Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Speaker’s Corner

Republican Sarah Palin is slated to appear in Hamilton, Ontario to speak on April 15th, 2010. As to what Mrs. Palin will be speaking about is anybody's guess, but the intent of her appearance is to be a fundraiser of sorts. With tickets to attend starting at a gentle $200 a piece, expect Hamilton's finest to attend and most certainly dole out a few extra bucks on silent auction items and sponsorship opportunities.

When it was announced that Palin was coming to Hamilton to speak, and the net proceeds of her appearance were going to the Hamilton Health Sciences and the Juravanski Cancer Centre, there was outcry among some of the citizenry that booking a speaker such as Palin was blasphemy. So the hosts changed the recipient Charity, and now the Palin supporters are crying shame towards the nay-sayers, blaming them for the hosts changing the Charity designate. Talk about a spinning pit of muddy waters.

I have never really been a fan of Canadian idolization of US political figureheads. Granted, Canada hasn't really shone on the World stage when it comes to political leaders. I would harness a guess that Pierre Trudeau was our last real Leader who carried Canada's identity to the World stage. With that said, Palin becomes the second US politician in the past couple of years to speak in Hamilton (Clinton being the other). It's a sad situation when we are unable to invite a prominent Canadian to speak in Hamilton, with the same fervor that Palin has generated.

Palin quit her job as Governor of Alaska for reasons not totally understood. Her Facebook 'Page' has over 1,000,000 fans; but I'm not sure that that is a sound statistic to use to gage one's popularity worldwide. A long-standing resister to Canada's national Health Care, there were more than a few eyebrows raised when it was announced that the proceeds of her appearance would go to the Hamilton Health Sciences, managers of Hamilton's hospitals.

So while we peons of Hamilton's citizenry bemoan the decision to bring Palin to Hamilton in support of a charitable cause, the organizers shouldn't be surprised by the feedback (both positive and negative) of Palin's appearance in Hamilton. After all, they made efforts to bring her here for a reason…it's just that nobody really knows what that reason is…unless it was to get free publicity…and if that was the case…nice work.

As for me: if I decide that I want to support Hamilton Health Sciences in the order of around $200, I'll just write them a cheque directly versus having only a portion of that amount going to HHS, and the rest going to hear someone speak, not even if it was Al Gore. I'd have to wonder whether Prime Minister Stephen Harper would draw the same attention and interest if he were to speak at a Banquet Hall in Toledo, Ohio….

Monday, December 14, 2009

Blue Box Blues Part I (and a half)

In advance of my second piece on the Blue Box, I needed to do some preparation and research. Along the way I discovered some interesting reports on the state of curbside collections of diverted waste from 216 Ontario Municipalities. As this was predominately numerical data, I was able to extrapolate information from the various reports and put into one representative report. The findings are interesting, and in some cases disturbing.

Using 2008 data (being the latest available), I was not only able to see which Municipality had the highest (& lowest) diversion rate, but also who spent the most money to get to where they are. Enjoy the following information; I hope you find it as interesting as I did:

  • The Town of Mono recorded the largest diversion rate in 2008 of 55.03%. It was a modest increase from 2007, where they saw a 54.69% rate (also the highest for 2007).
  • The Township of Whitewater Region owned the lowest rate, at a paltry 1.79%. They also recorded the largest decrease in diversion rates, falling a whopping 964.25% from 2007 where they recorded a 19.05% diversion rate.
  • It goes without saying that the City of Toronto diverted the most waste (all diversion numbers are based on weight) in 2008, as they had 166,678 tonnes of recyclables/compostables diverted from the landfill.

When it comes to spending money on diverting waste, it is important to look at more than just the figure; there are capital expenditures (blue boxes, green bins, sorting equipment, et al), operation expenditures (collection crew, management, et al), and marketing tools. All of which impact the cost to divert in some form of variance. Here are some of the spending highlights:

  • There's no question that if you're going to collect the most diversion, it would go without saying that you'd also incur the most cost, as Toronto does. But, where Toronto does not lead is in cost per tonne…we'll give that award to the Municipality of Killarney…they spent $9,423.35 per tonne collected…ouch! They were at a 28.25% diversion rate, down from 37.54% in 2007.
  • Spending the least per tonne was the Town of Petrolia. They spent $27.63 per tonne. Their diversion rate for 2008 was 23.17%, up from 19.4% in 2007.

