Letter to the Planning & Environment Committee

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I took some time to write to the Mayor and members of the Planning & Environment Committee today. Why? Because the PenEquity proposal is… well… not great the way it stands. It’s massive, practically in the middle of nowhere, and threatens to eliminate thousands of strong, mature trees that do us a lot of good, no doubt. Unfortunately I forgot to mention downtown in my list of concerns, but hopefully others will/have (and the committee members will have it top of mind as soon as the effects on other areas are pointed out).

We’ll see what happens this afternoon! Until then, here’s what I sent to the Planning & Environment Committee (Bud Polhill, Joe Fontana, Phil Hubert, Sandy White, Dale Henderson, and Nancy Branscombe). If you like it, feel free to copy & paste and send it to them again. Citizen Corps has a list of councillors and their email addresses.

Good afternoon Mayor Fontana and Councillors,

I am writing to express my concern over the proposed retail and hospitality development on Dingman Drive that will be reviewed by the Planning & Environment Committee today. I have a number of concerns, including but not limited to:

  1. The negative impact it is likely to have on existing retail and hospitality developments further north on Wellington Rd, Westmount Mall on Wonderland Rd S, and the proposed Southwest Area Plan (SWAP) for Wonderland Rd S.
  2. The environmental impact it will certainly have on the rather large (4.2 hectares) woodlot currently on the land. Based on average statistics, this represents roughly 4,200 mature trees that the proposed development would eliminate. I consider that to be too large a number to lose, and the positive environmental impact that woodlot has on our air quality, preventing erosion, and the pleasant view it provides while driving down the 401 consider it a “must keep” for me.
  3. In addition to that, here is a link to the Criteria for Identification of Significant Woodlots (PDF, page 2). I think you’ll find, especially if you consult employees in the planning department, that the woodlot meets at least one of those criteria. I would hope you’ll take that into consideration moving forward and as leaders of the Forest City. [UPDATE: Link to report provided to committee by City staff on environmental significance of this woodlot]
  4. Also, there is a large body of water on that property. I must admit I’m not certain what purpose it serves, but I cannot remember a time when it wasn’t there. Has the purpose and future of this body of water been addressed by PenEquity or the planning department? As it stands it appears as though the development would eliminate this potentially important body of water.
  5. That is a huge parking lot. There is really no other way to put it. If this moves forward, is it within the City’s power to request that a parking garage be constructed instead? It would use less space, allow for the protection of a significant portion of the woodlot as is, and only increase PenEquity’s costs slightly when compared to the amount of expense they’re looking at currently. If White Oaks Mall can do it, surely PenEquity can as well.
  6. Lastly, correct me if I’m wrong, but the average hotel tenancy rate hovers around the 60% mark last I heard. This sounds rather decent, and hopefully is enough to maintain a profit for all of the hotel and motel operators in the area. As such, is another hotel (or two) really necessary at this point? I’m all for a free market, but given the gravity of this decision and the impact it could have, have existing hotel operators been approached by the committee and/or plannign department (or approached the same) regarding this development? I’d be interested to hear whether they’re prepared for additional competition given the fairly new hotels that went up only a short time ago near Exeter Road.

Thank you for your time, and I’ll be paying close attention to the PEC meeting today. I also look forward to any responses should you find the time.

Derek E. Silva

UPDATE June 25, 2013: I received a response from Sandy White’s office thanking me for sharing my thoughts on this matter.

London’s Ring Road – Where Would It Go?

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Someone by the name “Oldtyme Hockey” posted this on the London Free Press’ story about London’s $200M Downtown Master Plan unveiling last night. I tried to reply to it because it goes to something I’ve actually given a lot of thought to, but the comment is being held in moderation (probably due to length, like another one I posted earlier today). I wanted to post it here to make sure it gets out.

Oldtyme Hockey said:

There is a transportation corridor available from Highbury downtown along the railroad tracks – under the Quebec Street and Adelaide street bridges; along the tracks. A ring road could travel along Veterans Memorial, Sunningdale; west of Riverbend and cut across Col Talbot to Exeter Road. its workable.

