Door to Door…

Going door to door is stressful.

I want to give you the opportunity to talk, to tell me things, to ask me things; but a lot of the time I just feel like I’m interrupting your life.

If I’m interrupting your life, I apologize.  I just want to give you the chance to talk.  If you don’t want to, that’s fine.

This is my postcard I’m leaving at doors:

post card front

post card back

Rural Ontario Municipal Association Conference 2018

I’m on the train on my way home now and thought I’d give you a little summary of my time at the ROMA (Rural Ontario Municipal Association) Conference.

The TAPMO (Top Aggregate Producing Municipalities of Ontario) meeting was informative as always. This organization (of which Zorra is a member) collects the data, analyzes it, and puts forward practical new policy alternatives to the Ministry of Natural Resources. But the MNR is very slow to consider changes to the ARA (Aggregate Resources Act) which is very powerful legislation that almost totally curbs a Municipality’s ability to control pits and quarries, and to get anything approaching cost recovery from royalties. I think there is an opportunity with this organization for Zorra to be more involved and try to push this issue more aggressively.

There was a session on rural broadband, but it was disappointing. It was focused on convincing residents and politicians that high speed internet is a legitimate need. I think that in 2018 access to high speed internet is like access to a phone: you need it. Period. This needs to be a top priority for Zorra.

Zorra requested a Delegation with the Ministry of Transportation, but was turned down. However, I think Councillor Doug Matheson had a chat with the Premiere about that too…

I attended a session on Bill 68 – Updates to the Municipal Act and Municipal Elections Bill. This bill makes many good changes to Municipal governance structures, but will be A LOT of work for Municipal Staff to implement locally.

One area that it changes is the definition of a “meeting”. Now, under the new Act, if a Council member phones another Council member to discuss an issue and then discussed the same issue with another Council member over coffee, it could be interpreted as a “serial meeting” if the discussion “materially advances the business” and could be interpreted as an illegal meeting.

I was invited, along with Doug Reycraft (Community Alliance Chair) and Katherine Sedgwick to present to other politicians on “Keeping Community Schools Open”. This was easy. We all lived that experience together and it’s always easiest to speak what you know about first hand. In fact, after “We SAVED A. J. Baker!” Daniel West and Henriette McArthur and I sat down to come up with a “how to” of lessons we learned from the experience, and I basically just presented that. It was all revived, over 75 people total attended both sessions.

Of course there was the Delegation to the Education Minister on Rural schools that I presented on behalf of Zorra and the Community Schools Alliance. I posted on that separately on FB, I’ll add another Blog on it here too.

You may notice that I have not mentioned the South West Landfill proposed to be in Zorra. In my opinion, at this point there is little to say. There is extensive work going on in the EA (Environmental Assessment) and by the Community Liaison Committee (where Zorra is represented). Until there are results from the EA there is little new information to discuss. There is a Motion before Zorra Council to demand the right of a Municipality to refuse a landfill (which I FULLY support in principle), but (and I have posted separately on this) there is some problematic wording for me in that it could inadvertently set a precedent by also allowing “adjacent” or “affected” Municipalities to refuse. Zorra will be getting a legal opinion at the next Council meeting (Feb 13 at 11am).

One aspect of these conferences that I have not made the most of in the past is the “schmoozing” or “buttonholing” MPPs and Policy Advisors. It’s awkward and probably counterproductive until you have a bit of a relationship with them. Well, this time I jumped in feet first. I talked informally with Senior Policy Advisors to the Minister of Education (several times), the Minister of Education herself in addition to the formal Delegation, and Ernie Hardeman.

In the “bear pit” (where the Premiere and entire cabinet sit on the stage and take questions from conference attendees) I asked the Premiere if she would commit to implementing the specific changes we’ve been asking for with respect to rural schools. She didn’t really answer, so when I saw her later I asked her again and we had a good conversation about it. She asked me good questions and listened to my answers, but the proof will be in the policies that will be released in a few weeks and the Provincial budget to come after that…

Overall a good Conference. I think a good expense that will pay off if we get the Rural school policy changes we want, and if we utilize some of the things learned in developing future strategies to advance Zorra’s goals of being Prosperous, Vibrant, Engaged, and Environmentally Conscious.

