Saturday, 28 December 2013

Canadian Corruption Versus The World

Good afternoon Regina!!

Taking a bit of a holiday break from the "Dirty Little Secrets" series, but still on the same general topic: How does Canada compare to the rest of the developed world when it comes to Corruption? If you read this media report, it sounds as though we aren't all that bad. However, if you dig deeper into things, and start to actually investigate matters, you will quickly find that our elected officials are not necessarily as clean as the mainstream media would lead you to believe.

I submit to you the following excerpt from this very same media report:

In other words, it's not so much that our politicians are less corrupt than those of the rest of the developed world, it could very well be that we have a far too lenient enforcement system in Canada, which fails to investigate serious concerns raised by taxpayers. Take, for instance, the fact that the City of Regina does not currently employ an independent City Auditor. In fact, it doesn't even appear that this is a legislated requirement of Saskatchewan Municipalities, as in other provinces. Please note there is a significant difference between "Audited Financial Statements", and an "Independent Auditor/Audit Committee". Audited Financial Statements are just that, Financial Statements that materially reflect the financial position of a City. An Independent Auditor would be more of a government watchdog supervising the day-to-day activities of City Council and City Administration, to ensure there is no fraudulent activity happening. I can assure you - If we did have an Independent Auditor, similar to how the provincial government does, then you might see things reported in the media in a very different light.

The unfortunate thing is that mainstream media outlets in Regina typically only investigate issues that get ratings, and what brings in advertising revenue. And, when you have an organization, such as the City of Regina, that is probably one of the largest contributors to local media advertising revenues, you quickly realize why those same outlets will be sensitive to investigating and reporting on any issues that may paint the City in a negative light. This concern has been brought up by many reputable journalists, all of whom have since moved on to other cities or organizations, out of frustration of the way the Regina media handles these kinds of issues. And, until there is an independent authority legislated to report these kinds of issues to the media, sadly these issues will continue to be swept under the rug. 

What can you do, as a taxpaying citizen of Regina? Contact the Provincial Government, Municipal Reltations Department, and explain to them that you want your elected City officials (and non-elected senior management) to be held accountable for how they spend your hard earned tax dollars. Demand that they review the Cities Act in order to modernize it, so that an Independent Authority is required by law for Municipal Governments. As it sits right now, the only way to hold your elected City Officials accountable is to vote every four years, or get a "sufficient petition" to force an audit or inquiry. I don't know about you, but to me, this is a very dangerous situation that allows Corruption and Collusion to go largely unchecked. At no other level of government, do you have such total authority provided to such a small group of people. What's worse, is there is currently no way for you and I, the taxpaying citizens, to ensure our tax dollars are being spent wisely and ethically, without going through many, many hoops.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Loss of Independence at City Hall

Good morning Regina!!

Well, as expected, Regina City Council voted last night, unanimously, to subvert democracy even further, and have appointed Mr. Jim Nicol (below) to the position of City Clerk, upon resignation of Ms. Joni Swidnicki. It is unclear as to whether this will be a demotion for Mr. Nicol, or if he will be holding both roles as City Clerk and the one he currently holds, effectively collecting two salaries for one job. Ironically, he would be his own boss if this is the case. Yes, even more of your valuable tax dollars wasted in an already ineffective Senior City Administraiton at City Hall.

UPDATE: The Leader Post did a lovely PR Piece for the City today, where I am actually quite surprised that they quoted Mr. Nicol as stating something that is completely contradictory to what Mayor Fougere had been trying to emphasize for months.
That's right, folks. During the WWTP Referendum, the mayor went out of his way to stress to taxpayers just how "independent" the City Clerk was from City Council, to validate her decisions on invalidating signatures on the petition. But, Mr. Nicol wipes all that out with one statement to the local rag. ONLY IN REGINA!!

Here's his mug shot, you might want to remember this face - you'll be seeing it a lot in the Courts over the next few months!

And, again not surprisingly, they voted unanimously to give their best friend, Mr. John Hopkins, another questionable tax break. The Regina Trades and Skills Centre, with Mr. Hopkins at the helm, subverted the City's own policy of applying for tax breaks through the Regina Regional Opportunities Commission, and received another five year, 100% property tax exemption for their surface parking lot. When will these favours for friends of City Hall stop? Sadly, only when the Federal Courts intervene, it seems.

