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Watson willing to gamble on gaming tables

Posted by Alistair Steele

So Jim Watson would like to see black jack and craps alongside the one-armed bandits at Rideau Carleton Raceway. The Raceway approached Watson's office with the idea a couple weeks ago. They're seeking permission from the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation to launch a two-year pilot project. The City already rakes in more than $4-million a year off the slots at the Raceway, thanks to a long-standing revenue sharing agreement. Twenty or 21 gaming tables would pull in another $2-million. But what about the ethics of it? You know, those stories we hear about toddlers left for hours in the car while their gambling-addicted parents are inside the casino, throwing their money away? Here's what the mayor had to say today:

"The debate over casinos was 20 years ago. We have casinos, so it's my perspective that we have to do what we can to keep some of that money on the Ontario side of the border. We estimate there are millions and millions of dollars that are going over to Quebec that could remain in Ontario that help facilitate our projects, our hospitals, our municipal projects."

Here's another view on the matter, courtesy of the Canada Safety Council.

If the Raceway gets permission from OLG, it will then need to be re-zoned to allow gaming tables. That's where the City comes in, and that's where Watson says there will be plenty of public consultation before anyone starts counting their money.

Friends of Lansdowne lawyer fires back

Posted by Alistair Steele

Friends of Lansdowne lawyer Steven Shrybman doesn't think much of city clerk Rick O'Connor's memo to councillors regarding Monday's court ruling. Shrybman fired back today:

Memo to Friends of Lansdowne dated Feb 17-11 (00317988).pdf

Shrybman makes several important points here, but I think the key one is that those e-mails the group DIDN'T get are, as Master MacLeod pointed out, probably irrelevant anyway. The documents Friends of Lansdowne WILL get are the ones that matter. O'Connor appears to gloss over that key fact in his memo. That may explain why many councillors I've spoken with don't seem to be taking this legal challenge very seriously.

One ruling, two (very different) views

Posted by Alistair Steele

Just goes to show you perspective is everything. Yesterday I wrote about Ontario Superior Court Master Calum MacLeod's decision on three pre-hearing motions related to the Lansdowne Legal Challenge. The group fighting the redevelopment, Friends of Lansdowne, hailed the ruling as a victory. City clerk and solicitor Rick O'Connor takes a somewhat different view. Here's his memo to the mayor and councillors, sent today:

Sent on behalf of M. Rick O'Connor, City Clerk and Solicitor:

The purpose of this memo is to clarify the outcome of the procedural ruling issued by the Court late on Monday, February 14, 2011, in the Friends of Lansdowne Inc. ("Applicants") litigation against the City of Ottawa.

For the reasons set out below, the Court ruling was actually very favourable for the City and confirmed that the City's actions to date in the litigation have been reasonable and appropriate.

Briefly, in this latest procedural motion before the Court, the Applicants sought the following:

(1)  the production of a large number of documents that would have taken six months and cost over $500,000.00 for the City to produce;

(2)  immunity from any costs order for the individual Applicants; and 

(3) to file two expert affidavits which the City claimed were filed contrary to the Court's earlier case management order.  

In response to these requests, the Court, in its latest procedural ruling, ordered the City to produce only a small group of the requested documents, which should be able to be done in a reasonable timeframe for relatively little cost to the City.  Second, in response to an offer which had been made publicly by the City in December 2010, the individual Applicants accepted the City's offer to let them remove their names as Applicants in the litigation without cost consequences.  Third, the Court agreed with the City that the two expert affidavits were not filed in accordance with the earlier Court Order but allowed them to be filed with the proviso that the City would be able to file additional evidence responding to these affidavits.  Lastly, the Court commented on the ultimate issue in the litigation and the burden of proof that the applicants will have to satisfy as follows:

"It is important to understand the small piece of this large public debate that is now before the court.  The applicant, Friends of Lansdowne Inc., seeks to overturn the decision on the basis that it is "illegal".  Section 273(1) of the Municipal Act provides that the superior court may quash a by-law of the municipality in whole or in part for "illegality".  This cannot involve the court in sweeping policy debates about the future of Lansdowne Park.

...

It is not necessary that the plan be perfect or results guaranteed.  The court is not to second guess the wisdom of city council.  It is surely not enough to render a by-law illegal or convert a plan into a bonus if it could work out badly or less well than hoped.  No plan based on assumptions about future revenue or expenses can be ironclad."

I trust that the above is helpful in clarifying the practical outcome of the recent procedural ruling by the Court which is attached for convenience.

City told to fork over Lansdowne documents

Posted by Alistair Steele

Friends of Lansdowne are celebrating yesterday's decision by Master Calum MacLeod of the Ontario Superior Court as a victory. Read it, and it's pretty clear why.

