Bill Hulet Editor

Here's the thing. A lot of important local issues are really complex. And to understand them we need more than "sound bites" and knee-jerk ideology. The Guelph Back-Grounder is a place where people can read the background information that explains why things are the way they are, and, the complex issues that people have to negotiate if they want to make Guelph a better city. No anger, just the facts.


Saturday, October 21, 2017

Guelph's Local Boards---Part Two

My last post was about a part of Guelph's budget that most people don't know much about, the Boards that administer various government services through an "arms-length" relationship with Council. I'm continuing this story here with the Elliott, the Downtown Guelph Business Association, and, the Guelph Police Service Board.

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The Elliott

Like, I suspect, many people, I didn't know that the city of Guelph was involved in the management of a long-term care facility for the elderly people who because of either financial or physical disabilities need a place to stay. But the government of Ontario in the "Long-Term Care Homes Act of 2007" has mandated that all "upper" or "single-tier" municipalities "shall establish and maintain a municipal Long-Term Care home or help maintain a LTC home with another municipality" (from a press release by from our local MPP Liz Sandals' office in 2014.)  Up until 2014, Guelph was involved with Wellington County to support Wellington Terrace in Centre Wellington, but after that date it decided to end the partnership with the County government and take on responsibilities for its own long care facility at "The Elliott".

The Elliott was originally started as "the Guelph Home of the Friendless" in 1903 and was initiated by a legacy left by a Mr. George Elliott in 1903. To put this time in context, this facility was built at roughly the same time that Guelph applied for, debated about, and, built the Carnegie library. This was an insanely busy time for the city, as in a short period of time it dealt with public transit, intercity transit (street cars and what became the Guelph Junction Railroad), sewers and water treatment, electricity and telephones, a public library, the armoury---lots of Council meetings went on into night, just like now!

This is the original "Guelph Home for the Friendless", Delhi St.
Picture c/o the Elliott Community website. 
The Board of the Elliott, which is defined by "The Elliott Act of 2002", consists of between five and eleven people---one of which is the Mayor of Guelph, or, someone he appoints to represent him. Currently I don't see the Mayor listed on the Board of Trustees, so I can only assume that Councillor Andy Van Hellemond is acting in his stead. In addition, there are nine other people, all of whom seem to be qualified in one way or another to manage a large not-for-profit corporation. Even though only one position on the Board is appointed directly by Council, the other members are approved by it from nominations forwarded by the existing Board. And if none of the nominations meet with Council's approval there is a process where Council can eventually appoint their own people. Moreover, Council also has the right to remove Trustees that it feels are not doing a good job. So while the Elliott Board is separate from Council, with a little effort (and a lot of political will), it could become a creature of local government. But I cannot think of anything short of a truly enormous scandal that would force Council to take on that responsibility.


The Modern Elliott Community on Metcalfe St.
From the Elliott Community Website

Looking through the Canadian government's registered charities site, I can see that the Elliott had a total revenue and expenditure of $15 million in 2016, 37% ($5.7 million) of this came from the Government and 63% ($9.5 million) came from "other sources" that specifically excluded "receipted" and "non-receipted" donations (there was a statistically insignificant amount, $16,005---0%), and, "gifts from other charities". I can only assume that the 63% in question came from investments and fees paid by residents (even the poor elderly get pensions from the government.) Since Guelph gave the Elliott $1.5 million in 2016, that comes to 10% of the senior's community's yearly budget, or, 26% of its direct support from all levels of government. For Guelph Council, this money comes to .4% of the 2016 city operating budget. There is an increase of $5,000 over last year, but that only comes to a .34% increase. 

While it could be argued that what Guelph spends on the Elliott doesn't mean much to Guelph (.4%), it means a very great amount to the Elliott (10% of total revenue.) In my own personal opinion, this is money well-spent if it helps people maintain a minimum of dignity while living out their last years of life.

One last thing, however. I have been restricting my discussion about Boards to the operating costs (mainly because I want to talk about the capital budget and city debt separately.) It turns out that the debt of the Elliott in 2014 (when the city took over supporting it and walked away from Wellington Terrace) was $11.6 million, or, about 9% of Guelph's capital debt. And, in 2017 the percentage of Guelph's operating costs for debt servicing is set at slightly over 8%. (More about this in a future post.) So this would suggest that servicing the debt on the Elliott amounts to something like .79% of Guelph's operating budget.  This is worth mentioning because this is another case of the Ontario government imposing a significant cost on Guelph that Council has little say over. (Still, put in percentages instead of numbers, it is a much less threatening figure.)