At least we know, now, why the Regina Chamber of Commerce would go against their own mandate of representing business interests, and participating so heavily in the "Vote No" campaign. Favours for favours? Seems to be the order of business in Regina!

Below is a copy of my delegation from last night, regarding the appointment of Mr. Nicol. Note that not a single one of my concerns were addressed.

Good evening Members of City Council and Senior Administration,

My name is Chad Novak, and I am here today representing myself, a devoted taxpaying citizen of the City of Regina. I am here to address the recommendation before you today, regarding the appointment of Mr. Jim Nicol as the City Clerk.

I would like to open tonight by extending my sincere gratitude and appreciation to Ms. Joni Swidnicki, who has done an amazing job of City Clerk over the past number of years, and I know I don’t just speak for myself when I say that she will truly be missed in these chambers. It is because of her dedication and hard work that I have learned a lot about how our municipality functions and I have found her to be very personable and friendly, even when I’ve called her to account on a few occasions. I am confident that she is not leaving particularly because she wants to, and I can only hope that she is appreciated as much back in Manitoba as she was here.

Now, speaking directly to the recommendation before you tonight – a surprise recommendation to the public I might add – that being the appointment of Mr. Jim Nicol to the position of City Clerk. I find it so very unfortunate, and yet not surprising, that this appointment has been discussed behind closed doors for the past few weeks. I note that Ms. Swidnicki’s notice was provided to you on November 12, 2013, and it was discussed in a PRIVATE session on December 4, 2013. I have several concerns about this process, the least of which is how this has been kept from the public eye until a Friday afternoon, as is traditionally expected in the media world for news that one wants to be “lost in the hustle and bustle” of the weekend ahead. I find it truly disturbing that this has been kept from the public eye for so long, especially considering the questionable actions that came from the City Clerk’s office during the WWTP Referendum, and in light of the current Federal Court proceedings that speak directly about the City Clerk and her activity with the recent Referendum. I should note this information is 100% publicly available, so I would hope you won’t censor me from mentioning this as the public should be aware of this action.

It is my hope that there will be some answers provided this evening in regards to the many questions that have come across my mind, only a few of which I will speak about this evening. The first is how are we, the voting public, to be assured that the office of the City Clerk will remain independent from the Mayor’s office, when Mr. Nicol is currently on the Executive Leadership Team, which consists of Senior Administrators, and works hand in hand with those around the Mayor’s office? Secondly, why do you feel it is appropriate to simply appoint an individual, let alone from a higher-level, into this position - rather than putting out a competition to get the best qualified candidate? Thirdly, why are you not “promoting from within”, as I note there are a number of individuals that have assisted Ms. Swidnicki in her duties over the past number of years. Will Mr. Nicol be demoted into this position, or is he to receive his current salary plus that of the City Clerk’s $140,000? In regards to Mr. Nicol’s “fine” performance, could you provide the taxpayers with documentation to back this up? I know I, personally, have not seen anything that would demonstrate this, and in fact, I feel that he has taken his authority and “rapport” to some pretty extreme lengths, that I think a reasonable person would certainly find questionable.

Finally this evening, I would like to note that I feel it would be in everyone’s best interest to have a City Clerk who may not have such a “strong rapport” with Council and Administration, as that position best suits taxpayer needs when they remain independent, as has even been stressed by the Mayor during the recent referendum. If you aren’t willing to do this, then perhaps it would be appropriate to hold a competition for an Independent City Auditor as many other municipalities have, and which Regina seems to have been without for a number of years.

Thank you for your time, and I will now welcome any questions you may have.

Friday, 13 December 2013

BREAKING: City Clerk Resigns


UPDATE: Congratulations go out to the CBC for being the FIRST of the "mainstream" media outlets to report on this. Certainly more information than I thought would be revealed, and looking forward to even more!

The City Clerk of the City of Regina, Joni Swidnicki, has submitted her resignation. Details are few and far between at the moment, but suffice it to say, this is something that we have all been watching very closely, and have been wondering if her conscience would get the better of her. We believe Ms. Swidnicki is an upstanding individual, and she has done a damn good job of doing what she does. But, when you face constant attacks and pressure from Senior Executives, there is only so much one can take before you call it a day.

