisions by personal fiat.

Did we elect a mayor who figures he can do whatever he damn well pleases with our money? It seems so!

Besides these MBA’s and the Stephen Colbert Day, he’s driving around in that bright yellow boy toy 426HP muscle car purchased for him at taxpayer expense.

Gray certainly seems to feel a sense of entitlement for himself and his chosen few on council, to live high on the hog at taxpayer expense.

Perhaps what is really at question here is the mayor’s judgment, as this issue has become a lightening rod of citizen anger.

It’s become a tangible symbol of entitlement, over-spending, and unethical disregard for tax payer’s hard-earned tax dollars.

To defend this MBA expenditure is ridiculous and embarrassing, yet some city bureaucrats who have no other choice are forced to clench their teeth and remain silent at the Mayor’s largesse with his council and office friends.

James Anderson, Gray’s executive assistant was appointed by Gray and is not even a city employee.

He is on contract to the city while Gray is Mayor and will depart with Gray, probably in October.

Why is he even considered an eligible candidate to take advantage of the city’s education policies?

While the staff policy extends to council members, it makes no mention, nor should it, of extending this benefit to contract employees.

Nor does it mention any possibility of extending the spending limit beyond the $5000 three year limit which the Mayor’s largesse has greatly exceeded with his $23,000 gift to each of the two MBA candidates.

Tuition benefits are only offered to selected employees by employers when there is a long-term benefit to the employer.

This is never offered to contract employees who are always hired on their existent skills…and politicians should never be elected in the first place if their performance is having to be supported by considerable additional education at taxpayer expense. I have never heard of getting a job and then seeking the training to do it.

Citizen outrage has sparked council candidate Bill Steele to start a rapidly growing facebook group “Invoice for April Cullen and James Anderson---We want our money back now!”

Mr. Steele also sent an email to the press and the individuals involved stating “Your MBA is something that the residents of OSHAWA are opposed to, is abusive to our financial position in Oshawa, and was granted under circumstances that should be investigated.

I strongly suggest that you make the repayment of the $23,000.00 you took for your MBA.

You have refused to explain why the taxpayers should be on the hook for so much money when our City is in financial trouble.

Give us our money back.

I am asking that you please pay the $23,000.00 in full. Arrangements will probably be made (to collect) after you leave office in the fall.”

According to Steele, Rick Stockman, the Commissioner of Corporate Services, said John Gray had never before been involved in such training approvals. He has never signed off on any single training request.

John Gray’s precedent setting single signature approval over ride’s Oshawa's established policy which requires multiple approvals but the Mayor’s single signature approval allows him to gift his friends and council supporters MBA's at $23,000 each while denying council members who don’t toe his line access to this funding.

It must be emphasized, however, that funding degrees for any politicians or political appointees is never justified. We expect these individuals to come to the position fully qualified. Only seminar type instruction on topics needed to fully understand complex issues they’re asked to vote on is justified.

This, despite the fact that Nestor Pidwerbecki reportedly headed over to his Polish homeland at taxpayer expense in recent years to check out their “state of the art(?)” incinerators as research on the Durham Region Incinerator being built on the Oshawa border that both he and Councillor Kolodzie voted for, and which is going to pump considerable health damaging particulate matter into the atmosphere and into the lungs of our children.

I believe the Mayor has shown questionable and faulty judgement in approving wasteful expenditures---the $40,000 Colbert day expenditure that he personally approved without council’s knowledge, the yellow muscle “boy toy” camarro automobile he bought at taxpayer expense, and his statement that city council had no responsibility to inform citizens about the general vote plebiscite---and now funding MBA’s for Councillor April Cullen and his Executive Assistant who is not a city employee but is on contract to the mayor.

It just makes me wonder if John Gray has good enough judgement to be our Mayor and City CEO.

I say, enough is enough!

I believe that all Oshawa citizens owe a big vote of thanks to Marissa Kata and Regional Councillor Candidate, Bill Steele, for taking a lead role in investigating this travesty and exposing it for all to see.

Be sure to follow Bill’s radio broadcasts, “Eye on City Hall”,
every Monday, 6-9 pm EST, on http://www.ocentral.com/thewave/

Monday, February 15, 2010

A Sure Sign of Election Year

“Eye on City Hall”

A column of Information, Analysis, Comment, and unfiltered opinion
Bill Longworth, City Hall Reporter
February 15, 2010

City council approved a .9% increase this year, the lowest increase in years.

This is a political game designed to secure your vote for council incumbents in the October 25, 2010 municipal elections.

This low increase results from 2 factors---it's election year, and the outright anger of Oshawa residents about Oshawa city’s tax grab to give us the highest taxes in the GTA, if not all of Canada.

