Monday, November 23, 2009

Political Fear of Making Decisions

The term is called "area rating". Most municipalities and regions use area rating as a means of more accurately taxing residents for services received. The most common use of area rating is with transit. As an example, if you live in a rural setting with no transit services whatsoever, you likely pay less taxes than that of your friend who lives in the suburbs close to a transit stop. While not all municipalities adopt area rating as a means to properly balance taxing for services received, it remains a universal application. And to that, the method of delivering area rating predominately sits in a rural/urban split, or variations thereof. Except in Hamilton, Ontario.

When the City of Hamilton was amalgamated with the former Towns of Dundas, Ancaster, Flamborough, Stoney Creek, and Glanbrook almost 10 years ago, the residents of these smaller towns were put in an obvious state of protectionism, not only on their identity but on their fees for services structure that was in place at the time. Due to add insult to injury was the impending reassessment values of homes which tax rates are applied against, as this was expected to take homes previously assessed at a lower rate to see upwards to a reported seven times the value. To illustrate this, a home situated in any of the former Towns essentially went from being valued at $150,000 to $400,000 thereby creating an instant tax rate increase with no changes in services received. While not all homes in the former Towns experienced this increase, what was recognized by the Townsfolk that generally speaking, homes in the former Towns were worth more than the old City of Hamilton. And in their minds, this means that the new City of Hamilton is being heavily subsidized by the richer former Towns. Politicos of the time recognized that this was going to be battle of epic proportions, so they recommended that instead of enacting area rating based on the normal 'tax for services' formula, that they instead enact area rating based on former municipal or Town boundaries.

But it doesn't stop there…further to this "former Towns" vs. "old Hamilton" boundary area rating system, the area rating actually varies by former Town. To see this in action visit and input $300,000 as the home value, then click on the various former Towns to gage the tax variances. While the tax calculator only offers choices of whether one is within a transit system, their also is the imbalance of how Fire services are applied. The best example of this is in Stoney Creek: they pay a single tax rate for Fire Services, but they have 5 Fire Halls…some with Full Time, some with Volunteers, and some with a Composite (a blend of volunteer and full time employees). So if you resided in rural Stoney Creek, you're essentially overpaying for a service because the level of service is not the same as a resident in urban Stoney Creek who has the luxury of Full Time fire fighters available at all times.

So here we are some 10 years later looking through the same broken glasses trying to figure out a way to fix this crazy area rating formula. While local politicians recognize that it needs to be fixed…and should be fixed, they stall out of the gate for fear of upsetting the folks that put them in office. We've seen a number of City staff reports over the past years recommending a review of area rating brought forward on the Council floor…only to be deferred until the next budget year. Now we appear to have some solid options on how to approach and mend the system, but again it would appear that this time (with thanks to the Mayor), the recommendations will be reviewed after the next municipal election.

This resistance to make a decision on area rating is disconcerting at best. Hamilton should be recognized by a literary society for the volumes of chatter that becomes connected with a decision. Sometimes the decision fails to materialize due to the weight of the communication material associated with the issue. This one cannot afford to get lost on the floor, in the sea of paperwork and consultations…just make a decision and move on. If the voters don't like it, then they won't vote you back in…remember, you're not in office to make voters happy – you're there to make Hamilton prosperous (and that will undoubtedly make them happy in the long run).

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Sorting Through the Clutter

It was a comment made at a round table discussion this past Friday hosted by the Heart & Stroke Foundation of Ontario's (HSFO) OCAG. (I will offer advance apologies for not knowing exactly what the initials for OCAG represent exactly, suffice it to say that they are volunteer representatives from across Ontario who meet and provide feedback to HSFO on ways to improve their outreach. My best guess therefore will be that OCAG stands for Ontario Communities Advisory Group.)

