Thursday, November 26, 2015

A Sinkhole of Debt

It is remarkable how tiny pieces of news help us to see much larger, worrisome trends.

For instance, we now learn that the Natural Resources Ministry has been poking about, seeking a partner to help  maintain the Sherborne Road. The gravel road winds 12 kilometres from Highway 35 just south of Dorset through the bush to Sherborne Lake.

It is an access road for anglers, hunters, hikers, campers, snowmobilers, ATV riders and logging operators.

The ministry is asking various sources, including Algonquin Highlands Township, to take on the costs of maintaining the road. It says it can no longer afford the upkeep.

The good news here is that the Ontario government may be getting serious about its dire financial situation. It must be when it goes begging for help maintaining a 12-kilometre gravel road.

The bad news is that if the government cannot afford to maintain the road, nature will take it back, limiting access to a huge wilderness recreation area. Also, the Sherborne Road is a glimpse of the new trend in which citizens pay more to receive less.

The Sherborne Lake road story illustrates how badly Ontario is hurting from years of less than brilliant financial management. And, how the current government is relentless in squeezing taxpayers for more and more dollars to try drag itself out of a quicksand of debt.

Our electricity bills will increase at least an average $120 a year Jan. 1, on top of a series of stunning increases this year. Driving and vehicle licensing fees have increased and will increase more. We all will receive higher municipal tax bills in the spring because of more downloading of Ontario Provincial Police costs onto rural municipalities.

Then we have the service fees placed on top of service fees at Service Ontario outlets. And, the plans to make High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes.

Not to mention the new three-cents-a-litre provincial tax on beer, which took effect this month.

The government is desperate for more money to service its overwhelming debt. Ontario residents can expect this trend to continue, and likely worsen.  

Ontario’s debt has surpassed $300 billion. California, poster child for reckless government spending and poor financial management, has less than half the debt of Ontario.

Bonnie Lysyk, Ontario’s auditor general, expects the Ontario debt to reach $325 billion by 2017-18. To pay off that debt Ontario would have to collect $23,000 each from every woman, man and child in the province.

Ontario pays more than $11 billion a year in debt interest charges. That is more than the province spends on post secondary education for our children.

Credit raters have been following closely this plunge into deeper debt. Moody’s Investor Services and Standard and Poor’s have downgraded Ontario’s credit rating in recent months.

The province plans to spend another $130 billion on infrastructure over the next 10 years, which will increase the debt load even more. Much of the spending will be to alleviate the nightmare of Toronto-area transportation.

The government says going deeper into debt will spur economic growth, which will produce more dollars to pay off debt. We all hold our breath and hope this is true. Past performance leaves us skeptical.

Another reason for skepticism is the controversy surrounding the government’s selling off 60 per cent of Hydro One. It hopes to bring in $9 billion from the sale but in fact will realize only $3.5 to $5 billion after the utility’s debt is paid.

Some observers call the Hydro One offering a disaster in the making.
Stephen LeClair, the province’s financial accountability officer, says that selling the utility to private investors will cost the provincial treasury more than it takes in.

“The province’s net debt would initially be reduced, but will eventually be higher than it would have been without the sale,” he wrote in a critical review of the plan.

Deterioration of the Sherborne Lake access road would be a disappointment to users, but not a catastrophe. Real catastrophe will come to all of us if the government does not create a strong plan for reducing its debt.


Thursday, November 19, 2015

Wild Thoughts on a Wet Day

I listen for sounds of movement but the woods are as silent as the wet stones on the hillside. Rain drips off my hunting cap brim, each drip telling me that no sensible deer, or person, would be out in this foul weather.

I am too stubborn to go home and get out of the wet. So I sit in the rain, thinking wildly abstract thoughts.

One of my wilder thoughts is about why we can’t make some use of all the dead and dying wood in the forest. The forest floor is littered with trees that have died and fallen, or been taken down by the wind or in logging. And, there is much standing dead that remains solid and sturdy.

This is especially noticeable today, and not just because my mind is damp and wandering. I am in a logging area behind Dan Lake in the Frost Centre lands. The amount of wasted wood left here to rot is astonishing.

Aside from the usual deadfalls there are piles of tree crowns, hundreds of chunky branches and a variety of logs left behind.

This is not a criticism of the loggers, who are doing what they are instructed to do. They are following guidelines set by the Ministry of Natural Resources which oversees the logging.

