With a 322-page agenda plus several deputations and presentations to deal with, members of council won’t be putting the wraps on Monday’s council meeting in 45 minutes or less, as is often the case.
Especially if they do what they are paid to do and represent St. Thomas ratepayers. Forget lobbing softballs and ask the tough questions. Forget the platitudes to staff about a job well done on this report or that. Of course the report is exceptional, that’s the job of staff at city hall and they do it well.
For instance, how about the city’s consolidated financial report for 2016. We’ll point you in the right direction at Page 275.
That’s the demand note from Ascent Group in the amount of $5.5 million. That’s the amount Ascent still owes the city for the collection of water bills, dating back to 2014. The city pays Ascent in excess of $300,000 to provide this service.
The note is due Dec. 31, 2017. But, hold on a minute. The hoped-for merger date between St. Thomas Energy and Entegrus out of Chatham-Kent is Jan. 1, 2018, the very next day. So how will this outstanding debt – plus the $20 million or so in Ascent long-term debt – be accounted for post-merger?
In previous conversations, neither the city treasurer nor the acting CEO at St. Thomas Energy was forthcoming with details.
Is Entegrus going to assume this debt on behalf of Chatham-Kent ratepayers? Will one or more of the smaller entities that make up Ascent Group Inc. declare bankruptcy?
Both are possible.
Don’t forget, St. Thomas Energy will become a mere 20 per cent stakeholder in the new entity, which will service close to 60,000 customers in southwestern Ontario, making it the 11th largest utility in the province.
St. Thomas Energy has close to 30 per cent of the total customer base of the combined entities. We have it on good account St. Thomas Energy would have had at lease a 30 per cent stake post-merger if not for the bleak Ascent financial picture.
Writing off the long-term debt to limit St. Thomas to a one-fifth cut of the pie likely makes a good business case for Entegrus.
And, a poor long-term return on investment for the city.
Fire sale comes to mind.
Will any member of council delve into these questions and scenarios on behalf of those who elected them?
In other words, start doing your job.
OPTIONS FOR ADOPTION
A move by the city to renovate the animal shelter on Burwell Road is turning into, well, a bit of a dog’s breakfast.
Seems the lowest of the seven tender bids comes in at about $60,000 over the $260,000 budget when you factor in HST, design and other associated fees.
In a report to council Monday, the city’s director of environmental services Justin Lawrence presents four options for council’s consideration.
The city can go ahead and award the contract even though it exceeds the amount allocated in the 2017 budget.
A second option is to re-tender the project with a flexible three-month construction period and pare back the scope of the work while maintaining “a positive environment to promote animal adoption,” according to Lawrence.
The city can look at purchasing an existing building that might prove appropriate and affordable or there is always the option of cancelling the project entirely. Lawrence is recommending “the city not award this tender, but discuss ways to minimize the scope of the work and re-tender for a more flexible construction window. Further, administration will explore cost of potential buildings that are for sale and require renovations to them.” No matter the outcome on Monday, do you get the feeling Lois Jackson, the dedicated chair of the animal welfare committee, is going to end up with a much-compromised facility in which to “promote animal adoption?”
CREATIVE CAMPUS FINANCING
The city wants to move quickly on creating “a family based campus” on the large tract of land at 230 Talbot Street which it purchased earlier this year from London developer Shmuel Farhi. The selling price was $1.4 million, with Farhi Holdings donating back $400,000.
This campus would include a new home for Ontario Works and up to 52 housing units.
The driving force behind this undertaking is Wendell Graves and the city manager’s report is heavy on financial details and includes six recommendations for council to act upon in order to get the ball rolling this fall. A hefty request given the amount of work to be dealt with Monday.
Of note is the method of partially financing the campus, as proposed by Graves.
He is seeking council’s approval to “sell vacant free-standing homes within the affordable housing program and the transfer of the sale proceeds to the development of new housing stock” at 230 Talbot Street.
The homes to be sold would come from the stock of 75 single-family homes on Simcoe and Dunkirk streets. Graves anticipates 12 to 14 of these units would become available over the next two years.
This process, writes Graves, “would create new, energy-efficient housing stock, the size and configuration of which can mirror the current needs of the community.”
It’s an ambitious and creative approach to establishment of a community hub in the city’s west end with the potential to revitalize what, in the past, has been a less than attractive gateway to St. Thomas.
And, if there ever was any doubt, reinforces who is really behind the wheel at city hall.
A SMOKING GUN
We’ve long suspected much more city business is conducted in closed session than is posted on council’s agenda. It’s a convenient opportunity to escape the probing eyes and ears of the media.
That suspicion bears fruit in a report to council this week from the city’s integrity commissioner, John Maddox.
He was acting on a complaint from Coun. Jeff Kohler in relation to the city’s code of conduct and the June 26th meeting of the Economic Development Corporation.
Kohler expressed concerns discussion undertaken in closed session was not relevant to EDC business.
In response, the in-camera session was adjourned and the meeting continued in open forum.
Maddox writes, “initial suggestion was that the chair (Coun. Linda Stevenson) had intended to offer a caution to members (in a closed session) regarding inquiries of the Economic Development Corporation. I can accept that in principle, however, such a caution does not need to be in a closed session.”
Maddox continues, “The more important issue in this complaint deals with the discussion that followed, particularly around matters that were not on the agenda nor were they Economic Development Corporation business matters . . . and in fact certain information should not have been under discussion.
“I am left with no alternative but to conclude that these discussions were out of order and, in fact, certain information did put the chair (Linda Stevenson) in contravention of the Code of Conduct as suggested by the complaint.”
Maddox concludes with, “I recommend council consider a reprimand of the member as prescribed in your Code of Conduct.”
We approached city clerk Maria Konefal as to what form that reprimand might take.
She indicated the penalty could include the docking of pay for up to 90 days or removal of Stevenson from her position as chairperson.
A third option exists under the code: do nothing.
What do you think the wishes of council will be?
Whatever council decides, Maddox’s findings confirm what we’ve long believed.