The City Clerk's Office confirms that she has in fact resigned - or "retired" (after they already used the term resigned) - and the City Council Agenda for Monday notes that City Council wants to appoint Mr. Jim Nicol as City Clerk. It is unclear if this is a temporary measure, or a long-term one, but we do plan on getting more information on this and sharing it with you as the story develops.

All I have to say is I hope to hell she didn't sign a confidentiality agreement and is willing to talk and stand up in a Court of Law when her former managers are charged for Conspiracy to Commit Fraud, amongst other charges.

This is the only information that has been published on this matter, buried inside the City Council Agenda for Monday:

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Tax Breaks for the Rich - The Streets for the Poor?

Good evening Regina!!

First off, I would like to congratulate the rest of Regina's media outlets for finally catching up on a story we brought you right here first. It would appear that the Leader Post has finally put a story together about an expected Property Tax Increase for 2014. We here at the Saskatchewan Taxpayers Advocacy Group broke this story nearly a month ago! On a side note, it would appear City Council still doesn't care about the poor or anyone that truly needs affordable accomodations.

Now onto the big story of the evening. Property Tax Breaks. Who should get them? Who shouldn't? What criteria should be used to decide who gets them? Why does it seem it's always big business getting the breaks, and never the people that could really use a break? Why is it okay for the City of Regina to continue to ignore the plight of the common man/woman while they pad their own and their friends' pocketbooks with our money?

On Monday, Regina City Council will vote on whether or not to allow the Regina Trades and Skills Centre a 100% Property Tax Exemption for a full five years. Now, on the surface, this would seem like a great idea! And, well, it is. IF it was applied equally and farily to all. Unfortunately, this does not seem the case.

I certainly plan to address City Council on this issue on Monday, and have submitted my delegation today. I haven't heard back, so that's a good sign that they won't be editing my speech!! Oh, I guess I forgot to mention that the Chair of the Board for the Regina Trades and Skills Centre is none other than Mr. John Hopkins, the CEO for the Regina Chamber of Commerce (who happened to expend a lot of "their" own money - members money - on their own version of the Vote No campaign during the WWTP Referendum). I guess you could suggest this is the return of that favour?

Here you go, exclusively for you dedicated readers: (Don't worry, City Council and Regina Chamber CEO/Regina Trades and Skills Centre Board Chair John Hopkins get a sneak peak at this anyways - so they can prepare their canned answers or speeches for Monday to debunk anything I say)

Good evening Members of City Council and Senior Administration,

My name is Chad Novak, and I am here today representing the Saskatchewan Taxpayers Advocacy Group, a truly grassroots group of individuals from Saskatchewan that are pushing for Accountability and Transparency from their municipal governments. You can find more information about our goals on our website I am here to address the recommendation before you today, regarding the requested Five Year Property Tax Exemption for the Regina Trades and Skills Centre.

First off, I would like to say that we are very much in support of providing financial assistance to any agency or non-profit that is able to provide a valuable community resource that contributes to our overall social well-being. Without agencies like this, we are confident that companies would have a much harder time finding the skilled labour they require to answer to the demand that has been created over the past few years. However, we do have some serious concerns regarding the fair and equitable treatment of similar organizations, and we think that we can all agree that the goal of property tax exemptions help reduce the financial burden on these kinds of organizations. With that said, I have found through my research that the City of Regina, through the former Regina Regional Economic Development Agency, has an established policy that is used to ensure that all such agencies, non-profits and businesses alike, do get the same fair and equitable treatment, in order to maintain a level playing field for all. 

I would like to note that we have a few concerns regarding this application, specifically, and it is my hope that these concerns can be addressed to the taxpaying citizens of Regina, before any final approval is given. I should note, that it is not clear in the application as to what factors were actually considered when providing the previous tax exemption, and what factors are being considered for the current tax exemption request.