HSFO, like most other not-for-profits (NPOs) and charitable organizations are looking at ways to ensure that contributions received are not significantly impacted in a negative way during the current economical climate. While each of us present at the event were there due to our own personal connections with persons with heart disease or who suffered a stroke, the larger element was that we were there not for us, but for others. It's an interesting paradigm (if you'll pardon the 80s term), wherein a group of assembled individuals gathered to not better our own circumstances, but rather to ensure that those not present do not have to endure the anguish and struggles of dealing with coronary disease or symptoms of a stroke. It was through this, that someone at the table where I was seated asked the question, and I'll paraphrase, "How do you sort through all the clutter? How do I prioritize where to give?"

There's a good chance everyone who reads this knows someone, or is someone who has been affected by heart disease or stroke. The same applies to cancer, poverty, and other unfair events to the human race. A key indicator that separates heart and stroke sufferers from most of the others is the altering of one's life in an instant. Often dubbed the 'silent killer', heart attacks and stroke often occur without warning. So the race is on, and in certain circles, we are winning the race towards providing the right education and tools to help those who may be close to, or on their way to, suffering a heart attack or stroke. For those that survive, it's a wake-up call…for those that don't, it becomes one of the saddest moments in a family's life due to the suddenness of the event.

Through the support of donations and volunteers, HSFO has been able to build on the importance of healthy living, as they continue to provide the much needed research funding required to ascertain the appropriate measures to ensure a long and healthy life. One of the largest examples of this focus would be the implementing of Automated External Defibrillators (AEDs) in various public buildings. A young Chase McEachern recognized the need for AEDs in schools and hockey arenas after watching Jiri Fischer of the Detroit Red Wings suffer cardiac arrest during a game against the Nashville Predators. Unfortunately, Chase himself suffered cardiac arrest while at school and passed away a few days later as a result of the event. Through the efforts of HSFO and the support of Chase's family, AEDs have been placed in 70 municipalities and communities across Ontario. More importantly, the result has seen several lives…including one here in Hamilton, being directly saved by the use of an AED.

Interestingly enough, there are two different types of heart disease: coronary or acquired heart disease, and congenital heart disease. The first develops over time in a person's body either due to lifestyle or genetics. The latter develops either in utero or shortly after birth, and affects approximately 1 in 120 births. As medical expertise advances, continued research and development is required not only to minimize the invasive corrective surgeries of young children and adults, but to also recognize the specialized care of those who survive open heart surgeries. Regardless of which type of heart disease one is affected by, or the level of a suffered stroke – the first goal is to return to a normalized lifestyle. The second is to know not only that ongoing care and treatment is required to maintain that lifestyle, but also what type of care is required.

In the end, it's not easy sorting through the clutter. It comes down to what's important to you and your family. If you can't give your money, look at giving some time…someone, or even yourself might enjoy a longer life as a result of your support.

To look at options available to you, visit for more information.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Changing Spending Ways

If you live in Ontario, starting July 1, 2010 you'll start paying a blended 'value-added' tax of 13% on most of your purchases. This blended rate includes the current 5% Goods and Services Tax (GST) and the 8% Provincial Retail Sales Tax (PST). The Liberal Government who introduced this nefarious concept did so on the premise that it was going to make Ontario businesses more competitive in the global environment.

Currently they are completing the standard 'dog & pony' show to various communities, business groups and the like on the positives of this new tax. It's also given them an opportunity to scale the presentation to the audience by making reference to some of the exceptions available. (In Hamilton, home of the original Tim Horton's, it was stated that your morning coffee would be exempt…all hail the great and mighty savings.) Within the various presentations are facts raised that Ontario is about to enter one of its worst debts in history, and short of making cuts to services, the Government is in desperate need to raise revenue through new venues. Introducing the HST as a boon for businesses becomes the perfect smoke for the mirror.

