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Thursday, May 23, 2019

Park debate shape of things to come

A Woolwich staff report favouring development in Victoria Glen Park comes as no surprise: the township needs money to pay for its building blitz. Having crunched the numbers, staff sees cutting down part of the wooded area in favour of new homes as an easy way to come up with some $1.5 million.

The report’s findings were inevitable. That doesn’t mean, however, that we’ll see bulldozers rolling any time soon. This was always going to be a political decision, and that means the project remains up in the air. If councillors are tuned in to the public sentiment, the proposal is dead in the water, but governments aren’t always responsive to community demands.

Opponents of development plans – and there are many of them – will be making every effort to persuade councillors to choose the long-term benefits of retaining parkland rather than going for a quick cash infusion. They’re also eager to repeat the success Kitchener residents had when that city’s council looked at selling off some of its land, including parks, for development: The public outcry forced the city to back down.

Chief administrative officer David Brenneman says the township’s proposal isn’t the same thing. Rather than simply selling land, Woolwich would retain control of the development, ensuring that it best serves community interests.

The distinction is subtle, but is unlikely to sway residents, who envision trees being cut down and a naturalized area replaced by homes and manicured lawns. There’s no getting away from that should the proposal go ahead.

While approval of the Victoria Glen plan wouldn’t necessarily lead to the clear-cutting and paving-over of all of Woolwich’s parkland, opponents have a point when they talk about precedent this proposal would set. Who’s to say future needs for cash won’t be addressed by the sale of assets?

This kind of sell-off is likely to be considered more often as governments at all levels face a cash-crunch. Record deficits at the federal level mean cuts are coming. The same is true at the provincial level. That means that the free-flowing infrastructure funding tap will be shut off, leaving municipal governments scrambling for money. We may not see the wholesale downloading of services and costs that came with deficit-fighting in the last decade, but belts will be worn tighter.

Having already run property taxes to unsustainable levels, municipalities facing the option of cuts to staff and service levels just might begin eyeing assets as a funding source. That would clearly be ill-advised, short-term thinking, but that’s not to say it won’t happen: many municipalities are much better at hitting residents with skyrocketing taxes than bringing their spending under control.

This is the heart of the conundrum that must eventually be addressed: public sector spending is outstripping the productive sector’s ability to pay.  As the former depends entirely on the latter, the gap must inevitably cause upheaval as we question the value-for-money scenario: what are we getting for the cash we pour into the system? And how often can governments keep going to the well before it runs dry?

At some point, local politicians will have hard decisions to make. Not just how to keep increases to four per cent, but how to cut by many times that amount. In the long run, the system we’ve developed is untenable, but the crisis will come long before that.

It’s in that context that councillors must weigh the Victoria Glen proposal, and the budget deliberations that will follow.S

Steve Kannon
Steve Kannonhttps://www.observerxtra.com
A community newspaper journalist for more than two decades, Steve Kannon is the editor of the Observer.

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