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Gov'ts need to get back to basics

Given that everyone’s on the hook for the cost of a new LRT few will ever use, the public has some choice names for a system officially dubbed “Ion.”

The City of Waterloo is on the right track with plans to eliminate nine staff positions. Sure, the number is not enough and the city is downplaying the cost-savings angle, but it’s a start.

The rationale for getting rid of the jobs stems from an evaluation of all positions to see where they fit into the municipality’s core services. Those given the axe were deemed to fall outside that definition. Unfortunately, the city paid $150,000 for a consultant to tell it what senior bureaucrats should have been able to figure out on their own.

As well, the cuts only amount to one per cent of the 900 people on the city’s payroll.

The exercise is a good one. It’s the tendency of all bureaucracies, especially the government kind, to become bloated: empire building, budget padding, the desire to work less by adding bodies to spread the workload and a host of other featherbedding measures can lead to unnecessary additional staff. Add to that the rarity of questioning whether a program or department added in the past is still relevant today, and there’s certainly fat to trim in every government, even those as small as Woolwich’s, for instance.

As we’ve noted here many times, a case can be made for every expenditure, every request for funding received by municipal councils. That doesn’t mean it’s a good enough case to warrant the cost. Nor does approval of the spending guarantee that enough people benefit to justify the tax hit.

Take the case of transit. The decision to extend a bus to St. Jacobs and Elmira was made despite the fact only a few hundred people would use it, while burdening everyone in the township – including those far removed from the bus route – with the $450,000 price tag. Given that the figure represents about a six per cent tax hike, the township would be much better served if that money were channeled into, say, infrastructure. (And let’s not get started on the LRT.)

The same process could, and should be applied to every dollar spent by government, from municipal through to the wastrels in Ottawa. That it’s not speaks volumes about the disconnect between the politicians and bureaucrats intent on what they want rather than on what’s in the public interest.

That’s not to say, of course, that there’s nothing of value done by governments. Far from it. In fact, most of the spending goes to essential and important programs, from health care and education to plowing the roads and filling the potholes. In those areas, and they are some of the largest cost centres when it comes to vacuuming up tax dollars, the question becomes whether or not we’re getting good value, good management and ideal outcomes. Time and time again, the answer is no. Much of that has to do with staff costs – another popular topic here. In fact, a much-studied issue of late, with reports indicating the public service is overcompensated and that paying more and more – typically well above inflation and the taxpayers’ ability to pay – to the likes of teachers, firefighers, doctors and nurses has done nothing to improve the services and, in many cases, actually eroded the quality of service due to reallocation of limited dollars and resources.

With a growing demand for core services – the likes of roads, bridges and water pipes municipally, through to healthcare at the provincial and federal levels – growing even as real incomes stagnate in the productive private sector, the time is ripe for prioritizing. As with the Waterloo example, that means eliminating that which is not really needed and which serves too few at too high a cost. A one-per-cent cut only scratches the surface.

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