The Black Rod

The origin of the Usher of the Black Rod goes back to early fourteenth century England . Today, with no royal duties to perform, the Usher knocks on the doors of the House of Commons with the Black Rod at the start of Parliament to summon the members. The rod is a symbol for the authority of debate in the upper house. We of The Black Rod have adopted the symbol to knock some sense and the right questions into the heads of Legislators, pundits, and other opinion makers.

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Location: Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

We are citizen journalists in Winnipeg. When not breaking exclusive stories, we analyze news coverage by the mainstream media and highlight bias, ignorance, incompetence, flawed logic, missed angles and, where warranted, good work. We serve as the only overall news monitors in the province of Manitoba. We do the same with politicians (who require even more monitoring.) EMAIL: black_rod_usher@yahoo.com

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

To the barricades, comrades!

Call us comrades.

It's not often we make common cause with left-wing activists, but when it comes to the proposed water utility for the City of Winnipeg, make room for us on the barricades.

We may not share their not-so-hidden agendas, but when it comes to the water utility it's been the Left that's asked the right questions, raised the right objections, and done the heavy lifting to slow and hopefully stop the juggernaut.

We've spent days reading the background material on this deal.

When we started, we knew next to nothing, having, like most citizens, ignored the issue as long as humanly possible. It wasn't long, however, before we knew what we needed to know---the water utility proposal stinks.
From A to Z, it's rife with red flags that collectively scream "CON JOB."

What's the Rush?

Mayor Sam Katz says we have to approve the water utility immediately. There's not a second to spare.

He's deliberately misleading the public.

In the administration's own report to city council, it says that the first 3 months to one year from the day of approval will be taken up simply with waiting for the provincial government to change the laws to permit the creation of a water utility, followed by the legal drafting of all the agreements.

The Manitoba Legislature doesn't get back to work until September, then has to debate and pass the required enabling legislation. There's no need to ram the water utility through this week. We can wait until September for a vote at city council without delaying anything.

Lawyers can work all summer on the legal agreements while the public works on understanding the implications of the new utility structure.

Whenever there's a rush to ram something through City Hall, the public knows its because the politicians have something to hide. They want the deal signed before the citizens find out what that secret is.

This isn't the honest and full debate of an important civic issue that we expect. It's the high-pressure sleaze sales tactic called a deadline sale---sign up now or we can't guarantee the price! buy today before the deal ends!

And what will happen if we don't sign on immediately?

The answer is obvious. NOTHING will happen.

Katz says the Clean Environment Commission has ordered the city to upgrade its south end water pollution control centre by December, 2014 and the north end centre two years later at a cost of $650 million (plus overruns.) Or else.

Or else what? Has the city gone to the CEC and said we can't do it? Katz has told Winnipeg he can't do it. Winnipeg doesn't have the money or the expertise, he says.

So how can the CEC force us to do something impossible?

Just say NO. Grow some balls.

The mayor the city is expected to speak for Winnipeg. Not roll over and play dead.

Lipstick on the Privitization Pig. Or is it Duck?

The Left is chewing the carpet over the water utility proposal because, it says, Sam Katz is privatizing water. Or some variation of that theme, since the facets of the Left can't agree on what level of privitization is involved, including whether it will be real or potential.

Nevertheless, privitization is the club the Left is using to bash Katz and his water utility supporters. It's short. It sounds scary. It's perfect for negative advertising.

But words have meaning, so we paid careful attention to the arguments over whether the water utility is or is not privitization.

Not, says the mayor and the city administration.

The water utility will be 100 percent owned by Winnipeg. Winnipeg will own all the assets (pipes, sewers, meters). And the utility will work to improve water services to Winnipeggers.

Okay, we said, until we read in CUPE's background paper that all the city's waterworks employees will be transferred to the new water utility.

Say what?

In other words, we will have a water system with no employees. But, but, but, we will own the water utility and their employees will, technically, work for us.

Oh yeah? Here's what doesn't sit well with us:

* The city of Winnipeg will own the utility, on paper.
* It will appoint 7 to 11 directors with various expertise in water service delivery to make all the decisions.
* Set is stone is the fact that there will be NO political influence in the management of the utility.
* The utility will set water rates with no input from city council or the public.
* The utility will collect your water bills and spend the money the way it wants.
The directors will decide what's good for you without your opinion, thank you.
* Winnipeg will pay the water utility to provide the services we're already paying for, and which will be provided by the employees we're giving to the water utility.