This obscene level of taxation will not change with the low tax increase for next year. You will still pay more next year than you ever have in the past.

City voters should not fall for this low one-time increase without looking at the past history of this Oshawa City Council and its mismanagement that has produced Oshawa’s excessive taxation level.

City tax levels are so high that about half of the 25 GTA municipalities will pay around 50% or less of the taxes you’d pay in Oshawa on a $350,000 house. Don’t be fooled by this one-time “election ploy” low increase!

Oshawa’s highest taxation levels in the GTA and among the highest in Canada hurt every Oshawa resident.

High taxes rob every Oshawa homeowner of tens of thousands of dollars of home equity, make Oshawa a less desirable place to buy, make it difficult for homeowners to sell their houses, and keep developers away who can increase their profit margins by selling houses at higher prices in lower taxed municipalities.

High industrial and commercial tax rates discourage relocation of businesses here limiting local job growth.

In every way, sky high taxes hurt Oshawa and its residents.

City Manager Bob Duigan has said this will be one of the lowest tax increases in Durham Region---this may be so but we will still pay significantly higher taxes than any place in Durham Region.

What city council needed to do, and which I propose as the next mayor of Oshawa, is to provide annual tax decreases until our tax rate meets the average in the GTA.

The investment rule of 72---dividing 72 by the interest rate approximates the doubling time of capital can also be used in computing halving time for financial amounts. This rule indicates that a 3% annual tax cut would half our taxes in 24 years but would quickly allow us to reach those average GTA tax levels in approximately a dozen years as other jurisdictions continue their annual tax increases.

This pace of closing the gap would be a slow enough cutback for our local government to transition to the impact of these reductions while at the same time alerting all city managers and employees to the need for cost cutting, increased productivity, less wastage, and a reduction in the costs of government. Every expenditure would be measured against “real need.”

That rule of 72 indicates that our 4% tax increases of the last few years, if consistently maintained, would have doubled our current taxes in 18 years (72/4) while the 9% tax increase supported by Mayor John Gray two years ago would have doubled our taxes in just 8 years (72/9).

Remarkable is the statement by present Mayor John Gray that Oshawa’s low increase this year will not impact as higher increases for next year.

Can we trust this of a Mayor who argued for 9% tax increases two years ago?

And what makes him think he can speak for the new council after the October 25th election?

With the rudderless leadership he has provided this dysfunctional council so far, and some of the irresponsible and faulty judgements he has made, and his many outright lies to the people, it is unlikely the angry electorate will re-elect him Mayor.

When voters are making their election choices, they have to look at the history of the Mayor’s and Council’s decisions over their terms on council and just not decisions they make in an election year.

Hopefully the memory of the voters is like that of an elephant or a dog beaten into submission---they just never forget!

Oshawa politicians like Brian Nicholson and Mayor John Gray have told voters that we enjoy the lowest taxes in Durham Region and among the lowest in the GTA.

They must think we’re dumb!

And how about their credibility with statements like this?

I think they owe the public a plausible explanation of why we’ve had consistent tax increases of 4% over the last few years when it is much lower this year.

Gross mismanagement has given Oshawa the highest taxes in Durham Region and in the GTA and the surplus charged by Oshawa, often in the thousands of dollars over other jurisdictions, and even neighbouring jurisdictions, would be enough to provide you a nice winter holiday in the sunny Caribbean climes or new appliances, or even to make a number of your car payments per year.

For example, that $350,000 Oshawa house would be taxed at $1275 less in Clarington, $1400 less in Scugog, $1300 less in Whitby, and an astounding $3200 less in Toronto.

Our tax rates are criminal!

Oshawa tax rates keep you poor and rob you of personal life-style expenditures that you have earned and you deserve!

In ratepayer meetings the Mayor attended recently, the only thing the angry voters wanted to talk about were the sky high taxes. When questioned, the Mayor suggested that high taxes resulted from some lower priced neighbourhoods and that was the reason taxes were high for those gathered.

Such Bunk!

Every city has both higher and lower priced neighbourhoods and the mayor must realize this---but once again, either he’s not very smart or he thinks we’re very dumb.

Taxes are high only because of the mill rate set by the politicians and for no other reason.

As you know, taxes result from the market value of your house as assessed by the Ontario Property Assessment Corporation, an arm of the Provincial Government, multiplied by the mill rate set by the local municipal government.

Those low priced neighbourhoods the mayor referred to would also be taxed at the highest levels in the GTA for equivalently valued homes anywhere in the GTA.

Everyone in Oshawa, no matter the value of your property, is taxed at significantly higher levels than any other part of the GTA.

