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It has been suggested that anyone posting on this site should use his or her own name. I’m  open to both points of view.– Jim Duff

Dare to compare

I daresay it’s futile to compare municipal budgets, but here goes. On Tuesday, St. Lazare adopted its 2017 budget.  Our neighbour, with a population of in excess of 20,000, will spend $28,375,500 next year. The average St. Lazare home, valued at $370,000, will cost its owner 1.26 per cent more next year in taxes. As Mayor Robert Grimaudo points out, this is less than Canada’s inflation rate.

It’s good but it’s not the best. Earlier this month, Vaudreuil-Dorion, with a population of close to 45,000, adopted a $72 million budget. Nine times Hudson’s population, six times the budget. The average home, evaluated at $309,700, saw its taxes go up by half a percent. That’s a $7 increase.

artistes-talents-d-ici-vaudreuil-dorion-vaudreuil-soulanges-jardin-de-lumieres-lanternes_orig
Artists from throughout Vaudreuil-Soulanges gather to celebrate the illumination of 300 lanterns outside the beautiful église Saint-Michel in Vaudreuil. It’s a spectacularly uplifting display on this, the darkest night of the year and a good reason to drop by Hudson’s big neighbour.

Oh yeah. Vaudreuil-Dorion has that massive commercial core (where I see most Hudsonites doing their shopping). It has those industrial parks, that monstrous tax base, that population. Sometimes, when I hear Hudson folks running Vaudreuil-Dorion down, I wonder whether they’re talking about the same place. I find Vaudreuil-Dorion an exciting, even beautiful city. It may lack trees and dog runs, but it more than makes up for the shortage of natural settings with its energy and vitality – and above all, the dedication of its mayors Réjean Boyer and Guy Pilon and their respective councils to the concept of a 10, 20, 30-year game plan.

St. Lazare may not have Vaudreuil-Dorion’s tax base but it has learned over the years to manage its cash flow (http://ville.saint-lazare.qc.ca/budget). The new city hall going up across from the sports complex won’t figure in the 2017 tax bills, but the $3.8 million in subsidies for the new firehall and community facilities will lighten the burden. The resurgence in the real estate market has generated welcome taxes to defray the cost of new sanitary and storm sewers, aqueducts and beefed-up public security. There’s cash for repaving streets and building bike paths to meet the demands of a young, active population (the city’s eighth school is nearing completion). If St. Lazare was a family, we’d say they were living within their means.

Hudson isn’t.

Here’s another number to compare: This year’s St. Lazare recreation department budget is a little less than $4.5 million. Hudson, which marries recreation and culture, will spend slightly more than $1.5 million. I know I’m comparing ants and aardvarks, but I just can’t help pointing out that spending doesn’t guarantee quality.

What does Hudson have that St. Lazare and Vaudreuil-Dorion don’t? Our region’s only English-language high school. Bilingual status. A spectacular waterfront with a view that millionaires crave. A compact town centre where everything is within walking distance. World-class entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. Venerable clubs.

So here’s my question: Why is Hudson not doing a better job of marketing to the world? From the little I’ve seen, Hudson isn’t getting much bang for its buck. Craft fairs, hired celebrities, improvised parades and garage sales don’t cut it. It’s time for some new thinking – and that doesn’t mean record budgets. Even if you’ve got the money those days are done.

 

 

Stop them before they spend again!

duffs-corners
Is it just me, or has Hudson’s council lost touch with reality?

Would that Hudson’s Mayor Ed Prévost’s fondness for invoking Donald Trump have extended to the U.S. President-elect’s professed concern for the overburdened middle class. Prévost oversaw the adoption of a $13.2 million 2017 budget Wednesday evening, a 9.4  percent increase over last year’s record $12 million exercise.

Most of the 60 or so residents in the hall appeared stunned before giving vent to their frustration and bafflement at the magnitude of the increase, given this administration’s comments over the past several months hinting at a surplus. Many showed up hoping for a tax freeze; instead, the tax-and-tariff burden on the hypothetical average Hudson home with a valuation of $400,000 will increase by about $200 or approximately 5 per cent.

