Introduced March 7 at Queen’s Park, a private members bill to shine a light on how funds in a Ministry of Natural Resources special purpose account are spent was shot down a day later.
The fund was initially established by the provincial Tories in the late 1990s, explained Elgin-Middlesex-London MPP Jeff Yurek.
“Back in 1997, the Mike Harris government created the fund as a way of expanding licences across the province, but also letting the hunters and anglers have a say in how resource management should be done.
However, handling of the fund has come under fire in recent years for the lack of transparency and questionable expenditures.
Yurek spent seven years working with the Aylmer Stakeholders Group, representing landowners and farmers, to have the provincial Liberals tighten up spending requirements for the fund, which collects $75 million annually in licensing fees from hunters and anglers.
“They are the ones that got me interested in this issue,” advised Yurek.
“They have been around since early 2000. They were created to advise the Ministry of Natural Resources and work with them, which they still do on hunting issues in the area. They asked for money for a project to review the deer population in our area.
“It would be $10,000 to do it properly. And they were told there was no money. They asked how much money do we get in the area and the ministry told them they had no idea. They asked what is the money spent on and the ministry said they had no data on that.
“They asked more questions on that and that’s when they brought me in,” continued Yurek.
“They had a couple of Freedom of Information requests they put in and they finally got this one document that showed the money wasn’t 100 per cent spent on wildlife-enabling opportunities. There was money spent on psychologists, buying and selling houses and dinners. It was a lot of money.”
Yurek added hunters and anglers were getting angry because they’re paying more through increased fees and they’re getting less and less in terms of opportunities in the province.
“You look at the moose population and its dwindled down, we can’t fish walleye in the spring in the Thames River, you can’t get copies of regulations, there’s not enough deer tags in the area. These are issues that really affect hunting and fishing because of poor wildlife management.”
“The Liberals are saying there is no problem at all. They are not that transparent a government anyhow.”
He accuses the Wynn Liberals of diverting money from the special account to fund the operating expenses of the ministry.
“Pay for staff should come from core funding from the ministry, it shouldn’t come from a fund for hunters and anglers. Staff and benefits are a function of the government.
“Clearly they are taking that money to run the ministry in general and if that is the way they want to do it they should be honest with hunters and anglers and tell them so.
“There’s no transparency on how it’s spent. They do release a report but when I first got elected, they were five years behind in releasing it. When they did table the report finally, there were no details.
“It’s pretty glossy with big pie charts but there are still no details where the money has gone. It’s useless what they give out.”
Yurek argues what is missing from Queen’s Park today is oversight.
“There is well-intentioned legislation, but what goes on if you don’t have oversight and review. It can fall off the rails.
“The Liberals are saying there is no problem at all. They are not that transparent a government anyhow. In our original platform document, we committed to making it transparent to ensure the funds were 100 per cent spent on fish and wildlife.”
Undeterred by his bill’s setback Yurek said, “I’ve been on this for seven years and I’m not giving up until they fix this situation.”
TAKING STOCK OF UTILITY DEBT
For more than a year we’ve attempted to get an answer from within city hall as to what happens to the debt rung up by Ascent/St. Thomas Energy once the merger with Chatham-Kent’s Entegrus is consummated.
In addition to over $5 million in deferred water bill payments owed the city, there is the matter of at least $20 million in long-term debt accrued during the Brian Hollywood era at the St. Thomas utility.
In Monday’s council agenda, there is a one-page report from Director of Finance David Aristone dealing with the city’s investments in 2017.
The $5 million dollar promissory note related to the water bill payment was converted to shares in Ascent Group in December of last year. No doubt a condition of the pending merger.
What will be the value of these shares after Ascent is gobbled up by Entegrus, with the city reduced to a mere 20 per cent stakeholder?
Will the city continue to receive a dividend equivalent to the interest it was charging Ascent on the promissory note?
Aristone and city manager Wendell Graves were unavailable for comment on Friday.
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.
We’ll say it again, this is less a merger and more a fire sale with the true shareholders – St. Thomas ratepayers – coming out on the short end.
Perhaps the city’s mayor, who has spent numerous years on the utility board of directors, would like to shed some light on the financial benefits of this pending transaction.
Financial benefits, not some vague promise of improved customer service.
After all, that is her obligation as the elected head of the corporation.
And voters would like to be apprised of these monetary advantages with a trip to the polls looming ever closer.
Because if it is a fire sale, her worth to continue as head of the corporation must be questioned.
THE ROAD NOT TAKEN
The official arrival of spring this coming week heralds the beginning of road construction season and a major undertaking will result in the closure of one route in and out of the city.
The $2.7 million reconstruction of St. George Street will see the roadway closed from Scott Street to the entrance at Athletic Park, with local access only.
The reconstruction is a Complete Streets project combining infrastructure renewal with neighbourhood enhancement, not unlike work in the courthouse area.
It will include replacement of storm and sanitary sewers, new watermain and sidewalk, curb and gutter. In addition, an asphalt pathway will link St. George Street with Hiawatha up the hill in Athletic Park.
There will be a pedestrian crosswalk at Scott Street and a new sidewalk installed on the east side of St. George.
The initial phase at the entrance to Athletic Park is to be completed by May 1 to allow use of the park during the busy summer soccer season. Access to the park will be from the north via St. George.
The work is expected to be substantially completed by the end of August.
FOR THE CALENDAR
Tickets are now on sale for the first-ever St. Thomas Beer-lesque and Carniv-ale Show, May 26 at the Elgin County Railway Museum. It’s an everything craft and artisanal exhibition featuring craft beers, cider, wine and spirits from local brewers and distillers, marketplace and live entertainment melding the worlds of steampunk and carny sideshow. It is presented by Railway City Tourism in support of The Railworks Coalition. For more information, visit beerlesque.ca.
Questions and comments may be emailed to: City Scope
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