Time to come clean: are water bill payments keeping Ascent afloat?


city_scope_logo-cmykA troubling state of affairs when your water bill payment appears to be the only thing keeping Ascent/St. Thomas Energy afloat.

Of much greater concern is the lack of transparency at city hall and the lack of due diligence on the part of city council.

Let’s start in the finance department where we appear to caught director of finance David Aristone in an awkward moment.

Exactly one year ago, when council dealt with the 2014 consolidated financial statements, that document revealed Ascent Group – 100 per cent owners of St. Thomas Energy – rang up an operating loss of $6.8 million. That compared with a $1.4 million profit in 2013. Continue reading

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Filed under Ascent, City of St. Thomas, City Scope, Parks and recreation, skateparks, St. Thomas Police Service

Ascent 2015 financial statement will spark your interest


city_scope_logo-cmykIt’s a much anticipated document and it can be found in the agenda for Monday night’s city council meeting.

We are referring to the city’s consolidated financial statements for 2015 which include details of its investment in Ascent Group Inc.

Not sure whether it is meant to offer reassurance to ratepayers, however that portion of the document opens with “The city owns 100% of Ascent Group Inc. which in turn owns 100% of St. Thomas Energy Inc., Ascent Energy Services Inc., Ascent Solutions Inc., Ascent Utility Services Inc., and Ascent Renewables.

Once you digest the Ascent Group financial statement we, as ratepayers, would be better off owning a fleet of wheezing Russian Ladas.

If you thought the 2014 Ascent picture was grim, hold on. Continue reading

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Filed under Ascent, City of St. Thomas, City Scope, St. Thomas Cemetery, St. Thomas-Elgin General Hospital

Will tire-kickers appreciate the new, pared-back Ascent model?


city_scope_logo-cmykThere was more pruning over at Ascent/St. Thomas Energy this week, leaving the city’s utility pared back to the bone.
A release issued Thursday announced Alltrade Industrial Contractors Inc. of Cambridge, Ont., had acquired Ascent Utility Solutions for an undisclosed amount.
This small division of Ascent dealt with traffic and streetlights in the Greater Toronto Area and employed four or five non-union staff and any union staff were retained through a union hiring hall, according to Ascent acting CEO Rob Kent.
Alltrade operates in numerous sectors including automotive, food and beverage, manufacturing and its energy group works within the renewable energy sector, solar, water and wind and within the power and utilities sector.
The transaction does not include St. Thomas Energy, the local distribution company owned by the city and Ascent Energy Services which deals in fibre optics and provides IT services in the city. Continue reading

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Filed under Ascent, City of St. Thomas, City Scope, Health Care, St. Thomas-Elgin General Hospital

Imposed salary cap, hey we can dance around that


city_scope_logo-cmykNo disrespect to the hospital’s vice-president, but you can bet Nancy Whitmore was anything but the first choice to replace out-going president and CEO Paul Collins who exits on Oct. 31.

Whitmore will take over the helm in November, but the hospital board of directors did not hire healthcare recruitment firm The MedFall Group only to have them say look from within.

Back in March of this year we talked to board chair Melanie Taylor who asserted the hunt for a new president and CEO would be far-reaching.

“We’re looking to retain the best possible talent who could come from someplace other than southwestern Ontario,” advised Taylor. Continue reading

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Filed under Ascent, city finances, City of St. Thomas, City Scope, Parks and recreation, St. Thomas-Elgin General Hospital

Is it getting a little crowded under the city umbrella?


city_scope_logo-cmykA major shuffle in the works next month as the local housing corporation is to be incorporated into city operations in an effort to create “efficiencies.”

This according to city manager Wendell Graves, who explained Elgin and St. Thomas Housing Corporation — which owns and manages 512 assisted (rent geared-to-income) rental units and 18 low-end of market units throughout St. Thomas and Elgin county — will be brought “under the city’s umbrella.”

In a conversation this week, Graves noted, “We’ve had a series of reports that actually go back to last fall. We announced we are going to take a look at integrating Elgin and St. Thomas Housing Corporation under the city’s umbrella . . . and now we’re looking at a mid-September implementation date.”

So what will this entail?