Because next year’s budget is based on a new valuation roll, sectors of town which have seen significant real estate activity will see their evaluations – and their taxes – increase by as much as 30 per cent.

Residents didn’t take kindly to this administration’s tax-and-spend budget. Councillor Ron Goldenberg noted operating costs were down 4 per cent and said the budgeteers had whacked a million dollars from the first draft. It was all in vain, especially after council went on to announce the hiring of  a full-time grants-and-subsidies chaser for $100,000 and a full-time culture and communications director.

Intense questioning pried loose the revelation that the town, with a population of just over 5,100, now employs more than 140 full and part-time employees. Of those, 36 are full time employees, although an oblique reference to disciplinary measures in regards to Employee 647 suggests another of a previous administration’s hires is caught in Hudson town hall’s deadly revolving door.

Administrative costs will rise by another 20 per cent next year to just under $2 million. Public security costs skyrocket by a whopping 65 per cent to just under $2.5 million. Conversely, four budget items shrank from last year – public works, public transportation, urban planning/economic development and financing costs.

To be fair, some of next year’s big numbers reflect bookkeeping changes – understandable given that this budget was prepared without the assistance of former treasurer Serge Raymond, the town’s fourth in three years.

And there was good news. The town starts 2017 with $23.4 million in long-term debt, down significantly from the $32.5 million the town owed back in 2013. Clearly, this has been the biggest single accomplishment of the Prévost administration. Ditto the announcement of an eight-year contract with town employees, retroactive to 2014 when the last collective agreement expired.

But residents weren’t in the mood to cheer, especially when they were presented with this administration’s 2017-2019 PTI, or capital investment plan, a wish list of projects with a $9.9 million price tag. Some, like a newwell to relieve pressure on the town’s current drinking water sources, are seen as inevitable, although many residents still can’t understand why the town doesn’t consider drawing water from the Lake of Two Mountains. Other projects on the wish list, like a skate park and an arts centre, aren’t seen as priorities when the town’s streets and sidewalks are disintegrating. It was revealed this would be the third time the town has invested in a skate park only to see it unused.

At one point during the PTI discussion, Goldenberg let it slip the town would be installing water meters in the town’s businesses, which collectively represent barely 4 per cent of the town’s total tax revenue. Businesses already pay the lion’s share of the bill for water and sewerage according to a tariff structure unrelated to how much water a business consumes. This blurt led to an animated discussion of Goldenberg’s promise to businesses that a sampling of residences would also be metered to give everyone a better idea of the residence/business water consumption ratio. As tempers flared, town manager Jean-Pierre Roy told one business owner that not only would businesses be forced to install meters, but they would foot the bill for the installation and hiring of the meter reader.

The crowd thinned as the back-to-back budget meetings dragged on for more than three hours with only the occasional outburst to snap people awake. One such moment came during a routine zoning-bylaw presentation, when former mayor Liz Corker suggested the town should demand more greenspace from Hudson Valleys developer Daniel Rodrigue in return for the right to rezone lots on Mayfair to allow semi-detached housing. Rodrigue loudly insisted he’s given far more than he was required to do and countered by referring to the circumstances under which one of Corker’s properties was developed during her time as mayor.  It was like watching two members of a dysfunctional family venting in public; those who knew the back stories stared at the floor while those that didn’t watched in bewilderment.

Somehow, the discussion morphed into a debate about Hudson’s unenforced leash laws. Rodrigue’s development is bordered by the Gary Cirko Trail, where dog owners from as far away as the West Island come to exercise their animals on the public trail network. Before council voted on the proposal’s first reading, a succession of residents challenged the zoning procedure, questioned the town’s motives in presenting the requested change (by law, the town must) and voiced concern that a project good for the town might be killed because Hudson doesn’t enforce its leash laws.

Best comment of the evening: Trevor Smith, who asked council whether they had ever considered cutting expenses to the bone and giving back to residents in the form of a tax break. Smith didn’t wait for an answer but he got one anyway: smirks from a couple of those at the front of the room. It’s pretty obvious this administration won’t stop spending until they’re booted out of office next November.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shameless

Whatever the mayor, council and administrators tell residents at tonight’s 2017 budget adoption, the Town of Hudson’s current financial situation doesn’t justify an increase in property taxes.