Adding insult to injury is that the HST will apply to basically the same items as what the GST covered…which means we are now going to be paying an additional 8% on services normally received today where we pay only 5%. Apparently the Government hasn't figured it out yet: that there is a limited amount of dollars to be spent, and if the cost of that product or service increases, then the consumer will change their spending ways. I've made a list of some of the changes I'm looking at doing to preserve my limited income:

  • Newspaper subscription
    • I pay monthly for this, and therefore not exempt. The exemption applies at the point of sale.
      • Therefore, I will be cancelling my newspaper subscription.
  • Cable TV
    • This is a tricky one as I have more TVs in my house then I do people. I am working on doing a cost analysis on what my current plan is, versus other options. Certainly a change in viewing habits will be forthcoming.
  • Home Phone
    • I've begun to think why I have this anymore. Certainly with the ease and accessibility of cell phones, and knowing that both bills are going to be hit with an 8% increase, one of them is going to have to go.
      • Say goodbye to the Home Phone
  • Hydro
    • This is a double hit for most of us. As of January 2010, all Ontario homes will be charged based on time of use, thanks to the Smart Meters that were installed recently. It's going to be back to basics baby, cooking outdoors, hanging clothes to dry, extra blankets and sweaters in the winter…I think you get the idea.
  • Dining Out
    • This has to be the most asinine exemption put on the table. The Liberals actually think that I'd be okay with purchases under $4 as being tax exempt? Consider this; if I'm going out with a buddy for a quick burger, we're now going to be paying separately. And, if we both pay by debit, we've just cost the restaurant between $0.12 and $0.30 in debit charges the restaurant owner will have to pay to his bank.
  • Fuel
    • The only way I can get around this one is to become more transit-friendly. For me, that means more business in another city, as their transit system better suits my needs.

I am sure I am not the only one who will change spending ways, and based on the above samples, I fail to understand how those businesses affected by my changes in spending ways will be pleased with this new taxing system. Every company associated with the aforementioned will see a decline in sales (albeit, maybe only mine). There are of course other negative impacts of the new HST, but I wanted to highlight the ones that have a daily impact in my life. At the end of the day, I have no appetite for doling out more taxes to the government and seeing nothing new in return. This is a sham, plain and simple.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Setting the Bar Too High

By now the news of the 2015 Pan American Games being awarded to Toronto and the Golden Horseshoe, or Southern Ontario, or some other variant geographical winning location name. Part of Hamilton's contribution will be added event locations including a government-backed/financed 15,000 seat stadium, a swimming pool at McMaster, and a velodrome. Adding to Hamilton's wish or needs list, is that the current 30,000 seat Ivor Wynne Stadium, home of the Canadian Football League Hamilton Tiger-Cats, is in dire need of replacement.

With that, Hamilton's leaders of perennial prognosticators of pugilistic participants are seeking to take the 15,000 seat gift tand double its size through private support most likely in corporate sponsor dollars towards the larger stadium. If there is a shortfall of required additional dollars required to build the larger than required stadium (for the Pan American games), then funds will be garnered through the tax assessment. Hardly something which taxpayers are supportive of.

To determine whether a 15,000 or a 30,000 seat stadium is the best fit, we must first look at the numbers:

Originally known as the Civic Stadium, it was constructed for the 1930 British Empire Games (now called the Commonwealth Games), Ivor Wynne has certainly enjoyed many years of athletic events. Throw in a few concerts, which caused much disdain from residents living close by, and you've got one heck of a facility…or at least it was. The 2007 Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro saw close to 90,000 attend the opening ceremonies at the Maracana Stadium. While Hamilton will not be involved in any of the pomp and ceremony, the proposed stadium is planned to be used for the "Athletics" components of the competitions. Back in '07 Athletic competitions were held in two stadiums, the 60,000 seat Estadio Olimpico Joao Hevelange and the spacious Flamengo Park. When the Games were hosted in Winnipeg in 1999, attendance for all events hovered around the 500,000 mark for about 330 events, plus the opening and closing ceremonies. Given the history of the Games, it would appear that a 15,000 seat stadium is more than appropriate for Hamilton's participation in the Games.

What is sure to become the major tenant before and after the Games, is the CFL TiCats. Oddly enough, they're looking for the extra seats, which based on their historical trends, leans somewhat inappropriately too far out of a realistic reach. In 2008, the Kitty Litter attracted an average of 20,785; a decrease of 10.4% from 2007. This decline saw the stadium void of fans by the tune of 29.8% per game. Hamilton is a City in desperate need of adding value to the product it fields during the CFL season; certainly leaving the stadium one-third empty leads one to believe that there is little to no value in rushing out to buy a ticket to a game. 2009 attendance numbers fair no different, with only a slight increase in attendance (and one could go further to argue the actual numbers, as announced attendance seldom reflects those present in the stands).