In fact, they appear to be going beyond the guidelines. In one staging area they have left standing a magnificent  and elderly yellow birch which will live a bit longer to spread its seeds. And they have been more than tolerant of any hunters or others passing through their work areas.

The crowns and branches and leftover logs are being left to rot because that’s what the government wants.

Some time back I let slip within earshot of a government official that I was taking firewood from a logged over area. I received a lecture on why it is good to leave wood to rot in the forest and was told to apply for and pay for a licence to collect firewood.

The official’s lecture on the benefits of letting wood rot in the forest was correct, to an extent. Trees that die naturally are a necessary part of the cycle of forest life.

However, logging, which when done selectively aids forest health, creates more rotting wood than any forest needs. Clearing out the excess and putting it to use would be helpful to the forest and to people who could use it.

I can think of several uses, the most important being firewood for heating. Many people turned to electric heat for homes and cottages in the days when electricity was affordable. Now the cost of heating electrically is prohibitive for many people and they depend more on firewood.

The government says people can collect firewood on Crown lands if they apply for a licence and pay government timber charges.

Charging citizens for collecting firewood from deadfalls and logging leftovers is an example of government and its bureaucracies at their worst.  There is no cost to government for people to collect fallen timber for firewood, so licensing charges are simply another tax, another money grab.

If there is a need to supervise people collecting firewood from extensive deadfall areas, let private organizations do it. Church groups, service clubs and the such could supervise deadfall harvesting and make a few much needed bucks doing it.

Governments do not view wood as a renewable heating resource important to people living outside major urban areas. They see it as a pollution problem, which is nonsense considering the many sources of human-made pollution.

Government thinking on fuel wood will not change because government policies, even policies affecting rural areas, are made in downtown urban areas. They are made by urbanites who listen to major media outlets, lobbyists and special interest groups, all of which occupy urban downtown offices.
Yes, rain falling in a quiet forest tends to produce abstract thoughts. Thoughts that bring to mind Henry Thoreau’s essay Civil Disobedience, in which he accepts that “government is best which governs least," and by extension "government is best which governs not at all."


Thursday, November 12, 2015

Making Snoopy Proud

I have a new granddog. His name is Rusty and he is a rescued dog from Los Angeles.

Rusty was given up by his owners who kept a bunch of backyard dogs and he wasn’t well looked after. He had a recent scar on his head and had lost hair around one eye because of an infection.

He’s now a happy, well cared for and important member of my daughter’s family in the San Francisco area.

I don’t know much of Rusty’s history except that he escaped the fate of many dogs living in the Los Angeles area. Roughly 6,000 dogs are impounded in LA shelters every year. More than 1,000 are euthanized.

Statistics about impounded pets truly are amazing, and disturbing. In the United States 6.8 million pets are taken into shelters every year. Pets of all sorts, but the vast majority are dogs and cats. An estimated three to four million are euthanized every year.

A survey of Canadian animal shelters found that 46,000 dogs were impounded in 2013. The number of cats taken in was roughly double the total for dogs.

Almost one-half the dogs taken in were strays and just over one-third of the total were given up by their owners. Of the overall total, 17 per cent were puppies.

Of the 46,000 Canadian dogs taken in, 8,000 were euthanized. That’s 1,000 fewer than in 2012, which we would like to think is because more people are becoming involved in pet rescue organizations. There are no statistics to support this, but rescue efforts seem to be attracting more people willing to volunteer their time, and in some cases their money, to ensure that unwanted, abandoned or mistreated animals are given a chance for a new life.

Two of the most interesting rescue organizations are California-based Wings of Rescue and Pilots N Paws, based in South Carolina. These are volunteer groups that recruit volunteer pilots and planes to relocate pets to areas where rescue groups are able to find them permanent homes.

Pilots N Paws has flown more than 15,000 dogs to new homes in the last two years and says it has relocated 75,000 over the last seven years.

Wings of Rescue says it has saved 5,000 dogs and cats and plans to rescue 7,000 more by the end of this year. Next week its Annual Holiday Airlift will fly 1,000 dogs and cats in 20 aircraft from Van Nuys general aviation airport in LA. The pets will be flown to various locations in the U.S., mainly on the west coast.

The flying rescues work well because there are overcrowded, high-kill shelters in some states like California. Yet other states like Oregon, Florida and New York need more pets to satisfy adoption demands.

