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Monday, August 19, 2019

Better governance starts with asking the right questions

Woolwich needs more money to maintain its buildings, councillors heard last week. When they meet again this week for another special budget session, they’ll discuss capital spending and the growing gap between available money and the cost of replacing roads, bridges and facilities – aka the infrastructure deficit.

The township is certainly not alone in that regard – every government everywhere finds itself in the same boat. Nor is it alone in failing to adequately budget for such expenses, in the past through to this very day.

The reality is that there’s little hope for most municipalities to get caught up with such deficits. They’re burdened by past spending decisions that did not account for future replacement costs, and such planning is still not part of the equation today. We’re still inflicted by short-term political thinking that wants to spend today but let some future citizens pay the bills and deal with any fallout.

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.

Again, 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.

The first step to breaking out of this failing mould is for politicians to demand each expenditure is justified, the opposite of what generally happens today. There’s a simple question – who benefits, and at what cost? – that should be asked of every expenditure. Take, for instance, the recreation budget discussed in this week’s issue: programs and facilities cost more money than they generate, but there’s an argument to be made that there’s a social good to at least some of what’s on offer. Yet the debate, if it can be called such, is never framed in that way, though councillors sometimes reach that mindset when outside groups ask for money.

Leaving aside government expenditures for the most vulnerable members of society – some expenses are just things we do as part of a civil society – there’s a whole lot of discretionary spending that goes on without question. There’s often a notion that spending is good just because it’s government spending or, worse still, that because it’s always been in the budget that it should always be in the budget, unchecked.

Long-term thinking is not just for issues such as climate change, though we’re not prepared to tackle even that issue, despite the consequences. No, it’s all about living for today. But long-term planning is crucial for a host of issues that are part of today’s political reality, encompassing all levels: long-term resource consumption, human migration, transportation demands, retirement and pensions and the like. Weighty issues. By comparison, decisions at the township level should be much easier … if questions got asked.

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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