Unless it’s been misrepresented.

At the end of April, former treasurer Serge Raymond prepared a document required by the Cities and Towns Act. It’s called a report on the comparative statements of revenues and expenditures. It’s the fiscal equivalent of your vehicle’s odometer, fuel economy and mileage readouts.

One of the two statements compares revenues and expenditures for the current fiscal year with those covering the same period of the previous year. The second compares actual versus forecasted revenues and expenditures for the current year.

Total revenues budgeted for 2016: $12,053,290.
Raymond’s 2016 forecast four months into the fiscal year: $12,438,740.
In other words, Raymond’s numbers – with eight months still to go — showed the town $385,450 ahead of budget projections.

On that basis, Raymond forecast a 2016 budget surplus of $307,590.

Major contributing factors: the $220,000 sale of the old medi-centre at 98 Cameron, new residential construction and better than expected home resales. No wonder this administration has made densification Job #1.

The positive revenue trend continued throughout 2016. At the October council meeting the mayor revealed welcome taxes topped $471,000 as of September, with four months still to run. (The town had budgeted $450,000 for all of 2016.)

The only bad news in Roy’s report was an $89,860 excess in expenditures over budget. He cited legal fees, business tax bad debts and an increase in the town’s public transit assessment. From what the administration has admitted since then, it’s quite possible legal costs will consume most of Roy’s projected surplus.

Nevertheless, the town’s own projections rule out a reduction in revenues as a factor in any tax increase.

We can also rule out a reduction in total valuation. As I posted in my last blog Fabrication, the global 2017 valuation is $1.184 billion, up from last year’s $1.178 billion. The value of taxable properties increased by a similar amount – from $1.107 billion to $1.114 billion. In fiscal terms both increases are negligible, so this isn’t a significant factor in the 2017 budget.

The biggest problem facing this administration in the 2017 budget is the gross and growing unfairness of the tax burden on Hudson’s commercial core.

In January, the town informed business owners it was ending the business tax and replacing it with a higher tax rate on non-residential properties. Henceforth, non-residential properties would be taxed at 75 cents per $100 compared to 70 cents per $100 for residential properties. Commercial landlords became the town’s tax collectors.

The higher tax rate would have been acceptable to most non-residential property owners but it was just the beginning of this administration’s tax grab. The 2016 budget replaced taxes with a blizzard of tariffs that bore no relationship to the actual cost of providing services. Small businesses with a single bathroom and kitchenette end up paying triple of what the owner of a typical home pays for water and waste management. The concept of user pay was evoked by this administration during the debate about water meters, but it would apply only to businesses in the sewered core.

The results of that inequity are visible throughout Hudson’s commercial core. Even the Societé de developpement commercial (SDC), created as a marketing tool for local business, has morphed into another ineffectual, unaccountable tax-grabbing arm of the town.

The solution lies in a fair and equitable tax and tariff structure based on real costs. However I have no illusions about this administration lifting a finger to assist Hudson’s struggling commercial core. This mayor and council have been successful in using arbitrary tariffs and grossly unfair tax policy to divide and conquer. After three years of this, it’s clear they feel no shame.

Fabrication

imagesThere was considerable confusion over Louise Villandré’s long shadow, last week’s post. It arose from conflicting statements at last week’s council meeting from mayor Ed Prévost and councillor Ron Goldenberg concerning the Town of Hudson’s 2017 valuation roll.

The mayor told us the global valuation roll had increased. This would have the knock-on effect of automatically raising the cost of everything based on the town’s global evaluation – policing, public transit, recycling, two levels of municipal government.

Goldenberg, council’s mouthpiece on taxation and budget issues, contradicted the mayor. The roll had decreased, Goldenberg told us. The result, he explained in an email to selected recipients, was lower tax revenues for the town’s own budget items even though the town’s per capita assessment would drop.

This morning I paid a visit to town hall to see for myself the figures contained in the 2016 and 2017 assessments. I take the liberty of rounding off to the nearest $100,000.

Mayor Ed was correct. The global 2017 assessment, effective Jan. 1, is $1.184 billion. Hudson’s 2016 global assessment was $1.178 billion, $6 million less. This represents the total assessed value of every single lot and structure in the municipality.

