Memo to Katz Group: Screw you.

Memo to: The Katz Group

From: An Edmonton taxpayer

Subject: Screw you

This memo is in response to your recent memo to Edmonton City Council regarding the progress, or lack thereof, in the negotiations towards the construction of a new arena.

If I may be blunt, let me just express my profound frustrations with your tactics by using a common idiom: screw you.

Pardon me for using the memo format, but this seems to be the preferred method of communications for the Katz Group.  Apparently, Mr. Katz considers himself too important to directly address the public about the use of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars he is demanding for a new arena. Seems like a strange way to do business with an organization that you are attempting to enter into an agreement with, but who am I to question how a billionaire operates.

Now, to address your concerns as outlined in your memo. Your primary concern seems to be that the window of opportunity to get the new arena built by the 2014 hockey season has closed. This should bother me, why? As a taxpayer and substantial partner in this project, I frankly could not care less whether the Oilers get into the building by 2014, or 2015, or 2016, or any other date. You can continue sucking at Northlands just as easily as you can suck in a new building. You have a perfectly good home you can play in for the foreseeable future, so get comfortable.

Second, you say that the option to buy the land is about to expire, and if you don’t act soon, you’ll lose the land. Well, then, do something. Buy it. Just carry on with the purchase. I find it rather amazing that you seem to want everything in place perfectly at your end, but you expect the city to take all the gambles. If you have the land, and you think this is perfect, then buy it. We’re good for it. We’re the freaking City of Edmonton.

Third, you are worried that there is no progress on the non-compete deal with Northlands. Well, again, this was your idea, not ours. How are we supposed to tell Northlands, which is a non-profit that has been around for more than 100 years, that they are supposed to mothball their biggest source of revenue so you can take the whole pie? When you open a Rexall drugstore in a shopping mall, do you insist on a non-compete clause with Shopper’s Drug Mart? No, I didn’t think so. It’s called competition. Look it up.

So here’s the thing, Mr. Katz Group. We’re still $100 million short. You may think that the province is going to kick in the money, but we don’t know that. If you really wanted to move this along, I have an idea… why don’t YOU kick in another $100 million? That would move things along nicely.

Unless we see some kind of goodwill gesture on your part, Mr. Katz Group, then you’ll just have to bide your time. There are hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars at stake here, and a good portion of the population (read: voters) would be mightily pissed if they gave a local billionaire even more money. Every time you put out another memo, you loose more and more public support. Who are you getting your advice from, Donald Trump?

So can your phony deadlines, pony up some more money, or shut the hell up.

Sincerely,

A Taxpayer

 

 

 

 

 

Northlands is right to fight.

If Edmonton Northlands had a Facebook page, I’d be tempted to click on that ‘like’ button.

I haven’t always been a fan of the not-for-profit ‘agricultural society’.  It has always been an old boys’ club, and far too cozy with the PC elite. Over the years, Northlands has received hundreds of millions of dollars of government largess, which could have been more wisely spent elsewhere. Say, to me.

But in the current fight over the new arena, Northlands is coming off as the scrappy underdog, putting up the good fight against a murderers row of an empire-building city council with stars in its eyes, a reclusive billionaire, and the Edmonton Journal.

I’m not going to delve into the whole ‘do we need a new arena?’ question again. That’s been done to death, and besides, it’s a done deal. Despite the fact the finances are extremely shaky (something about $100 million that the city hopes will appear, magically, like a Christmas present under a tree), and the cost is sure to exceed the $450 million price tag, it’s going to happen. Mayor Mandel wants it, council mostly wants it, the city’s movers and shakers want it, and the media wants it. It will get done, regardless of how it gets paid for.

Northlands, which has done a very successful job of running the supposedly decrepit and unglamorous arena (that was, when it was first built, our dazzling, state of the art hockey palace) has understandably got its back up over the new arena. Northlands has been shut out of all conversations regarding the new arena. Richard Anderson, the American hired gun with loads of arena-running experience, stood his ground in front of council last week, refusing to disclose Northlands’ financial statements. This caused the easily horrified Coun. Jane Batty to say she was “horrified” to hear Anderson’s refusal.

