Thursday, February 23, 2012

Do high school hijinks threaten Central's future?

Barrie Central Collegiate’s future is news again, as the school board prepares capital priorities for the Ministry of Education. A new Central is on the list, which is spun as a good news for Central supporters. Yet this request raises more questions than answers.
First, the timing. In some years, the Ministry asks school boards to compile wish lists. This year, it has not. There is no pressing need for staff to draft a list, nor for trustees to approve and send it on. So why go through this exercise now?
And what about the details? Funding is sought to build a new downtown high school for 400 students. If this strikes you as a shockingly low number, that’s because it is. Although the staff report claims this represents the outcome of the Accommodation Review Committee, no such number was ever presented at the ARC. It’s less than half the current enrollment of 905 or even the projected 834 student population of 2021-2022, to say nothing of the downtown growth the city and province expect (but the board staff dismiss). Apparently it comes from subtracting everyone currently bused in or enrolled in the alternative programs that work best downtown.
This tiny figure originates from planning staff who earlier ruled out the future of a high school with fewer than the 1200-1400 students they arbitrarily declared optimal. If today’s numbers aren’t big enough, how could only 400 be floated? I’m all for smaller schools, but this strains credulity.
From the start, staff resolved to close Central, while the community ARC was adamant that it be saved. Is it possible that, in the guise of following the ARC’s recommendation for a rebuild, staff are actually trying to get Central’s future rejected by the Ministry, so they can resume their original path to closure?
Coincidentally, a name from the past has returned. When the Barrie high school ARC launched with bells tolling for Central’s imminent closure and sale, the board’s Associate Director was Carol McAulay. But she left the process about halfway through, moving on to new employment. Meanwhile, a surge of Central support secured a reprieve. If Central had closed on the staff’s proposed deadline of June 2012, for sale signs would be popping up any day now.
Yet with Barrie’s downtown struggling to fill leases and replace burnt-out buildings, who would buy a large lot zoned for educational use?
It turns out Laurentian University is eager to own a piece of downtown Barrie for their planned satellite campus. And guess who’s in charge of securing that property? Laurentian’s new VP Administration, Carol McAulay. I wonder if she had a spot in mind when she hired on?

Published in my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner under the title "Barrie Central debate back in the crosshairs"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of the Ontario School of Economic Science and Earthsharing Canada

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Toward a better future: Plug-In Hybrids & Smarter Grids

Guest blogger: Shawn P. Conroy

Energy prices continue the rise because people turn to increasing our capacity: as we build more power generation plants, we have to pay for this with higher energy prices. But do we really need to make new, large and costly coal, gas or nuclear power plants? At the same time, what about cutting gas emissions from cars? As the industry moves toward hybrid cars some have asked if instead of burning gasoline we will need to burn coal to fuel these cars. But the truth is that electric cars and plug in hybrid cars can really help our over all power grid. We don't need more power, we need smarter, efficient power.

Below is 10 minute video that explains how our power grid works, and how smart grids and plug-in and hybrid cars can help us more efficiently use the power we already have.

Basically, we can use the car batteries as batteries for our cities, charging when power demand is low, and feeding that power back in to the grid when power demand is high. This elegant solution is better than what we have now. You can choose to have your car suck power out of the grid when energy prices are cheap, like at night. Then, you can allow your car to feed that power back in to the grid when prices are high. You benefit. The power company benefits. Other consumer benefit. It's what the Office TV show would call a win-win-win. This could steady our power demand making peak times of the power grid more manageable. This isn't the only way of shifting power. In any case, power shifting is very important because it increases the efficiency of our power grid:
Grid energy storage (also called large-scale energy storage) refers to the methods used to store electricity on a large scale within an electrical power grid. Electrical energy is stored during times when production (from power plants) exceeds consumption and the stores are used at times when consumption exceeds production. In this way, electricity production need not be drastically scaled up and down to meet momentary consumption – instead, production is maintained at a more constant level. This has the advantage that fuel-based power plants (i.e. coal, oil, gas) can be more efficiently and easily operated at constant production levels.
(From Wikipedia's article on Grid energy storage.)
Power shifting allows us to more efficiently use the power plants we have now, and reduced the need for new power plants. This results in less expensive energy, cleaner air, and greater efficiency without sacrificing anything. It's simply a better way.

Landlord info session coming up

Are you a landlord, or have you considered purchasing a rental property, or renting out a room or apartment in your house? If so, then the Landlord Information Session on March 7th is for you.
Presented by the Barrie Chapter of the Simcoe County Alliance to End Homelessness, this forum will provide lots of useful information on many topics, and let you ask questions or connect with experts who can help solve many landlord issues.
Homelessness and lack of affordable housing are problems that must be addressed in many ways, and private market rentals are part of the solution. Yet many landlords get turned off due to a bad experience, while other potential landlords are scared away. This doesn’t have to be the case; there are community resources that can help make renting a better experience for landlords and tenants.
This session will include presentations from a lawyer with the community legal clinic who will explain rights and responsibilities of landlords and tenants, and perhaps debunk some myths about both. Did you know that it’s a myth that a tenant can’t be evicted in the winter, or that it is illegal to charge more than one month’s rent as a deposit? Or you might not know that you pet bans aren’t effective anymore, but it’s getting easier to ban smoking in rental units. Get other useful information from the Community Legal Clinic at this session.
One group who have trouble with housing are those with a disability. Yet a tenant with a reliable monthly government cheque may be the least likely to fall behind on the rent, since you don’t get laid off from a disability! Yet some landlords worry that a tenant with a disability might cause more problems. A representative from the Canadian Mental Health Association will explain the resources that can help landlords and tenants have a harmonious relationship so our most vulnerable aren’t left unhoused.
A representative from Simcoe County will explain grants or credits available to renovate a rental unit to be more accessible. Not only does this provide better housing, but it expands your potential market, especially as the population ages. There will also be advice about tax benefits from a professional accountant.
One tenacious problem these days is bedbugs. Luckily, there is a new way of dealing with them in a single, non-toxic treatment, and it will be presented at this session.
The Landlord Information Session is on Wednesday, March 7th and runs from 6:30 to 9 PM, at Collier United Church. If you would like to attend, please RSVP to Kelly Bell at or 705-739-9909 by February 29th. We’d love to see you there, to help support you in your rentals.

