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

Advertisements

Nothing says summer like a circus under the big top


city_scope_logo-cmykThere’s no denying he’s chuffed an authentic, European-style circus will entertain at a dozen performances this summer in St. Thomas. But what really has Sean Dyke pumped is the big top tent under which it will perform.
Massive may be a more apt descriptor. The tent is 16,000 square feet in size, holds in excess 0f 2,000 in grandstand seating and 1,000 for catered events. The stage measures 1,260 square feet.
Now those are numbers the general manager over at St. Thomas Economic Development Corporation can really sink this teeth into. A tent with those dimensions shouts possibilities.
Of course the touring Canadian-Swiss Dream Circus – billed on its website as “incredible displays of acrobatic, balance, aerial stunts and thrilling acts” – will occupy the Railway City Big Top for two weekends in August, that’s a done deal.

The big top is big news


For time immemorial, it was one of the rites of summer . . . the circus is coming to town.

While the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus may be folding its big top this May after 146 years, St. Thomas will be home to its very own big top this summer.

circusjpgIn August, St. Thomas will play host to an authentic European-style circus – the Canadian Swiss Dream Circus – billed on its website as “incredible displays of acrobatic, balance, aerial stunts and thrilling acts, the cast of the Canadian Swiss Dream Circus is a show that audiences won’t want to miss.”

Artistic director Marco Baumgartner invites audiences to “Catch the high-spirited and pulse-racing thrills by the most famous artists under our Big Top. Never before has such an amazing cast of this calibre been seen in Canada.”

Exact dates and ticket prices will be announced shortly for the circus under the big top to be held adjacent to the Elgin County Railway Museum.

big-topMassive may be a more appropriate description. The tent is 16,0000 square feet in size, holds in excess 0f 2.000 in grandstand seating and 1,000 for catered events. The stage measures 1,260 square feet.

Ever wanted to hold your own event under the big top? Well it will be available from July 15 to October 15 for groups and special events such as concerts, weddings, corporate functions, trade shows and the like.

The undertaking is a joint venture between the St. Thomas Economic Development Corporation and Railway City Tourism, with $25,000 in financial support from the Ontario government.

For more information, visit railwaycitybigtop.com.

The spirit of Jumbo surely will be brought back to life under the big top this summer.

 

A bold step forward in tourism promotion for St. Thomas


city_scope_logo-cmyk

The city has been relatively coy of late on whether it will continue its participation – and to what extent – in Elgin county’s tourism program.
In 2013, the city’s share of the tourism budget is almost $122,000 and more than once in the last couple of years there have been suggestions the city go it alone in the marketing and promotion of tourist-related opportunities.
Well the wraps are about to be thrown off the new tourism model at Monday’s council meeting.
CAO Wendell Graves suggests with an upcoming strategic review of the St. Thomas Economic Development Corporation, it would make sense to deal with many of the tourism-related ventures as economic development opportunities.
Continue reading

Questions need to be asked about hospital’s $13 million ask


city_scope_logo-cmyk

The redevelopment undertaking at St. Thomas-Elgin General Hospital was re-scoped earlier this year by the Dalton McGuinty government. However the hospital doesn’t appear to have re-scoped its financial expectations from the city/county/ratepayers.
The original capital redevelopment project came with a price tag estimated at $106 million, with a local commitment of 10% or roughly $11 million (although the hospital was seeking $13 million from the city/county/community).
The hospital board of governors has acknowledged – via a letter dated April 4, 2012 from board chairman Bruce Babcock to health minister Deb Matthews – the project cost has been reduced to $45 million.
Continue reading