In fiscal terms, the change in the overall value of the municipality is negligible. Ergo, the tax burden for policing, public transit, recycling and regional government should remain roughly the same.

Goldenberg’s explanation seems to be based on the value of taxable properties. This smaller number excludes churches, schools and federal and provincial installations for which the town receives a payment in lieu of taxes.

Again, comparing apples with apples, the total value of taxable properties in the 2017 valuation roll will increase to $1.114 billion from last year’s $1.107 billion.

That’s a $7 million increase in taxable evaluation, negligible in fiscal terms.

If the valuation roll remains substantially unchanged, what pretext will this administration use to justify what I’m told will be a tax hike in excess of five per cent?

I think I have an answer.

We know some sectors of town have seen big valuation increases in the 2017-2019 roll – 10, 20, even 30 per cent. Others, such as the downtown core, have seen no increase in value. In fact, evaluations on some commercial properties have dropped.

By law, the town must impose a single residential and single commercial property tax rate.

Likewise, it can’t use water and sewer taxes to correct those imbalances (although the town has tried that in the past.)

I suspect last week’s confusion was deliberate. How better to pull the wool over the eyes of a thoroughly demoralized citizenry?

Fiscal policy is simple when it’s transparent. A town needs enough to pay its bills and cover the cost of borrowing money with a few million set aside for the proverbial rainy day. When you’re a town like Hudson, without a commercial or industrial tax base, residential property taxes are your only revenue source. You don’t risk killing the golden goose by overtaxing – the definition of a budget surplus.

So you impose a hiring freeze and cut costs every way you can. You don’t ask taxpayers to fund a lavish spread before every caucus meeting. You don’t squander money hiring lawyers and consultants. Everything you do should be governed by a simple rule: elected and appointed officials must treat the public purse as a trust, not an entitlement.

If you’re looking for a simple bottom line, it’s this:

Whatever Hudson’s administration may tell us at the Dec. 21 budget meeting, there is no fiscal justification for a tax hike in the valuation roll. It’s a fabrication.

Sure as shit it wasn’t the cost of better snow removal.

Louise Villandré’s long shadow

screen-shot-2016-12-06-at-3-34-58-pmFormer town manager Louise Villandré’s shadow hung heavy over Monday’s council meeting as mayor Ed Prévost drew a gloomy picture of next year’s budget and told residents development is the town’s only road to salvation.

The 2017 budget and tax rates will be presented at a special meeting Dec. 21. It begins at 7 p.m.

Hudson, carrying $28M in long-term debt, will see its valuation roll increase by $30 million on a total municipal evaluation of $1.3B. The jump means automatic cost increases for policing, public transit and regional government.

“We thought we could make up the difference by cutting,” Prévost told residents. “That will be impossible — or close to it […] Development is the only option.”

Council proceeded to approve a rezoning request that would permit construction of row housing on Mayfair near the Hwy. 342 entrance to the Hudson Valleys and Alstonvale developments. It is subject to approval by the residents of adjacent sectors.

Also adopted was a resolution approving a public information session sometime next spring for a revised Sandy Beach development project. A 2001 rezoning bylaw approved a mix of townhouses, semi-detached and single-family dwellings but the project was blocked by subsequent administrations on a variety of pretexts.

The latest effort to head off development is being led by Wharf Road resident Richard Grinnell. During the first question period he told the meeting he and others have gathered in excess of 500 signatures in hopes of convincing council to explore the possibility of buying more of the beachfront and adjacent forest.

Following the meeting, director-general Jean-Pierre Roy said the 2001 development plan can’t be applied because of changes to the provincial laws that apply to wetland and waterfront development. Some no longer exist, while others have been updated.

Sandy Beach owner/developer Hans Muhlegg was visibly moved when Louise Craig publicly thanked him for permitting public access, bringing applause from residents. Muhlegg, now 75, never sought public recognition for having contributed more than $100,000 toward the cost of bridges and boardwalks that make the beachfront and adjoining Jack Layton Park a regional destination of choice.