#doingmypart

Zorra Township Budget 2018…

This is still one of the biggest things on my mind right now…

Specifically I’m thinking about five things:
1. Roads
Public Works is the single largest cost department in the budget every year. Zorra has a lot of roads and a low population density which makes it very costly per kilometre to maintain roads. However, they are one of the things residents use most, and they need attention.  Residents have observed this, Public Works has observed this, and I’d like to see this better reflected in the long term Capital Asset Management Plan.  Public Works has some new recommendations for the Capital Budget based on the 2017 Roads Condition Study.

2. Embro and Harrington Environmental Assessments
The Environmental Assessments, almost completed, but not yet decided on by UTRCA (where I sit as a member of the Board of Directors appointed by Zorra) of the Embro Pond and Harrington Pond represent a large cost liability for Zorra regardless of which alternative is selected.  As Zorra is the only “benefiting Municipality” for both structures (as neither is a flood control structure) any costs will be paid by Zorra.  Whether it is to remove the dam(s), or replace them, or keep them, there will be large amounts of capital and/or operating money required.

3. Debt
Given Zorra’s current high debt, the need for an improved maintenance plan for roads, and anticipated heavy capital spending on the Public Works Yard and the Embro and Harrington Ponds in the next 5 to 10 years, I would like to see a significant increase in transfers to the Capital Asset Management Plan Reserve.  If we don’t begin building up money in that reserve then even if we begin reducing debt the Township could continually be going back into debt for capital projects.  That could mean there would be no debt room for a “rainy day” or unexpected grant opportunity (that might require matching funds).

4. Ontario Municipal Partnership Fund cuts
Over the last few years the Province has cut OMPF funding to Zorra by one million dollars in total.  I believe we can anticipate another cut this year.  
This increasingly means the Township must rely on taxation to pay for our capital and operations. This is wrong. Municipalities own two thirds of Ontario infrastructure but only get a total of 9 cents of every tax dollar (the other 91 cents go to the Provincial and Federal Governments).
However, this is our reality: increasingly, we have to pay our own way.

5. When Council debates and weighs options, and prioritizes items in the Budget it sets the tax rate.  This term of Council adopted a 5 year Capital Budget Plan in an attempt to get better control over long term spending.  There needs to be a strong expectation from Council that those items will be completed in the year that they are planned, budgeted, and taxed for.  And an equally strong expectation that Council will be responsible and accountable for the plan.  It’s a work in progress, but I believe that combined with the Strategic Plan, the 5 Year Capital Budget Plan will bring more predictability to spending needs, and that should lead to better control of spending, and therefore taxation.

All this will mean a careful eye on other items in the budget if the tax rate is not to be significantly affected.
I am expecting there will be some hard choices.

The Recreation, Arts, and Culture Master Plan is not expected to be complete until after the 2018 Budget is complete, so I expect that any major budget decisions as a result of recommendations from that Study will be dealt with by the next term of Council in the 2019 Budget…

Marcus Ryan
Councillor Ward 3

FB: Marcus Ryan – Zorra
www.communityschoolsalliance.ca
FB: Community Schools Alliance

Who should decide school closures?