My first concern is that of financial necessity. I am quite confident that most non-profits only continue to exist with as much community support as possible, and without that support, it would be near impossible for them to provide the social benefits that they offer. I note that the RTSC receives a substantial amount of financial assistance from various levels of government funding already, and this would lead me to wonder, would they have a hard time providing the training that they do, without this requested Property Tax Exemption? Without seeing the Financials that are noted as being included in their letter, it is very difficult for the general public to determine just how essential this requested tax break is to their continued existence. 

Secondly, the policy that is outlined on the Regina Regional Opportunities Commission website, specifically states that they are to be the first point of contact for any Property Tax Exemption requests, and they are to evaluate each request based on a variety of pre-determined criteria. I note that this request, along with the previous request from 2011, were not sent to RROC, but directly to your tax assessor, Don Barr, and to the Finance and Administration Committee respectively. In this policy, it specifically states that the RROC would handle requests all the way through to putting a recommendation through to City Council. I could see this as a mere oversight for an average taxpayer, but given the close relationship of the RTSC and the City of Regina, one would reasonably expect this protocol to be very well known, and thus raises some questions as to the fairness of these requests. If, in fact, these requests did go through the RROC, then certainly you shouldn’t have a problem with providing this information to the general public, including how the RTSC placed on the evaluation matrix, which determines just how much of a tax exemption an organization would get, and for how long. Not knowing much more about the RTSC than what’s in the report and other publications, I did a quick calculation, and it would seem they score pretty low on the matrix, and at best would be eligible for a 2 year, 25% Property Tax Exemption.

Thirdly, I may have missed it in my research, but it does not appear that the RTSC actually applied for a renewed Property Tax Exemption when they relocated to their new facility. Pardon my ignorance, but I would expect that a Property Tax Exemption be renewed/reapplied for to the new property, with a different assessment.

Through my research, I did find it quite interesting that Saskatchewan is the only province that actually provides their municipalities with the authority to grant tax exemptions on a case by case basis. To its credit, this does allow municipalities to set up their own guidelines in order to – in theory – attract more business investment by offering further incentives to set up shop. Through this same research, however, I also found that we already are extremely competitive – tax wise – even before any Property Tax Exemption. One certainly has to wonder if this is even a needed incentive to bring business investment into our currently booming economy. 

We continue to hear about how there is only so much money that City Hall has to go around, and it would seem that you would want to maximize every tax dollar you have access to. With that said, would it not be in the taxpayers best interest to keep a very close eye on what Property Tax Exemptions are provided, and ensure that the original request qualifications continue through their given exemption break? We saw what can happen when you don’t monitor this, in the recent situation surrounding the District Brewing Company pretty much reconstructing an entire building that was previously exempted. Unfortunately, the tax exemption was only caught very late in the process, when they applied for a permit. This is a real concern, and leads one to wonder how many tax dollars are being “left on the table” with these exemptions going unmonitored?

Finally, specifically to the parking lot in the application today, I note that typically Land Ownership is a requirement nationwide in order to get a tax exemption. It’s even noted in the report before you today, but I don’t see an explanation as to why the land owner hasn’t applied for this, and then passed on those savings to the RTSC? I apologize if I missed it in my review.

Thank you for your time, and I will now welcome any questions you may have.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

City Hall Has Blood On Its Hands...

Good evening Regina,

UPDATE: According to this information, it would appear that, at the bare minimum, there should be an investigation done to determine if the City of Regina, including its Executive Leadership Team, should be held criminally responsible for Gross Negligence causing death.
In what has become an all too common occurence lately, the City of Regina has been found to be lying to the general public, once again. This time, the mainstream media are actually willing to report on it, and ask the tough questions. As you will see in various news reports, Mr. Brent Sjoberg, the Chief Financial Officer for the City of Regina (sadly, also a CMA), stated that "The brakes didn't fail" back on September 9, 2013. However, the Coroner's report suggests otherwise. What's more troubling? This was known as far back as the day of the accident. Meaning the City has known full well that the potential cause of the accident was faulty brakes, and has been lying about this for months.

