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Labour unrest shows spending at odds with the public good

In a week where transit workers are on strike and teachers walked the picket lines in the region, municipal governments continue to be oblivious to runaway staff costs and the perils of ignoring the public good in making decisions … or not making the decisions, as the case may be.

Ever-increasing operating cost at the Region of Waterloo are in part to blame for Grand River Transit disruptions, as the region has done little to curb staff costs, and even less to protect the public purse. Money and over-inflated staffing are at the heart of labour unrest in the education sector. In Woolwich, massive staffing-cost increases have sucked up millions of tax dollars, and prevented residents from seeing infrastructure improvements, let alone enjoying any dividend from all the negatives of growth.

To their credit, some Woolwich councillors have taken aim at a longstanding trend, looking to at least talk about accountability.

While there’s been some of the usual fiddling at the margins in this year’s Woolwich budget deliberations, there’s still no review of overall spending. Even with talk of its infrastructure deficit and how there’s not enough money to deal with essentials, there’s no talk of prioritizing where the money goes. Tax relief is beyond the pale.

With the now well-documented decrease in our incomes and standards of living, governments too have to make do with less, scaling back to focus on the essentials.

Hard choices will have to be made. That does not involve comparators.

In the end, staffing is going to be a key issue. Labour costs make up more than 50 per cent of the budget – significant savings will come only with cuts here. There’s no need to be draconian, but wage and hiring freezes as well as attrition are likely to be required to get spending back in line.

Governments of all stripes have been guilty of unnecessary bloating, taking on more and more functions without thought for the long-term implications. There is also a tendency to forego reviews of programs and spending to see if each item is still needed – once instituted, they become entrenched and part of each year’s baseline.

The argument is made that the public has come to expect the level of service now offered, plus, of course, whatever new addition is contemplated, which will become next year’s status quo. Certainly the public can sometimes be unrealistic: we can’t have both more program spending and lower taxes.

More and more, however, we’re seeing higher costs – i.e. taxes – without any commensurate increases in the level or quality of service. At best, we’re paying more for more of the same.

Councillors will have to be on the lookout for bureaucrat tactics to derail the public good. When wage freezes and rollbacks are discussed, staff’s default assumption is that services will be cut, rather than doing away with unneeded managerial positions. Front line services are what residents are overtaxed to pay. Bureaucratic bloat is what management encourages to make its life easier and to pad the payroll. When it comes to choosing between the two, councillors have an easy decision.

The idea is to identify the most essential of services offered to residents, then to begin trimming away at everything else.

As with governments of all stripes, program bloat and internal entitlements become entrenched. In budget deliberations, there is a rationale for every spending request. Taken in isolation, each may make sense, but it’s the role of elected officials to see the big picture, and to nip in the bud empire-building and incremental growth.

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