(originally published in the Fourth and One Fifth May 2014 issue)
An explanatory note: I sent a slightly longer version of this as an email to Northumberland News. I would have sent a similar email to Northumberland Today but there is no email address listed for the editor. My concern is that those who still read our local newspapers are being fed a highly slanted and incomplete version of what is actually occurring with our Port Hope municipal government. The reply from the writer said “We always ensure we are fair and balanced in our reporting”. What do you think?
“Please take this email in the vein of constructive criticism. I hope to start a dialogue that will hopefully result in more balance in your reporting of Port Hope municipal affairs.
I have been a Port Hope resident … for the past ten years. While you have usually provided more balanced reporting on Port Hope municipal affairs …, that balance seems to be eroding and has hit a new low point with your “article” on the 2014 budget. The reason that I hesitate to call it an article is that it is just a rework of segments of the press release from the municipality.
Consider the following
There have been rumours that the two papers have been “muzzled”, either directly by the town to stop unflattering reports, or by the papers themselves, to curry favour (and advertising dollars) with the council and municipal staff. Articles like this give credence to such rumours.
(originally published in the Fourth and One Fifth April 2014 issue)
I had little time to review this year’s municipal budget prior to its approval on March 25. The next day they issued a press release full of reassuring phrases like “infrastructure sustainability”, “Strategic Financial Plan”, and “long-term fiscal responsibility”.
Based on all of this, I was hoping for good things. I was disappointed. After even a brief examination it was easy to see that the budget content falls far short of the press release. I was concerned enough to attend the COW meeting April 1 to ask Councillor Austin about the contradictions that I found.
Here are the questions and a summary of the answers I received.
Question: The press release gives relatively little space to the additional increases of 2.1% levy plus 4.6% in assessment, and doesn’t even mention the 6.7% total and the corresponding spending increases. More space is given to the loss of a couple of revenue items totalling about 1%. Are you aware that this is the largest increase in taxation and spending since 2006?
Answer: While he did not answer the question, he did say “We needed to spend more money on capital”. (Note Councillor Austin was partially correct, in that total spending went up $822,750, contributions to capital reserves went up $339,900 or 41% of the total).
Question: The press release mentions the budget has “a focus on infrastructure sustainability” and is in accordance with the Strategic Financial Plan. It does not mention the gutting of reserves (excluding the LLRW funds) to the tune of about 37% during just two years. The best example is the Hydro reserve shrinking to just $3,241,303, or 35% of its initial 2001 value of $9.3 million. Could you explain how this is sustainable?
Answer: “We have over $30 million in reserves and that is sustainable” and councils have said that they will not touch the LLRW principle, just the interest, and that is sustainable. He did not offer a reason why the rest of the reserves are being used at an alarming rate.
Question: The press release does not mention that if you take the $114,000 in increased contributions from levy (relative to the base year of 2012) and add to the $150,000 LLRW interest you get a total of new money for reserves of $264,000. This sounds like a lot, but the SFP stated that a figure of $3.2 million a year was required, or $6.4 million total for the last two years. So you are actually only contributing about 4.1% of the required amount. Do you consider 4.1% a passing grade?
Answer: “We have a lot of expenditures … we have done our job … people say we waste taxes but we don’t”. Councillor Austin did not answer the question.
He seemed to miss the overall point of the questions which was that press releases shouldn’t try to mislead people into the mistaken notion that you are doing a good job, when the facts say otherwise.
Note that our local newspapers printed the press release essentially verbatim, without any additional information from the budget document, or even asking any questions of council or staff. Just reformatted as news. They do a disservice to all those wanting a balanced picture.