Mr. Sjoberg is trying to play semantics about the situation, saying it was caused by an accident. Of course it was an "accident", but the CAUSE of the accident was faulty brakes, due to a lacklustre maintenance system. What Mr. Sjoberg suggests is akin to a drunk driver smashing into another car, killing someone, and claiming that it was just an accident, so he shouldn't be held responsible. For Mr. Sjoberg to try to justify this accident by anything other than admitting to criminal negligence leading to this poor woman's death is beyond reproach. What is the reason for the poor maintenance of our Regina Transit system? All signs point to severe underfunding of the Regina Transit system. Apparently, this matter is currently before the courts, and I sincerely hope that the courts hold Mr. Sjoberg, and the Executive Leadership Team, including the Mayor, personally and criminally responsible and negligible in this horrific - preventable - accident. Along with the previous Council and Mayor as well, as it's no secret that Transit has been suffering for many years at the helm of some questionably ethical individuals.

On a related note, it would appear that the City may have blatantly violated the Cities Act when they authorized sole negotiating power to Mr. Sjoberg for the Regina Revitalization Initiative. But - more on that in a future blog post.

Here are some of my initial thoughts after hearing this news today, that I shared on the Prairie Dog story:

I am both disgusted and pleased that this report came out.

Disgusted in that an innocent person was taken from this world far too soon, in a tragic circumstance that could have very easily be prevented.

Disgusted in that the City of Regina played dumb for months, claiming that the investigation was "ongoing" and they knew nothing as to what the possible cause was.

Disgusted in that Mr. Brent Sjoberg, CMA, our Chief Financial Officer - given sole deciding authority over two MAJOR projects in excess of over a half a billion TAX dollars - would dare to try to cover up something that he inevitably HAD to know would come out in the coroner's report.

Disgusted in that this poor family has been battling with the City for months now, just to get treated with respect and dignity.

Disgusted in that the City of Regina is far more concerned about their public image in ensuring we have "ample" buses on the streets - regardless of condition - than the safety of not only those that rely on this mode of transportation day in and day out, but also innocent pedestrians who would never have, in a million years, thought that the simple act of waiting for a bus, would cost them their lives.

Pleased, though, that this scathing report SHOULD finally open the door to the mainstream media finally starting to ask the TOUGH questions of those that are paid to represent our great City. Ask the TOUGH questions, and hold them accountable for their deplorable actions that cost people's livelihoods (affordable housing) and in the worst cases, their lives.

No matter how much you think we need to have a good "public image" to cover your mayor's ass, our safety should come before anything - anything - else!!! PUT OUR MONEY WHERE YOUR MOUTH IS City of Regina, and start giving the Transit Department the money they desperately need and have been asking for, for a long, long time. This is not the fault of the driver, not the fault of the inspectors, this falls squarely on those that choose to continue to funnel dirty money through City Hall to their friend's pocketbooks.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Dirty Little Secrets - Chapter 2

Good afternoon Regina!!

What if I told you that I had the power to increase your income by 300% over just five short years? How about if I told you I could do that for your business? And, best of all, what if I told you that it is 100% legal, at least according to provincial legislation - however highly unethical and socially incomprehensible - because of the way the legislation is written. Depending on your moral background, and how much you valued your fellow human being, this would most certainly be a difficult choice for many.

On one hand, you have the ability to - almost certainly - raise your income astronomically in a relatively short amount of time, with little to no risk based on my knowledge and ability developed from performing this very investment strategy in other communities. On the other, it comes at a severe social cost to your fellow human being, as it puts their livelihoods at risk, and worse yet, forcing many into the unforgiving circumstances that come with being homeless and/or dependent on others just to get their next meal or provide for their children.

This is exactly what has happened right here in Regina in years of late, and the proof is very tangible and easily obtained. All one has to do is look at the price of housing (both in rental and sales) in the last five years, where it has more than doubled in just that short amount of time. In the past, an average increase of 3-4% was to be expected in Regina, but each year in the past five years, it has exploded by as much as 40% from one year to the next. Now, let's see you approach your employer about getting a 40% raise just to cover that sudden increase in housing.

So, what's to blame for the sudden explosion in housing prices in the Regina area? Well, there could be many factors taken into account, but there are few things that have remained consistent in Saskatchewan since 2007. One major factor happened when Saskatchewan voted in the Saskatchewan Party with leader Brad Wall in 2007. Add to that when you have municipal elected officials who are supposed to remain neutral when it comes to Provincial or Federal Politics - but plainly do not - and you have one of the most dangerous political combinations known to man.

