MPP Jeff Yurek is on the hunt for honesty when doling out MNR funds

city_scope_logo-cmykIntroduced 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 angles 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 feeds from hunters and anglers. Continue reading


Are we being led down the wrong rabbit path on utility marriage? Or, how to distinguish a merger from a fire sale.

city_scope_logo-cmykDid you check out the notice in your latest St. Thomas Energy bill? Seems like the utility merger with Entegrus out of Chatham-Kent is moving toward consummation early in the new year, with the new entity to be known as Entegrus Powerlines.
I guess when you only have a 20 per cent piece of the pie you don’t have any say in naming the beast.
And by coincidence, the merger is the subject of a report from city manager Wendell Graves on Monday’s council agenda.
It’s chock full of legalese and ratepayers have the right to a clear explanation of what is about to transpire on the eve of the merger.
More important, what are the long-term financial implications because this appears to be less a merger and more a fire sale.
So, we chatted with Graves on Friday as to what members of council are being asked to vote on as our elected representatives. Continue reading

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

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

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