We could have put that information to very good use


city_scope_logo-cmyk

With the imminent departure of CEO Bob Wheeler, is it time for a new direction over at St. Thomas Economic Development Corp?
After 14 years at the helm, the question of a replacement for Wheeler offers intriguing possibilities.
What better person to approach than EDC board president, Dennis Broome, whom we talked to Thursday.
“We’ve struck a committee to look at what we’re going to do,” Dennis informs. “And, we’ll make recommendations. That will happen in November. The upside is we have some pretty competent people there already in Sean (Dyke) and Cindy (Hastings), who’ve been there for a long time and know the ropes. For Sean that’s almost a natural progression. He is a very capable young man.”
A compelling case to bring this bright, young gun to the forefront.
Be it known, this corner has, in the past, leaned in the direction of former MPP Steve Peters with his stuffed Rolodex of contacts.
However, an outside hire may not be in the cards for the EDC.
“My thought is that for going forward right now, there won’t be a replacement,” advises Dennis. “That’s open to the board changing their mind. We’re happy the way things are going.”
Would it be premature, then, to offer congratulations to Sean?
But, let’s backtrack. Why would Wheeler abandon a six-figure salary at this particular point in time or was he not offered a new contract?
“Bob was going to retire three or four years ago,” Dennis explains. “And the contract was extended twice to him. It was time for him to retire. So, that’s what he’s going to do.”
A complaint in the past, from a media perspective, has been the lack of on-going data in a workable format from which we could paint a true picture of the employment situation in St. Thomas.
“One thing people don’t realize – and we probably are remiss in our non-issue of information – is if you take it from when Sterling Trucks left St. Thomas, and take it from that day forward, we’ve actually had a plus-jobs creation in the city in the last three years of almost 800 jobs.”
These include new jobs or hire-backs at Masco, Format, Presstran, London Castings, C.D.C. Warehouse Inc. and Starwood Hotels and Resorts, Dennis points out.
We will pursue this job creation figure in greater depth this week in the Times-Journal, and we appreciate the honesty of Dennis when he concedes the EDC may not always have made available information that would help us portray an accurate jobs picture in St. Thomas.
To counter one critic, we are indeed on the hunt for good news.

BEEN HERE BEFORE
It’s mid-September, 2003, and Ald. Gord Campbell has just met with St. Thomas police Chief Bill Lynch to discuss “a serious breach of etiquette” at city hall, to determine if there was enough evidence to warrant an investigation.
Campbell told the Times-Journal at the time he had concerns about “a serious breach of etiquette involving the public works community that has never been resolved.”
The matter at hand involved alleged harassing behaviour that had “demoralized” some members of city hall staff.
We reference this dark chapter only because it has come to the attention of City Scope we should now be asking questions in the environmental services department at city hall about complaints of harassment.
And, we will.
Is this an indication the toxic environment of nine years ago has oozed to the surface again, albeit down a different corridor?

POINT TO PONDER
Was the decision to hire Ron Osborne as the new Ascent CEO – replacing the retired Brian Hollywood – unanimously approved by the Ascent board of directors?
Our request to speak with board chairman Jim Herbert has yet to yield a response.

NOW LOOK WHAT YOU’VE DONE
We briefly alluded to Jason McComb last week in this corner. He’s the guy trying to draw attention to Canada’s homeless through his website.
Well, it seems Jason camped out for a spell on the steps of city hall Monday and then attempted to introduce himself to Mayor Heather Jackson.
Hearing who was in the office, she promptly dialed 9-1-1 and four of the city’s finest convinced a bewildered Jason to exit city hall.
Jason tells us he even put on the best of his clothes in order to present the mayor with one of his posters. No ulterior motives whatsoever.
Which prompted the following observation from a member of the DDB board of directors.
“When incidents like this occur I’m concerned. He is a DDB member and local merchant. He pays rent at a storefront on Talbot Street. He has rights! What a shameful situation.”
Maybe if the mayor closes her eyes, Jason and others of the homeless ilk will just disappear.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“The scandal-plagued Liberals have put the government on autopilot with the doors shut and the lights off leaving their reckless spending to go unchecked with no plan to kick-start private sector job creation.”
Elgin-Middlesex-London Conservative MPP Jeff Yurek as he stood on the doorstep of health minister Deb Matthews Friday in London to encourage the Liberal party to end prorogation of the legislature.

City Scope appears Saturday in the Times-Journal. Questions and comments may be emailed to ian.mccallum@sunmedia.ca

Survey snafu begs question: Is city getting good value?


