Mayor-elect supports narrower city streets

Mayor-elect John Tory says he’s open to a city staff proposal to narrow Toronto streets to reduce speeds and increase safety as long as it does not add or worsen traffic congestion.

“Mr. (Stephen) Buckley, (general manager of the city’s transportation services department) says, and his experts, that this is in fact will help traffic to move more smoothly and some of these lanes are already in place on streets like Danforth and University Ave.,” Tory told reporters Tuesday at city hall.

“But I just want to make sure that is in fact what is achieved because if as we move to implement this in different places it actually has the effect of making the traffic congestion worse than I think it’s something we’re going to have to take another look at easy to get unsecured personal loans.”

City staff have drafted new guidelines that call for the redrawing of lanes on city streets to reduce their width. The process could take years.

Tory noted other cities, such as New York and Chicago, have narrowed lane size to improve traffic flow and safety.

“It is on that basis that I would say let’s take a look at doing it at other places (in Toronto.)”

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Draghi Urgency for ECB Action Gets Final Reality Check With Data - Bloomberg

Mario Draghi is about to find out just how urgent his call for action has become.

One week after the European Central Bank president vowed to revive inflation

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Big church convention free to leave St. Louis after 2016

The saints might go marching out of St. Louis.

Officials of the Church of God in Christ — whose members refer to themselves as saints — could move their annual convocation out of St. Louis after 2016.

Memphis, where the church formerly held its yearly event, is reported to be seeking to bring back the convocation to that city.

The event, which has been in St. Louis since 2010, is typically the city’s largest convention each year. An estimated 28,000 people attended this year’s convocation, which ended last week.

COGIC, as the church is known, has a contract to return to St. Louis next year and 2016. The Convention and Visitors Commission hopes to keep COGIC coming to St. Louis but realizes other cities want the business.

Reaching a new deal became more of an issue last week after Bishop Charles E. Blake Sr., the church’s presiding bishop, sent Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon a letter outlining concerns related to the killing of Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson on Aug. 9.

“We feel especially obligated to urge that steps be taken to ensure that there will be justice in the Michael Brown shooting and that necessary systemic changes will be made,” the letter read.

However, Mike Paul, a church spokesman, said Thursday that Blake’s letter is not meant as a threat to leave St. Louis. COGIC will honor its contract to return to America’s Center in 2015 and 2016. Returning after 2016 depends on reaching a new agreement, he said.

“No decision has been made to date about where future convocations will be after our agreement with the St. Louis area,” he said.

The event — among the biggest African-American church gatherings in the country — had been held for more than a century in Memphis, Tenn., where COGIC is based. It outgrew facilities there, and St. Louis offered a hotel and incentive package to bring the meeting to America’s Center, starting in 2010. In 2013, COGIC extended the agreement through 2016.

The Commercial Appeal, of Memphis, reported Thursday that Memphis has bid for the return of the COGIC convocation payday advance online.

Kevin Kane, chief executive of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, told the newspaper that he and Memphis Mayor A C Wharton had met with church leaders “about future COGIC opportunities that could include the convocation” in Memphis in 2017, 2018 and 2019.

Brian Hall, the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission’s chief marketing officer, said Thursday the commission hopes COGIC will continue to meet in St. Louis after 2016. He declined to disclose what the CVC is offering to retain the business but acknowledged church leaders will negotiate with other cities.

“They’re doing their due diligence, as they should,” Hall said.

He added: “We are very confident that the America’s Center package fits very well with the nature of the convention COGIC conducts during their convocation.

“I know they just plain ran out of space in Memphis. And I know that nothing has changed in Memphis.”

St. Louis offered lower hotel rates, meal discounts and free hotel parking, a senior church official told The Commercial Appeal in 2009.

Gary Andreas, a hotel consultant based in Chesterfield, said Thursday the COGIC meeting “is a big deal” for St. Louis.

COGIC conventions have led to $98 million in spending in the region in the last five years, according to the CVC.

Andreas said he is not surprised Memphis interests want the meeting to return. Indianapolis and Louisville, Ky., are among other cities that might bid for the meeting, he said.

Maggie Crane, spokeswoman for Mayor Francis Slay, said the city has a good relationship with COGIC members.

“I think we’ve provided a very good home base to them,” she said.

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Draghi Says ECB Must Raise Inflation Rate as Fast as Possible - Bloomberg

Mario Draghi said the European Central Bank must drive inflation higher quickly, and will broaden its asset-purchase program if needed to achieve that.