In fact, compliments of the politicians on your city council, Oshawa is among the highest taxed places in all of Canada.

Isn’t it nice to be #1? After all, the city motto is, “Prepare to be amazed!”

My sister who lives in Vancouver showed me her tax bill.

Her home, assessed in 2008 at $414,500, had a 2009 tax bill of $1630. An Oshawa house of this value would pay 4 times as much---about $6500 in 2008.

It’s interesting also that her municipality had a referendum at the last election on a capital project---the enlargement of an arena.

Wouldn’t it have been democratic for the Oshawa ratepayers to be asked whether they supported the demolition and rebuilding of city hall council chambers and “A” wing---I think I know the answer!

It’s interesting also that my sister’s tax bill had a cost breakdown for various components of the tax---municipal general ($1285.82), regional library ($44.39), drainage (waste/storm water $109.49), North Delta Recreation ($29.51), Arena Enlargement (from the aforementioned referendum $25.37). This is a transparent and open tax bill, isn’t it?

Using this idea of a breakdown of costs attributable to each home for various facets of city expenditures, maybe Oshawa’s tax bill should have a separate line item for such costs as the $3M annual money losing GM Centre, the $1/4M Cullen Gardens Miniatures purchase, the $40,000 expenditure approved solely by the Mayor for the Stephen Colbert Day (Mayor’s Birthday Party), the $40,000 Mayor’s “Boy Toy” bright yellow gas guzzling Muscle Car, Councillor April Cullen’s and the Mayor’s Executive Assistant’s $40,000 tax funded MBA’s personally approved by Mayor John Gray, the $25M demolition and rebuilding of Council Chambers and City Hall “A” wing and the refurbishment of city hall Rundle Tower, the $100 tax-free weekly gas allowance for each city councillor, the costs for taxpayer funded advertising including the needless city publications distributed to all homes which always feature the mug shots and comments of all city councillors, the taxpayer cost for the $1M demolition of North Oshawa Arena and the costs to demolish all of the other targeted arenas.

I could go on and on but I think you get the idea of a truly useful transparent tax bill that we need to judge the performance of this city hall bunch and see where our tax dollars really go.

And what do you think the wish of city voters would be on a plebiscite about demolishing city hall and the civic auditorium?

Yeah! Ridiculous! Irresponsible! Wasteful!

Governments operate with a mindset of increasing budgets every year…and they have a rush to use up all unused cash at the end of every year….Lord forbid leaving any cash in the till because that would lead to a smaller allocation in subsequent years.

This is thinking that has to be changed. It leads to burgeoning fat, inefficiencies, and unnecessary expenditures and wastage all at taxpayer expense.

This is a mindset that has to be changed and will be changed under my administration.

It’s a mindset that wouldn’t be tolerated in any business where the bottom line is important…and it won’t be tolerated in my administration.

Be sure to follow Bill’s radio broadcasts, “Eye on City Hall”,
every Monday, 6-9 pm EST, on http://www.ocentral.com/thewave/

Monday, February 8, 2010

Damn Lies, Bigger Damn Lies, and Consultant’s Reports

“Eye on City Hall”

A column of Information, Analysis, Comment, and unfiltered opinion
Bill Longworth, City Hall Reporter
Feb 8, 2010

City Council told us that they had to demolish and re-build Council Chambers and City Hall "A" Wing because it had a leaking roof, then they said that it was not handicapped accessible, and then not energy efficient, where they finally found a justification that they thought would stick.

We were then told that the $25 Million demolition and rebuilding of Council Chambers and City Hall “A” Wing and the refurbishing of Rundle Tower would be paid for by energy savings at no cost to the taxpayer.

Lights bulbs are advertised by the energy payback time, a pitch never applied to costly appliances like refrigerators.

Brilliant though! City politicians are selling us on light bulb marketing to cover our city hall refurbishing and reconstruction costs. Yeah! Right!

I have maintained that the project was an unneeded wastage of tax money.

The leaking roof was a maintenance issue which is required for even brand new buildings, the accessibility problem was a minor renovation project, and energy inefficiency is a problem with every public building including Buckingham Palace, Parliament Buildings, The Louvre, The White House, etc. and will be the case of any recent construction in a few years as new standards and materials are developed.

The city employs "hired gun" consultants, almost like the "expert" witnesses employed on both sides of a criminal trial, who will produce reports, or testimony in the case of expert witnesses, to support the "preconceived" positions of those paying the bills.

I know that energy efficient windows installed in my house may pay for themselves in my lifetime, and while there may be some cost savings with the city hall projects, we all know they would never repay the $20M to $25M to $30M cost for demolishing and rebuilding city hall as City Politicians claim pointing to the consultants report that made the claim. But you can pay “hired guns” to say anything!