As part of that the strategy in terms of the housing corporation itself, the individuals tied directly to helping the residents of the affordable housing units, the client side of it, will be working out of the Ontario Works office,” advised Graves. Continue reading

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Filed under City of St. Thomas, City Scope, downtown development, Housing, Parks and recreation, Railway heritage

Social housing director not at home at city hall


city_scope_logo-cmykShe beat out 11 other candidates for the job of director at Ontario Works back in February of 2011, so where is Barbara Arbuckle today?
The question was prompted by an email sent our way.
“She was there for a couple of months then disappeared,” writes a curious reader. “It seems to be quite a mystery in the department and out as to whatever happened with her.”
Yes, it is a mystery as her name still appears online in the city’s staff directory. However when you call her phone extension the line goes dead.
A call to city manager Wendell Graves on Friday resulted in a guarded response. Continue reading

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Filed under City of St. Thomas, City Scope, Housing, skateparks

After eight years, where might the money be?


city_scope_logo-cmykComing up to three months since both sides in the Sutherland saga faced each other again at the Elgin County Courthouse. On May 27, city staff and Toronto owner David McGee – along with their legal counsel – left the fate of the 103-year-old Sutherland Press building in the hands of Justice Gorman.

Have we waited an inordinate amount of time for a decision?

Not really, suggests McGee’s lawyer Valerie M’Garry. There is a lot of supporting documents to digest she notes.

“Stacked together they would be a foot-and-a-half high,” M’Garry points out, “so for her (Justice Gorman) to go through them all, which I think she would want to do for whatever decision she is going to render.”

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Is jockeying for position underway for the 2018 mayoral race?


city_scope_logo-cmykThe plug has been pulled – at least temporarily – on Mayor Heather Jackson’s vision of a fibre optics network for St. Thomas.

Her plan for a fibre optics information session was voted down in a closed-door meeting on June 20 and Jackson was so infuriated she fired off an email to various players in the business community pointing the finger at councillors Jeff Kohler and Gary Clarke, who put forth the motion that “The Information Session regarding fibre planned for July 19, 2016 be postponed until a date agreeable to Council.”

Council voted 6-2 in favour of the motion.

The cost of such a network would be tens of millions of dollars according to an individual in the know and this may have played a role in council putting the brakes on the mayor’s plans. Continue reading

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Filed under Alma College, City of St. Thomas, City Scope, Economic sustainability, Waste management

St. Thomas Elgin General Hospital board of governors: a bastion of integrity, honesty and transparency


city_scope_logo-cmykAfter steadfastly refusing last week to allow us access to St. Thomas-Elgin General Hospital board of governors chairwoman Melanie Taylor, a change of heart – sort of – this week.

To recap, Coun. Linda Stevenson – the city’s representative on the board of governors – has tendered her resignation over allegations Taylor is attempting to circumvent a CEO salary cap imposed on STEGH and all hospitals in the province in order to make the position more “competitive.”

STEGH administrators won’t cut Taylor loose to respond to Stevenson, instead we are in receipt of a carefully crafted statement from Cathy Crane, vice-chair, on behalf of the STEGH board of governors. Continue reading

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Why is STEGH shielding board of governors chairperson Melanie Taylor?


city_scope_logo-cmykSix years after the infamous Paul Collins retire/rehire shuffle, administrators at St. Thomas-Elgin General Hospital find themselves at the centre of another CEO controversy.

Coun. Linda Stevenson – the city’s representative on the board of governors – has tendered her resignation over allegations board chairman Melanie Taylor is attempting to circumvent a CEO salary cap imposed on STEGH and all hospitals in the province in order to make the position more “competitive.”

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, according to Stevenson, who would like the ministry of health to come in and review the practices of the board of governors. Continue reading

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Filed under City of St. Thomas, City Scope, Health Care, St. Thomas-Elgin General Hospital

Latest STEGH cuts no example of patient-centred care


city_scope_logo-cmykThe latest cuts at St. Thomas Elgin General Hospital, which will see the lights turned out at the sleep clinic on Oct. 3, is nothing short of a bad dream for the former director of the lab.

Calling the decision to pull the plug on a clinic that saw 940 patients last year “misguided”, Dr. Charles George has sent an open letter to all members of the St. Thomas Elgin Medical Association urging them to make their concerns known.

A copy of Dr. George’s letter was sent our way anonymously in a plain, white envelope.

