Saturday, December 20, 2008



Three ways of describing municipal assessment in Ontario today. And if you want to disagree, say because you work for the Municipal Property Assessment Corp., be warned that one of those words is from Premier Dalton McGuinty.
Indeed, there is such an aura of stupidity, arrogance and sloppy arithmetic about MPAC and how it has screwed up, again, that I didn't feel it necessary to bellow.After all, even the premier doesn't think the latest barrage of numbers from MPAC are realistic. Of course, ever since the provincial ombudsman, Andre Marin, ripped to shreds how MPAC flopped at its task in 2006, MPAC has no defenders, other than a few profs who want to explain in Dick-and-Jane fashion how market-value assessment works.
So I was gentler than usual in a blog about the latest calculations from MPAC. And I conceded their task isn't simple. But observers like Penny Caldwell, the editor of Cottage Life, seemed to wonder about my restraint in a blog she writes.But I believe in the old lawyers' maxim. If you have a strong case, state it calmly. If you have a weak case, shout.
It's possible Ms. Caldwell has nerves scraped by all the incidents reported to her from cottage country about inane assessments. Yet I figure this time our case is so substantial, there is no need to bellow that these assessors may set a record as the stupidest bureaucrats on Planet Earth.
After nearly 6,000 columns and several thousand editorials, I am used to turning up the rhetoric. But when this fog of unreality hangs over an issue, let them stew in their own miscalculations.
In a blog, I said the assessment on my cottage on the Trent River has gone up 300% since Jan. 1, 2005, even though the only improvements made came after the MPAC deadline of Jan. 1, 2008, for the next round of tax increases.
Torontonians are also furious about their latest jumps in assessment, one of the two factors in determining your municipal taxes. (Councils set the other factor, the mill rate.)
And in the city, I've been hit again. But miraculously it was only a 27% increase. Of course my neighbour's house sold for $50,000 less than the asking price - and that was before the real estate market blew apart in this recession/depression - but the assessor once again ignored such pertinent info.
Up in cottage country around Burnt Point (where the Trent River curves south of Havelock) my neighbours are up in arms about increases far smaller than my cottage's 300%.
When the key people in the North Seymour Ratepayers Association get together to talk about what's happening with two massive developments that would ruin our area, they are furious about 55% and 60% increases.
The irony, of course, is that in columns for the Toronto Sun, and in pontifications on various TV and radio shows, I have predicted for several years that a slump in real estate was coming.
That was the "bust" part of the best-selling book by David Foot of U. of T. And cottage country faced huge problems in gasoline costs and cottage taxes. The spectre of pervasive unemployment hung over everything. This depression/recession didn't hit out of the blue. For several years if you went to the annual financial meetings of companies like the giant Fairfax insurance conglomerate, run by Prem Watsa, Watsa warned you that the perfect storm was going to hit the world economy.
It arrived right on schedule, but I don't think even Watsa realized just how many dumb jerks there were who could waste a billion dollars as if it was used gum.
Yet MPAC, plus more senior over-paid bureaucrats, didn't prepare for it. So major budgets were incapable of dealing with the emergenices. And all the assessment calculations for the coming years have been rendered meaningless because of the collapse of the real estate markets. We are supposed to pay taxes for years based on calculations that no longer make sense. Profs and politicians may argue that it really doesn't matter what the new market-value calculations are as long as everyone is treated the same. But, of course, they aren't all being treated the same when you have the assessments for some properties set below what the properties just sold for on the open market, and then there are all the properties where the assessment is higher than the taxpayers just paid.
What madness is this! When assessments are set too low on your property, your neighbours are screwed. When the assessments are too high, you're being screwed.
Where cottage assessments differ from those in the city is in the added value placed on water frontage. Yet around my cottage, and indeed in many stretches of shoreline in southern Ontario, there are now so many weeds due to zebra mussels, it's difficult to swim and some cottages have been up for sale for years. The carefree days when you couid romp or work in the water without water shoes and gloves is now just a memory. It's a regular battle against the snarls of weeds, and one you face with the active opposition of governments. There are gauntlets of permits, and if you do finally get permission to use a herbicide, it costs more than Channel No. 5.
Of course, cottagers hardly are given municipal services to match those routinely provided within even villages. The nearest real public road is 1.6 km from my cottage. The municipality sort of looks after another kilometre, leaving the vital final link up to us. We have, of course, no sewers, potable water, street lights and garbage collection, and, as we've found out during city strikes, don't even think of putting a child into the local schools.
Yet councils really don't appreciate all the revenue they get from their seasonal residents. Cottage taxes are useful to pay for improvements to infrastructure that benefit year-round residents most. But heaven help you if you have the gall to protest some local's scheme. Then you hear all about the NIMBYs who don't care about local jobs.
A councillor wrote the Sun after my column about this saying that I didn't have the right to criticize when I hadn't lived there year-round for years. The Trent Hills mayor mouthed similar malarkey after many cottagers had the audacity to show up to complain about a massive local development.
I proposed twenty years ago that Queen's Park stop this nonsense where cottagers were good only to be plucked as if they were chickens rather than golden geese. I said a royal commission should examine the fairness of cottage taxation and determine if they were paying more than their share, The commission could have been headed by someone like Frank Miller, a former premier and treasurer who owned two resorts. After all many hearings into taxation have produced some startling findings, such as the one chaired by Willis Blair, a prime-rib Tory and former senior councillor, who found in the late 1970s that there were thousands of properties in Ontario that paid no municipal taxes at all, due to corruption or stupidity.
Now that we face years of taxes based on unreal assessments, but the one man who could stop this does nothing but say he as premier hopes that councils will be gentle when they rape their taxpayers. And we're certainly not going to be aided by councillors like Toronto's budget chief, Shelley Carroll, who points out that homeowners don't pay that much towards the cost of services. (Of course, the way Toronto's council has sold out to the unions, the cost of those services has become obscenely bloated.)
When McGuinty asks councils to be reasonable, it's like putting a big steak in front of a pit bull and expecting it not to gobble it up if you ask nicely. Taxpayers will be lucky if their arms aren't chawed off.
The sad thing about all this is that it's only going to get worst. These MPAC estimates for what our properties are worth now for taxation purposes will seem like the cruelest joke ever perpetrated on the residents of Ontario who are no stranger to the jests of the clowns in government.