The interesting part of putting this data together was not only seeing the wide range of costs, diversion rates, and collected tonnage, the other piece was recognizing who stood out in the mix:

  • The Regional Municipality of Durham, which includes the towns of Whitby, Ajax, Pickering and Oshawa to name a few, ranked as the 5th largest Municipality in terms of tonnage collected, recorded the 8th lowest (out of 216) in terms of cost at $97.55/tonne. Their diversion rate was 49.44%, up from 47.7% in 2007. They were the only Municipality in the Top 30 (in terms of tonnage collected) to show in the Top 10 Lowest Spent Per Tonne Ranking.
  • One can only assume that the City of Guelph hit a reporting snag from 2007 to 2008, as they show as one of the most expensive Municipalities in terms of cost per tonne, showing at $728.75. Making this number more terrifying, is that their diversion rate dropped from 43.84% to 25.44%. They currently sit as the 188th most expensive location out of 216. Not good.
  • Probably the biggest disappointment in the calculations is the City of Ottawa. Sitting as the 4th largest community in terms of tonnes diverted (65,410.44), they hold the distinction of the lowest diversion rate of any of their counterparts in the Top 10, with a rate of 33.02% up slightly from 2007 of 32.26%. They spend slightly less than the City of Brockville who has a rate of 41.47%($133.73/tonne vs. $135.71), but more than the Regional Municipality of Waterloo ($121.37/tonne) which shows a 47.12% diversion rate.

For you Hamilton, Ontario fans:

  • 7th largest in terms of tonnage collected at 40,831.83 tonnes.
  • Sit as the 51st lowest spend at $182.12/tonne
  • 44.31% diversion rate in 2008, up from 43.01% in 2007
  • 21st highest diversion rate in Ontario in 2008, moving upwards from the 29th position in 2007.

If you are interested in seeing the entire data collection, I have it in an excel file, and all of the figures were provided by Waste Diversion Ontario. Drop me an email request at drodrigues@mountaincable.net for more information.

Reading the Notes

When it comes to taxes, levies, fees, and whatnot…basically any additional charge lumped onto the product or service I am purchasing…I am normally cautious as to why the fee is present, and where/how the fee is being utilized. So of course when the Ontario Government announced the new "value-added" tax structure of combining the Retail Sales Tax (PST) at 8% with the Goods and Services Tax (GST) at 5%, I was instinctively pessimistic. Initially, the Liberals stated that it was a measure required in order to create jobs. Then, when it became apparent that the Provincial Government was going to receive a hefty windfall of additional tax revenue not previously realized under the existing 2-tier tax payment system, the electorate and the Official Opposition Party pushed back. It appeared that the new HST was a cleverly disguised form of a simple tax grab.

    The Lobbyists and Economists who support the HST initiative will tout that, overall, there will be no real gains or losses realized by this new taxing system. After all, once you've completed your tax return and realized some gains as a result of the HST implementation, your increased expenses that you incurred throughout the year leading up to your tax return will be negligible. To drive home this point, a report was (I dare say hastily) prepared by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives titled Not A Tax Grab After All: A Second Look at Ontario's HST. Authoured by economist Ernie Lightman, the report admittedly makes assumptions based on only the available tools available. To be fair, I will admit when I'm wrong or have misjudged something, however I still have this nagging feeling that this Report is just another 'smoke and mirrors' campaign to quell the objectors of the HST.

    After reading any 'report', I always read the "Notes" section to ensure supporting arguments are well documented. This particular Report had some rather interesting "Notes", a sample of which shows:

    Although reductions to the rate of tax in the bottom tax bracket is often touted as benefiting lower income people, in fact most of the benefits of such a change flow to those who are higher income, since everyone who pays income tax has some of their income taxed at the lowest rate. Most people who are low income already pay very little in personal income taxes.