city_scope_logo-cmyk

An anonymous letter landed in the City Scope in-box this week with an attached sticky note reading, “Nice to see a local business trying to screw the city out of $14K.”
Well, that sure caught our attention – at the same time sending up warning flags as to the motivation for passing along such correspondence.
The letter is a copy of a disciplinary decision from the Council of the Association of Ontario Land Surveyors (AOLS) relating to allegations of professional misconduct on the part of surveyor Ward Houghton of Houghton + Houghton Inc., St. Thomas.
To summarize, Houghton bid on a city surveying project dealing with the infrastructure needs of Fairview Avenue, from Elm Street to Southdale Line. As part of the project, the city committed to providing the legal survey.
Houghton’s bid of $32,770 lost out to the lowest bid of $18,871 from Callon.Dietz Inc., of London.
Houghton subsequently informed Terry Dietz of Callon.Dietz Inc., that Houghton + Houghton owned all of the copyrights to plans prepared by his firm dealing with the subject area and the cost of supplying copies of such would be approximately $40,000.
As a compromise, Houghton suggested Dietz withdraw his bid and Houghton + Houghton, as the only other bidder, would likely be awarded the project. If such were the case, Houghton proposed to hire Dietz to perform most of the work on the project and pay the London firm the same amount of $18,871.
At first glance this would appear to be somewhat unethical or unprofessional and Dietz complained to the AOLS, leading to a disciplinary hearing.
The crux of the matter is the understanding an AOLS member “has a statutory duty to share surveyor’s field notes for a ‘reasonable fee’.”
The disciplinary committee deemed $40,000 for approximately 200 Houghton + Houghton plans was “far and above what most members of the profession would consider fair and reasonable.”
Speaking to Houghton on Friday, he told City Scope all he is seeking is clarification on what is considered a reasonable sum for work in which his firm owns the copyrights.
Fair enough.
The disciplinary committee proved unsympathetic and slapped Houghton with a $2,500 fine and determined Houghton be required to successfully pass a course in professional ethics at a college or university level.
Ironic in that Houghton has for years served as a lecturer for the AOLS on boundary and survey law.
Now, here’s where it gets interesting.
In our meeting with Houghton, he produced a copy of the finished drawings submitted to Ric Radauskas, project coordinator for the city’s environmental services department. These drawings were far from complete, Houghton argues, and did not include an OLS seal of certification, as required in the city’s request for quote.
Throwing the accuracy of the Dietz drawings into doubt and raising the question of whether the city obtained true value in accepting the lowest bid of $18,871, an amount Houghton asserts is “a low-ball figure” instead of retaining the services of a local firm city staff has employed on numerous occasions in the past.
If such is the case, then who really screwed the city financially?
We’ll continue to follow this survey snafu to determine if city staff are aware of the the quality of the material they have paid for and accepted.

TIME FOR ACTION
Earlier this week, the T-J referenced a letter from Elgin-Middlesex-London Conservative MPP Jeff Yurek to Madelliene Meilleur, Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services, alerting her of the dramatic deterioration of conditions at the Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre.
The closing paragraph of Yurek’s letter is worth highlighting: “This problem will not go away if we ignore it. It certainly won’t go away by muzzling those who are trying to inform the public of the conditions as we saw this weekend with the local OPSEU president being reprimanded for talking to the press.
“That is why I am offering to accompany you on a tour of the whole facility at EMDC. Afterward, we can discuss the issue with staff and management. We need to get the ball rolling before things spiral out-of-control at EMDC.”
We have approached Yurek to request the media be included on the tour and we will continue to stress the need for transparency on this powder-keg that could easily erupt into a full-scale riot in the coming months.

THE READERS WRITE
The point was raised in this corner last week as to whether St. Thomas was in the running as a possible home for Texas-based food-distribution giant Sysco, which recently announced it will build a 400,000-square-foot distribution facility in Woodstock which could eventually employ 250-350 people.
A reader mused, “was the St. Thomas brain trust (Economic Development Corp. and city council) even in the game? If not,why not?”
That prompted Grace Northcott to email the following observation.
“Recently the EDC has been given funding from city council to maintain it’s operation because it no longer is self sufficient through real estate sales on land or otherwise. My question is simple, if public funds are supporting this agency why isn’t the public receiving regular progress reports?
“In addition, during the last election most of the candidates stressed jobs and economic development. Is it time aldermen provide a progress report of what they have done to support their promises?
This should not be difficult to do since all of city council is on the board of EDC.”

QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“This is the most vicious attack on the most vulnerable of our society and, to me, it is unacceptable.”
Elgin Warden Bill Walters at Thursday’s open house to gather information on the closing of the local ODSP office slated for October.

City Scope appears every Saturday in the Times-Journal. Questions and comments may be emailed to ian.mccallum@sunmedia.ca.