Sunday, December 14, 2008



There are few things more contentious than the assessment on your property, which is a key part in determining your municipal taxes. It's so difficult, the Ontario agency is almost in a lose-lose situation before it tackles, and fails, to determine accurately all the market values for all the properties in the 321 municipalities.
After all, there are around four million properties, so it's a formidable task for people who seem to have failed basic arithmetic. Or they may be just sloppy.
The problem is that if some bureaucrats screw up the assessments in your neighbourhood, every neighbour suffers because your property is judged by the value of all the other nearby homes, condos, shops and cottages. And if the assessments are too low on some homes, it means that home's owner is a freeloader on our taxes.
I have plenty of support for my argument that the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation is not doing a good job. Nope, not just the anguished stories that explode out of our newspapers and speciality publications like Cottage Life. MPAC, a non-profit agency, is just a decade old but has already been found wanting and condemned by its customer, the provincial government, thanks to damning examinations by its officials, and then came the scathing report of the independent ombudsman, Andre Marin.
But someone has to do the job. And, heaven knows, MPAC takes enough money from Queen's Park, more than $130 million annually, which helps run an elaborate appeal system. Is it needed! Too bad if you use a Mac, you're out of luck using any Internet links.
They err on both sides, too high and too low. I know of examples that will curl your hair even if you're bald.
Toronto's a mess, and cottage country is worse. Ratepayer groups are furious. I know of one property that sold a year or so ago for nearly $200,000. Obviously establishing a market value for that home is not hard, and that's a major fact in considering value at the crucial MPAC-decreed time of Jan. 1, 2008. Yet assessors, who knew that sales price, say the property is worth around $160,000. Then there's the house where the owners got a valuation a year ago of $330,000, but MPAC says the property is worth $100,000 less.
There are far more big increases, of course. On my cottage, of 300%. No, you didn't read that incorrectly. 300%!
Before I explain my horror story, let me emphasize the unreality about this entire process, which will determine the taxes we will pay until 2012. The foundation for what MPAC is doing rests on the assumption that the value of Ontario properties will stay the same or increase over the next four years.
Do I really have to point out that the value of 99.9% of the properties in Ontario has been sliding since Jan. 1, 2008, the point at which they fixed our assessments. Not only have the value of sales slumped dramatically, so have the number of sales. And it's only going to get worse when such giant employers as GM will either be closing or downsizing dramatically.
In my cottage area near Havelock, where many have commuted to GM jobs in Oshawa, not only will those homes and cottages be selling at lower prices, so will the homes dumped by city residents who won't be able to afford two properties when they're struggling to pay for one.
MPAC may want to argue that this won't matter since the same is true for all properties. Except councils will be slow to reduce the mill rates, which is the other factor for our taxes. Like almost all governments, those extra tens of millions will stick to the hands of the civil (?) servants and not come back.
Oh yes, about my own explosion in cottage assessment, which matches the horror stories in Cottage Life magazine. My assessment for Burnt Point on the Trent River was $76,000 on Jan. 1, 2005. I have the records. Except MPAC says it was $144,000. It appears this weird calculation is based on an assessment of $92,000 plus a new addition I built worth $52,000. Except MPAC knows that the addition was built and occupied after the crucial date of Jan. 1, 2008, because I had already appealed the occupancy date to MPAC and won. So the addition can not be used in the Jan. 1, 2008 calculation.
Yet MPAC decrees my cottage is now worth $226,000 for taxation purposes for the next four years. I have appealed, of course.
If I had made a string of basic mistakes like that as an editor or columnist, I wouldn't have lasted five decades in the media. The assessors shouldn't be free of the same performance demands that the rest of us face. Base part of their pay on the only market-value assessment figure that really counts, what properties actually sell for. Every time a property sells for less than what MPAC says is its market value, the assessors for that area are penalized and the taxpayer gets a rebate.
That's only a dream but it's better than this nightmare.

