The new political action group GrassRoots Guelph is hitting the ground running in terms of its advocacy for Guelph voters. A press release sent out earlier this week outlined the group's intent to request a forensic audit of the City of Guelph's finances after 160 people signed a petition from GRG to demand the audit from Ontario's Ministery of Municipal Affairs and Housing. What do they hope to find? Proof that the city's managers are spending like drunken sailors of course.
Now one should feel free to question the government and scrutinize its actions and decisions, but why do I get the feeling that this is some kind of wild goose chase? I know people aren't pleased with some of the decisions made by Mayor Karen Farbridge and the current city council, and certainly there's a lot to be critical about, but in this request, and in the tone of the GRG press release, I'm reminded of the old Guelph Standard blog, and it's almost single-minded determination to play, what Sarah Palin would call "gotcha journalism" with certain members of council, specifically Farbridge.
GRG is right about one thing, and that is that Guelph and other municipalities are facing a crunch when it comes to paying for the increasing cost of personnel. Of course, unless you pay the majority of your workforce at minimum wage levels, a la Wal-Mart, it's hard to imagine any industry that's not facing this problem. Still, I'm not sure the situation is as dire as the GRG's number of 88 per cent of the tax-supported budget going to salaries and pensions. It's a healthy percentage to be sure, and I'd have to go over those numbers line by line to get an exact percentage, but I don't think nearly nine-tenths of the city's tax supported budget goes to pay city employees.
Still, I wish the GRG luck with their petition, at least in the hopes that it will give its members some piece of mind. I think though, in the end, only a complete turnover of the mayor's office and council will give them that much.
Read the full press release below:
GrassRoots Guelph, a non-partisan citizen’s group, submitted a petition to the Ontario Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing (MMAH) on Tuesday, October 1, 2013 requesting that the province conduct a forensic audit of the City of Guelph’s finances and operations.
This is not just a Guelph story. It is also an Ontario story. It is believed that this is the first time a section of the Municipal Affairs Act 1990 allowing a minimum of 50 taxpayers to petition the Ministry has been used to make a request to Queen’s Park.
The four-page petition has been signed by more than 160 Guelph taxpayers. It details examples of mismanagement of finances and capital projects in the City of Guelph. The objective is to have the city’s operations reviewed by an independent audit team from the Ministry.
A small group of concerned citizens banded together to form GrassRoots Guelph last year and officially launched it in August 2013. The organization currently has more than 200 members and is growing rapidly.
The action taken by GrassRoots Guelph to petition MMAH opens the door for other Ontario municipalities whose citizens have genuine concerns about the way their municipality is being managed.
In Guelph’s case, the evidence was based on the city administration’s published financial documents and augmented by staff operational reports and emails.
So where’s the beef?
It’s no secret that most Ontario municipalities are struggling with rising employee costs that have mushroomed in the past seven years. Salaries, wages and benefits in Guelph’s case are now consuming 88 per cent of the total tax base revenue. Other cities, towns, counties and regions are experiencing similar surging employee costs.
The increasing liability to taxpayers as they continue to support defined pensions for city staff is palpable and threatens the long-term viability of many municipalities. The fact that major public employees’ pension funds are underfunded exacerbates the problem.
The growing cost of environmental services is also impacting property taxes. In Guelph’s case, the administration has spent more than $50 million on a waste management system. Some $33 million was spent on an organics waste processing facility that is three times the needs of the City of Guelph for the next 20 years.
Another $15 million has been spent on a cart/bin collection system using automated trucks. Unfortunately, the system does not collect waste from 6,400 condominium residences. These owners, who live in 14 per cent of Guelph’s households, pay for private collection of their waste even though they are also required to pay for waste collection through their property taxes.
The city is also involved in several lawsuits including five related to firing the contractor of the new City Hall when the project was 95% complete. The unbudgeted liability associated with these lawsuits could exceed $19 million if judgment is awarded to the plaintiffs. Judgment is expected sometime this fall.
Minimal citizen participation was involved in making any of the decisions that led to the above situations.
GrassRoots Guelph feels that our city is not alone in experiencing mismanagement and lack of transparency. That is why GrassRoots Guelph is speaking out.