I wear three(!) hats on this issue: as a resident whose children attend A.J. Baker P.S. in Kintore in the Thames Valley District School Board, as a Municipal Councillor in the Township of Zorra, and as the Vice Chair of the Community Schools Alliance.
The position of the Community Schools Alliance is “to have municipalities become partners with school boards in making decisions about where new schools are built and where schools are closed.”
To that end we have made several delegations (through member Municipalities) to the Minister of Education including a very positive delegation I presented at the Association of Municipalities of Ontario Conference in Ottawa in August (https://www.facebook.com/CommunitySchoolsAlliance/posts/1440354912712622).  Specifically I asked the Minister to engage in a “wide ranging consultation process, with all stakeholders including a variety of community groups, and Municipal Governments, to fully consider the significance of schools to rural, northern, and single school communities in developing the policy changes to the Funding Formula and PARG to end the Moratorium.”
I pointed out to the Minister that while schools are not “capital A” assets of Municipalities, they are “small a” assets.   Without our schools Municipalities cannot be complete communities that truly have the ability to plan and develop our future.
This delegation was very different in tone to past year’s delegations, it was open and consultative.  But the proof will be in what type of policies the Minister proposes to end the current Moratorium.
I encourage you to lobby your local Municipal Governments to become members of the Community Schools Alliance and help us to continue to fund research on this topic and advocate on their behalf.
Both personally as a parent, and as a Municipal Councillor, my position is a bit more far reaching: I believe that the decisions about where schools should open and close should rest entirely with Municipalities.
Municipalities have Planning Departments that do exactly this type of work.  Municipalities have Public Health Departments that have a wealth of knowledge on building vibrant, healthy communities.  Municipalities already build the majority of infrastructure in Ontario.  All these functions (Planning, Public Health, infrastructure, and Education in our communities) would be better achieved by having Municipalities control where such a vital piece of community building infrastructure as a school should be.
I know some people would argue that it is too big for Municipalities to take on, but I disagree.  Currently all capital funding is provided to School Boards by the Ministry of Education; transfer that to Municipalities.  Already almost all contracts with Education Staff are (at least initially) negotiated by the Ministry.  The curriculum is almost entirely written and mandated by the Ministry and only administered locally by Boards (and in my opinion not very “locally” as most Boards are too geographically large for their to be legitimately local understanding).
So I believe that not only are Municipalities capable of adding an “Education Department” to Public Works, Public Health, Planning, etc., I think that it would in fact result in better planned communities, more integrated communities, and more local knowledge and democracy in school opening and closing decisions.
All of these topics, and more, will be discussed in an open forum at the 2017 Ontario Rural Education Symposium being hosted this year by the Township of Zorra on Saturday November, 25th in the Embro Recreation Centre.
MOE Staff have confirmed that they will be attending to hear input on the recently announced policy changes…
I hope to see you there too.
2017 Ontario Rural Education Symposium:
To register:

Marcus Ryan
Councillor Ward 3

Mobile: 1.519.301.1634
FB: Marcus Ryan – Zorra
www.communityschoolsalliance.ca
FB: Community Schools Alliance

Rural Education Symposium: Rural Ontario needs its schools.