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The Downtown Guelph Business Association

I sometimes hear people complain bitterly about how much attention Guelph Council devotes to the downtown. They say "why doesn't the city put more attention into the rest of the city?" Well, there are several reasons why.

First of all, the province has mandated that the downtown area needs to expand and should intensify because it believes that it is the area where people can live while having the lowest environmental footprint. Primarily, this is because this is the densest part of the city, and the more people who live per kilometre of frontage, the cheaper the servicing cost per unit.  (I've explained this in a previous post, so I'll just mention it in passing. If anyone wants learn more, see it there.)

Secondly, the downtown core is very different from other commercial areas---like shopping malls and "big box" centres---in that it is built around public instead of private space. This has a profound effect on human activity in the area. Shopping malls restrict access to specific times of business, and, only allow a limited number of activities on their premises. This means that public assemblies, petition drives, protests, marches, etc, are almost always banned from shopping malls so the only place that they can happen is in the downtown core. This is also why bars and cafes congregate in the downtown---malls don't want to deal with problems associated with public intoxication, so they usually close so early that they discourage these sorts of businesses. It is also why you see so many beggars and people with "issues" in the downtown---the "mall cops" chase them out of the privately-owned commercial plazas.

The third point most people don't know about is that because the downtown is so dense it is also the part of the city that provides the greatest amount of tax revenue per square metre. Consider this graphic (click on the image to get a bigger picture):
Guelph map of tax density.
Graphic c/o Guelph City Hall
The bumps on this map represent the revenue that the city gets from each specific piece of land in the city. The colour of the individual bumps tells how much each area is valued for tax assessment. The various shades of green represent up to $2 million in value. The white through to light orange are from $2 million to 7.5. The light and dark orange are $7.5 million to 20. Red is $20 million to 30. And purple is $30 million and over. A lot of the orange is downtown, plus all of the red and purple. It's easy to see that the downtown core is tremendously important as a source of tax revenue for Council.

Because the downtown is so tremendously important to the environmental, social, and, financial well-being of the city, Council has mandated a special arms-length body to help administer it. This is the Guelph Downtown Business Association.

People might be interested to learn (I was) that organizations like the Guelph Downtown Business Association---generically called "Business Improvement Districts"---are an invention by the Ontario government. In 1970 a group of business people approached the Ontario government and got it to approve legislation to set up the first one in Toronto's "Bloor West Village". According to an official Ontario government handbook, in 2010 there were 270 in Ontario and a further 500 across Canada, over 2000 in the USA, and, many thousands more in the rest of the world.

Unlike the other boards I've mentioned, the Downtown Guelph Business Association pays for itself through an extra levy added to the assessed taxes for a commercial property. In 2017, that came to .39%, and (interestingly enough), .27% for unused space (empty stores, vacant lots, etc.)  A pamphlet put out by the Association gives the following real examples:
  • Medium size coffee shop: $31.06 monthly
  • Medium size restaurant: $219.27 monthly
  • Specialty retail store: $290.92 monthly
  • Small fashion retail store: $66.17 monthly
  • Large professional office building: $928.25 monthly
  • Large office tower: $3506.00 monthly (guess who this is!)
This added up in 2016 to $472,000, which may seem like a lot of money, but really only comes to something like .1% of Guelph's total gross expenditures---and self-financed at that. Not a bad price, considering how much of Guelph's total tax budget comes from the downtown. 

One last thing to consider. In June Council decided to expand the boundaries of the Business Association area, which means (among other things) that some businesses are now expected to pay the levy and receive the benefits that come along with membership. 

New (and old) Boundaries for Guelph Downtown Business Association
From a pamphlet by the Business Association
(Click on the image for a larger picture.)
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Yup. It's time for the big blue type. I heard a lot of "bo-ho, bo-ho" when the "Guelph Mercury" went under. Now we only have a "community paper" that comes out once a week and an on-line news site where journalists are only allowed to write extremely short "he said, she said" stories. If you want in-depth, fact-based stories about local issues, you have to go elsewhere---like here. And, to be honest, some of you are going to have to pay for it. Ask yourself, 'how much did I pay for a subscription to "the Mercury" or any other newspaper?', and, 'why won't I pay any money at all to read an on-line news source?'

If you are young, and have never paid for news, ask yourself 'How do the other places pay for their staff?' If you won't pay for the product on-line---YOU are the product. Your personal information is being sold to marketing agencies, political parties, the Russian mob, etc. Is this the world you want to live in?