    I'm no expert here, but I'd feel comfortable stating that the above "Note" appears to be nothing more than a disclaimer on the Reports assertion that lower income families/individuals will benefit from the HST. As the "Note" clearly states that this is not the case.

    So I guess what we have here is a bit of a stalemate. On the one hand we're going to be paying more at the consumer level for goods and services purchased which was previously PST exempted. While on the other hand, the Government (with support from this particular Report) are indicating that you'll save more when you file your taxes. The question will be whether you can afford to spend more upfront to save more at the backend. I honestly don't have the answer, but what I do know is that I'll be spending about $140 more per month (this according to the Tax Calculator found at http://itsmyprovince.ca/index.php). I'm still unsure how this is going to help the economy, as I am finding myself looking for spending reductions in preparation for the HST. The products and services the I use now which are exempt from PST will experience the greatest pain of this new taxing format.


Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Blue Box Blues, Part I

Living in an urban setting in Hamilton, Ontario, the availability of curbside collection of recycling goods has been quite commonplace for over 20 years. The "Blue Box" was introduced in Ontario by the industry which creates the recyclable material as a means of recovering said material in order to continue the true cycle of recycling in the early '80s. Today, more than 95% of Ontarians have access to curbside recycling services…and now the issue is getting muddied with the introduction of a new report aimed at changing behaviours towards disposing and diverting our waste. (The report can be viewed at http://www.ene.gov.on.ca/publications/7271e.pdf)

Ontario's diversion rate for residential collection is around 39%, while private or commercial diversion rate sits at about 12%. Put that up against over 34,000 tonnes of waste generate each day in Ontario, with less than half that number coming from residential collection. Using "Rambo" math, means that roughly 25,000 tonnes of waste finds its way to a landfill…everyday. There exists a strong call from not only Municipalities, but also from producers of recyclable packaging/goods, that there be some form of consistent policies/practices on what and where recyclable goods can be collected. To illustrate this need, I will take a single item and identify where and how it is disposed of:

Most consumers have at one point in their life, purchased a coffee to drink on the go…where does one dispose of their coffee cup when they are done? Well, depending on where you live, the results vary:

  • Windsor…while it's not clear in their literature, & based on the absence of a 'compost/green cart' collection service, it would appear that cups are recycled
  • London…like Windsor, there remains no clear communication as to where to dispose, but based on descriptions provided, it would appear that the cups are recyclable.
  • Hamilton…(only because I live here, and I should know…) the cups go in the 'green cart', and the lids go into the blue box.
  • Toronto…according to their website (http://app.toronto.ca/wes/winfo/search.do), and searching "coffee cup", the search returns either 'garbage' if it's plastic coated, or 'recycling' if it's Styrofoam. The lid goes into the garbage.
  • Ottawa…according to their website, paper coffee cups go into the 'green cart'.
  • St. Catharines…run by the Niagara Region; paper coffee cups go into the 'green cart'. The lids are to go in the garbage.
  • Simcoe…run by the Norfolk Region; it would appear that coffee cups go into the garbage, but there may be a window of argument that could put them in the recycling bins.
  • Thunder Bay…while not overly clear, it would appear that coffee cups go into the garbage.
  • Sarnia…paper coffee cups are clearly identified as non-recyclable, and therefore are to go in the garbage.
  • Kitchener…operated by the Waterloo Region, paper coffee cups go in the green bin.

To summarize, of the 10 municipalities chosen at random, 3 offer recycling (I am including Toronto in this group), 4 go into the 'green cart' composting program, and the remaining 3 municipalities would prefer to see the cups in their respective landfills. (I've made some assumptions on where the cups go when unclear of exactly the location based on the information available on the corresponding websites.) However, the end result clearly outlines how a single (popularly consumer purchased & subsequently disposed of) item can vary across the Province.