Frankly, I think Anderson is on pretty shaky ground in giving council the figurative finger. He is right to say Northlands is “not a city arm or a part of the city”, but he acknowledged that they are partners, and partners have the right to see the books. But until the Katz Group comes through with financial information that they have been keeping secret, then Northlands has every right to keep its information secret, too.

Also, I question why council wanted to look at the Northlands books. Mandel professed to be concerned about its future viability of Northlands without the Oilers. It’s true that the city has a lot of money tied up in Northlands, and if Northlands goes under, the city with be stuck with the tab for things like the $56 million it loaned Northlands for the Expo Centre. But since nobody on council knows the first thing about how to run something as large and complex as Northlands, they would bring absolutely nothing to the table. Council is no friend of Northlands these days, and they are so cozy with Katz now that if I were Northlands, I wouldn’t want my financial information going to a potential rival, either.

Anderson is pretty ballsy, I must say. He is quite happy to go up against the new, Katz-run arena and compete for attractions.

“If it ever happened,” said Anderson of a head-to-head battle between Rexall Place and Rexall Place II, “I like our chances.”

There has been talk that the Katz Group wants Northlands to sign a non-compete deal. Again, if I were Anderson, I’d tell Katz and the Kouncil Kronies to take their non-compete clause and shove it.  (When Katz opens a new Rexall drug store, does he force the other drug stores in town to sign non-compete contracts? I don’t think so.) Even though I don’t see any room in Edmonton for two, 18,000-plus seat buildings, I could see one downtown, and a pared down, 8,000-seat Northlands as a more intimate venue.

Rexall Place is a vital piece of Northlands’ economic pie. They have every right to fight for it, tooth and nail. And if Darrel Katz doesn’t like having Northlands around, then maybe he should put up the whole $450 million for the new arena and go toe-to-toe with Northlands. As Anderson puts it, I like their chances.

The mosquito invasion: did saving $200G cost us our summer?

I’m sitting on my backyard deck as I write this, listening to a generic Top 40 hit radio station. I’m not listening voluntarily, mind you. A house next to mine is having a new roof installed, and the roofers have chosen to blast execrable radio station Hot 107 from the roof for everyone to hear. Thank you, roofers.

It’s a little bit amazing that I can do anything outside right now, whether it’s writing a blog or involuntarily listening to prattle from Ryan Seacrest (why does an Edmonton radio station play Ryan Seacrest?).  This seems to be the time of day when the shocking, ravenous hoards of mosquitoes are resting, waiting to spring from their daytime hiding places to attack innocent Edmontonians.

This year’s mosquito infestation is being called the worst in 10 years, but frankly, I think that’s being conservative.  It’s the worst I can remember, ever. There was one year worse than this, but I was living in Red Deer at the time. Red Deer city council got all wrapped up in the new wave of environmentalism, and opted not to do any spraying. The result was a ruined summer, where it was almost impossible to go outside, even for a few minutes. Needless to say, council came to its senses the next year, and nuked the buggers into history.

So this year’s invasion is one of the worst, but not THE worst in my memory. Still, it’s bad. Terrible, in fact, and it makes me angry. We suffered through one of the worst winters in years, and a damp and cool spring. Now that summer is here, and we’re into a lovely spell of 25C weather, it’s almost impossible to enjoy. Does God hate Edmonton?

The city’s mosquito control people have been pretty good at predicting the invasion, less successful at preventing it. Why has this happened? According to the city, it’s the result of a perfect storm of a very wet June, followed by a very warm July. And, after years of drought, zillions of mosquito eggs that have lain dormant for years have sprung to live.

If it’s any comfort, we are not alone. Mosquito numbers in Western Canada have spiked pretty much everywhere, for the same reasons. But I have to ask if city council has to bear some of the blame.

Remember during budget deliberations, when the city opted to slice $194,000 from the mosquito-spraying budget? The reasoning was that it had been years since the city had a serious problem with mosquitoes, and the department had come in under budget for 10 years.  Only Kerry Diotte — who is rapidly becoming my favourite councilor thanks to his single-minded dedication to watching over every penny the city spends — raised any objections.

“It’s kind of like rolling the dice to say it was good this year so we’re going to assume it will be good next year,” he said. “That’s fairly short sighted.”