If you can afford it, consider making either a one-time donation or sign up for a monthly micro-payment through Patreon---even one dollar a month helps. It is a vote for local, fact-based journalism in a world increasingly dominated by fake news. Also, something everyone can afford to do is share the "Back-Grounder"'s link on social media with your friends. I know that I'm not writing click-bait, but maybe learning how city hall actually works is more important than pretty pictures of kittens or the latest atrocity from Trump-land.

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The Guelph Police Services Board

Police services are pretty much the most "hot button" of the boards and shared services that I'm going to discuss. Primarily, this is because they are by far the most expensive thing that the city deals with through the stand-alone board structure. It is also because the police are a unique service in several different ways. 

In order to understand how policing is structured, it's important to remember that in Guelph the police have a monopoly on the use of violence to pursue government policies. When modern police forces were first organized in the United Kingdom, this was acknowledged physically on the "billy clubs" that were issued to policemen. Take a look at these examples of 19th century British police weapons.

19th century Edinburgh police clubs,
photo by Kim Traynor, c/o the Wiki Commons
As you can see, all of them have a Royal crest on them that shows that these are official instruments of government authority and that the constable who wields them does so under its authority. Indeed, this was understood to be the officer's official "warrant card" that gave him his special status as a police officer. 

Ultimately, this monopoly on the use of force is why the police have a special board that manages them by setting local policy and appointing the chief, instead of the American practice of either direct rule by an elected Sheriff or a chief appointed by Council. The Canadian system doesn't want local politics to get involved in controlling the use of force because there are far too many ways in which this power could be abused by either corrupt politicians or "mob rule" that tramples on minority rights. 

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If people have a hard time imaging just how badly things can "go wrong" in police management, consider the example of Ferguson Missouri. Most readers will be aware of the rioting that took place there as a result of the shooting of Michael Brown. I don't want to deal with the specifics of that case, but rather the context that led to the scary confrontations between police and demonstrators after the fact. Instead, I'd like to refer to a report titled "The Municipal Courts Whitepaper" that was released by a group of volunteer lawyers called the "ArchCity Defenders" shortly before Michael Brown's death. 

[anger at the police is] the product of a disordered, fragmented, and inefficient approach to criminal justice in St. Louis County. Municipalities are failing to afford indigent defendants legal counsel and refusing to make reasonable bond assessments. The municipal court system fans the flames of racial tension, oppression, and disenfranchisement by allowing municipalities to appropriate the courts to act as governmental debt-collection agencies and implicitly charging courts with ensuring the municipalities’ fine-generated revenues are sufficient to maintain an inefficient governmental operations.
Pgs 4-5, "Municipal Courts Whitepaper", ArchCity Defenders 

What was happening in the town of Ferguson was that the city police force was---on the direction of city Council---acting as a revenue generation tool for the city. It was going out and getting as many fines as possible from the citizenry, not only to pay for the police force, but also to support other local government activities too. These included the usual "petty offenses" like jay walking, but also more Byzantine regulations such as a municipal bylaw that required all households to purchase permits for garbage pickup---whether they put any trash out on the curb or not. And if someone received a ticket and didn't show up to pay it, they were then fined even more for being a "no show". (The ArchCity Defenders documented that the local municipal courts would encourage no-shows by doing things like posting a time on a ticket when the doors to the Court House weren't even open.) If someone was put into jail for not paying a ticket, when they were released they were still expected to pay the fine---and could be jailed again for not paying it.

The effect of this revenue generation system was especially hard on the poor because it was often extremely hard to not only pay the fines, but having to show up for court dates---let alone being put into jail---often resulted in people losing their jobs. Moreover, the blatant illegality of much of this meant that officers were not encouraged to enforce these regulations on middle-class individuals (ie:  white) because anyone who could afford a lawyer could easily beat any of these fines.

In effect, the police in Ferguson Missouri were being used as an occupying army against the poor in order to extract as much money as possible so the local city Council could avoid raising taxes on anyone else. This created a powder keg of resentment in the community that exploded when Michael Brown was killed. The individual actions of Mr. Brown and the police officer who shot him were pretty much irrelevant---the killing was just the straw that broke the camel's back.

Police at Ferguson Protests, Voice of America photo.
Public domain, c/o Wiki Commons
This sort of problem will probably never happen in Guelph---because our police force is governed by the Police Services Board. And I, for one, believe that that is a very, very good thing.

(Incidentally, if you've ever had a hard time understanding what the term "institutional racism" means---this is a pretty much textbook case of it.)

