The region’s handling of the childcare issue made clear a number of contradictions – and outright hypocrisies – in its handling of public money. Council’s arguments for closing the centres apply to every facet of municipal government: employees are overpaid, contracts too generous and costs should be judged on how many people benefit for the amount of money spent.
The region used those arguments because they were convenient in backing what was already a foregone conclusion. Not surprisingly, we’ve heard nothing of those considerations being applied to every other facet of regional spending, even though there are more egregious examples of spending that benefits relatively few at sometimes enormous cost – transit should be the first to go under that microscope … and the scalpel.
With 2021 budget deliberations underway at the region and other municipalities, there’s a case to be made for zero-based budgeting, forcing bureaucrats and their ostensive bosses (councillors) to justify every penny. Assume the budget is zero dollars, and then add from there. That’s not going to happen. Instead, we’ll get tax increases, with rationales about maintaining services. The argument that people want services will be trotted out, as it always is, regardless of the daycare decision (and the region’s own stated goal of focusing on children).
We’re certain to hear more dubious justifications such as the City of Waterloo’s defense of a 3.5 per cent tax hike. There’ll be no talk of cuts to administrative costs, pay rollbacks and management layoffs to reflect both the pandemic and fiscal reality, the latter long absent from government considerations.
In Woolwich, the debate over needs versus wants is already front and center with issues such as the Peel Street bridge, discussed by council again this week.
With the bridge, there’s certainly merit to the “how many people benefit and at what cost” debate. A new bridge to carry vehicles would cost at least $4 million, which is too much for the amount of traffic it would carry. Nor would a bridge address the most pressing concern: the preservation of our heritage. The bridge isn’t just a crossing point, it’s a piece of history of the increasingly rare variety.
As both a nod to history and to its recreational value to the residents of Winterbourne and the township, rehabiliting the existing structure for pedestrian use makes the most sense. Even at that, the township is still looking at more than $1 million in costs, which means infrastructure money.
Woolwich has in fact 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.
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.
At the municipal level there’s always been an expectation that senior levels of government would come through with the money to pay for the bulk of infrastructure projects. Now, with budget woes of their own – exacerbated by the pandemic– the province and the federal government have empty coffers of their own.
In that light, now is the time for municipalities to rein in spending, cutting that which doesn’t directly benefit the public.