Was Diotte right? It seems like it on the bite-ridden surface, yes. Take away $194,000 from the mosquito-fighting budget, mosquito population explodes. Ergo, cutting the budget resulted in more mosquitoes. But we don’t know that for sure. It may be that no amount of money, no amount of spraying, could have prevented this infestation.

But it’s a good question that I hope someone on council will ask. I think we’re far too willing to just shrug our shoulders and say “oh, well, these things happen”. If this is just nature doing her thing, that’s OK. You can’t fool Mother Nature. But if the mosquito swarms are the result, at least in part, of cutting the budget, we should know this so it doesn’t happen again. Somebody on council should ask the mosquito control people if the missing $200,000 would have made a difference.

Hey, I’m all for prudent use of taxpayer money. But I will happily give my OK to the city to spend $194,000 to make our city more livable during our too-brief summer.

Report: road building bungled. Public: well, d’uh.

Earlier this week, the city’s auditor released a quite damning report on the state of the city’s road design and construction branch. The report said that numerous cost overruns and delays on Edmonton’s endless road construction projects are the fault of a badly run department that keeps changing the rules of the game. City councilors were also in the dark about the extent of the projects, and in some cases the bureaucrats played fast and loose with the dollar figures.

The Whitemud-Quesnell bridge overhaul, which began in late 1963 (I have a vague memory of actually traveling over the bridge when there was no construction on it, but I was just a child) and is scheduled to be completed by August — although August of what year, nobody is saying — will cost the city $167 million, or $6.4 million more than reported. The road warriors also made some 150 changes to the project design, which might be the main reason why it went $6 million over budget.

Now, I’m no engineer or road planner, but it seems like the Quesnell widening was a pretty straightforward, if technically complex, project. Bottom line: make the bridge wider. How many changes could you make? Did they want it ever wider, or narrower? This isn’t like a house, where a homeowner might change his (or likely her) mind about the color of the carpet of what kind of tile to lay down. It’s a freakin’ road! There’s no choosing color of tar. There is no public art on display. The Quesnell bridge is as utilitarian as you can get. It has no design, other than it has to be flat and wide and gotten across as quickly as possible.

The Quesnell widening is bordering on boondoggle territory. When it’s finished, ort, should I say, IF it’s ever finished, ­I’m sure it will be wonderful to drive on, except you just know that anxious drivers — who have been stuck in kilometres-long traffic jams for years — will release their pent up frustrations by going waaaay too fast, resulting in weekly multi-vehicle accidents, resulting in traffic jams.

I get the feeling the city councillors really don’t have a clue about what to do with the road design and construction branch. The road builders tell council what they want, and council says: “Yeah, yeah, go ahead. We have bigger fish to fry, like a ban on smoking in public parks.” For example, last year the city dumped a crapload of cash on adding another lane on 170th Street, from 87th Avenue to the Whitemud. 170th already had three lanes that ran very smoothly, once you escaped the hell that is WEM traffic. Now, there’s a fourth lane, which exits onto the Whitemud going westbound. I’ve driven on that road countless times, and I’ve seen at best a handful of cars actually using the lane to exit onto the Whitemud. I can’t see any conceivable reason why it was built, and a cost of God knows how much money. Did anyone on council question the road department about why they needed another lane on a road that was running perfectly well?

I’m sure there are projects like that all over town. City councillors, however, seem to be oblivious to the work being done. Mayor Stephen Mandel has proposed a three-year moratorium on major road construction in Edmonton, and I’m in full agreement. If city councillors aren’t going to question the roads department about every square inch of asphalt they lay, then they shouldn’t approve any major projects at all.

So, what will you do with your 11 cents?

What’s that expression? Watch your pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves?

That appears to be the thinking behind Edmonton city council’s nickle and dime cuts to the city budget. On Monday, they cut the increase to garbage and recycling services budget by $500,000, which saves the average homeowner a grand total of 30 cents a month. Then on Tuesday, after hours of debate, they pruned the proposed increase to the monthly sewer fees from a proposed $1.07 to 96 cents —  a saving of 11 cents a month.

Well, how am I going to spend my 11 cents  month saving?

