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Sunday, February 23, 2020
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Avoiding waste is key to regaining public’s trust

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Last week’s activities in Toronto were another clear example of government waste, mismanagement and lack of regard for the public.

No, not Doug Ford’s arbitrary decision to cut in half the size of city council on the very day nominations closed and just months ahead of a municipal election. Rather, the case of a simple stairway in a park that serves as a microcosm for all that we imagine is wrong with government, local or otherwise.

Faced with bureaucrats claiming it would cost $65,000 to $150,000 to put in a few steps down a grassy knoll in an Etobicoke park, a neighbourhood retiree did the job on his own for $550. The move provided an alternative to a slippery grade routinely used by pedestrians. Having done nothing to address concerns, city officials were suddenly galvanized, ripping down the homemade stairs and replacing them with a dozen concrete stairs at a cost of $10,000. Still many times the cost, but much less than the original estimate deemed “outrageous” and “crazy” by Toronto Mayor John Tory (who had pretty much the same thing to say about Ford’s announcement last week).

There are, of course, countless examples of fiscal waste and mismanagement at every level of government – and in other areas of the economy, too, though we’re more directly on the hook for the former – but cases like this serve to reinforce every stereotype of government-led projects, from $143 to install a pencil sharpener in a classroom to billion-dollar boondoggles that are an almost daily occurrence – with its LRT, this region is not immune to such large-scale waste.

Each such case is an indication of our increasing isolation in a system of governance that is progressively more undemocratic and does less and less for citizens. Politicians, bureaucrats and public-sector workers at every level are seen as more interested in their own salaries, perks and entitlement that actually serving the public.

The Etobicoke park situation is an example that civic spirit is supposed to be a two-way street, and when that falls apart, it’s easier to see why people get disenchanted.

When it comes to local affairs, many of us can’t even be bothered to vote – typically, fewer than a third of us bother to show up – let alone take the initiative to force governments to do what’s right … and do right by the people. But that doesn’t mean we don’t notice that service levels suffer even as taxes increase and growth reduces the quality of life even as it pads the coffers … and wallets of those who are supposed to be working for the public, rather than the other way around.

At the heart of the matter, getting it wrong on the small and easy things is not only bad optics, it reinforces the notion that officials have their priorities wrong, attuned more to their convenience than public service.

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. Something to consider in an election year, barring any additional tampering from Ford.

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