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Infrastructure woes show folly of poor governance

Woolwich’s recent decision about Breslau parkland means the township and community will have to come up with hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for upgrades to recreational facilities in the village.

Thus far, very little has been budgeted for, a problem that will become more pressing once the glow of a victory over the land-sale option wears off.

Expectations will increase for the spending of money the township doesn’t have and hasn’t made a priority to set aside. A problem, yes, but much less so than the tens of millions needed to deal with aging infrastructure, some of it much more essential than recreation: road, bridges and sewers.

Councillors were reminded of that this week during a discussion of the $9.1 million, as a minimum, needed in the next decade to deal with deteriorating bridges. On this file, too, the township has budgeted little.

Infrastructure deficits are a well-discussed issue at every level of government; past practices and short-term thinking, a mainstay of politicians, caused very little money to be set aside over the years since much of the infrastructure, from sewer lines to hospital buildings, was being built back in the halcyon days of a growing economy and much lower costs.

To its credit, Woolwich has been setting aside more money for a rainy day – i.e. the coming infrastructure storm. It’s been allocating some surplus funds to reserves, and has in place a special infrastructure levy: it’s another tax, but with the money allocated for a real need rather than being flushed away. In that vein, however, the township has done little to rein in its operating budget in order to make a real dent in the deficit rather than taxpayers’ wallets. The extra funds set aside are a good start, but they have not kept up with the growing list of projects. Even at today’s estimates – real costs are likely to be much higher, as there’s a history of being well off the mark with forecasts – the township is losing ground.

Woolwich is not alone in that regard. Despite plenty of lip service, governments continue to do very little in the way of long-term planning, let alone actual follow through. The township is somewhat ahead of the curve, even if progress is limited.

At the municipal level there’s always been an expectation that senior levels of government would come through with the money to pay for the bulk of infrastructure projects. Now, with budget woes of their own, much of it self-inflicted due to poor decision-making and management, the provincial and federal governments have empty coffers.

Cash-strapped municipalities have long called one-off grants and programs inadequate, preferring guaranteed slices of taxes such as the HST. There’s been some successes, such as sharing in fuel tax revenues, but many municipalities have proven unwise in their spending and mismanage the taxes they already collect.

Looking to fix its fiscal situation, Ottawa downloaded costs to the provinces. In Ontario, the province in turn passed down the expense of many programs to the municipalities, with an inadequate share of the money to fund them. Over time, that decision put an increasing amount of strain on municipal budgets, and communities were hard-pressed to deal with immediate costs, let alone stockpile reserves for the replacement of aging infrastructure.

For the foreseeable future, however, municipalities will have to get their own houses in order if they’re going to deal with their infrastructure, some of it at a critical juncture.

 

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