That would make a ring road look like this (click for full version):

oldtymehockey-ringroad

My response:

You’ve had almost the same thoughts I had when I thought about where to put a ring road. And then the problems started…

1) VMP can’t be extended directly north without running through Forest City National Golf Club, Fanshawe Golf & Country Club, or Fanshawe Pioneer Village. So that won’t happen, and then you’re talking about using Clarke Rd instead.

2) Sunningdale is already too built up, and if you think the rich folk at Sunningdale Golf & Country Club will allow the city to take away more land than they are already to expand Sunningdale Rd, or that putting a ring road in front of a high school or through the middle of brand new subdivisions is going to happen, I think you’ve got another thing coming.

3) Almost everything west of Hyde Park Rd, that far north, doesn’t belong to the City. It belongs to Middlesex Centre. I think you meant Riverside, not Riverbend, in that case you’re talking about putting a road through the middle of London Hunt & Country Club, another high school, and an older residential area.

It’s not workable with the layout you’ve proposed, and loses its benefits if you push it our any further, despite what Coun. Henderson told me.

I guess the message is, even if a ring road was a good idea (I’m not convinced it is), there’s no easy answer when it comes to where to place it.

Letter to MPs Jim Flaherty and Bev Shipley

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The iPod tax/tariff issue that has reared its ugly head over the past few months, after the federal government introduced a “streamlined” set of tariffs, still isn’t over. I’ll spare you all the details and developments that have arisen since the issue was initially revealed by economist and professor Mike Moffatt, but suffice to say I thought it prudent to email my MP, Bev Shipley, and Minister Jim Flaherty about the issue. Below is the email I sent, and the responses I’ve received thus far.

Wed, May 29, 2013 at 10:43 AM

Subject: MP3 Player Tariffs & End Use Certificates

Good morning Mr. Flaherty and Mr. Shipley,
I write to you because, unfortunately, this matter of the so-called “iPod tax” is still entirely unresolved. Mr. Flaherty, you recent testified to the FINA committee, and unfortunately did not directly address Mr. Brison’s question. As seen here in Mike Moffatt’s most recent piece for Canadian Business magazine:
http://www.canadianbusiness.com/blogs-and-comment/flaherty-provides-more-questions-than-answers-on-end-use-certificates-and-the-ipod-tax/
I must say that I concur with Mr. Moffatt. Your answer to the question, “Can you confirm if the tariff exemption for iPods under 9948 will depend on a requirement to collect end user certificates? Yes or no?” was not sufficient.
Mr. Moffatt poses additional questions that I would really appreciate, and frankly expect, answers to. They are:

  1. Have any Canadian retailers collected end use certificates on sales to Canadian consumers?
  2. Is it true that the CBSA informed importers that end use certificates were not required for televisions and other consumer electronics? If so, why?
  3. What is the purpose of end use certificates for consumer electronics sold at retail?
  4. How will the CBSA audit end use certificates for consumer electronics sold at retail? Will those audits involve the CBSA contacting individual consumers?

And to add my own, I purchased two iPod Touch devices roughly two years ago from Best Buy. I was not asked to complete end use certificates for those devices. Should I have been asked to do so by a Best Buy employee? If not, how do those iPod Touch devices then qualify under the tariff exemption under 9948? If I should have been asked to complete the certificate, it seems CBSA has been misleading electronics wholesalers and retailers for several years now, putting it potentially at the liability of lawsuits.

I eagerly await your response, and I hope you’re both having terrific day.

The response I received from MP Shipley’s office one day later.
Thu, May 30, 2013 at 2:04 PM

Dear Mr. Silva,

On behalf of Mr. Shipley, I acknowledge receipt of your email. Thank you for writing to your Member of Parliament.

Mr. Shipley appreciates hearing your comments on this matter and will follow up with the Minister’s office regarding review and response of your correspondence.

Thank you again. Please do not hesitate to contact Mr. Shipley should you have other questions or concerns on any federal matter.

Sincerely,

Sarah Brown
Parliamentary Assistant to
Bev Shipley, MP
SW Ontario Caucus Chair
Lambton-Kent-Middlesex
613-947-4581

And, oddly, I received a PDF of a scanned physical letter just three days ago from Minister Flaherty’s office, mostly with the same message as the initial response from MP Shipley’s office. I know that the MPs are all sitting in the House for rather long hours at the moment trying to wrap up a great deal of business, but I’ll definitely be following up soon. I’m not going to let the summer recess give either MP Shipley or Minister Flaherty an opportunity to let this go by.