He notes the sleep clinic opened in the mid-1990s under the direction of Dr. Linda O’Fiara. When she departed for Montreal, Dr. George and Dr. Kathy Ferguson stepped in because, “at the time the clinic was generating revenue for the hospital and the patient volume was increasing.” Continue reading

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Filed under City of St. Thomas, City Scope, Labour issues, St. Thomas-Elgin General Hospital, staff cuts, Valleyview Home

Kenny will be packing potatoes in a higher place


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Surely no one individual has contributed more to the fibre of life in St. Thomas over the past six decades than Ken Verrell.

A compilation of his accomplishments and volunteer work forwarded to me Friday nearly fills two pages and I’m sure others could easily be added to the list.

Kenny died Wednesday afternoon at the age of 89 and where do you begin to document the life of a man who so tirelessly toiled to make this city a better place to live.

We could note he was a founding member of Golden K Kiwanis in 1987; an original founding member of the St. Thomas Curling Club on Parkside Drive; a Past Grand steward of Masonic Lodge 546, St. Thomas; vice-chairman of Crime Stoppers in St. Thomas-Elgin; founding member of the Elgin County Railway Museum; long-time volunteer with Christmas Care; an original director of Pinafore Park Memory Garden Foundation; and president and founding member of the Elgin Photographic Heritage Society, to note just a few highlights. Continue reading

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Who is in the driver’s seat for St. Thomas Energy merger plan?


city_scope_logo-cmykIt’s true the motive behind council’s decision to start looking at potential merger opportunities for St. Thomas Energy is likely the province’s offer to waive the 33 per cent transfer tax on such a transaction.
It’s an attractive incentive.
Too bad the city’s utility may not be such an attractive merger prospect.
Its parent, Ascent Group, just held a fire sale and sold off its Ascent Solutions division to Spark Power of Oakville for an undisclosed amount.
A sum ratepayers will never be privy to because Spark Power is still chuckling at the bargain basement price it paid for Tillsonburg-based Tiltran — acquired by Ascent in 2007 — and Belleville operation Tal Trees — acquired in 2009.
So, there is little left in the Ascent cupboard except St. Thomas Energy and a debt load in excess of $20 million.
Not the most attractive package for tire kickers. Continue reading

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City’s negotiations on Valleyview labour deal deemed ‘bizarre’ and ‘ludicrous’


city_scope_logo-cmykIt’s a case of “inefficiency, it’s disrespectful to the employees and it’s going to cost the city a fortune.”

Not a flattering assessment of labour negotiations between the city and Valleyview Home employees, represented by Unifor Local 27.

In fact, Unifor national representative Robert Buchanan calls the turn of events since May 25 when a settlement was reached with city administration both “bizarre” and “ludicrous.”

To recap, on June 8 about 100 City of St. Thomas employees at Valleyview voted in favour of the May 25 settlement.

The three-year deal provides for a two per cent wage increase in each year of the deal in addition to health and welfare benefit improvements.

The employees have been without a contract since Dec. 31 of last year.

The union’s bargaining team also secured a commitment from the city to maintain full-time jobs and add more staffing hours to the laundry department.

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Filed under Alma College, City of St. Thomas, City Scope, Health Care, Heritage, Valleyview Home

For the Professor, latest accessibility report would just be more of the same


city_scope_logo-cmykWhile he had become accustomed to findings similar to those contained in a report to council Monday, the Professor would be far from pleased with the latest report card.
Prior to his death in February, Ed McLachlan spent years as a member of the St. Thomas Municipal Accessibility Advisory Committee and filed many reports to council  on accessibility issues in all city-owned facilities.
Lesley Buchanan is now chair of the committee and the annual site audit is on the agenda for all to see.
Here is a sampling of the ongoing barriers the handicapped face.

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Filed under accessibility, Alma College, City of St. Thomas, City Scope, Education, Labour issues, Municipal elections

Interpreting Ascent deal through our ‘filters’


city_scope_logo-cmykThree members of council are in favour of keeping the people who elected them to office in the dark about the comings and goings at Ascent, formerly known as St. Thomas Energy.
Well actually it may only be two but we’ll get to that in a moment.
The trio, Mayor Heather Jackson and councillors Gary Clarke and Linda Stevenson sit on the Ascent board of directors which met May 26 to deal with the sale of its Ascent Solutions division to Spark Power of Oakville.
Included in the deal are Tillsonburg-based Tiltran — acquired by Ascent in 2007 — and Belleville operation Tal Trees — acquired in 2009.
This corner — and we’re sure many ratepayers — would like financial disclosure on the sale.
Guess what, that is not about to happen. Continue reading

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Filed under Ascent, City of St. Thomas, City Scope, Cycling/cycle lanes