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Fed Dual Mandates Collide as Drop in Jobless Vies With Inflation - Bloomberg

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Fed Libor Meeting Includes Barclays, Goldman Sachs - Bloomberg

The Federal Reserve is meeting with lenders including Barclays Plc (BARC), JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM), Bank of America Corp. (BAC) and Goldman Sachs Group Inc., in addition to the Japanese and U.K. central banks, to discuss alternatives to the London interbank offered rate.

The discussion today at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York is aimed at developing reference rates based on risk-free or near risk-free rates, the Fed said in a statement. It follows recommendations made in a July report by the Financial Stability Board, a group of international regulators.

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Open health insurance enrollment kicks off to tempered expectations

HealthCare.gov opened for enrollment Saturday and the federal health insurance portal got off to smoother start than its much-maligned debut last year.

But the start of the second enrollment period under President Barack Obama’s health overhaul was clouded by uncertainty and fear of challenges ahead.

Republicans, who won a decisive victory in November’s mid-term elections, have vowed to unravel the law and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a legal challenge that could block government subsidies used by consumers in more than 30 states to purchase health coverage. 

Those events didn’t deter Jamie Kopel, a 35-year-old mother of three from St. Peters, from showing up at a bowling alley Saturday morning to work with an insurance counselor. The Cover Missouri Coalition offered free help with applications at “Bowl to Enroll,” one of at least four area events to help people get enrolled in health coverage Saturday. 

Kopel was one of 152,000 Missourians to enroll in marketplace coverage for this year and is applying for 2015 coverage. Before enrolling in her plan last year, she lost her previous insurance after a divorce. She said she was happy with her marketplace plan and is looking forward to being enrolled again, although she hasn’t decided if she will stick with her current plan or find a cheaper option. 

“I didn’t have a bad experience at all. I found it affordable,” said Kopel, who qualified for subsidies to help lower the cost of her insurance. 

The Health and Human Services Department said 23,000 people filled out applications during the first eight hours of enrollment Saturday. The enrollment period runs through Feb. 15, but Dec. 15 is the deadline for coverage that begins Jan. 1, 2015. 

St. Louis area consumers have 42 plan options for 2015 coverage available from four different insurers. Premiums have increased roughly between 5 percent and 12 percent for the lowest-cost options. 

HealthCare.gov’s launch around midnight was closely watched after its disastrous roll out last year when the site was essentially unworkable for consumers. Since then, federal officials have revamped the site and instituted rigorous testing ahead of this year’s enrollment start cash till payday.

Federal health officials have said there may still be outages this year, but that the website was  unlikely to completely crash. It was functioning normally throughout the day Saturday. 

Although the technological issues may be resolved, other issues have cast a cloud over the enrollment period leading to lower expectations on the number of people who will be enrolled once it concludes.

The Congressional Budget Office projected that 13 million people would be enrolled in marketplace coverage next year. That number seemed within reach after 8 million consumers enrolled in coverage during 2014 sign-ups.

But those numbers have dipped to 7.1 million enrollees and now the Health and Human Services Department estimates that sign-ups for 2015 coverage could be as low as 9.1 million. 

Advocates cite a shorter enrollment period and lack of awareness about it by the uninsured, among other reasons for the low expectations.

And the pending U.S. Supreme Court case that could unravel the subsidies many consumers use to purchase health coverage isn’t helping. The case could invalidate such subsidies in Missouri, Illinois and at least 30 other states. 

Although the court likely won’t issue a ruling until well after enrollment ends, its decision to take up the case in the first place has caused uncertainty for consumers. 

“We are encouraging people to still come in and apply because nothing has been decided at this point. We would hate for people to not get coverage for some fear of something that may or may not come down,” said Laura Burbank, a certified application counselor with Planned Parenthood and the Cover Missouri Coalition. 

About 85 percent of marketplace enrollees across the country received subsidies for 2014 coverage, according to federal data. 

This report was prepared in collaboration with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

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Appraisals warned of weak market for MaRS tower

There were multiple warnings about shrinking prospects for the mostly empty MaRS tower before Premier Kathleen Wynne’s government bailed it out for $309 million, new documents show.

Appraisals from two companies within the last year point to a “softening” real estate market and likely troubles in getting renters or selling the controversial building across from Queen’s Park.

The details are in 700 pages of documents released Thursday in response to a demand from opposition parties for the government to reveal its “business case” for the controversial deal, which first came to light during last spring’s provincial election campaign.

“We still haven’t got the business case,” said Progressive Conservative MPP Randy Hillier, noting a debt service guarantee revealed Thursday shows taxpayers are also on the hook for $106 million in interest payments over 15 years.

