Monday, December 31, 2012

Nanaimo's Leading 2012 News

Stories That Matter To Everyone In Nanaimo
If You Want The Usual Fluff & Stuff
You're In The Wrong Place

Follows are what could be considered news stories which have an impact on every man, woman and child residing in the city of Nanaimo. They are assembled in no particular order of importance with the exception of the first story, which was the decision to sell off the inner harbour to a private company. While this deals only with the harbour deal, it does point to the tendency in Nanaimo of major decisions being made by a select few with no public input.

Give Away Inner Harbour For $9,000,000.00

In what clearly expresses the complete disregard for the concerns or opinions of the city of Nanaimo, the fiefdom of Mr. Dumas, aka Nanaimo Port Authority, decided behind closed doors to accept a deal initiated by a private company to lease the inner harbour for 30 years in exchange for $9,000,000.00 worth of dock improvements.

An important issue which will never be addressed given the complete autonomy of the NPA is the matter of management at the NPA which claims to be unable to take care of the needed upgrades from their own earnings, given they have had the 'cash cow' of the Nanaimo waterfront at their disposal for years. How, can they possibly not be able to fund the needed upgrades to the inner harbour?

What is perhaps most disturbing about this deal, is the fact it was initiated by an outside firm, not unlike the now infamous white elephant occupying space on Commercial Street. Something with this much potential to shape the very essence of what defines our downtown, and the Chamber of Commerce, the City of Nanaimo and the residents have absolutely nothing to say about it's future!

If one story deserves the 'Outrage of The Year Award' ........ this would be it!

Blue Community Award By Banning Bottled Water

In what could clearly be described as an obvious example of a city council pandering to the podium and bowing to CUPE pressure, the decision to ban bottled water in Nanaimo facilities is a screaming example of another disregard for how tax dollars get spent in Nanaimo.

On the one hand city hall tells us the water from the taps is so pure it is as good as treated bottled water, yet we are also told we need to spend $82,000,000 on a new water treatment plant to make sure the water is safe.

If you are looking for consistency and logic to flow from city hall, you will be waiting a good long time! Consistent and City Hall are not two words that are compatible in the same sentence, unless consistent disregard for taxing and spending, counts.

ICF & Pub Tax Exemption

I think everyone agrees that having a rail service on the island is desirable, so perhaps would be a high-speed subway from here to Victoria and perhaps Vancouver. But it really boils down to the economics of the whole issue, and from observation of how the ICF seems to operate, I am not betting too heavy on their management skills.

After having the provincial government turn down their business plan in 2010, in which the ICF were looking for over $100,000,000 to get the rail line back on line, they have scaled down their finance objectives considerably.

They have whittled away by nickel and dimeing the provincial government, the federal government, the municipalities and now finally the regional districts, all of whom seem willing to throw 'just one more million' into the pot with no assurance that really is the last time the ICF will come hat in hand as the only business plan ever presented was already rejected by the provincial government back in 2010.

Tax Exempt Pub .... Really!!

In a move that seemed to have slipped by our ever studious city councillors, the ICF managed to get a $300,000 tax exemption for the old train station where a pub is currently operating. The pub of course, has been given an unfair market advantage which will likely have an impact on the already-struggling pub and restaurant businesses in town.

Business Closures

While it is reported that over 700 new business licences have been taken out this past year, there is no data which indicates what the 'net' number of business actually are. For example if 700 businesses close and 700 businesses open there is a net increase of zero. So the 7oo number being published is pretty much meaningless.

What is noteworthy is the number of food establishments and other businesses which have simply gone quietly into the night. There seemed a small epidemic of restaurant failures in the downtown core this past year with signs in other parts of town that all is not well in the restaurant business. This business as a class does have a reputation for high mortality but it does seem that Nanaimo's restaurant sector is indeed struggling more than what is the norm.

In spite of the carloads of tax dollars that have been funneled into the downtown area, it is still not a place many retailers can expect much in the way of success. The numbers are simply not there, which is why the rent is so cheap.

Food Banks Are Here To Stay

What was likely thought to be some temporary help back in the 80's has become just as much a part of the Nanaimo landscape as the Bastion or Nanaimo Bars, of course I refer to the business of food banks and various feeding programs across the city.