Saturday, December 13, 2008



An old wound ached the minute the Liberals and NDP fell into a passionate embrace in bed.
And afterwards the Bloc Quebecois smoked and said the coupling was a victory for separatism.
I remember when that happened provincially, fortunately without the BQ using the Grits and socialists in a coalition against our country.
It was early May in 1985 and the revolt was flourishing in Ontario over too many years of Tory rule.
Frank Miller just couldn't swim as premier with all that baggage on his back. So the Tories won only 52 seats with the Liberals under a new streamlined David Peterson coming close with 48. And the NDP were out of it. But...
Barbara Frum and the National needed a couple of "experts" to pontificate on national CBC TV on election night. So I agreed, even though I knew this was dangerous in only my fourth month as Editor of the Toronto Sun. I knew that Doug Creighton, the boss of Sun Media, hated his experts giving their views away on TV, especially the CBC, right in the heat of battle when they should be in the office.
I even knew when it all began, when Bob Frewin, the football expert for the Tely and Sun, was so busy with the electronic media that he couldn't file during the Grey Cup, leaving me to write the play-by-play of the biggest game of the year.
But I went to the studio convinced I would be back in an hour or so. But the election was so close, we did one National for the Maritimes, then a second for Ontario, then a final one for the West. And I returned feeling guilty.
At that time, the Sun was the largest Conservative paper in the country. And I wasn't about to jettison Miller when he was four seats ahead. After all, the Tories were masters at minority government. So I wrote the editorial that, of course, the Tories should continue in power.
Then my world collapsed. I was in the composing room putting in the final comment when Ed Monteith, the powerful news boss, said with a smirk that Creighton was furious and wanted to speak to me ASAP.
Creighton insisted my editorial say that the Tories had blown it, and Peterson, with whom he was friendly, should take over. I said no, that parliamentary tradition gave first crack at governing to the leader with the most seats. He insisted. I refused.
Creighton hung up in a fury. So I, as the new Editor, enlisted the help of the new publisher, Paul Godfrey, only eight months in the job. Godfrey was calm and sympathetic when I roused him in the middle of the night, saying I was right and he would talk to the boss.
That didn't work. Creighton was still furious the next morning but I only found that out through others. He rdidn't talk to me for days. I had worked with him and for him since 1958, but I might as well have been in an igloo.
Two days after the election, I was drowning my concerns about my perilous position at the Toronto Press Club. We were honouring the latest inductees in the news hall of fame. We had persuaded the Lieutenant Governor, John Black Aird, to preside.
Afterwards, Aird, a Bay St. lawyer with the bearing of a leader of the Establishment, took Knowlton Nash and me aside
Everyone knew Nash, the most famous voice in the country, and I had met Aird over the years primarily at functions organized by Creighton. But then Creighton, a Conservative, knew everyone, even Liberals.
I raised the growing controversy over the minority government and asked if Aird had seen it coming. I didn't expect a complete answer. But Aird then began a remarkable candid talk about what he faced.
He said he sensed it would be minority and several days before the election, had asked his lawyer, the legendary John J. Robinette, to come see him the morning after.
He then asked what we though about the need for another election. I said that Ontario voters had been averaging an election a year since the 1970s, if you added the federal, provincial and municipal elections, and were election weary. Nash agreed. And then, to our surprise, Aird said he did too.
So we chatted amiably about letting the Tories have a chance and then, if they floundered, letting Peterson become premier. And we had another drink.
Nash said later that he was astounded Aird had been so open about seeking our opinion and telling us what he was thinking. Then he asked whether I was going to write about it. After all, Aird hadn't said it was off-the-record. I said that the press club had an understanding that things said there stayed there. And I wasn't going to write about it because I thought Aird treated us as gentlemen who wouldn't run to the nearest phone. Nash agreed, which was important to me. After all, he wasn't just a talking head but a shrewd author who had been a wire service reporter and Washington columnist.
So there were at least three people not surprised weeks later when Aird ignored a possible election and gave the Liberal-NDP Accord a chance to work because of Tory turmoil. But not all our colleagues agreed. Bob MacDonald, the acerbic Sun columnist, said Aird had reverted to his days as a Liberal bagman and it was disgraceful.
The column was so rough, I expected a vice-regal call. But Aird never mentioned it. But then he was that kind of guy. A born leader who performed brilliantly in his post because he was a natural populist. He played floor hockey with the Variety Village kids despite the pain of a chronic bad back. He learned sign language. And when he left the job, I wrote an editorial that he had mounted in plastic and kept on his desk at the law office. Maybe there was some extra praise triggered by his forbearance when the Sun writers belted him around like a puck.
I'm sure he consulted widely, and not just with Canada's most famous criminal lawyer, the national TV anchor and a newspaper editor. I'm sure Governor-General Michaelle Jean did the same. One of the reasons they have the post is because they know how, like Mark Twain, to take soundings of their surroundings.
I was reminded in the Dec. 10 issue of the useful news letter called Inside Queen's Park (founded by that amiable expert, Graham Murray) about the negotiations in 1985 between key Grit and NDP members to work out the Accord and a Throne Speech etc.
They were fascinating days at Queen's Park. Of course the Accord didn't last, Peterson won big in an election, then got too cocky and abandoned his huge advantage for another election in 1990. And that spawned the horrible NDP government led by Bob Rae, who is still so tarnished by his record that some academic/journalist who has been wandering the world as an intellectual carpetbagger can easily win over the national caucus against him.
There are some who think back to Queen's Park and 1985 and say that if this coalition thwarts Stephen Harper, they should be given a chance to govern because voters again are election weary. Except the huge difference is that this coalition is propped up by a cabal of traitors despised by English Canada. Their blackmail makes an election so attractive, the Grits and socialists should be careful in their opposition or they will be decimated.