Hamilton would do well to build a 15,000 seat stadium, with the capability to expand or add seats as required depending on the game or event. One only needs to look at the success of the Montreal Alouettes who moved from the spacious Olympic Stadium to the cramped confines of the 16,600-seat McGill University. The end result saw the Als play for a sold-out game every time. This equated to higher valued tickets and product…meaning more revenue for the team. You can rest assured that no one is giving away tickets for free in Montreal. In other words: why expand your inventory and dilute the value, when you can reduce your inventory and increase your value? From a business case scenario, this makes complete sense. Other sports franchises have toyed with this concept with consistent results; they create the demand to warrant a higher capacity facility while capitalizing on increased revenue growth due to high demand.

Manage the expectations, and the rest will take care of itself. Set the expectations too high, and you leave yourself vulnerable to criticisms which distract from any successes attained over time.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Finding the right University – From a First Time Experience

I've reached that time in my life where I'm finding myself helping my daughter choose a university to continue her education and pursue her love for the sciences. The lists of universities that we are reviewing in no particular order are: University of Waterloo, University of Western Ontario, University of Guelph, University of Ontario Institute of Technology, Nipissing University, McMaster University, University of Alberta, and the University of British Columbia. We are about half-way through either touring the faculties or attending showcase events hosted by a university, and wanted to share some observations.

  • So far I'm surprised that more effort is not put into creating a "wow" factor for perspective students. Each of the presentations thus far has been unfortunately 'canned' in both delivery and style. Considering the progression of technology, I'm continually amazed at the continued habit of presenters simply reading from the PowerPoint slides shown on the screen. I will give high marks however to UOIT who used 3D technology in their introductory video, but then lapsed back into reading from the slides later on. There is something to be said about 'knowing your audience', and I can't help but wonder if the universities actually get it. Assembled before them on the day of the tour or event, are students who have made concessions to visit either the university or event location with genuine interest in possibly attending that location – more effort should be made to make them feel like they should choose one over the other.
  • Just what is the value of University Rankings? It appears that every university and college ranks tops, in the top ten, the best in, etc., on someone's list, but I'm unsure of the value of this ranking. I've met professors who went to 'x' university, but teach at 'y' university…and want my daughter to attend 'y' university. If 'x' university was good enough for them, why shouldn't my daughter go there instead? Perhaps what universities should focus on is the 'weight' of their degrees, and what added value is included in the teachings to reach said degree. Is a B.Sc. from McMaster regarded differently than one from Nipissing?
  • While the Internet holds a plethora of information on each university/college, it's surprising how many responses to questions asked at tours/events were "just visit our website for more information." No one was guiltier of this than UBC, who pretty much answered every question with "check our website". Which considering that they were in Toronto with potential applicants, if their intent was to drive traffic to their website, they should have at least had terminals present to walk the applicants through to ensure they were able to get the answers required. Questions are being asked with the intent to solicit a response…not to be brushed aside.
  • Referring to the first point of knowing the audience, I would expect that if those in attendance are not from the city that the university/college was located, that more time would be spent on life outside of the classroom. UWO did a wonderful job in this category, spending more time on the social aspects of attending university then on the classrooms. While the purpose of attending a university/college is to gain knowledge, the time spent in the classroom pales in comparison to the time spent in social circles…especially for a student who will be living in residence. A student who doesn't feel comfortable attending a particular location, is not going to enjoy their time…and this could affect their ability to succeed later on.

Here is our ranking of the universities of interest before our tours:

  1. UBC
  2. UOIT*
  3. UofA*
  4. UofW
  5. UofG*
  6. UWO
  7. NU*
  8. MAC**

And after visiting half of these:

  1. UWO
  2. UofG*
  3. UofA*
  4. UBC
  5. UOIT*
  6. UofW
  7. NU*
  8. MAC**

* - signifies that we have not toured or attended a specific event for this location, so this order will definitely change once this has been completed.