Without going to deep into the history behind the paper cup being the preferred choice for drinking on the go (1909…just in case you're curious), it is important to know that most coffee cups are made with high-quality fibre material, due to the heavy health and safety standards required for a hot drink on the go. As coffee cups evolve, as well as the methodology and execution of recycling/composting programs, there really is no reason for these cups to end up in a landfill. The question though is how do we get a consistent program across the Province which will ensure that 100% of the coffee cups sold are diverted into the recycling stream in order to be captured back into the fibre production line?

Now take the above example and times it by the number of items which could be available for blue box collection. You quickly get a sense of the enormity of the problem. The goal is simple: if it is recyclable, then it shouldn't end up in the landfill. The obstacles however are enormous, as the solution isn't going to be an easy one to find. If the report is to go forward without sound input from the public, residents face a real risk of losing curbside recycling collection in favour of 'recycling depots' or 'bring it back campaigns'. And, while that may be okay for new items not currently offered or available in the existing blue box curbside collection program, new unintended consequences will certainly surface with some of the proposed measures.

In Part II of this piece I will go beyond the collection component of our diversion process, and look at gaps in the processes in existence today which allow garbage to be disguised at recycling.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

King Dickens

There's no secret in the fact that I enjoy reading Stephen King novels. Actually, I'll correct that…until Misery came out, I considered myself his "number one fan". But once I read his masterful account of the pitfalls of being a "number one fan", I gladly slipped back into being his "number two fan". Over the years, I have been fortunate to amass quite a collection of King's works, both in written format, audio, and screenplays. His latest work titled "Under the Dome" has me transfixed thus far, to the point that my odd jobs are on hold while I slip off to a descriptive imaginary location as only King can transport flawlessly.

    One of my hobbies is working on the family tree, and as such I have the pleasure of corresponding with relatives from London, England to various locations in the West Indies, and across the Americas. It was through this, that my Uncle Bill (my mother's brother) had sent me an updated email address. It was one of the most unusual email addresses that I had seen. It lacked the familiar tone that one would expect from owners of email who have past their earlier years of life, and yet one could tell by the address that it contained something of reference for my Uncle. As it turns out, Uncle Bill is an avid Charles Dickens reader.

    Of course most of us are familiar with his more popular pieces, especially at this time of the year with the classic A Christmas Carol. I don't think I have met anyone who hasn't seen a version of the movie, (and if you get the chance, the latest animated film with Jim Carrey will most certainly be a classic). The bigger challenge would be: how many have read A Christmas Carol? If you thought King wrote books with such intent detail, that you were convinced he was paid by the word…Dickens most certainly would make King pale by comparison. In an eerie sense, both King and Dickens share the panache for ensuring the reader understand the minute detail of each part along the story. And as such they both were able to enjoy success at the theatres when their writings are transformed into a video production.

    While I'm not looking for a debate on who the greatest writers are, as each writer offers their own style and genre into their stories, it is impressive when an authour of fiction can cause change in the non-fiction world. Dickens certainly steps forward in this account, and not to take anything away from King, but really…anyone who doesn't enjoy this time of year is most certainly tagged as "Scrooge". Probably one of the most interesting explanatory terms originated by Dickens, and now used in the medical field, is Pickwickian Syndrome. Aptly named to describe overly obese individuals who contract sleep apnea as well as a host of other symptoms. The phrase was coined as a descriptive term of one of Dickens characters in The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. Fat Joe, as he was dubbed, carried traits known today as sleep apnea, and because Dickens was able to describe his character with such detail, the term is now applied to individuals who present with similar symptoms.

    While the debates will continue on whether the written word will still be as successful as it was prior to on-line technology, I for one will forge ahead with a good King novel…for those times when carting a laptop or e-reader around doesn't seem to cut it, and know that Charles Dickens carries the standard of which all good stories should be told.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Our Not-So-Harmonized Sales Tax

We've heard the infamous quote spoken by the character Howard Beale in the 1976 movie, Network in which he impassionedly stated repeatedly "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" And, it would appear that Provincial MP's who oppose the new Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) is exactly that, as they face suspension and surely other penalties for their actions in the Legislature.