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The reason why I say that what happened in Ferguson Missouri cannot happen in Guelph is because the province has mandated that the police force be managed by a five member board that consists of the Mayor, one other member of Council, a local person who is independent of Council but appointed by Council, and, two members appointed by the provincial government. The two provincial appointees are tremendously important, because they provide "eyes and ears"---plus two votes---that ensure that the local police force doesn't become dominated by some sort unsavory local political agenda. Moreover, Ontario sets out very clearly a great many aspects of how police boards, police chiefs, and, police in general, are expected to behave. As long as those two appointees from the province are doing their jobs, there is no way that a city can "go rogue" and make its police into something of a local occupying army.

This isn't to say that there aren't problems with policing in Ontario. Problems exist in every aspect of human endeavour.  But the way the board structure is set up, the majority of potential problems in policing are Ontario-wide instead of city specific. Since this article is primarily focused on financial issues, the province-wide issue that I'd like to discuss refers to the cost of policing. When you talk the price of policing, you are basically talking about the wages of people who work for the police because the salaries and benefits account for 91% of the police budget ($36.6 million out of $40.1 million in 2016.) 

The problem isn't that police officers don't deserve to get paid a decent wage, the problem is that because of the specific role they play in society means that they cannot participate in collective bargaining the same way as other labour groups. They are forbidden to strike, and, city Council cannot lock them out. This means that the whole frustrating, idiotic game of negotiating "chicken" that most other people go through is denied them and their management. As a result when negotiations head into an impasse they end up going to arbitration. And arbitrators have a tendency to "split the difference" between the two sides.

So what's the problem? Compromise is essential to life, isn't it?

Wage increases by sector and year, plus Consumer Price Index (CPI)
Graph c/o Association of Municipalities Ontario (AMO)  2015 report,
"Building a New Public Safety Model in Ontario"

As you can see from the above, wage increases for police officers in the top 12 cities in Ontario have never been lower than the rate of inflation or wage increases in for either other municipal workers or the private sector. Take away the ability to lock out workers and take everything to arbitration, and it appears that workers get larger wage settlements.

Well, so what? Well, looking at the police department website you can see the following pay scale
  • Staff Sergeant:  $116,596.69
  • Sergeant: $105,211.43
  • 1st Class Constable: $94,877.39
  • 2nd Class Constable: $82,543.31
  • 3rd Class Constable: $72,865.82
  • 4th Class Constable: $62,239.56
For the rank of 1st Class Constable, Sergeant and Staff Sergeant, the rate of pay increases with years experience to include:
  • In completing 8 years experience add 3%
  • In completing 17 years experience add 6%
  • In completing 23 years of experience add 9%
Just to put these salaries in a national, demographic context, according to a 2013 CBC Business article, the median salary in Canada was $27,600/year. When you talk about incomes, it's really important to differentiate between median, average, and, household incomes. A median income means that just as many people make less than this income as make more than it. An average income mixes everyone's income together and then divides by the number of people---which tends to be much higher than the median income because of the astronomical amount of money a very small number of super-rich individuals make. Also, it is important to understand that because of the massive change in society that resulted in most women entering the workforce since the 1960s, that for many people the household income (both members of a couple's combined salaries) is just as important as both average or median income.

A government report from 2013 that the Globe and Mail got it's hands on suggested that in 2013 the "middle class" could be roughly defined as a household that earns between $54,160 and $108,300 per year. Since most couples do have both spouses working, it appears that being a police officer with a few years experience is a pretty well paid job. So much so, that probably a fair percentage of officers have actually progressed beyond the status of "mere" middle-class into the realm of wealthy.

What does this all mean in the context of city finances? Well, last year Guelph's total city budget came in at $396.1 million, so $36.6 million dollars for police wages comes down to 9% of the city operating budget---not an inconsiderable sum. To quote again from the AMO report:
Ontarians pay the highest policing costs in the country. This includes both provincial and municipal expenditures. In 2011, Ontarians spent $320 per capita on policing. We estimate it is at least about $35 more than Albertans, $56 more than British Columbians, and $24 more than Quebecers. Nationally, Ontario’s share of municipal policing costs is 48%, although Ontario only makes up 39% of the Canadian population. Some may say that half of the national problem with the cost of policing is owned here in Ontario.
"Building a New Public Safety Model in Ontario", 2015 AMO report, p-9.
  
This isn't just a question of how much officers are paid under arbitrated labour settlements. Cities often complain that the existing board structure keeps Councils from being able to structure workplaces in more efficient ways. For example, Guelph used to have police officers enforcing noise bylaw complaints, which is not a terribly effective use of a highly paid police officer's time. Now we have a separate class of people---"blue hornets"---who enforce city bylaws. This frees up officer's time for other duties, results in much better enforcement of things like noise bylaws, and, saves the tax payers money.

