Answers needed on dealing with Ascent long-term debt


city_scope_logo-cmykWith 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.
Start probing.
For instance, how about the city’s consolidated financial report for 2016. We’ll point you in the right direction at Page 275. Continue reading

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Lots of red ink, but rest assured nothing will be written off


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With municipal councils in St. Thomas and Chatham-Kent having approved the merger of St. Thomas Energy and Entegrus, all that is required is the go-ahead from the Ontario Energy Board (OEB), likely to happen late this year with a target merger date of Jan. 1, 2018.
Oh, and there is that prickly matter of a not insignificant amount of long-term debt run up by Ascent Group, St. Thomas Energy’s parent – city treasurer David Aristone refers to it as bank debt – and in excess of $5 million owed the municipality for the collection of water bills dating back to at least 2014.
It’s not a subject open to much in the way of discussion by either Aristone or St. Thomas Energy acting CEO Rob Kent. 

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City council gives green light to St. Thomas Energy merger; we remain in the dark on status of debt


Municipal councils in St. Thomas and Chatham-Kent this week gave their blessing to the merger of St. Thomas Energy and Entegrus. The utility marriage now needs approval from the Ontario Energy Board (OEB), likely to happen late this year with a target merger date of Jan. 1, 2018.
However, neither the city treasurer nor the acting CEO at St. Thomas Energy are forthcoming with details on how the long-term debt – reported to be greater than $20 million – and the more than $5 million owing the city on the collection of water bills will be accounted for in the merger.
St. Thomas Energy will become a 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. 

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There is a great disconnect on winter disconnects


city_scope_logo-cmykFaced with the inevitable, St. Thomas Energy this week voluntarily halted the practice of winter disconnects for unpaid bills. The decision was made a day before the province pulled the plug on such action.
“The OEB (Ontario Energy Board) has strict rules about disconnects and time periods and we have to offer pay arrangements and we’ve always followed the OEB guidelines on that,” advised Rob Kent, acting CEO at St. Thomas Energy.
“We are voluntarily agreeing to the moratorium on disconnects.”
The obvious question is what leverage does St. Thomas Energy now have collecting overdue bills during cold weather months?
“You do lose leverage during the winter months when you can’t disconnect, but what no one has really looked at is what happens when that period ends and the customer has a substantial bill? How do you help them make arrangements and get caught up without getting disconnected in the spring and summer months? That is something we’re going to have to address.”

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Will the forgotten Talbot Street apartments soon have company?


city_scope_logo-cmykIt’s been almost a year since we exposed the city’s forgotten Talbot Street apartments across from city hall and owner Antoine Trad, who had been approved by St.Thomas-Elgin Ontario Works for funding to add 10 one-bedroom units next door at 560 Talbot St., above the former Capitol Theatre.

Two of the apartments were to be reserved for clients supported by the YWCA of St. Thomas-Elgin and the remainder are for Canadian Mental Health Association clients.

In the intervening 11 months, Trad has shuttered his furniture business and the status of the apartment project – along with the pair of decrepit upper units at 554 Talbot Street – is hazy.

With a demonstrated need for affordable housing in the city, we queried acting director of St. Thomas-Elgin Ontario Works Elizabeth Sebestyen this week on whether this project will proceed. Continue reading

Casting the net in hopes of snaring a partner


city_scope_logo-cmykNo formal nuptial news as of yet, however a St. Thomas Energy merger partner could be unveiled as early as this coming week. City council, the sole shareholder of parent company Ascent Group, met in closed session Tuesday to pour over a summary report from Grant Thornton, the financial consultants hired by the city to explore potential utility partnerships for St. Thomas Energy.

“We’re working through some things and we hope that will lead to an announcement, hopefully next week,” advised city manager Wendell Graves in an interview Thursday.

Speculation has run high a potential suitor might be London Hydro and we asked Graves how many offers are under consideration.

“I can’t be too specific,” said Graves, “but I will say . . . we cast the net across the entire province with all of the municipally owned electrical distribution companies . . . it did garner some interest so we’re happy about that.” Continue reading

Sizzle and sparks at prospect of London-St. Thomas utility union


city_scope_logo-cmykThat buzzing and crackling sound audible earlier this week was the rumor mill churning full tilt at the prospect of London Hydro and St. Thomas Energy uniting in utility bliss.

Mum’s the word from the potential partners, however the picture may come into better focus following a special in-camera meeting Tuesday where St. Thomas council – sole shareholders of parent company Ascent Group – will be briefed on the findings of Grant Thornton, the financial consultants hired by the city to explore merger partners.

Their suitor search has been completed, advised Ascent Group board chairman John Laverty on Tuesday, and they “are in the middle of putting together a summary that is to be presented to the Ascent Group board and city council.” Continue reading