screen-shot-2016-11-28-at-1-07-06-pmMy speech from the Rural Education Symposium November 26, Parkhill Ontario, North-Middlesex
Rural Education Symposium (http://www.ontruraleducation.com) speech
Moses didn’t come down from the mountain with the Funding Formula…
The current Funding Formula was written by the Conservatives and modified many times by the Liberals…so there’s plenty of blame to go around, but I’m not interested in blame…I’m interested in change.
What I want you to think about is that the Funding Formula, School Boards, the Ministry of Education, Municipalities were ALL designed by US to serve US.
If they are not doing what we want then we change it, and that’s what I want to talk about: change.
I never had any plans to become a Councillor, I worked as an Engineer for 10 years, I’ve been a Stay at Home Dad for 10 years, about 4 years ago I started my own Engineering business from home, but then… the Thames Valley District School Board began considering the closure of A.J. Baker P.S. in Kintore…my kids school. I got very involved with the community effort to “Save AJ” and really enjoyed and got great satisfaction from the community involvement. So I put my name forward for Council.  Also during the “Save AJ” fight, I got to know Doug Reycraft and the Community Schools Alliance, and as a result got on the Executive of that group to help Doug revive and reinvigorate the CSA.
During that fight I came across one of my favourite quotes: “Fair doesn’t mean everybody gets the SAME, fair means everybody gets what they NEED.”
This has guided me in a lot of Council decisions and I bring it up today because it is especially relevant to this issue.
A Funding Formula that doesn’t recognize the inherent differences in rural and urban in a Province the size of Ontario is giving everyone the SAME but no-one what they NEED.
Consider an example outside education. My sister lives in Toronto, just off Yonge St. just North of the 401: there’s a LOT of traffic.  So let’s say the City consults with the Ministry of Transportation for ideas to improve the traffic flow in an intersection. The MOT collects data, analyzes it, simulates solutions, and presents a solution to the City of Toronto Public Works: multiple lanes each direction, right turn ramps, left turn lanes, traffic light sensors, etc. The City of Toronto likes it and implements it and a year later everyone loves it: traffic is moving, commuters are happy, businesses are happy, residents are happy.
About this time the County of Oxford calls the MOT to consult on an intersection in Kintore…they have some pedestrian safety issues they’d like to consult on. The MOT thinks this is great we have a PERFECT solution and they race down to present their “City of Toronto solution”…
Of course the Oxford County Public Works people think this is crazy. They tell the MOT that it’s just not relevant to the issues they have. The MOT comes back with the same proposal again: after all they KNOW it works, they’ve done it, they have the data.  Again, Oxford says no, this is not a solution for the problem we have…again the MOT says this is the best solution…
Eventually Oxford sends them away and goes with their 4-way stop and a hanging flashing red light and some painted cross walks…
Clearly the same solution doesn’t work for the MOT in different Municipalities, and it doesn’t work for the MOE in different Municipalities either:
Back in 2015 about a tenth of schools in the Province were more than half empty, in the TDSB it was almost double that.
Last year in the TVDSB 5035 of 8844 Elementary Empty pupil Places were in the City of London.
The same solution doesn’t work at the MOT or MOE…if it did…TDSB & TVDSB wouldn’t have as many empty schools in urban areas as they do, and rural Ontario wouldn’t be losing schools it needs…
In a PAR introduced at the TVDSB on November 22 according to Senior Administration in order to satisfy the MOE Funding Formula and get the student numbers needed to build 1 school in South East London they would have to affect 12 rural schools (including 4 closures).
Rural is literally being asked to sacrifice to accommodate urban growth. 
Why? Because of the Funding Formula…
Under the current Provincial Policy Statement rural Municipalities protect Prime Agricultural Land.
In Zorra we’ve said not to residents wanting 2 acres for a family member…
We’ve said no to solar farms even if a large part of us wanted to say yes…
Because protecting Prime Agricultural Land is important.
The other side of that deal is that urban Municipalities densify and in-fill and make better use of their infrastructure.
However…
Recently the Town of Ingersoll approached Zorra wanting to annex 200 acres of Prime Agricultural Land.
Cities are growing by about 1% per year — a lot of it because of immigration and natural population growth — while rural numbers overall are staying steady.
The deal wasn’t that rural protect Prime Agricultural Land and LOSE our schools to urban growth…
Rural is protecting Prime Agricultural Land and being punished for it.
Ontario needs a different MOE Funding Formula for rural as part of deal to protect Prime Agricultural Land.
We need a Funding Formula that recognizes distances, single school communities, and smaller sizes are reality of rural life…
This IS NOT to say that Toronto, London and other urban areas don’t need, or aren’t deserving of, schools. Simply that the same Funding Formula for urban and rural doesn’t work.
Same solution doesn’t work at MOT or MOE…if it did…TDSB & TVDSB wouldn’t have as many empty schools in Toronto and London, and rural Ontario wouldn’t be losing schools…
 
Ontario needs a Funding Formula that recognizes distances, single school communities, and smaller sizes are reality of rural life and rural is doing it’s part and deserves a fair deal.
To me the next fundamental issue is who should own schools?
School Boards always owned schools because they were local.  The decisions of where to build or not build, and where to close were made by people in the community with a keen awareness of the consequences of these decisions.
Everyone knew their Trustee and the system was highly accessible, transparent, accountable, and democratic.
But those days are gone:
– Boards are too big with too many schools and communities for Trustees to be expected to make truly informed LOCAL decisions.
– the MOE makes all curriculum so Boards have almost no say in that
– the MOE negotiates contracts…
– Boards can’t raise funds themselves, so the MOE controls funding…
All this results in Boards that are NOT accessible, NOT transparent, NOT accountable, and NOT democratic.
So, you could try to fix the School Boards…
But why?  Why have School Boards?
School Boards should be absorbed by local Municipal governments.
Lower and Upper Tier Municipal Council & Staff are WAY more accessible/transparent/accountable/democratic than the School Boards.
But how would you do it?
The Ministry of Education already negotiates the majority of contracts, and sets the curriculum. 
Municipalities would have a Department of Education just like they have Planning Departments, and Departments of Public Works, Public Health, Recreation, etc.
Where would the Staff come from? We’d hire the Staff doing the job at School Boards now.
School opening/closing decisions would be made in coordination with Planning Departments AS THEY SHOULD BE.
Forget Hub Advisory Committees, there would be no no “silos” around Ministries, Hubs would create themselves under Municipal control BECAUSE IT MAKES SENSE at a local level to coordinate these things.
I need only hint at the possible cost savings of absorbing School Boards into Muncipalities…
So…
Ontario needs a Funding Formula that recognizes distances, single school communities, and smaller sizes are a reality of rural life, Ontario NEEDS rural, and rural is doing it’s part and deserves a fair deal.
And we need to put the decisions about school buildings where they belong: with accessible, transparent, accountable, and democratic Municipal Government.
Or…put another way
We don’t want the big fancy intersection…
…we want our 4 way stop and our flashing red light.
Because “Fair doesn’t mean everybody gets the SAME, fair means everybody gets what they NEED.”
 