“There was no evaluation to see if this was feasible.”

The not-for-profit Medical and Related Sciences (MaRS) Discovery District was founded in 2000 to commercialize publicly funded medical research and other technologies, but critics say the tower at College and University is too big and expensive for the country’s relatively small life sciences sector.

In September, Wynne’s government announced it was putting $309 million into the tower, including $224 million to cover the original loan to MaRS from Infrastructure Ontario and $65 million to buy out a U.S. developer, Alexandria Real Estate.

MaRS announced earlier this year it could no longer pay the interest on that loan, which is $450,000 monthly or $7.1 annually — a tally that could reach $106 million over 15 years.

While the government points to the two appraisals putting the value of the building close to the $309 million invested by taxpayers, those same documents raise red flags about the 20-storey MaRS tower.

Altus Group and CBRE noted special difficulties in fully leasing a medical and laboratory tower that has signed deals with two tenants for just 31 per cent of its space.

It appears the MaRS building may have been beaten to the punch by two new research and lab buildings downtown, which in combined square footage are about 25 per cent bigger than the MaRS tower.

“Recent new construction of facilities at the Hospital for Sick Children and St. Michael’s Hospital have added significant new supply to the market,” said an Altus appraisal that put the value of the MaRS tower at $330.9 million.

“The additional space together with the vacancy created in existing buildings is expected to put downward pressure on rental rates in the district over the next four years.”

New Democrat MPP Gilles Bisson said the government did not do proper due diligence before plunging ahead, comparing the situation to getting a bank loan by proving how you can pay it back.

“It would appear basic questions were not asked in this particular case,” he told the Star. “The end result is we’re on the hook for $300 million. This is one big white elephant.”

Infrastructure Minister Brad Duguid shot back at the opposition.

“A business case for a loan comprises . . . a value assessment and a secure creditor, which are included in this package of documents,” Duguid said in a statement. “The loan is repayable, including all interest accrued.”

His officials said more tenants are interested but deals cannot be signed until February when the deal with Alexandria Real Estate is finalized.

In its appraisal putting the building’s value at $303.7 million, CBRE pointed out the MaRS tower income profile is “compromised due to the significant leasing risk associated with the vacant space.”

The Altus appraisal added “leasing demand is expected to be weak” and “demand for life science and lab space is more difficult to estimate given the specialized nature and tenant reliance on government funding” at a time when the government is cutting back to eliminate its $12.5-billion deficit.

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OTTAWA—The federal government’s fiscal update morphed into a bruising preview of the coming election, with Finance Minister Joe Oliver saying Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau would deprive families of the tax breaks and increased federal support being dangled by the Conservatives.

Oliver expects a $2.9-billion budget deficit this year and a slim, $1.9-billion surplus in 2015. But the latest look at the books showed Ottawa would have been much better off financially if the government had not recently announced a package of tax-and-spending breaks for families. The package will cost Ottawa $4.6 billion a year, with the biggest item being the Family Tax Cut, a form of income-splitting for couples with children.

“This is a policy that anyone who claims to care about the middle class should support,” Oliver told a Toronto business audience Wednesday.

“Yet Justin Trudeau has already announced he would repeal some of our family tax cuts and may repeal the others. Taking money out of the pockets of middle-class and lower-income Canadians does not sound like a winning platform to me.”

The income-splitting plan unveiled by Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Oct. 30 has attracted widespread criticism because it would provide a tax break for only about 15 per cent of households, with the highest benefits going to families with kids where one earner makes a very high income and the other spouse earns a low income or doesn’t work.

Trudeau says the Family Tax Cut is unfair and should be scrapped.

It’s a situation, he said, “where you have middle-class Canadians having worked very hard and sacrificed over many years to get us, as a government, back into a surplus state, and this government is choosing to spend that on 15 per cent of Canadians, among the wealthiest. It’s not fair that 85 per cent get absolutely nothing.”

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said Wednesday his party will make a stand in Parliament against income-splitting, suggesting the NDP will try to force the government to modify it to help more taxpayers.

“It makes no social sense to have a proposal that would help people pay for their second BMW instead of helping public transit in this country,” Mulcair said.

What to do with looming budget surpluses will feature prominently in the election expected next year.

In the NDP’s most prominent pre-election commitment, Mulcair has pledged to create a national child-care plan at a federal cost of $1.87 billion annually by 2018-19 one hour payday loan.

But the Conservatives, who eliminated a Liberal plan for a national child-care program when they took power in 2006, prefer to give money directly to parents that can be used for daycare costs. The government is increasing what it spends on the Universal Child Care Benefit and the Child Care Expense Deduction.

