Hydro president speaks

The following article appeared in the Spetember 18 edition of the Guelph Mercury:

Residents worried about ‘secretive’ business plan not being made public

The City of Guelph can no longer function as an island.

That was the message from both Guelph Hydro and Karl Wettstein, chair of the city’s finance committee, at a Ward 2 public meeting held last night to discuss the budget and the possible Guelph Hydro merger with Horizon Utilities.

With Hamilton voting on the merger today, St. Catharines on Sept. 22 and Guelph on Sept. 29, hydro took the brunt of the heat from the crowd of about 40 people assembled at Evergreen Seniors Centre.

“The merger is all about providing better service and lower costs . . . and greater dividends to the city,” said Art Stokman, president of Guelph Hydro.

He said he expects the merger to pass at Hamilton and St. Catharines councils, leaving the weight of the responsibility on Guelph council.

Both Ward 2 councillors, Vicki Beard and Ian Findlay, said they had not yet decided how they will vote on the matter.

Beard said the public input from the meeting, as well as messages from constituents will help guide her decision, along with the responsibility to “do what is best for all of Guelph.”

Other councillors attended the meeting, including June Hofland and Mike Salisbury, who led the charge questioning why the Guelph Hydro-Horizon Utilities business case has not been made public.

To answer that question, which was repeatedly expressed by concerned residents — including one who asked why the process has been “so secretive” — Stokman explained the business plan contained sensitive employee information that would need to first be shared with employees should the merger pass.

Wettstein also piped up, saying qualified senior staff, including city treasurer Margaret Neubauer, are reviewing the business case and will present their thoughts in the form of a public report at council before the Guelph vote.

“It’s available for us to read, but I’m not qualified, I’m not capable,” Wettstein said of the 60-page document.

Councillors Salisbury and Hofland both said they have read the full document. Beard and Findlay said they have read the executive summary and hours worth of other information.

With the promise — which some members of the public asked to see in writing — that the merger will cost taxpayers nothing, and the projection that Horizon Utilities will see $3.9 million in savings for the year over Guelph’s current rates, Stokman said the only downfall is the effect on some employees.

“That’s the hardest part,” he said, adding that about 20 per cent of employees will need to transfer to Hamilton or St. Catharines.

Also promising “generous packages” for those who do not want to move cities, Stokman said 26 current Guelph Hydro employees are eligible for retirement. Hamilton will have to move 20 of its employees to Guelph.

Fielding questions about Guelph losing its autonomy, spirit and control over its hydro, Stokman said there would be legal measures in place to protect Guelph’s interest. For instance, should Horizon merge with more utilities, Guelph would have veto power if needed.

Should the merger go ahead, Guelph would hold 24.5 per cent of Horizon and have three seats on a 13 member board — Hamilton would hold eight seats and St. Catharines two.

Longtime critic of the proposal, Dan Moziar, who is also a former Ward 2 councillor and head of the local hydro commission, questioned why Guelph Hydro wanted to merge with Hamilton and St. Catharines and asked whether any real effort has ever gone into potential partnerships with the city’s traditional neighbours Kitchener-Waterloo and Cambridge.

Stokman said he meets with the respective utilities regularly and that, “the door is always open for the merger.”

noreilly@guelphmercury.com