And rural Ontario needs it’s schools.

Surplus Farmhouse Severances

Or maybe more accurately: Surplus Farmhouse Severances and/or Village Boundary Expansions.
I think it’s time to talk seriously about the issue of surplus farmhouse severances in Zorra Township and Oxford County: we lose too many family homes, and then families, to this issue.
If you are not familiar, this is what usually happens:
A farmer buys an additional farm, but doesn’t need the house on it.  For a short time they rent it out, but eventually it needs a major repair, or has a bad tenant, or (quite reasonably) the farmer decides they don’t want to be a landlord.  So the house comes down.
As we lose these houses we lose our tax base, and our ability to provide services to ourselves, without corresponding property tax increases.  We lose families.  We lose people who have lived here for decades and contributed, and continue to contribute, to our community.  Senior’s are forced to “move into town” at exactly the time of their life when they could be helping to look after their grandchildren (currently “Canadian families spend almost one-quarter of their income on child care”), and when they could be getting care and help from their children late in their own life (“The number of Canadian seniors requiring continuing care will rise by 71 per cent by 2026”).  That’s not right.
As our population remains static we also lose the justification (rightly or wrongly) under current funding formulas for the Provincial government to provide us with services: like emergency rooms and schools.  That’s not right.
Rural areas are protecting our farmland from our own development, but urban areas (including Oxford’s own communities of Ingersoll and Woodstock) are asking to annex rural land from neighbouring municipalities to expand their own “growth areas” (http://www.heartfm.ca/news/local-news/county-considers-land-deals/).  As a result of our protection of farmland, we have a reducing tax base and correspondingly reduced ability to provide services to ourselves and fund our own development.  Other branches of government like school boards are then also encouraged (by current Provincial policies) to only support schools in the “growth areas”, and not in our existing rural communities.
I’m not talking about developing Prime Agricultural Land into subdivisions, I have voted, and will continue to vote against that; but we can’t keep up the cycle of surplus homes being rented for a few years and then torn down.  We need a balance that allows and encourages families to stay in rural communities like Zorra that they want to stay in, and start businesses here, and send their kids to school here, like they always have.
I know a common argument is that “city people” will move to the country and complain of farm noises, smells, etc., but I’ve talked with Township staff and the complaints just aren’t there.  And if the complaints do come, I think there is a straightforward answer: don’t move to Zorra if you don’t like farms, that’s what Zorra is about.  We need to be crystal clear that the “right to farm” is important in Zorra (http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/engineer/facts/05-013.htm).  When I campaigned I made it clear that “nobody better ever call me to complain about the smell of manure”.
Rural people deserve a sustainable tax base, with associated services.  Rural is different from, not inferior to, suburban/urban.  We need to stop ‘worshiping at the alter’ of urban/suburban growth.  Farmers should’t be penalized with less education and health services for protecting the land that feeds Ontarians.  That’s not right.
It’s not right, but to some extent it is in our control.  We need to find a better balance between protecting farm land and keeping families living in our community.  Maybe it’s surplus farmhouse severances, maybe it’s expanding village boundaries, but we need to change something.  If we don’t use the tools at our disposal, someone else will, and our opportunity to affect the outcome and have some control over our own future will be taken by others.
It would be a shame if through protecting our farmland we denied ourselves services, only to have another municipality annex hundreds of acres of the same farmland to support their own growth.
Tell me what you think.
Here are some links to news stories:

Schools ARE Municipal community assets (even if we Municipalities don’t own them)

Schools are owned by our communities.

That may seem obvious and over simplistic, but I think it’s a good starting point.  They are community assets.  They are created by our tax dollars to educate our children.  But they educate them in more than simply the curriculum.  They educate our children where they live, they teach them how to socialize and integrate in their communities. Our communities.  Their communities.

