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"Ever wonder if City Council is as contentious and chaotic as it is sometimes portrayed? Here you can get a progressive perspective on some of the issues from someone who spent four years in the trenches. Totally unbiased, though! Feel free to comment but keep it respectful, just like they do at council."

Monday, July 16, 2012

Long week coming

It may be summer with a more relaxed schedule but for a few city politicians, it will be a busy week. After a fortnight without meetings, most of the standing committees will be meeting this week, and one of them is set for two days of public participation meetings. The Investment and Economic Prosperity Committee (IEPC) has set aside Wednesday and Thursday to receive more submissions from groups and individuals on how to put Londoners back to work and there’s no shortage of ideas.

Before that, though, there are other standing committees with their own agendas.

First up is the Finance and Administrative Services Committee. It’s only in the last few weeks that I realized that the name had been changed in last fall’s overhaul of committees. It has added the word “services” to its title, making it the FAS committee rather than FAC, which is what I had been using.

This week, FAS has a somewhat longer than usual agenda, although many of the items can be dealt with rather quickly—tenders, routine appointments, receipt of correspondence. There are some items of interest among these, however. One is the recommendation to send out a request for expressions of interest in the repurposing of the old Normal School in Wortley Village

The city is interested in retaining the green space for the community but doesn’t have the money to retrofit and use the heritage building despite the millions of dollars poured into it by the province. So it is looking to the community to bring forward proposals that would retain the building as a community resource rather than offering it to the private sector. The province has already informed the city that if the city takes ownership of the property, it cannot be resold for speculation, at least not for the next 20 years.

It’s a great property in a fabulous location and there will undoubtedly be many community groups interested in it. But who can afford it? While there are a few affluent nonprofits, most operate on a shoestring, a precarious one at that, composed of uncertain grants and funding programs, as well as private donations and proceeds from bake sales and silent auctions. It’s hard to generate the confidence of landlords, public or private, under those conditions. And although work has been done on the exterior of the building, it will require a significant amount of interior retrofitting which will not be cheap.

Also on the FAS agenda is a report from the Governance Working Group. It recommends implementing an increase in the council members’ expense accounts from $8,500 to $15,000. No sign of a freeze here! As well, there is a request to increase the number of hours of administrative support for each councillor to 30 hours per week, as soon as possible. That would be a fivefold increase over what was available to members of the previous council. Strange that this job creation program was not vetted through the IEPC.

The mayor has teamed up with one of his fan club to write a letter of concern to the federal government. Neither Joe Fontana nor Councillor Sandy White is happy about the changes that the federal government has introduced to the rules governing government insured residential mortgages. Concerned about an overheated housing market and growing household debt, the government has reduced the amortization period from 30 to 25 years, limited remortgaging to 80% of the value of the home, and gotten out of guaranteeing mortgages for properties over $1M. Which of these limits Fontana and White are most concerned about is hard to say but they are convinced that it will mean a 5% drop in sales of homes as some would-be buyers no longer qualify. Personally, I applaud the changes. Encouraging people to pay more by extending the payback period has never struck me as a good idea, nor does spending beyond one’s means. That’s not a national housing strategy. Nor is generating assessment growth that people can’t afford the way to build a city.

Later in the afternoon, the Planning and Environment Committee (PEC) kicks off its meeting with a staff report on what’s happening with the Fincore proposal for the Victoria Hospital lands in SoHo. It seems the deal will not go forward as quickly as some on the IEOC had originally wanted, with shovels in the ground in September. Fincore does not actually own the land for which it has made its application and there are processes to be followed. In fact, the application is still being reviewed for completeness in accordance with city policies. Between the issue of the status of the hospital lands redevelopment master plan and the land ownership matters, it will be sometime before shovels hit the dirt. Fincore has yet to find a purchaser for the retirement home it recently built in Lucan and is planning to build another on a property in Middlesex Centre, so it will have plenty to keep it busy.

Overall the PEC agenda seems not that long, only 13 items. Nevertheless, it is hard to gauge how long this meeting is likely to take especially with the mayor back from his trip to the Ukraine and certain to attend.. And there are recommendations by staff to refuse a couple of applications. That’s waving a red flag before this committee which has rarely seen a proposal it didn’t love.

There is also a recommendation to increase the fees forbuilding permits which are used to cover the cost of inspection fees to ensure compliance with the building code. There is often a considerable time lag between the point at which the fees are collected and when the inspections are actually done. You need to make sure that you have enough staff to do the inspections in a timely fashion. This is particularly critical when there a significant fluctuation in building activity. That’s why you put the fees collected in a reserve against the time when the money is needed. But it seems there has been a shortfall in London, and the reserves have dipped to less than 30% of the overall annual cost of enforcing the Building Code. So it seems it is time to increase the fees and that requires a public meeting. Staff is recommending a 20% increase effective November 1, 2012. That should result in some objections from the development industry although the increase is the first in seven years.

That’s it for Monday. The next day, the Civic Works Committee and the Public Safety Committee both meet at 4 p.m. There shouldn’t be much overlap since the latter has only to receive a report, no decisions to be made on anything. Later that evening the Community Services Committee will have a short agenda, as usual. And then, two days of IEPC.

It will be a long week.


Anonymous said...

I am a resident of SOHO and am glad to see that there are brakes in place on the Fincor project. This whole concept needs a lot more thought.

Ralph Topp

Anonymous said...


Interesting picture.

Shiller said...

Our Mayor is "heroically" fighting 8%-9% unemployment caused in no small part by the sub-prime crisis in the U.S. That crisis was fueled by giving people mortgage terms that were not sustainable long term and leveraging too much of house equity; over 100% in some cases.

We did better than many countries due to more conservative banking rules. And now he's complaining about conservatism measures to reign in what is acknowledged to be our own housing bubble? (particularly in some of our major cities)

Sigh. Par for the course......

Anonymous said...

Shiller, our mayor is just echoing what the homebuilders and developers want. They really don't care if people are leveraged to the hilt as long as they sell their product. And if they can get the Mayor to help them, well, it just tells you who runs this town.

Lily Tomlin said...

How lucky can London get? In the south-east we have deep thinker/cheer leader S. White and up in the north end of town... er, sorry, just north of the city we have the Arva sage.

And cynics say, "where are the new ideas coming from?"

Anonymous said...

Am I the only one who has trouble remembering those council acronyms? I'd like to suggest (no, beg) Gina provide a handy glossary of council committees and their initial-only names, maybe over by the handy RESOURCES list.

Gina Barber said...

I have problems with the acronyms too but also get tired of writing the committee names over and over again. Maybe I should create some macros to do that quickly for me!

Anonymous said...

Don't want you to have to write out the names every time, but it would be great to have a reference list, elsewhere on the page, of the committee names and their acronyms.

Sandy Levin said...

The Urban League has prepared a guide to city hall which might help with the names and duties of the various committees. The guide (which has lots of other information about city hall, too), can be found at http://ul.london.on.ca/urbanweb/News/News%202012/Guide%20to%20City%20Hall%20Revised%20Nov%202011.pdf

Gina Barber said...

In my defense, I do clarify the acronym the first time I use it in a post, but I agree that going back and forth and trying to locate it is a nuisance.