Sutherland stalling hits ratepayers in the pocket


city_scope_logo-cmykIf it didn’t pose such a financial burden on the city, the Sutherland saga would be comedic relief in best Keystone Cops fashion.
Take, for example, the return to court this past Tuesday in what was to be the start of a scheduled two-day hearing to determine the fate of the 103-year-old structure.
Instead you have a solicitor and three city staffers sitting in stunned silence across from building owner David McGee and his lawyer as Ontario Justice Gorman announces she has only set aside five minutes for the proceedings.
So, who dropped the ball here?
It was made perfectly clear when the two sides last faced off in April the next step would entail presentations from the city seeking to proceed with demolition of the derelict building while McGee and his lawyer would counter with the argument there is nothing structurally wrong with the four-storey structure. Continue reading

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Filed under Ascent, City of St. Thomas, City Scope, Sutherland Press building, Wind power

Ascent sale is finalized, and now ratepayers are waiting for financial disclosure


city_scope_logo-cmykIt was late Friday afternoon when the media release arrived announcing completion of Spark Power’s acquisition of Ascent Solutions Inc., a division of Ascent (formerly St. Thomas Energy).
The pending sale was announced at the beginning of March and involves the Oakville, Ontario firm’s purchase of Tillsonburg-based Tiltran — acquired by Ascent in 2007 — and Belleville operation Tal Trees — acquired in 2009.
Both will operate as members of the Spark Power Group of Companies but function as autonomous, highly integrated operating teams, according to the release.
Tiltran and Tal Trees specialize in constructing and maintaining medium to high voltage substations and power lines, engineering services and equipment sales and offer 24/7 emergency response.
The combined businesses include 53 employees based in the two locations.  Continue reading

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Filed under Alma College, Ascent, City of St. Thomas, City Scope, Heritage

A little good news on the Alma College front


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Over the past decade, there has been precious little in the way of positive news emanating from the rubble that is Alma College.
That is until last week when employees of R. Good Concrete of Aylmer uncovered the McLachlin Hall cornerstone that dates back to 1888.
How did the crew clearing the 11-acre site of debris hit paydirt with the discovery?
Credit goes to St. Thomas native Ryan Belanger, who has kept in touch with fellow history buff Steve Peters in an attempt to locate the stone, assumed to contain a time capsule.
Belanger contacted London developer Gino Reale to alert him as to the possibility the object in question was likely buried amid tons of yellow bricks and other building materials.

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Filed under Alma College, City of St. Thomas, City Scope, Heritage, Sutherland Press building

More comfort needed at Pinafore Park comfort station?


city_scope_logo-cmykFor well over a century, Pinafore Park has served as the city’s playground. Family gatherings, seniors’ picnics, the Fire Muster and Canada Day celebrations to document just a few of the activities that attract residents and visitors to this green oasis.
Alas, a corner of the park is known for a far darker reason.
Torn down earlier this month, the nearly 60-year-old washrooms were the subject of interest on several truly disturbing websites.
Their internet reputation was brought to our attention by an individual we will refer to as Chris, a victim of childhood sexual abuse.
He started sending photos of the men’s washrooms, many of them downloaded from adult websites.
As Chris describes it, “Pictures included here are from a website that is for adults but some youth are being involved or targetted. This is but two examples of two men looking for younger males. The two here are or say they are from the London area. They are trying to make contact with an 18-year-old. Both offering money to an 18-year-old. I am sure it is a concern, as Pinafore Park is mentioned.”

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Filed under Alma College, Ascent, City of St. Thomas, City Scope, Heritage, Parks and recreation

The Dobbie Report: Was the damning document highjacked?


city_scope_logo-cmykAfter reading the unabridged version of the Dobbie Report, it’s not so much the concerns raised by the author, London consultant Tim Dobbie, are troublesome — and they most certainly are — it’s the manner in which the document itself was withheld from the previous council.
And we’re not certain all members of this council received “a thorough presentation of this report and an implementation update as part of their council orientation,” a critical recommendation of the report.
But let’s step back for a moment to get up to speed on the report itself.
The organizational review of the environmental services department — budgeted at $20,000 — was undertaken in the summer of 2014 and involved interviews with staff, department heads, members of council and outside stakeholders. Along with 10 sweeping recommendations, the review details major issues facing the City of St. Thomas, including the almost $300 million infrastructure deficit.
A highly edited version was presented to the outgoing council on Nov. 3, 2014. The report was endorsed that evening by a slim 5-3 margin with aldermen Cliff Barwick, Tom Johnston and Dave Warden opposed.