Thousands of Nanaimo residents now rely on the charity of different feeding programs and food banks simply to keep body and soul together and it seems that is not likely to change anytime soon.

As testimony to the need to augment social assistance and other 'safety net' programs we all cherish the local food bank is an enterprise that has seen the addition of increased warehouse space, commercial storage systems, fork lifts and now a refrigerated truck has been added to the fleet. In addition they now have satellite operations across the city to address the need for supplying the very basic of food!

Gas Prices In Nanaimo Seem To Lack Any Competition

Nanaimo has become known as the most expensive place to buy gas on the east coast of the island, not exactly the sort of thing you want to be known for.

The local gas retail cartel seem to lack any real competition with most stations pricing their product exactly the same, to the tenth of a penny! They are also consistently higher than Duncan, Comox and even Victoria. As witnessed by the current 'holiday price' in Nanaimo of 122.9 while Duncan still sells for 109.9 and Victoria pumps for 113.9.

The monopoly which controls Nanaimo's gas prices seem beyond any authorities ability to deal with, and the Nanaimo public seems to enjoy being screwed at the pump.

Annex Giveway

The City of Nanaimo brain trust recently decided to giveaway the old city Annex which had previously been appraised at nearly $4,000,000.00. They did it because they insisted in superseding the Canadian Building Code which would not have required seismic upgrading if the use of the building were not changing.

You may recall that city staff decided to spend $16,000,000.00 on a shiny new office with shiny new furniture based on concerns about the seismic state of this building. The engineers statement they quote as being the reason for this egregious expenditure of tax dollars was:

“Upon review of the seismic condition of the building, we conclude that in a seismic event, there is a risk of significant damage or partial collapse of the building occurring.”

 Can you imagine ANY building on the face of the planet that this statement could not be applied to? A seismic event (unspecified) could bring risk of damage to ANY structure on the face of the earth.

It would seem to my suspicious mind that city hall did not want to make this building available without this condition as it would likely have pointed to the fact they didn't really need to build that shiny new $12,000,000 office which they built without going to public tender.

$700,000 For City Hall Spin Doctor

In what is a first in all the time I have watched city council, council actually went against the recommendation of city manager, Mr. Kenning and voted to add $700,000 to the five year financial plan to engage a professional wordsmith at city hall. Leading the charge was tax and spend expert, Councilor Brennan with Councillors Anderson and McKay joining the charge as the newest members of the tax and spend club on city council.

VICC & Downtown Nanaimo

Yes, downtown Nanaimo certainly 'looks' better than it did some years ago. Are the merchants any more successful? Does the downtown generate as much taxes as it used to? Does city hall REALLY have a plan to turn this business disaster zone around? Is there any limit to the number of tax dollars they are going to take from residents and other businesses to make a success of this area?

The VICC is expecting the best year since they opened six years ago with the highest number of delegate days expected next year. So why, you may ask are they asking to increase their annual subsidy by over 25%? They are looking for another $234,000 next year, on top of a subsidy which is already likely over $1,000,000.00. Funny, this never came to light last year, when their contract was renewed for another five years. Just another example of the shrewd business acumen of the brain trust at city hall.

Don't ask Mr. Howat or anyone else at city hall to explain this to you, as I doubt they understand how the VICC contract really works any better than members of council. Clearly this agreement was written by the operators of the conference centre, and our city staff just asked where to sign!

Plans & Surveys Do Not A Mandate Make

A recent mantra being repeated by some city councillors is to point to the taxpayer satisfaction survey conducted by IPSOS Reid as some indication that Nanaimo taxpayers think city hall is doing a bang up job! The fact the survey was based on the opinion of only 300 people and used a format guaranteed to get a positive result (remember IPSOS is in the business of selling surveys), is hardly a mandate to keep on keeping on with unlimited taxing and spending.
The only people who think all is well at city hall, are the ones paying no attention at all. These were probably the ones called for the survey.

A survey I have conducted on this website shows over a 90% disapproval rate, when asked about specific issues rather than generally vague questions, as IPSOS used.

The recently complete $120,000 Strategic Plan is now being used to justify spending on any pet project from soup to nuts. The fact the plan clearly points to the need to deal with spending priorities based on the communities ability to pay seems lost on the tax and spend crew at city hall.