On Selling City Assets; There is a Middle Path

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The topic of selling City of London assets has come up quite often in the last few years. People have discussed what it would mean to sell Budweiser Gardens, downtown’s crown jewel, home of the London Knights and London Lightning. Selling London Hydro has also been discussed twice in the last year or so, and overall I don’t think that’s an idea worth pursuing. Here’s why.

Budweiser Gardens and London Hydro are both terrific, and profitable, assets. Budweiser Gardens is already partly owned by other entities; the City of London is not its only shareholder. So control is already split there, which helps when new capital expenses arise. It means the City isn’t on the hook for everything.

On the other hand, London Hydro is wholly owned by the City, which means only the City (and its citizens) benefit from the dividend it distributes. Last year that was over $7 million, which would mean the City would have had to find an additional $7M this year to avoid a massive property tax, user fee, or some other kind of fee hike.

That said, I’m not against looking what the City’s options are. Sure, let’s find out whether there are parties interesting in buying London Hydro. But let’s also:

  • See if there are suitors interested in purchasing a minority stake
  • Look at merging with another, likely smaller, utility
  • Outright purchasing another utility

Having another company purchase a portion of London Hydro may give us the best of both worlds: the City gets a cash infusion, perhaps $100 million for 33% of London Hydro, but the City and its citizens retain majority control.

Merging with another utility would achieve cost savings in reducing any duplicate positions, infrastructure, etc. So expenses could be lower, while revenues increase, leaving majority control with the City assuming London Hydro merges with a smaller utility. Purchasing a smaller utility would also achieve the same, but 100% of ownership would stay in London, whereas that wouldn’t happen in a merger.

On the other hand, there is at least one type of asset the City should offload: its golf courses. This was first bandied about two years ago, and then again last winter during budget season. River Road in particular has not done well overall, and it’s no wonder. London and area is chock full of terrific golf courses, including some nearby in Delaware, Komoka, Melrose, and even Strathroy. Even the middle of the road options in this case could have turned out to be disastrous, potentially losing the city another $500,000 in a single year. How many small businesses lose $500K and survive? Not many, but when you’re subsidized by a large tax base it’s much easier. When it looked all but certain that the city-owned golf courses would be shut down after letting them have one more year to turn things around, last year there was terrific weather and people flocked to play, so they made a bit of money. Not enough, however, to warrant taking money away from local businesses, in my opinion. The City shouldn’t be in the golf course market when there is plenty of competition from cheap-afternoon-out to luxury-experience.

And so, my point is, every situation has to be looked at individually. Adapting a “sell it all” mentality doesn’t do anyone any good, and blinds us to what good some of the City’s assets do. And on the other side of the spectrum, adopting a “keep it all” mentality also blinds us to the money pits some City assets can be, and certainly are, and where the City shouldn’t be extending its reach. Arena, hydro? Good. We don’t compete with private businesses in those markets, and overall they do the City a great service. Golf courses? Bad. Lots of competition, no net benefit to the City or its citizens; sell them.

 

My Phone Call with Councillor Henderson

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As a follow-up to my original letter to Councillor Henderson, a phone call and voicemail to his office, and then a subsequent phone call and voicemail on his cell phone did get him to call back on April 5, 2013. Here’s how the call went, along with some conclusions.

Councillor Henderson didn’t quite put my name and the letter together, so I refreshed his memory. He let me know he was driving to a meeting somewhere, so I told him I would do my best to keep the call short and not distract him. I cherry-picked a few questions to ask him, instead of going through one-by-one.

Henderson started explaining the whole fiasco by explainging that two years ago, extra money was allocated to councillor’s budgets. Currently there is a ratio of four councillors per secretary, which doesn’t provide much time for each councillor to get the help they need. Some councillors have used that additional funding to hire a secretary, as “we’ve been hobbling along” making do without dedicated staff. The aforementioned budget was increased to $15,000 per year.

Henderson said that in the last six months there’s been so much trouble, they can’t get their work done, and the City decided to hire some students(?). Council agreed they were going to provide an additional $7,500 per year for communication purposes – whether that’s getting training, hiring someone for help, taking out ads in the paper, etc. That money was finally appropriated last fall.