Published in my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Info session available for aspiring landlords".
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of the Ontario School of Economic Science and Earthsharing Canada

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Better OAS reforms are possible

Since Prime Minister Harper’s surprise announcement at the billionaire’s conference in Davos, Switzerland, reforms to Old Age Security (OAS) have been hotly debated.
Often mentioned is that by 2030 we will have a peak level of seniors, and their benefits will cost about 50% more of our GDP than now. So how to prepare over the coming two decades?
The first thing to put on the table is the purpose of OAS. It is not an earned pension; you don’t pay into it, it isn’t saved up, you don’t earn it. Any Canadian over 65 receives it, regardless of how much, or how little, they contributed to society over their lifetime. Lifelong workhorse or surly slacker, struggling single mother or comfortable trust-fund loafer, recipient of a 25-year prison sentence or an Order of Canada – you are eligible for the exact same benefit.
The pensions you earn and save are CPP, your RSPs, and (if you have one), your employer pension. No reform should take these away from anyone.
But OAS was created before CPP, before RSPs, before most people had workplace pensions, and designed to provide basic security for the elderly, keep them off the streets and out of food banks.
Yet now it’s treated like an entitlement, a little monthly perk. Full OAS continues almost up to $70,000 income, and you still receive some past $110,000! To put this in perspective, median Canadian income is around $30,000, which means half of us get by on less. So the first reform for OAS is to stop giving it to those who make double the average income, and target more toward those struggling to get by on less. Start the reduction at $45,000 and phase it all out by $70,000. (Keep in mind that retirement income is pegged at 70% of working income, so a pension of $70,000 is like a salary of $100,000.) We taxpayers need to help our struggling seniors, not give mad money to snowbirds.
But rather than delay benefits to 67, as the Conservatives have suggested, how about adopting the age flexibility of CPP. That way, you could start benefits as early as 60, at a lower rate, or delay as late as 70, for a higher monthly cheque. This way, those in the most need are not left behind.
But most important, let’s reduce our need for seniors’ welfare altogether, by strengthening our contributory pensions. Increase CPP contribution rates and benefits. Allow people to voluntarily top-up CPP as if their income were at the yearly maximum pensionable earnings (YMPE). Protect private pensions from bankruptcy and corporate raiders.
The better we can save for retirement, the less we’ll need government to look after us, and the better we’ll feel about it.

Published in my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner under the title "Saving now means a healthier retirement". Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of the Ontario School of Economic Science and Earthsharing Canada

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Do our MPs really deserve to 'win Lotto 308'?

Last week, Prime Minister Harper flew to Switzerland to make statements on our nation’s pension sustainability, spurring much talk back here in Canada about which pensions need reform, and whether there will be wealth enough to pay our retirement benefits in the future.
Everyone agrees that the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) will remain solvent for the long term. But there are real questions about the future cost of Old Age Security (OAS), and some well-deserved uproar about the rich pensions our Members of Parliament receive.
Today I’ll talk about MP pensions, and in future columns look at OAS and the issue of public service compensation in general.
First, the facts: each of our 308 Members of Parliament has a base annual salary of $157,731, plus expenses, with bonuses for MPs who serve in Cabinet or other special roles. MP salaries are thus in the top 2% or better of Canadians, which gives them several options for financing retirement. Their mostly taxpayer-funded pension plan kicks in after 6 years in office and begins paying out at age 55. By way of example, our Barrie Member Patrick Brown will be eligible for $46,049 per year by 2015, or $64,989 if re-elected again. (These benefit amounts come from the report issued by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation).
This generous plan was founded in 1952, to protect MPs from a loss of income. Otherwise, only the rich could afford to stand for public office. At the time, it made sense, but since then, new options have arrived, including CPP and RRSP programs. Their salary is well above the yearly maximum pensionable earnings for CPP, and above the level of maximum RRSP contributions, so an MP can reap the maximum from each of these plans. Yet the MP pension has not been amended to take today’s situation into account.
We need not go as far as Ontario or Alberta, which both offer no pension for members of their provincial legislatures. I’m also worried that ending MPs pensions could go hand-in-hand with windfall buyout payments, as happened under Ontario premier Mike Harris in 1996.
An MP’s role involves real work of real value, so they deserve a fair pension like any other Canadian. But do they really deserve to, as one of my friends puts it, “win Lotto 308”?
What seems fair to me is for MPs to receive a pension in line with the rest of Canadians. Their contributions should be matched dollar-for-dollar, and their nominal retirement age should be the same as for the rest of us: sixty-five. They should be able to fully participate in CPP and RRSPs. Including those other benefits, this would ensure that MPs received a fair reward without putting an unnecessary burden upon the public purse.

Published in my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner. 
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of the Ontario School of Economic Science and Earthsharing Canada