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Daycare centre cuts are syptomatic of an entrenched bureaucracy

There is a debate to be had about whether Waterloo Region – or any government, for that matter – should be involved in funding daycare centres, let alone running them. The same is true of all government services, which at a minimum should go through the “how many people benefit and at what cost?” filter.

That debate isn’t the issue, however, in the region’s plans to close down the five daycare centres it operates, one of them in Elmira. Moreover, the middle of a pandemic isn’t the time to be contemplating such things given the economic situation and plethora of stress on residents, families in particular.

More to the point, the closures are yet another indication that bureaucrats will always go first to cuts in frontline services when looking to find ways to offset their own profligacy – in this case, the ill-considered decision to waste money on light rail transit has put the region in a deep financial hole. It’s plan for dealing with that isn’t to cut its losses on that front, but to begin eroding other services, as township residents who used to have nearby transfer stations, for instance, will recall.

There is an inherent resistance to downsizing within bureaucracies. When cuts do come, they typically involve frontline staff, not management and other entrenched bureaucrats. Those affected tend to get lower pay while doing the actual work that is of value to the public. In that light, cuts don’t save as much money as they could, hurt services to the people paying the freight and maintain management layers that provide little if any value.

Useful services appear to be first on the chopping block while wasteful and unnecessary projects will continue to burn through your tax dollars.

In that vein, you can bet the reduced services will not produce a commensurate reduction in taxes. Far from it, as governments never go down the road, the region being an egregious example.

While most of us realize tax increases are inevitable over the long term due to the increased costs for real, hard goods, not just featherbedding, the key is to make them worthwhile.

As has been pointed out on numerous occasions, fees for municipal services such as water and sewers are rising at rates well above inflation, as is the case with other utilities. The key to helping residents cope with those increases is to cut other spending so that the net cost is zero. So, if water costs the average resident another $100 a year, property taxes – i.e. other spending – should be cut by a commensurate amount.

The idea is to identify the most essential of services offered to residents, then to begin trimming away at everything else. Does that include cuts to daycare centres? Maybe. Maybe not. The consultation never went that far. (And let’s not talk about governments’ addiction to consultants, often paid to find a particular outcome and always hired as a way to provide third-party cover for decisions.)

Typically, proposals to  reduce spending  become threats of cuts to service levels, with the implication that citizens would receive less in the way of frontline services and programs. That terminology is disingenuous at best: officials know perfectly well there are cuts that can be made without the public even noticing, including staff reductions at the administrative level and adjustments to wages and benefits.

Such ploys are a way for staff to entice councillors to avoid cuts they don’t want while channelling money to favoured ends – see, for instance, failed if-you-build-it-they-will-come spending on transit and bike lanes. Councillors should be aware of that, but the results would suggest otherwise.

It’s for such reasons that basic services such as road repairs and other infrastructure priorities go undone, as township residents can clearly see. Infrastructure and frontline services often appear secondary to administrative priorities – i.e. perquisites.

There’s been a clear pattern of much of the increased funding channelled to municipal coffers courtesy of growth going to staff rather than to services or tax cuts. Equally obvious is just how little of that growth has been a boon to citizens. Much of that growth got sucked into the black hole of staff increases, higher wages and pet projects that provide zero benefit to the public, often doing harm instead.

Growth is also a culprit in this regard, putting ever-more stress on the current infrastructure while adding to the inventory that will one day require more government money to maintain and replace. And always at a cost greater than the purported benefits of growth.

The downsides of growth – a long list, not limited to the inarguable ecological damage – should be top of mind to local politicians dealing with budgets just now.

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.

This is not a call for wholesale hacking and slashing. We need services. We have to pay for them. Where needs shift into wants, we’ve got more leeway. Where spending does not directly benefit the bulk of the citizenry, the axe should fall.

Longstanding practices of ignoring the public good has led to taxpayer fatigue, adding fuel to those who call for wholesale dismantling of government services.

It’s something to keep in mind as the region and local municipalities work on their budget.

The region is looking at a $25-million deficit, proposing cuts such as those to the daycare centres. Council’s past spending mistakes can’t be easily undone, but cuts will have to come. Are daycare centres among the most expendable services? Probably not. That kind of money could easily be found internally, with administrative cuts the public would never see.

Greater transparency and an effort to cut deeper across the bureaucracy are both called for if regional council wishes to be seen as making a credible effort to represent the citizenry.

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