When I was a kid, 11 cents could have bought me 11 pieces of Double Bubble bubble gum, or 22 pieces of MoJo candy, which actually sold for two for a penny.  I could have bought two Pep Chew bars (a rock-hard mint-flavoured, chocolate coated candy bar), and it would have been just one penny short of getting a bottle of Coke, which cost 12 cents, two cents of which was for deposit. If you were lucky enough to find  pop bottle on the street on your way home from school, you could turn it in at the local store for 2 cents, or two Double Bubbles or FOUR MoJos.  (For the benefit of anyone who might be reading, no, I am not 90 years old. Those are actual prices from my childhood in the 1960s.)

But this is 2010, when the value of a penny is less than the cost of producing the penny. I guess we should be thankful that city council spent hours cutting $500,000 from the sewer budget. I suppose they aren’t kidding when they say they’re looking after every penny.

But while it appears we’re saving pennies, we’re actually not even doing that. The 11 cents a month “saving” is, in fact, just 11 cents less than the proposed INCREASE of $1.07. Same goes for the 30 cent “cut” in garbage and recycling services, which is in fact an INCREASE  of $1.49 a month. So after all this debate, we’re “saving” 41 cents a month — which is in fact an increase of $2.46, or something in that neighbourhood.

But hey, I guess we should be thankful. I’m thinking of putting my 11 cent “savings” in the bank every month for my retirement. At this rate, I should be able to retire comfortably in 2150.

Dear Kerry: I’ll be watching you…

Open letter to city councillor Kerry Diotte

Hello, Mr. Diotte.  Or should I call you councillor? Or is it your majesty?

Whatever. I hope you’re enjoying your new role as decision maker, as opposed to your old role as decision questioner when you were with the Sun. I see they’ve put you right to work.

I’ve always found it funny that the very first thing a new council does is tackle the budget, which is the single biggest issue council has to deal with. Talk about being thrown into the deep end of the political pool.

But you’re an old hand at budgets, which is why I’m writing to you. I remember your old columns in the Sun when you used to go over the budget, line by tedious line, and find examples of wasteful spending. Or at least, what you thought were examples of wasteful spending.

Well, pal (you don’t mind if I call you pal, do you?), now it’s your time to shine! Instead of just complaining about the budget, you can now do something about it. And I’m here to help. I have a few questions regarding how the city spends its — or, more accurately, our — money that you might want to ask.

For starters, how about this Racism Free Edmonton initiative? You know, the one with all the ‘white privilege’ stuff that has people so upset? Frankly, I don’t care about the white privilege remark; I’m white, and I’m not offended. What offends me is that the city of Edmonton is spending time and money on a website that it thinks will combat racism. Seriously? Racism has been around since caveman days, and the city thinks a website will eliminate racism? My question, Kerry, is how much money is the city spending on this well intentioned by naive project? Or, for that matter, how about the bottomless number of other city initiatives that involve expensive ad campaigns and websites. Is this where city tax dollars should be spent? Just wondering is all.

And how about road construction? Maybe you can find out why the city spent untold millions of dollars on adding an extra lane to a few blocks of 170th Street, from WEM to the Whitemud? I’ve driven down that road thousands of times, and I can see no need for an extra lane. Maybe, as a councillor, you can question the value and reasoning of the city’s myriad of road projects BEFORE they go ahead. Ask some questions.

And you might want to poke around into overtime for road construction crews. Paying somebody $40 an hour to lean on a sign that says ‘Slow” (describing their work progress, perhaps) doesn’t seem like a good way to use tax dollars.

Kerry, you were quoted in the Journal today as saying that you are going to go through the budget with a fine-toothed comb (judging from your hairline, you don’t use it for grooming) and maybe bring the budget down to zero. I honestly wish you luck. The proposed tax hike of 5% is, realistically, not much, but I’m baffled as to why city taxes go up, without fail, every year, while federal and provincial taxes do not. Why, I wonder, doesn’t city council just tell the administration to bring in a budget at zero increase, or somebody will lose their job? Just a thought.

So good luck, Kerry. Hone that axe and get at ‘er. I’ll be watching. Just don’t touch anything I like.

Maurice Tougas, taxpayer