To recap, HST was initially introduced as a means to assist businesses to acquire capital equipment at a reduced cost (as HST would eliminate 'hidden' taxes claimed to hinder this process), and thereby making Ontario businesses more competitive in the Global economy. Essentially the theory would be that because Ontario businesses could produce products at a lesser cost, then this would drive down the cost to the end user…the consumer. By blending the current two taxes into one blended tax rate, the intention is to simplify the process both from a fiduciary point to the businesses, and to the consumer. The complication in this application is that items currently only taxed the existing GST (Goods & Services Tax) of 5% will now be saddled with an additional 8%, which is the current Provincial Retail Sales Tax (PST) rate. As cries for exemptions filled the inbox of Dalton McGuinty, he finally stated that no further exemptions could be made as Ontario is facing a record debt due to the current economical conditions. In other words, the Provincial Government requires the additional tax revenue that the HST is going to generate to help pay down the massive debt.

If all is fair in love and war, then the introduction of HST should be a wash when it comes to revenues generated by the blending of taxes. However, nothing could be further from the truth. The Provincial Government is actively stating that HST is not a 'tax grab', but the proof is in the pudding. Consider what the City of Hamilton recently identified in a document submitted to Council on November 24th:

"The proposed 2010 user fees have been developed based on Council's guideline, exclusive of any potential impact of HST…Staff estimated that the impact of the proposed HST on clients who pay our user fees would be approximately $3.7 million."

The report goes further to state that a recommendation has been made to the Province that users be exempt from paying the Provincial portion of the HST.

If you didn't catch it…that's $3.7 million in additional tax revenue collected for no increase in services. It's essentially free cash for the Province to gobble up without having to lift a finger. And, this is only from one Municipality. Add in the rest, and Province is sitting on a mighty lofty sum of increased tax revenue.

While the above is certainly enough to cause a few ulcers and angst, one has to look at the bigger picture and see if indeed the blending of the two taxes does indeed make in impact on the employment sector. Afterall, the Province is stating that the introduction of HST will generate jobs…and lots of them…some 600,000 new jobs in the next ten years. Economists go further to state that our annual income will raise by 8.8% over the same time frame, that the cost of doing business in Ontario and British Columbia (also in the midst of introducing HST) will decline by $6.9 billion, and as a result of this, the private-sector will spend a whopping $47 billion on job creation and capital spending. All this will make us more cost-competitive against the 160+ nations who currently use a similar blended tax system. (Information courtesy of a Toronto Star article posted on November 26th). Again, with all things equal, Quebec and the Eastern Provinces have been on the HST program for quite some time, therefore one must assume that since Ontario is not, then those Provinces that are using the HST formula are faring better then Ontario, no?

According to StatsCan(Oct '09 figures), Quebec's unemployment rate is 8.5%; Newfoundland and Labrador 17.0%; Prince Edward Island 12.0%; Nova Scotia 9.3%; and, New Brunswick 8.5%. Compared to Ontario's 9.3% and BC's 8.3%, it would appear that we're not that far apart on employment issues within Canada. But what about the rest of the world that has been identified…How are they doing? Doing a quick search to find the 160+ countries purported to be on the HST system, the quick snippets appear to be in the European Nations, and here is how Canada stacks against them in terms of the unemployment rates:

  • Canada 8.6% (Oct, '09)
  • Croatia 9.6% (Sept '09)
  • Denmark 6.4% (Sept '09)
  • European Union 9.3% (Oct '09)
  • France 10.0% (Oct '09)
  • United Kingdom 7.8% (Sept '09)

Again, Canada doesn't stand out as being 'job poor' compared to other countries. Unless the Provincial Government can supply a qualitative list of comparing countries which clearly identifies our 'disadvantage' of being without HST from a 'job creation' standpoint, it would appear that we are looking at nothing less than a feeble attempt to add 'smoke and mirrors' to a simple tax grab formula.