Council approved disbursements that included $86,500 to the town’s lawyers Dunton Rainville. Ron Goldenberg brought gasps from the crowd when he revealed the town’s legal bill reached $395,000 as of Sept. 30. The town has yet to release a file-by file breakdown of the bill.

One was the town’s failure (on Villandré’s watch) to withhold federal and provincial income tax for an unspecified number of municipal employees. As Goldenberg explained, the town is hoping voluntary declarations on behalf of the employees and issuance of revised T-4s will be sufficient to prevent fines and penalties. Questioned as to the number of employees affected and whether the town was “on the hook” for fines and penalties, DG Roy refused to get specific.

Villandré’s name was also invoked in connection with the retroactive abolition of the town’s 2014-15 environmental tax on privately owned sections of 99 public streets. Total cost of the reimbursements: $5,155.50. Cost of legal advice: Unknown.

The mayor invoked the failure of previous administrations to repair the Pine Lake dam as the reason why the structure failed two winters ago. He hinted at the existence of a report urging immediate repairs which had been ignored. Questioned about why the current administration hasn’t moved to replace the dam, Prévost told residents it’s a matter of priorities — and there are plenty more important.

Villandré served as both DG and treasurer for most of her 34-year career under mayors Bradbury, Elliott (twice), Shaar and Corker. She was released from prison in October after having served six months of a 30-month prison term for defrauding the town of in excess of $1M over a seven-year period. The Crown didn’t seek restitution due to Villandré’s bankruptcy and age, although some on council think the town should try to seize her pension. Villandré, now on parole, is living in the region.

The municipal payroll has expanded to include 128 full and part-time employees. Newest hires to be approved:
– a full-time temporary employee to prepare grant applications;
– a permanent Culture, Tourism and Communications resource;
– a Youth Centre co-ordinator to replace the retiring Donna Brazeau.

Monday’s meeting was the first for Hudson’s new town clerk, lawyer Cassandra Comin Bergonzi. She replaces Vincent Maranda, who left earlier this fall to resume private practise. Meanwhile, the search is on for a treasurer following last month’s abrupt departure of Serge Raymond, Hudson’s fourth treasurer in three years.

 

The Trudeux

What a coincidence. Within the space of 24 hours, the Trudeau Liberals and the Trump Republicans moved to quash the electoral reforms they vowed to enact once elected.

Yesterday was Canada’s turn, with Parliamentary Reform Minister Maryam Moncef crapping on a Commons committee for doing what it was mandated to do. That was to come up with alternatives to the winner-takes-all electoral system that won the Libs the last election.

Today, it was President-elect Donald J. Trump’s turn. His supporters filed legal challenges to stop presidential election recounts in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.

Lawyers for Green Party leader Jill Stein admit there’s no chance the recounts will change the election outcome, which saw Trump take the Electoral College vote even though Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by a significant and growing margin.

“In an election already tainted by suspicion, previously expressed by Donald Trump himself,” Stein said, “verifying the vote is a common-sense procedure that would put all concerns around voter disenfranchisement to rest. Trump’s desperate attempts to silence voter demands for recounts raise a simple question: why is Donald Trump afraid of these recounts?”

The Michigan board split, 2-2, along party lines, meaning the Trump objection failed and the recount will continue. Wisconsin and Pennsylvania have yet to decide.

North of the border, Moncef spent today apologizing to her Commons colleagues. Moncef, on probation for falsifying her right to refugee status,  will pay dearly in the first cabinet shuffle. The Trudeau brand took its second hit in as many days (Kinder Morgan Wednesday, electoral reform Thursday).

Worse, there’s the growing perception that Trudeau is just another opportunistic politician and his vow of electoral reform was electoral bullshit. The same fickle media which was fawning over Canada’s lordling short months ago is listing his broken promises and comparing him with his predecessor.

That’s not the worst of it. Canadians used to nod off when the topic of proportional representation came up. Now they’re wondering why the same people who were howling for electoral reform in Opposition are now trying to tell us it’s a bad idea.

Until this week, I dismissed the R word. Now I’m thinking a referendum on electoral reform is the only way forward.

We thought they were polar opposites, but Trudeau and Trump share certain basic concerns, such as retaining power. My pal Peter nicknames them the Trudeux.