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Provincial funds go to all the wrong priorities

Despite Premier Kathleen Wynne attempting to curry favour with municipal officials meeting this week under the auspices of the Rural Ontario Municipal Association (ROMA), the infrastructure situation is only being addressed at the margins.

The province has pledged to triple funding under the Ontario Community Infrastructure Fund (OCIF) by 2018-19. The formula funding component will be doubled next year to $100 million and increased ultimately to $200 million within three years. The application portion of the program is expected to rise to $100 million in three years.

Pledging more money is fine. Expecting bureaucrats on both ends – provincial and municipal – to spend the money wisely is not a safe bet. There’s been tweaking at the edges, but the infrastructure woes plaguing most municipalities aren’t being solved. While both the federal and provincial governments have been offering up funding formulas, the trend is downward given their fiscal mismanagement and resultant debt load.

Despite the diminishing prospects of near-term assistance, municipalities will have to bite the bullet on upgrades to crumbling roads, bridges and sewers. There are risks involved with pushing back capital spending on infrastructure – not uncommon around here – rather than tackling operating budgets. All too often the bureaucracy feeds itself at the expense of long-term projects that actually benefit residents, perhaps expecting the senior governments to bail them out.

Municipalities should indeed expect a bigger share of the revenues collected by senior governments, especially in light of recent history. Looking to fix its fiscal situation, Ottawa downloaded costs to the provinces. In Ontario, particularly during the Harris years, 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.

There’s been some action on the file, with senior governments sharing gas tax dollars, for instance, but the deficit still remains and municipalities want more help.

Hundreds of billions will be needed to repair and replace crumbling water systems, bridges, electrical grids and a host of other hard services we take for granted. That means more of our tax dollars will have to be directed that way at a time when an aging population will be demanding ever-more health-care and related services. Tough decisions are coming, the kind we’ll have to keep in mind while reviewing both spending and tax policy. We’re going to need more, not less money. Some programs will have to go. New spending plans may have to be scrapped. Infrastructure will have to be paid for largely within current budgets, meaning cuts on the operating side, mostly to wages and staff numbers.

There is likely to be no progress, however, under the current provincial government, which channels the money it doesn’t waste or misappropriate into the wrong areas. While it pays lip service to the actual needs of Ontarians, its fiscal mismanagement means infrastructure will continue to crumble, taxes will rise unsustainably and deficits will mount while amounting to nothing useful for the public.

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