** - Because we live in Hamilton, McMaster has automatically been relegated to the bottom of the list, as my daughter has it in her mind that she wishes to attend university somewhere else other than the city she resides…if only just to enjoy the residence experience.

The intent will be to whittle the application list down to five. I'll leave it up to my daughter to decide which location she'll attend based on the anticipated letters of acceptance.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

What Hamilton Means to Me

When I moved to Hamilton Ontario from London Ontario, I was unsure of what to expect. Living in London was your basic WASP environment, with a clear distinction of the upper and lower classes eloquently stated through the famed geographical EOA tagline. EOA stood for "East of Adelaide". Adelaide is the north/south street which became the marker for dividing the haves from the have-nots. While there is no definitive historical event, or hard-set data which dictates the EOA status, there certainly is an impression that there are more single-parent homes and social housing residents in EOA than any other area in London. Clearly, this is London's version of the "wrong side of the tracks", and I was a product of living in EOA. Our large family (8 kids) were raised in the most eastern neighbourhood (at the time…there is now a whole new set of subdivisions east of where I grew up…they hated the EOA tag so much, they adopted the "west of 100" tag to distance themselves from the poorer residences of EOA).

Hamilton has some similarities to London; spare the London only EOA tag…Hamilton carries its customary 'North-end' or 'East-end' tags, depending on who you speak to as to where the bad-ass part of town is. For my part, choosing where to live in Hamilton became solely reliant on a work associates recommendation of "Don't live below the mountain." So we embarked on finding a place on the mountain…which for clarity is the top of the Niagara Escarpment. In hindsight, we should have looked more closely. While I won't argue that the 'lower' city has its challenges, it does have something that the 'mountain' doesn't: community identity. Through no fault of its own, neighbourhoods built on the mountain were constructed primarily for commuters. Through growth commencing some 40-50 years ago, it's relatively young by comparison to the lower city, and as such lacks the cohesiveness garnered from long-standing families who were able to pass their home on to their children. While there are some active neighbourhoods on the mountain, the numbers pale in comparison to those in the lower city, despite the higher population on the mountain.

It's been 13 years since the decision was made to move to Hamilton, and I'd have to say that the decision to stay was made within 6 months of arriving here. Hamilton's proximity to Toronto, Niagara Falls, and London makes any trip manageable within an hour's drive. The fact that Hamilton is home to a number of waterfalls is something that continues to amaze family and friends still trapped in flat London. I'm not going to say how many waterfalls there are here, as the number seems to vary depending on the source. Sufficed to say, I'd recommend that you check out to get a good idea of how many waterfalls there really are. Whenever family or friends pay a visit, I make sure I spend a good couple of hours giving them the tour of some of the key sightlines of Hamilton, including those smokestacks which are a part of Hamilton's heritage.

Hamilton is poised to be something greater than it currently is, and through some innovative concepts, could actually become an envied City. In a little less than a year from now, residents will be heading to the polls to elect their municipal leaders. There remains some angst on whether the current leadership has not only the vision, but the fortitude to implement the change required to move Hamilton from 'potential' to a 'potent' community. It is often said of any community that the voter only cares about the issues that impact them directly (road needs paving, sidewalk is cracked, etc.). And, it's often said of any community that the incumbent politician only cares about the boundaries in which they represent. And, it's often said of any community that the current politician holding office is re-elected more often than not, regardless of their ability to be a true community leader.

While Hamilton certainly does have these obstacles before them, they also have some true visionaries who are working with city staff and politicians on what can and needs to be done to move Hamilton forward. One of the largest obstacles that may impede any progress would be the tax rate. Not unlike any other municipality, the economy has sapped resources while increasing the strain on the social services and programs – cuts to both are unavoidable, we'd be foolish to expect anything less. I'm looking forward to the coming years, but will steal a phrase from Albert Einstein who quipped, "If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always gotten."

In keeping with the current flu-isms: The challenge now will be to see if we can look past ails us, in order to administer the vaccine required to provide future protection should we encounter another viral economical downturn.