So, by now, I'm sure you're saying to yourself, "But, Chad, where is the smoking gun evidence on the criminal behaviour?" To this, I have to say, once again, the way the provincial legislation is written, there technically is nothing blatantly illegal that has gone on over the past number of years - at face value. However, when you consider what happened in Montreal, I'm confident that many readers will be able to put two and two together.

Where does this 300% return get factored in? Well, this is the kicker. This is where a significant portion of the development industry has dug it's teeth into and went full boar, using the experience developed from other municipal "booms". The land. Land values have increased by over 300% in just the past five years. THREE-HUNDRED-PERCENT!!!! Now, who gains from this? The homeowner? Most certainly if you happen to have owned a home before the boom and want to sell during the boom. And, this is perfectly fine and completely legal and ethical and I have no problems with those that were fortunate enough to be in this situation. Keep in mind though that, in theory, there is little true net profit to be realized, since you have to purchase another house in that very boom you just made a whack of money in. Unless you choose to rent in the overpriced market for a few years until the boom dies down.

By now, I'm confident that you're understanding where the major issues are, and that being those individuals that stand to profit from this 300% gain in land value over such a relatively short period of time. Who would that be?
- Anyone in realty, as they earn a percentage of total sale price, which increases with land value.  
- Any landowners who bought solely for the purpose of land speculation, hoping that one day their lands would be worth something, and before the date of sale, they did absolutely zero with the lands, other than perhaps renting it to farmers for use.
- Finally, land developers. There is tremendous opportunity for profit in each of the prior scenarios, and if you have the ability to manipulate the economy in such a way that Premier Brad Wall has, along with his cohort Former Mayor Pat Fiacco (who was given the silver spoon position of CEO of Tourism Saskatchewan), that is where it goes from "Good for you!" to "What won't you do for a quick buck?"

Keep in mind that this practice is not uncommon in other municipalities, and that is the justification you often hear about these boom periods. That is why it is so important for each and every one of you to hold your elected officials accountable for their actions. They count on you not caring enough to vote, or to pay close enough attention to see the deliberate deceptions they employ to keep you distracted from the real issues. They prey on the vulnerable and the weak, as anyone who has had to battle even the threat of homelessness will tell you, they have more important things to focus on - like putting food on the table each and every day.

Tune in next week for the third installment in unveiling the Dirty Little Secrets that surround the Regina City Council and our Elected Officials!

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Regina's Own Oprah Moments

Good morning Regina!!

"YOU get a tax break!" "YOU get a tax break!" and "YOU get a tax break!" - as comical as it sounds, this seems to be the attitude of the City of Regina in years of late. Yesterday, at the Finance and Administration Committee Meeting, this issue was brought up yet again.This does raise some serious questions. Here are but a few:

1) Are they being fairly distributed?

2) What evaluation does the City use to determine which businesses get how much of a tax break?

3) How do we, as a municipality, compare to other centres in Canada? North America?

4) Do we even need tax incentives, such as a multi-year property tax abatement, to entice businesses to locate in Regina?

I will post more about this later, but these are certainly questions that not only should be asked, but deserve to be answered. Given that we are currently in a boom period, we should be minimizing the kinds of incentives we offer, so that only those businesses that are truly able to maximize their community investment in Regina are given the breaks they deserve. We must consider whether or not a property tax break is going to be the deciding factor for multi-million dollar businesses to set up shop in Regina. My gut feeling is absolutely not, and given that we have a City Council and City Administration that continue to complain about "only having limited sources of revenue", a reasonable person would expect that they, too, would want to limit the amount of tax breaks to corporations.

One of the major issues with giving tax breaks to these companies, for-profit or not, is the fact that that lost revenue has to be made up elsewhere. When you consider the average assessment on a commercial building is much higher than a residence, it could take multiple residences just to make up for one corporate tax break provided. And, well, then there is the question of ethics in determining just which businesses/non-profits/etc. get those tax breaks. Are these being fairly distributed to similar organizations, and if not, why not? Are those that are currently provided tax breaks, still deserving of those tax breaks, or could they "survive" without them?

This and more on the next blog post!