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Saying one thing and doing another about infrastructure

More funding for infrastructure, such as the $1.9 million from the province announced last week, is always going to be welcomed by municipalities. Still, the problems faced by the townships, and every other municipality, are numerous and won’t be easily solved.

While both the federal and provincial governments have been offering up funding formulas, the trend is downward given their fiscal mismanagement and resultant debt load.

Despite the diminishing prospects of near-term assistance, municipalities will have to bite the bullet on upgrades to crumbling roads, bridges and sewers. Experts caution against pushing back capital spending on infrastructure – not uncommon around here – rather than tackling operating budgets. All too often the bureaucracy feeds itself at the expense of long-term projects that actually benefit residents, perhaps expecting the senior governments to bail them out.

Municipalities should indeed expect a bigger share of the revenues collected by senior governments, especially in light of recent history. Looking to fix its fiscal situation, Ottawa downloaded costs to the provinces. In Ontario, particularly during the previous Conservative government, the province in turn passed down the expense of many programs to the municipalities, with an inadequate share of the money to fund them. Over time, that decision put an increasing amount of strain on municipal budgets, and communities were hard-pressed to deal with immediate costs, let alone stockpile reserves for the replacement of aging infrastructure.

There’s been some action on that file, with senior governments sharing gas tax dollars, for instance, but the deficit still remains and municipalities want more help.

Hundreds of billions will be needed to repair and replace crumbling water systems, bridges, electrical grids and a host of other hard services we take for granted. That means more of our tax dollars will have to be directed that way at a time when an aging population will be demanding ever-more health-care and related services. Tough decisions are coming, the kind we’ll have to keep in mind while reviewing both spending and tax policy. We’re going to need more, not less money. Some programs will have to go. New spending plans may have to be scrapped. Infrastructure will have to be paid for largely within current budgets, meaning cuts on the operating side, mostly to wages and staff numbers.

In the meantime, municipalities are leading the charge for more money. Smaller municipalities, such as Waterloo Region’s townships, feel left out of the debate, and may end up with the crumbs if the pie is divvied up for the cities.

Small communities such as Woolwich and Wellesley have very little power – a small population means fewer voters, perhaps too few to warrant throwing cash our way. The small population base, however, is spread out over a comparatively large geographical area, making large demands on municipal infrastructure budgets for such things as roads and bridges.

Ironically, while Woolwich and Wellesley will receive much less funding, the cost per metre of road maintenance is no less in the townships than it is in neighbouring Kitchener or Waterloo. It costs as much to span the Grand River here as it does in the cities, yet $1 million, for instance, means much more to a township budget than it does to our larger neighbours.

Certainly larger cities have larger problems: a bigger population demands all kinds of services, and puts increasingly larger strains on municipal infrastructure … and on city coffers. But real needs exist in rural townships.

If the goal is to secure more money for municipal infrastructure, then the little guys deserve a break, too.

For the foreseeable future, however, municipalities will have to get their own houses in order if they’re going to deal with their infrastructure, some of it at a critical juncture.

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