*Yeah, yeah, we know they have to ask the Public Utilities Board first before raising rates. How many citizens can afford to hire a lawyer for thousands of dollars to address the PUB? And it's going to cost the city $1 million a year to attend PUB hearings; its already in the budget. We'll get to pay for that, too.

In short, we're creating a company that
- is run by unelected directors,
- raises its own money, and
- sells its services to the city.

We're forced to buy its services, but we have no input or control over

- what it does with the money it collects,
- how or where it plans to expand its business, or
- who it does business with.

If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck....

Let's Call It Enron

The Left may wave the privitization flag, but that's not the real reason it opposes the water utility. The far lefties want you to think that Sam Katz is selling the water from Shoal Lake to a big, bad corporation which will start bottling it to sell in Las Vegas while charging you higher rates to pay for shipping. The union left knows this is a fight over P3's.

P3's---the bugaboo of the union movement. Government teaming up with private corporations to build something the private company then owns and sells back to the government over time.

And that's exactly what the water utility is being set up for.

The mayor says Winnipeg can't afford to the hundreds of millions of dollars that's needed to upgrade the North and South End water projects. The city tried its best with the West End Water Pollution Control Centre upgrade, which went $21 million over budget, and the new water-treatment plant which ended up costing $300 million, or $95 million over.

Building in cost overruns of the same magnitude into the new projects would put the price just shy of $1 billion. Instead, the city's water utility could partner with some company that has the in-house expertise to build these giant projects on time and on budget. The city would give them up to 49 percent ownership in the plants so that they have a financial stake in the success of the construction project.

The city says this worked with the Charleswood Bridge, a major project that hit its time and budget marks thanks to its private partner.

The unions drag out a bunch of failed P3's from other cities, but those are there and we're here and we all remember other bungled bridge projects, like the Provencher Bridge which went $6 million over budget (with then-Mayor Glen Murray mocking taxpayers who didn't appreciate his "vision" regardless of cost.) So P3's sound pretty good.

And yet something sounded un-nervingly familiar. It was just about the time we read in the city's own bumpf how the private partner with the water utility was expected to borrow the money for the wallet-busting projects.

CUPE raised some interesting questions about this.
What would they use as collateral for the loans? They don't own the water. They don't own the pipes. Would the city be the co-signer on the loans, backing them up 100 percent in case the private partner bailed?

Pop. The light came on over our heads. We had heard this before.

It's an echo of a scheme invented by a little company called Enron.

Enron set up, ahem, independent partnerships called LJM-this and LJM-that. The LJM would borrow millions which would not appear on the books of Enron but which were used to, ahem, benefit Enron.

They even put one of their own executives to manage the LJM's. (They called that accountability. We can't even appoint a city councillor to the board of the water utility. )

Plain Talk

The mayor and the city administration think they can fool the public.

They know water rates are about to skyrocket
. They think that if they create a situation where they can blame the PUB for the higher rates, that the public won't take out its anger at the ballot box in next year's election.

They think the public is too dumb to understand that the politicians are giving away control of the city's water services to a bunch of unelected nobodies who will not be accountable to the citizenry.

They think the public is too stupid to know what's good for them.

The citizen's stopped Glen Murray's plan to charge per bag for garbage collection.
They rejected a city sales tax.
And they don't want their taxes raised only to see the brain trust waste the money on non-essentials like trendy bicycle paths and rapid transit lines for spoiled suburbanites (that will save five minutes traveltime, at best) under the guise of infrastructure.

And they're getting nervous about the water utility.

Coun. Harry Lazarenko, who supports the water utility, will ask city council this week to approve a motion mandating a referendum before the city's water and sewer system can be privatized. It's a straw-man vote to deflect attention from the real issues in the water utility debate.

Here's a better idea.

Let's have a real referendum on the water utility during next year's civic election.

Let the public decide if this is a privitization or not.

The enabling legislation could be passed. The proper legal agreements could be drawn up. A search for directors could be conducted. But a final decision would depend on the results of the referendum.

How confident are Lazarenko and Sam Katz that they're smarter than Joe Citizen, Comrade?

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