Opponents have always doubted the City's assertion that the redevelopment plan won't cost taxpayers a dime. They've been demanding financial data and other information that helped guide that PricewaterhouseCoopers analysis the City holds up as proof positive of its "revenue neutral" claim. Master MacLeod says the data is of "fundamental relevance," and he's ordered the City to hand it over. OSEG will also be ordered to hand over certain documents if it wants to participate as an intervenor. 

Master MacLeod also turned down the City's motion to bar affidavits by tax expert Harry Kitchen and investigative accountant Al Rosen. Armed with new financial data from the city, those two will now be sharpening their criticism of the Lansdowne deal.

The City will not be compelled to hand over e-mails and other correspondence between the former mayor, the city manager and OSEG related to the deal. Master MacLeod says those negotiations aren't important: Rather, the "final iteration" of the deal, and whether it "confers an illegal benefit" on OSEG, is what's relevant here. In other words, "whether the plan as presented actually does what city council was told it does."

I ran this by Alta Vista councillor Peter Hume earlier today (he hadn't had time to look at the decision). His take on the disclosure question? The City should have just cooperated in the first place. "That's the best way to avoid all of this protracted discussion, and quite frankly the fear (that) there's some grand consiracy to keep information. You know what? Just give it all to (them)." 

Lawyers will now have to get together to decide how the information will be produced and shared. The lawyer for Friends of Lansdowne, Steven Shrybman, says he doesn't think that will slow the process, and the legal challenge will go ahead in April as planned. 

Water rate hike held to 3.9%

Posted by Alistair Steele

I think they meant to sit on this till tomorrow's Environment Committee meeting, but here it is now:

For immediate release:
February 15, 2011

Proposed Water and Sewer Rate Increase Lowest in Eight Years

Ottawa - Mayor Jim Watson and Environment Committee Chair Maria McRae are pleased to announce the City's 2011 draft water and wastewater budget contains the lowest proposed rate increase in eight years.

The draft rate budget, tabled today at the City's Environment Committee, supports City Council's commitments to providing high-quality drinking water, protecting the environment, reducing the risk of flooding, and renewing existing infrastructure while keeping costs down.

The budget contains a 3.9-per-cent increase, which is less than half the increase imposed in each of the last three years and the lowest since 2003. At the same time, the budget maintains funding for the City's infrastructure renewal and flood protection needs, and makes the necessary investments in the Ottawa River Action Plan. (See Highlights below)

"I'm pleased to deliver a rate budget that balances the City's pressing infrastructure needs and protection of the environment while limiting impact on taxpayers," Mayor Jim Watson said. "Ottawa produces and delivers some of the safest and best quality water found anywhere in the world, and we need to invest in our infrastructure to make sure this continues."

The draft rate budget will be debated at Committee March 28 and sent to Council for final approval on April 13.

According to the Ontario Municipal Benchmarking Initiative (OMBI), City of Ottawa water and wastewater services are consistently operated efficiently and effectively. In every category, the independent body concludes the citizens of Ottawa are receiving excellent value for money by meeting or exceeding provincial averages.

The replacement value of the City's network of pipes is estimated at approximately $17 billion, and, since much of this infrastructure was installed shortly after World War II, these systems require continuing rehabilitation or replacement to maintain current standards.

Principally, this is what drives increases in water and wastewater budgets in all cities. In Ottawa's case, the proposed 2011 rate increase will cost roughly 50 cents per week for the average household, and mean that, for about same price as one 500ml bottle of water, the City delivers 1,000 litres of some of the best drinking water in North America through your tap.

"We are committed to delivering top quality services to the citizens of Ottawa in the most cost efficient manner possible," Environment Committee Chair Councillor Maria McRae said. "With the investments we are making in the Ottawa River Action Plan and combined sewer overflow control, the City of Ottawa will remain a leader in environmental protection."

Highlights of the 2011 draft Rate Budget include:

  • A greatly reduced rate increase -- 3.9-per-cent - when compared to the last three years when nine per increases were imposed.
  • An overall operating budget of $264 million for drinking water, wastewater and stormwater services.
  • A $206 million capital works program directed at improving and renewing the City's water and wastewater infrastructure. Of that total, approximately 95% of this program will be directed towards rehabilitating and renewing City infrastructure.
  • Major elements of the 2011 capital program include:
    • $17 million for Ottawa River Action Plan projects aimed at ensuring the long-term health of the Ottawa River;
    • $6.8 million in works to reduce the risk of flooding in the City's West End;
    • $1.75 million to reimburse residents who install protective plumbing devices;
    • $5 million to rehabilitate more than eight kilometres of watermains in total;
    • $3.8 million to rehabilitate the Woodroffe Avenue watermain and other measures to increase service reliability in the area;
    • $4.8 million to rehabilitate more than seven kilometres of sanitary sewers; and
    • $4.4 million to rehabilitate more almost five kilometres of storm sewers.
  • The City will also continue to directly assist homeowners improve their own infrastructure through programs including:
    • The Protective Plumbing Program -- $1.75 million;
    • The Sewer Lateral Replacement Program -- $1.2 million; and
    • The Lead Service Replacement Program -- $1 million.
  • A proposed water charge of $1.32 per cubic metre - roughly 1,000 litres of delivered water for the same price as one 500 ml bottle of water bought in a store.
  • A sewer surcharge of 117% of the water charge.

No gas tax for Lansdowne

Posted by Alistair Steele

UPDATE

It's been pointed out that the Lansdowne Park Plan wouldn't be eligible for federal gas tax money anyway, because the project was sole sourced. This clause from the agreement between Canada and the Association of Municipalities of Ontario would seem to bear that out:

"AMO agrees that any of its contracts for the supply of services or materials to implement its responsibilities under this Agreement will be awarded in a way that is transparent, competitive, and consistent with value for money principles."

You can find the whole agreement here. (Each province and territory has its own agreement with the feds. So does Toronto.)

That said, we don't know how the Harper government will change the program. If it's loosening the qualification rules, maybe other aspects of the agreement will change too.

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Naturally, all the focus was on Quebec City when this story broke this morning. I wondered what it might mean for Lansdowne Park. If municipalities can now redirect gas tax funds to arenas and similar projects, might it lighten the taxpayers' load here in Ottawa? The short answer, from city treasurer Marian Simulik, is 'no.' Here's the long answer:

"The city uses federal gas tax for transit capital and as we have the light rail project coming forward within the next few years there are no gas tax funds remaining to use on Lansdowne. With respect to lightening the taxpayer's load, there is no load to lighten as the debt servicing is funded from existing budgets and from a portion of the existing property taxes that (will) be generated from the redevelopment." 

Rebate program faces the axe

Posted by Alistair Steele

UPDATE

Here's some new information on the post below, thanks to my good friends at the city. The reason cutting the rebate program would only yield a $125-thousand saving in 2011 is because it's costed over a four-year period. The estimated payout forecast for 2014 is $500-thousand. That's close to what the city paid out in 2006. (The actual figure was $503,333. More were eligible, but not everyone claims the rebate. In 2006 for example, only 54 out of 100 campaigns took advantage of the program. In 2003, the first year of the program, the payout was much smaller: $155,440, with a 68% participation rate.)

When the program was established nearly a decade ago, it was funded through the general election reserve. But the city never topped up the reserve to pay for the program. Staff say that can't continue. Last year they recommended creating a separate fund for the program. Deputy city clerk Leslie Donnelley points out the Election Reserve Fund -- and the mandate of the Election Office itself -- is to increase voter participation and turnout, not to level the playing field for candidates or encourage individula donations. Those are the goals of the rebate program, which is NOT what the City calls a "core election function." In other words, it's optional. And at budget time, council is hungry for options.

One final note of interest: Because Alex Munter's 2006 mayoral campaign relied heavily on individual donations (that's where he got 96% of his money that year), it accounted for more than half of the rebates doled out. Staff therefore consider 2006 an "anomolous" year, so the half-million estimate for 2014 may be generous. Then again, 21 of 24 councillors took advantage of the rebate program in 2010. The final numbers for the most recent election won't be in until after the filing deadline on March 25th.

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Buried amidst all the cost-cutting proposals in the 2011 budget is one item that won't get much attention until 2014. But anyone considering a run for a job on City Council should take note.

The city wants to eliminate the election contribution rebate program. Under the program, almost anyone who contributes at least $50 to a candidate's campaign is entitled to some money back. The size of the rebate is determined by the size of the contribution, and it's capped at  $187.50. That's what you'd get back if you contributed $300. Donate $100 and you get back $75. That's pretty generous.

The intent, according to the city, is to "encourages citizens to participate in municipal elections by supporting a candidate of their choice while learning more about the municipal issues affecting their day-to-day lives." It's also been argued that the program helps level the playing field at election time. New candidates need a boost to take on strong incumbents. It's a lot easier to build up a war chest when they can promise donors most of their money back.

I always thought this program was mandatory under the Municipal Elections Act. Turns out it's only guided by provincial legislation. It's a bylaw, and the city can scrap it whenever it wants. If it does, that will save taxpayers $125-thousand. That may seem like a good idea now, but councillors should ask themselves whether it will look so good in three years.