Without having access to all of the technical studies, I do have some common sense to apply, and so I made some assumptions for the demolition and rebuilding of Council Chambers only, and expect that the result would be the same on the entire project.

Suppose the Council Chambers cost as much to heat/cool as 100 homes. My house costs about $1500 to heat/cool per year so the Council Chambers would cost about $150,000 to heat and cool. Suppose reconstruction would result in an increased heating/cooling efficiency of an impossibly high 50%. The savings for heating/cooling the newly constructed $8 million council chambers would be $75,000 annually resulting in a cost savings of $75,000. At this rate, it would take ($8M/$75,000) 107 years to pay off the construction costs with the accrued energy savings not counting the debt charges on the money used to pay for the construction.

Now do you believe City Hall's Claim that energy savings will pay for the job? You don't? Me neither!

Now apply the same arguments to the complete project...the demolition and rebuilding of Council Chambers and "A" wing and the refurbishment of Rundle Tower at a cost somewhere around $25,000,000.

City Hall must think we're stupid!

But this is only one example of the misinformation and often outright lies fed to the people.

Council must think we’re innocent little chicks with our mouths wide open waiting unquestionably to receive all their BS. They’ll find we’re not!

This kind of information given to the public shows that council thinks the voters are dumb. That’s no way to show respect for the people. And I resent it!

There are lots of examples of this kind of lying and misinformation given to the public.
1. When the General Vote was being approved by city council, the Mayor publicly stated for the television audience watching the council meeting that night that city hall had no responsibility to communicate details of the plebiscite question to the public---no reason to explain the meaning of the question, the consequences of a change, or indeed why the question was asked since there had never been any concern publicly expressed about ward voting. He said this communication was the responsibility of concerned citizens like me to fundraise and inform the public.

Informal third party campaigns suggested by the mayor are against Ontario Municipal Election Law which the mayor must have known when he made these statements---but the lie sounded good to the uninitiated.

Council even voted not to give such information.

Doesn’t it make sense that if council wanted an accurate measure of public opinion, they would have wanted to inform the public.

Their failure to communicate showed they didn’t care.

They kept the question secret and worded it a way as to get the answer they wanted.

This is vote manipulation of the highest order.

Council should be ashamed of themselves for denigrating democracy this way. It was akin to the vote fixing of third world despots!

2. A common city hall statement following approval of every major funding expenditure is that it will have no impact on taxes.

We’ve been told that on the rebuilding and refurbishment project at city hall and on the building of GM Centre.

Every penny council spends has a direct impact on taxes.

Governments do not have any other source of income except from the people.

Creative accounting does not eliminate the impact on taxes.

Take the building of the $45 million GM Centre downtown.

They mortgaged, sold, or borrowed against part of the city ownership of the profitable Oshawa Public Utilities Commission and profits that would normally be returned to the city to assist in financing on-going city operations are now lost revenues directed to debt repayment or dividends to the note holders leaving tax payers to pick up the shortfall as inflated tax burdens.

No impact on taxes? Do you believe it?

No, I don’t either!

3. Recently, Councillor Brian Nicholson claimed on his facebook page in response to a complaint about high taxes, that Oshawa had the lowest taxes in Durham Region and was one of the lowest in the GTA.

This is a blatant lie.

When I pointed out the misinformation, Nicholson tried to skirt around the issue by saying he meant something else, and then proceeded to attack my credibility.

There is no question about Oshawa’s high taxes as anyone can see by consulting the GTA tax calculator.

By referencing this resource, Oshawa taxpayers would note that we not only have the highest residential taxes in the GTA, we also have significantly higher taxes than our surrounding neighbours, Whitby, Scugog, and Clarington.

Further, they’d be astounded to discover that an Oshawa house valued at $350,000 pays the same taxes as a Toronto house valued at $866,100 and that a $350,000 Oshawa house would be taxed at $1076 less in Clarington, $1389 less in Scugog, $1167 less in Whitby, and, get this, $3153 less in Toronto.

Nicholson has been on City Council for more than 20 years.

Was he lying to the public or after 20 years of budget deliberations, is he still unaware of our criminally high taxes here in Oshawa? I guess he just doesn’t get it!
Space limitations prevent me from identifying a good number of other examples of the damn lies and the huge damn lies being constantly fed to Oshawa people.

If the mayor and city council had any respect for the people and any respect for democracy, they’d tell us the truth…for once---please. Just for once!

Oshawa will have a chance to do a lot better at the next municipal election on October 25, 2010.

Be sure to follow Bill’s radio broadcasts, “Eye on City Hall”,
every Monday, 6-9 pm EST, on http://www.ocentral.com/thewave/