Water, Sewer & Roads Being Ignored In Favour Of Shiny New Offices

Back in 2010 city works presented an asset management study which indicates we are underfunding our water, sewer and roads by over $12,000,000.00 per year. That means if we were properly funding the basics of water, sewer and roads we would have seen our taxes increase by over 14% two years ago. But for reasons I can only guess at, the city manager and city council have chosen to ignore this fact and keep kicking the can down the road.

Personally, I think the fact a large number of city staff can retire with full pension after 2013 is the reason the city manager recommended ignoring this issue until after 2013. Of course like good little 'rubber stampers' city council just keeps going along with what the city manager says.

Another reason for not dealing with this underfunding of the most basic of services is the fact it would have been harder to spend $16,000,000 on a shiny new office if water, sewer and roads were being properly taken care of.

Wages & Benefits At City Hall 'Out of Control'

During a time when people in the 'real world' have had to find ways to tighten their belts, and in many cases have been happy to simply been able to keep their jobs organized labour at city hall has been quietly seeing their pay packets increasing as if we were still in the 'goold old days'.

There seems no serious effort on the part of city council or city hall management to bring these increases into line with the reality of the times and why should there be. I am sure that exempt staff wage increase will somehow be linked to union wage increases.

From 2007 - 2012 CUPE employees working for the city saw their wages increase by 16.5%, pretty nice if you can swing it. From 2007 - 2009 the IAFF managed a 13.5% increase for their members and are still in negotiations for a new contract, which I am willing to bet will be another really sweet deal.

Don't expect any members of city council who had fat campaign contributions from labour unions to make any kind of an issue about the amount of money going out in city wages. When you consider wages, benefits,pensions and sick days and the like, the cost of wages at city hall is in the $60,000,000.00 per year range.

Strategic Plans, Governance Plans, Seawalk Plans, Transportation Plans, Economic Plans, Parking Meter Collection Plans ................ but no need for a Core Review?

This tops the WTF category of any story which came out of city hall this past year. City hall management is always spending thousands and thousands of dollars hiring outside consultants to tell them how to do their jobs, yet steadfastly resist the need for a Core Services Review.

As could be expected councilors whose only interest is protecting union-protected positions are four square against any such reviews that might point to efficiencies that could mean a better bang for the taxpayers buck they joyously spend week after week after week.

Colliery Parks Dams Removal

There was no other story this past year which better encapsulates everything that is wrong with the way city hall conducts this city's business than this one.

Of course, like all major decisions made by city hall, this one was conducted in-secret behind closed doors, as was the decision to build that shiny new office a few years ago.

It appears that city staff as early as 2009 had pretty much decided on removing the dams as was made apparent by the engineers comments in the 2010 seismic assessment report he prepared. This report suggested the dams could be replaced for $10 million +, or rehabilitated for half a million each. In that report he says the city did not think rehab was a good use of tax dollars.

For an issue city staff have been kicking around since 2003, there was this sudden urgency this past October which resulted in a hurried, in-camera meeting where city council was presented with what now appears to be very questionable 'facts' about the condition of these dams. It appears, staff were presenting council with 'fact's that could only lead to the conclusion to remove the dams, with the greatest of haste. Over-stated probabilities of failure as well as over stating construction costs were all part of the decision to remove the dams.

The decision was made in such a way as to pretty much insure little to no push-back from the public and as usual the local daily was onside promoting the need to remove the dams, given the 40% chance of failure and the $30 million price tag to replace the dams. It now seems both of these 'facts' were not supported by the engineers findings but rather seem to be the conclusions of senior city managers, whose expertise in dams and such has never been demonstrated.

Only after an organized, educated and unexpected push-back came from a passionate group of Harewood residents was the city forced to take a second look at their decision. While the city would appear to be honoring the desire to have an unbiased second opinion of comparative costs to rehab the dams, the city seems to still be trying to stack the deck in favour of removing the dams.

How? They are hiring the same engineering firm (already the benefactors of a $400,000 sole source contract) to provide a study about rehabilitating the dams. This same firm is already employed to oversee the dams removal. Can you say 'conflict' or at the very least the appearance of such.

It turns out there really was no need to once again award juicy sole source contracts as the city overstated the need for urgency, claiming they did not have time to put this engineering contract out to tender. The fact they have known there was an issue since 2010, makes it hard to explain why we now have suddenly run out of time!


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