When I switched topics (or rather tried to get him on topic) to the recent video camera debacle, Councillor Henderson then harkened back to the revised smoking ban debate. He said he checked with clerk regarding the expenses, and then went into a rant about increasing the cigarette smoking ban from 2m to 6m, and that he didn’t want that ban approved. Henderson is the Councillor who suggested increasing ban from 2m to 3m, and that measure was approved. Then he mentioned that maybe we should talk about carcinogenics overall, and let’s look at Toronto. I’m not familiar with Toronto’s smoking bylaws at the moment, so I’m not sure what that means.

Henderson began breaking up a lot, but proceeded to talk about the smoking ban debate for two or three more minutes. He finally got around to his point where, because a bunch of different sound bites that went out via the press, he sounded like a nut case, and he know there was no way he was going to get re-elected again if things continued this way. He mentioned that Metro has a far more accurate article, which I’ve found here.

He finally circled back around to the camera and YouTube channel issue, stating that the funds were pre-approved by the City Clerk. He purchased a $1,000 camera, a couple of lights, and got a few good responses (responses to what, he didn’t elaborate). And as a follow-up to the City Council meeting that happened just prior to our conversation, he said that the City Clerk and Mayor have both confirmed that the equipment is Henderson’s to keep, despite the City reimbursing him for the purchases.

I moved onto the issue about comments being disabled on both his blog, and his YouTube channel; I didn’t understand how this was “engagement” when he’s not offering constituents the chance to engage using the very mediums he’s using to communicate with them. At this point Henderson went into a bit of a tirade, saying he receives 65 emails a day, along with phone calls. He said he doesn’t use a Twitter account because he can’t watch it for 10 hours a day. He didn’t address his blog or YouTube channel’s comments functions. But he did say that he uses email and phone only, as that’s all he has time for, meanwhile Councillors do just as much work as the Mayor.

I asked him about the ad distribution program with YouTube, to which Henderson responded that he didn’t know anything about the ad program initially, but that he saw the option for ads about a week after starting DaleTV. He said he’s going to keep any money sent his way from YouTube because it costs money to film, edit, and upload the videos (using equipment the City has paid for). He also went on to say that the City is going to start broadcasting more and more livestreams, bypassing the media, and that the media isn’t happy about it. I’m not quite sure how he reaches that conclusion, but it was very clear that Henderson dislikes most of the City’s press outlets.

The last thing I asked Councillor Henderson about was his comments about a ring road, annexation, and the need for “quietly deciding where road will go.”

He replied saying he wants to annex nearby communities, and get the Planning Department to decide where the best place for the ring road to go would be. It’s quite obvious he didn’t understand the legal implications of his statement. He does, however, think that a ring road north of the city would benefit people who live in the core. I’ve given this some thought, and haven’t been able to come up with any ideas as to how that would happen. Regardless, that’s his opinion.

We concluded our conversation with Councillor Henderson stating that his big focus (with DaleTV) is “definitely getting my ideas out there, no matter how crazy they sound.” And that, “I want to be a leader, and hear people say, ‘Hey, these are new ideas.'” He then attempted to prove his point by introducing me to the idea of a London Film Association, how it was going to kickstart job creation, that it wouldn’t have any membership fees, etc. He invited me to the launch on April 11, but it was scheduled during the day.

Conclusions:

  • The fact that the City Clerk pre-approved the purchase, and then stated the equipment was Henderson’s to keep, is very problematic. If the City pays for it, it ought to belong to the City.
  • Henderson doesn’t seem to understand the point of Twitter, and the fact that he does not need to monitor it for 1 hour a day, let alone 10 hours. The point is to be on there, response to questions/comments/concerns, perhaps provide a bit more insight into his thinking, etc.
  • There are a lot of issues preventing the Planning Department from simply putting a ring road wherever it wants, and doing so “quietly” without expecting any landowners not to ask for a decent sum of money to move them off their land. That issue alone is fraught with risk.
  • Henderson is definitely getting his ideas out there, “no matter how crazy they sound.” I still don’t think they’re helping his chances for re-election in Ward 9.

What do you think?