Where you went to school says a lot about your world view.  It informs you of who your community is, what’s available to you, who your neighbours are: in many ways school is a large part of an individual’s definition of what their community is.  This is especially true of rural single school communities.  The schools in these communities are often the most common meeting place and the first place that young people meet and get a sense of what defines their community.

The problem is our Municipalities don’t have any say in where our schools are.  There is little public access to the decision making process of where schools will be built or closed.  It is entirely driven by the Ministry of Education’s funding formula, and School Boards, who have little choice but to follow it.  But surely our MPPs and Minister’s are accountable?  Ask them.. the answer you will get is that such decisions as school openings and closings are “a local School Board issue for Trustees to decide”.  Ask a Trustee and they will tell you that while such decisions are technically the School Board’s to make, their hands are ultimately tied by the Ministry’s funding formula.  Some School Boards have even been “punished” by the Ministry of Education by not receiving expected funding in subsequent years because they did not close “appropriate” schools in previous years.

School Boards plan and propose school locations and expansions with little input from Municipalities that are directly affected by school locations.  There are annual meetings between the Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB) and the Municipalities, which is a huge step forward, but because of the “silo” funding of education these meetings are basically the School Board telling the Municipalities what they ARE going to do, not a meaningful consultation or exchange of ideas.  Municipal Planning Departments expend huge amounts of time and resources evaluating potential development in the short, medium, and long term with the intent of controlling development in ways that are constructive and beneficial to the needs and wants of their community.  Schools absolutely fit this category: large buildings with hundreds of people coming and going every day by foot, car, and bus for decades.  Schools have a large and long term impact on our communities from a Planning perspective.

In London the TVDSB recently approached the City’s Planning Committee to propose a school in the north east of the city abutting the City’s current urban growth boundary.  Several London Councillors spoke against the proposed location as they felt it was not consistent with the plan for there to be no growth to the entire area immediately to the East of the proposed school site.  The request for permission from the TVDSB is an urgent one as funding from the Ministry of Education is contingent on Planning Permission, and time limited.  So effectively a gun is held to the head of London’s Planning Department, the Planning Committee, and Council: it may not be the best location, it may not even fit in your plan, but if you don’t approve it you may not get a school at all and condemn hundreds of children to many more years in portables…

At the same time the TVDSB has attempted to listen to the communities in the South East Summerside area and postponed amalgamations in order to make a more community friendly solution, a position supported by most in the community and consistent with London Planning, but this is all delayed awaiting Ministry funding.

All of this is ridiculous: we have excellent Planning Departments in our Municipalities who do a fantastic job of evaluating and balancing the various needs of our communities and could do the same for school locations.  There is Council oversight of these Planning Departments by elected Municipal Councillors.  But because of the “silo” that education capital funding exists in, there is actually a disincentive for School Boards to consult with, if not utilize this service: School Boards get money to consolidate and build schools from the Province regardless of Municipal input (or the lack thereof).

It’s time our Municipalities had a better say in where our schools are: schools ARE a part of the Planning process, they ARE a central part of our communities, they ARE about more than “the three Rs”, they ARE the first place our children are educated about what their community is and how they define it.  Schools are Public assets that are too important for us not to use every tool we have to best fit them in our communities.

The Province needs to change the way they handle this.  Public funds shouldn’t be spent in such fragmented ways.  I think people have a right to expect that different levels of government would cooperate to spend tax dollars in the most coordinated and efficient way and not be counterproductive.  Yes, this would be hard, but that’s no excuse.  The Premier’s Community Hubs Framework Advisory Group (https://www.ontario.ca/page/community-hubs) is evaluating the potential benefits of such cooperation and advising the Premier directly.

But while we’re waiting for that…

School Boards and Municipalities need to do a better job of sharing our Strategic Plans related to operational and capital budgets.  School Boards need to do a better job of sharing their plans with respect to Student Achievement with Municipalities.  Municipalities need to do a better job of sharing Economic Development and Planning with School Boards.  Just because the Province expects us to behave as if we are in separate “silos” doesn’t mean School Boards and Municipalities have to behave that way: we can, and should, do a better job of managing these Public assets, especially in single school rural communities.

It starts with Councillors and Trustees: we need to do a better job.

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