For instance, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho has many retired people looking for smaller dogs which are easier to care for but hard to come by because of high demand. So the humane society there orders a planeload of dogs under 16 pounds every month to meet adoption demands.

Yehunda Netanel started Wings of Rescue as a lone pilot who rescued 300 dogs. The number of dogs Wings now flies has been doubling every year.

Pilots N Paws reports similar growth.

"We have seen the number of animals rescued go up every year since we started in 2008," said Kate Quinn, executive director of Pilots N Paws, told the Associated Press.

"Pilots love a reason to fly,” Quinn says. “They love making these flights."

Some people raise ethical questions about spending time, money and other resources on rescuing animals when so many humans are in distress. Why rescue dogs when millions of Syrians, and others are homeless? they ask.

Obviously there is no quick and easy answer to that question. Except to say that we all have a responsibility to help alleviate cruelty of all kinds in this world. And, not spending time and resources to stop cruelty to animals will not likely do much to stop cruelty against humans.

At any rate, my granddog Rusty is certainly happy that there are people volunteering their time and resources to help abused and abandoned dogs in Los Angeles.  

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Who Is Buying the Pizza?

I totally get why Education Minister Liz Sandals feels the way she does about receipts. They are a pain in the butt. So difficult to organize. Always impossible to find when needed.

They swell our wallets, clutter our vehicle dashboards and are bad for the environment. The Internet tells me that 640,000 tons of paper receipts are used in the US each year. And, it takes 1.2 billion gallons of water annually to produce those paper receipts.

So we understand why Minister Liz can’t be bothered asking for receipts for the taxpayer dollars she gave teachers’ unions to cover their travel, hotel and food expenses while negotiating new working contracts. After all, she does have a masters degree in mathematics and knows the price of pizzas. With those qualifications who needs receipts?

“You’re asking me if I have receipts and invoices; no, I don’t,” she said when asked if she got receipts for $2.5 million in teacher union expense spending. “You don’t need to see every bill when you’re doing an estimate of costs. I don’t ask.”

"We know what the meeting rooms cost. We know what the food costs. We know what 100 pizzas cost.”

When you are that smart and up on the cost of pizzas, asking for receipts seems old-fashioned and unnecessary.

The practice of getting and giving receipts might be old-fashioned in the sense that it has been around for a long time. Roughly 5,200 years actually. All the way back to the time when writing was invented.

So billions of people over 50 centuries have thought receipts are a good thing, especially when it comes to managing money. Billions of people, but not Liz Sandals.

Written receipts are believed to date back to 3200 BC in Mesopotamia. The oldest known existing receipt was given 4,000 years ago to a guy named Alulu in Samaria. It was for the sale of five sheep, a lamb and four grass-fed goat kids and was written on a clay tablet.

Presumably Alulu was not as smart at math as Liz Sandals, and not up to speed on the price of livestock, so that’s why he asked for the receipt.          

Someone must have told Premier Wynne about Alulu and receipt history because she overruled her education minister. She says the teachers’ unions have not yet been given the $2.5 million but when they are receipts will be required.

So Ontario taxpayers can breathe easier knowing that their government says it intends to follow the 5200-year-old practice of getting receipts.

That still leaves us with a worrisome problem, however. Why are taxpayers paying teachers’ union expenses while they negotiate higher salaries and better working conditions?

Minister Liz says the money is being shelled out because of the transition to a new bargaining system with teachers.

“When you are going through a transformational process, if you want the transformation to work, the first thing to do is to get the people into the building and committed to making the process work by being there . . . ” she said.

I assume that means that unless the government pays travel, hotel and food (including pizzas) expenses, the teachers’ negotiators will not show up to negotiate. The last time I was in a union we paid dues to build a fund to pay expenses like negotiating working agreements.

However, this latest scandal is about more than just who pays for the pizza. It’s all about politics.

During the 2014 provincial election the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation and the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association together spent more than $3 million on political advertising. Most of it was for ads attacking the Liberal government’s main opponent, the Conservatives.

So the government makes secret payments for teachers’ union expenses (including pizzas), plus gives them special favors and rich contracts. In return the teachers’ unions spend money, some of it which came from taxpayers, to ensure the government stays in power.

The government says it is routine to pay teacher union expenses incurred in negotiations.

Routine? Sleazy is a more accurate, more appropriate word.