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Another part of this issue that really needs addressing is the emotional component. A large fraction of the public tend to view police officers significantly differently from other municipal employees. This means that while other people like bus drivers, garbage truck drivers, sewer workers, etc, are "fair game" when it comes to saving money through hard bargaining or even privatizing service---the police are "off limits".

I suspect if you asked most people who think this way why this is, you would get the answer that police have a dangerous job. Some people think that police officers routinely get killed by criminals. The problem with that point of view is that it is simply not true. According to Statistics Canada, the top most dangerous jobs in Canada are:
  • Mining and quarrying: cutting, handling, and, labour
  • Construction: insulating, labouring, pipefitting and plumbing
  • Flying: pilots, navigators, and, flight engineers
  • Timber: cutting, hoisting, sorting, and, moving
  • Fishing: net, trap, and, line
  • Truck drivers  
If you want to look at the objective truth, here's a graph of police homicides by year in Canada:

Police homicides by year, 1961 to 2009,
Statistics Canada 
Not only are these killings very rare, they seem to be getting rarer as time goes on. Of the police who do die, the vast majority are people who get killed by much more mundane things---like traffic accidents. Why is there such a disconnect between the perception and the reality?

First of all, people's perceptions have been warped by television and movies. Violence is an easy way to get audiences to pay attention to a plot, script ideas are often easily obtained simply by reading court documents, and, the work-place nature of policing makes it easy to craft individual stories for a weekly series. As a result, Hollywood has created an huge number of shows about policing---shows that suggest that being a police officer today is more dangerous than manning a trench in the Western Front in WWI. 

Secondly, police funerals are public spectacle that project the image that the deaths of police officers are somehow "worse" than those of anyone else. This tugs at the heart strings of most people, and, because it is a funeral and someone has died, it is usually considered horribly impolite to draw people's attention the point that this is---at least unconsciously---a form of propaganda. It is, in effect, a way of building the impression that what is not an actually a terribly dangerous job is very dangerous indeed. What would people think about logging, mining, construction, etc, if the downtown core was taken over and a mass spectacle organized every time one these workers was killed on the job? 

Finally, it is without a doubt true that being a police officer can be a pretty miserable job. They routinely have to deal with people at their very worst. And they also have the tremendously thankless task of processing people that they know they will see over and over again because society simply will not allocate the resources that would really be necessary to actually help them. Being forced to repeatedly intervene but not being able to actually help must be the most soul-destroying thing that a person can be called upon to do.

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But this raises a second issue, one that the author of the AMO report addresses.
Policing is not the only public service or profession which contributes to safety and security. In fact, there is an entire social safety web – from the quality of municipal water and waste systems, to the education system and the healthcare system – every single element of public service is geared towards safety and security. All play a part. If we spend too much on one and starve the others, we are just as likely to risk societal discord.
"Building a New Public Safety Model in Ontario", p-7

Money spent of police officers is money not spent on other social services, some of which might actually be able to stop the "revolving door" aspect of policing that makes being a constable such a frustrating thing. 

To be totally fair, however, to a large extent it can seem a lot cheaper to hire a police officer than to deal with the complex of problems that have created the problems that they find themselves dealing with. But having said that, I would draw people's attention to an issue that Malcolm Gladwell has identified in his famous New Yorker article "Million-Dollar Murray".  This is that
Malcolm Gladwell,
does he have the answer?
photo by Stemoc, c/o Wiki Commons
intervening in the lives of people in each individual crisis can cost a lot more money than simply supplying people with the means to avoid the re-occurring crises in the first place. I don't want to bloat this post anymore than I have to, but to summarize his point, it comes down to the three points of:
  • anything to do with either the criminal justice system or acute medical care is insanely expensive
  • there are actually only a very small number of chronically homeless people living on the streets
  • government could save a lot of money that it currently wastes on running these people through the courts and emergency medical interventions if it just gave them an apartment and a social worker with the time to work intensively with them  

A few months back I was at one of the "Breezy Breakfasts" that Councillors Alt and Gordon organize and got to hear a little talk by the chief of police, Jeff DeRuyter. (The fellow really impressed me, bye the way.) If memory serves, he said that the police spend more than half of their time dealing with people "in crisis" rather than property crimes. If this is so, it strikes me that our police services are increasingly spending their time dealing with issues that have arisen because of holes in our social safety net. Perhaps it's time we cut back on our emotional love affair with our "boys in blue" and instead thought a bit more about the big picture.

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