Friday, December 12, 2008



About 40 years ago, when I first started going across the street to the Christmas concert at Sunnylea Junior School, some prof in the United States invented a black celebration that he called Kwanzaa.
He was jealous of Christmas, you see. Too many white people dreaming of a white Christmas.
Who would have thought four decades later that the Christmas party across the street can no longer speak its name. Now the politically correct folk have called it December Traditions. And Kwanzaa is right up there with any celebration of angels watching their flocks by night.
The phone rang the other night just when I planned to veg in front of the TV with a mug of tea. My son and his wife wanted to know if we were going to their sons' Christmas party. No, I said. Then I asked what the grandsons were doing and it turned out that Matthew, 10, was the MC and Mikey, 9, was playing a chicken.
So that is why I was the first person sitting in the auditorium to make sure we could see Matthew strut his stuff.
It was fun watching the kids' faces. They even snuck in a few references to Jesus, I think. Though it was almost submerged under all the other stuff, such as a Yiddish play in honour of Hanukkah.
The Jews I know are almost embarrassed that the PC folk have elevated one of their religious events to a major status when it used to be rather a minor occasion. As for Kwanzaa, it really is a superficial challenge to the centuries of religion and tradition that have created the modern Christmas.
But I come not to denigrate the other celebrations, no matter how artificial. Celebrate them and God bless you as you do so.
But they really aren't a match for Christmas which has certainly exploded into the secular world far from its roots as being a mass for Christ.
I have noticed in the annual de-Christianizing of this holiday season that the defenders have grown ruder as the attackers become stupider. All this stuff about whether it's a Christmas tree or a holiday tree has become laughable since its Christmas roots are so obvious and come from pagan times..
But this year I'm not going to waste energy on the jerks who so obviously don't get the basic message of Christmas which is acceptable to all religions. That is all religions that aren't busy killing their neighbours.
Nope, I'm off to sing some carols and drink some rum nog. And don't bother arguing with me that in this secular country we have no business letting a religious event dominate our calendar. I will defend your right to argue about that, just as I am happy to call you an idiot who doesn't understand that Christmas outgrew the Church and Santa Claus some time ago.