In an apparent swipe at Mulcair, Oliver said, “We trust Canadians to save and spend their hard-earned money better than all-knowing bureaucrats or social engineers. Granted, there are some people who don’t agree, but that is what elections are about.

In his economic and fiscal update, Oliver noted that the Family Tax Cut and the recently-announced reduction in small business’ Employment Insurance premiums will together cost the government $3.2 billion in 2014. Without those commitments, Ottawa would have eliminated its budget shortfall this year and instead run a $300 million surplus.

Because of the tax cuts and increased support for families, the surplus in 2015 is now forecast at $1.9 billion, well down from the $6.4 billion surplus predicted in the federal budget in February.

The government also said the recent sharp drop in world oil prices is expected to have a negative effect on its revenues and fiscal prospects.

Oliver said Ottawa’s budgetary position will be negatively impacted by $500 million this year and by $2.5 billion a year in the following four years.

Despite the slow world economy, Oliver cites private sector forecasts of modest but steady growth in Canada. The current year is expected to show 2.4 per cent growth, according to the update. Growth is expected to rise to 2.6 per cent next year.

The unemployment rate for 2014 is forecast to come in at 7 per cent, slightly above the 6.8 per cent jobless rate predicted in the 2014 budget in the spring. For next year, the forecast for unemployment is 6.8 per cent.

Reacting to Oliver’s statement that the Conservatives balanced the books without slashing financial transfers to the provinces, Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa said the Harper government continues to shortchange the people of Ontario.

“The federal government collects almost $100 billion in taxes from the people of Ontario but shortchanges our province by $11 billion — that gap amounts to $850 for every person in Ontario,” Sousa said.

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Admin. dials back goal for health law sign-ups

WASHINGTON (AP) — With sign-up season launching this weekend, the Obama administration sharply dialed down expectations Monday for the second year of the president’s push to provide health insurance for all Americans.

A report released Monday by the Department of Health and Human Services estimated that 9 million to 9.9 million paying customers will enroll for subsidized private coverage in 2015. That’s significantly lower than the 13 million the Congressional Budget Office had projected earlier this year.

Until now, the congressional numbers have been used as the yardstick for the program’s success. The new administration estimate was commissioned by HHS Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell shortly after she took over in the spring.

Critics are bound to accuse the White House of moving the goal posts. “Obamacare” remains unpopular in much of the country, and Republicans will keep crusading for its repeal when they assume full control of Congress next year.

At least one independent nonpartisan expert said either number could turn out to be valid.

“An estimate of 9 million enrollees is just as plausible and defensible as an estimate of 13 million,” said Larry Levitt of the Kaiser Family Foundation. On one hand, said Levitt, the law’s mandate that most Americans get covered or risk fines would argue for a bigger number. On the other hand, “there has never been a program as controversial and politically divisive … which could dampen how quickly enrollment grows,” he added.

The health care law has a two-pronged strategy for expanding coverage.

People who don’t have access on the job can buy taxpayer-subsidized private insurance through HealthCare.gov and state insurance exchanges. In fact, many are required to do so, to avoid fines. Open enrollment for next year starts Nov. 15.

Monday’s new estimates were for this group of people, those covered through the health insurance markets Low fee payday loans.

The other part of Obama’s strategy to cover uninsured Americans expands Medicaid to serve more low-income adults in states that accept the expansion. Overall, the number of uninsured Americans has come down by about 10 million this year.

It could be good news for taxpayers if, as the administration believes, fewer people sign up through the insurance exchanges in 2015. That would mean less spending on the program. But it would not be welcome news for hospitals, which might see bigger-than-expected numbers of uninsured people.

The administration said it disagrees with congressional number crunchers about how quickly Americans will come to accept the law, believing that more time will be needed.

Officials said they started with the current number of people enrolled through HealthCare.gov and state markets, which is 7.1 million.

Of these, they estimated 83 percent would re-enroll for 2015, or 5.9 million. Some of the remaining people might become uninsured, but more likely they would pick up coverage through a job as the economy keeps growing, or through another government program, such as Medicaid.

That would leave a goal of signing up 3 million to 4 million new customers for next year.

Community workers say they think it will prove harder to sign people up this year. Even with generous subsidies, some people still struggle to pay their premiums. And those who sat out last year probably tend to be more skeptical of the program. Nonetheless, fines for remaining uninsured will go up in 2015.

Consumers can get an early peek at 2015 premiums now on HealthCare.gov. Window-shopping went live Sunday night.

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