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Filed under 2014 municipal election, City of St. Thomas, City Scope, workplace harassment

Last stand imminent for Alma College chapel


city_scope_logo-cmykAfter years of broken promises, neglect, vandalism and the ravages of weather, the final countdown has begun for the Alma College chapel.
Mind you little remains of the chapel — opened in 1948 and, in more caring times, known as Ella D. Bowes Chapel — save for the brick walls and a barely hanging together roof.
Friday morning, new owner Gino Reale of London was given permission by the city to demolish the chapel in which many St. Thomas and area couples were married.
He told this corner the structure was far beyond any hope of restoration and had become a serious safety hazard after several small fires and a roof courting collapse.
Final rights for the chapel could come as early as the beginning of the week.
Most frustrating in all of this is previous owner George Zubick had been issued a list of cleanup priorities by Wade Woznuk, at that time property standards officer for the city. Those included repairs to the chapel roof with an engineer “to inspect to determine extent of structural damage and required repairs.”
Those repairs were to include new asphalt roof shingles. Continue reading

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Filed under Alma College, City of St. Thomas, City Scope, downtown development, minimum property standards

City to further invest in west end


The city’s long-suffering west end received a significant shot in the arm Wednesday – the second life line extended to the western gateway this year.
City manager Wendell Graves announced the municipality has extended a conditional offer to London developer Shmuel Farhi to purchase a vacant plot of land on the south side of Talbot St., between William and Queen streets, and extending to Centre St.
The site is being considered for development of a community hub to house the Ontario Works department and the Central Community Health Centre, both currently occupying office space along the north side of Talbot St. Continue reading

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Filed under City of St. Thomas, City Scope, downtown development, Heritage

Round 1 in Demo Derby #2 goes to St. Thomas


23jt01sutherlandjpgLikening the drawn-out proceedings to a dog chasing its tail, both sides in the Sutherland Press building saga appeared Monday before Justice Desotti at the Elgin County Courthouse.
Toronto owner David McGee – in a replay of court proceedings in 2008 – is attempting to sidetrack the city’s second attempt to demolish the four-storey Talbot St. structure that dates back to 1913.
The city has already tendered a demolition contract with Schouten Excavating, who submitted the lowest bid in the amount of $101,135 and McGee is seeking a court injunction to halt any attempts to dismantle the edifice.

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Filed under City of St. Thomas, City Scope, Sutherland Press building

Sutherland insurance policy is somewhat reassuring


city_scope_logo-cmykThe dog-and-pony show known as the Sutherland Saga returned to the courtroom Friday as city staff and legal counsel sat across from Toronto owner David McGee and his lawyer Valerie McGarry in the Elgin County Courthouse.
McGarry, by the way, was McGee’s lawyer in 2008 who successfully argued the city should not be allowed to continue with demolition of the four-storey structure constructed in 1913.
That victory, noted McGarry, “gives him (McGee) an opportunity to demonstrate that he always intended to restore and maintain and refurbish that building.”
Really.So why are ratepayers on the hook for another legal tussle that will hit them in the pocket for thousands in court costs and possible penalties owing to Schouten Excavating who submitted the lowest demolition tender in the amount of $101,135. They were expected to begin last month.
So what transpired Friday?
In airline parlance, we’re in a holding pattern. Continue reading

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Filed under City of St. Thomas, City Scope, Sutherland Press building, Tourism

Should city consider purchasing its downtown nemesis?


city_scope_logo-cmykJust when you thought the Sutherland Saga couldn’t attain grander levels of absurdity, comes word the structure is now on the market as a power of sale listing.
As of March 19, the building is available for purchase from E & M Cavaco for $99,888.
While the listing didn’t quite describe it in this fashion, we can imagine something along the lines of this.
“A spectacular fixer-upper in need of a little loving attention. Ideal for the handyman. With a little time and resources could be returned to former glory. Close to downtown and adjacent to rail transportation. No reasonable offer refused.”
So where does this leave the city and (former?) owner David McGee? They are supposed to appear in St. Thomas court next Friday as McGee attempts again to stall demolition of the structure that dates back to 1913.

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Filed under City of St. Thomas, City Scope, Parks and recreation, Port Stanley, Sutherland Press building