Money is funneled to roads while austerity is applied to other city services in the municipal budget and beyond

Dec 18, 2012

Money is funneled to roads while austerity is applied to other city services in the municipal budget and beyond

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As the municipal budget process wraps up, the focus is on cost cutting as Council makes difficult choices to keep tax rates down.  This mentality has run over to other recent decisions.  Serious consideration is being given to getting the municipality out of daycares and fitness centres, and to increase fees at city playing fields.  But what are the costs of removing these services?  Will lowering access to recreation and fitness for youth and other citizens lead to increased costs elsewhere?  These type of decisions shouldn’t be based on a single budget line.  They need to consider the bigger picture, both fiscally and in terms of our values as a community.  

The anticipated savings from these proposed cuts are small potatoes for the overall budget.  The Junior Citizens Daycare (the only daycare providing service to parents on night shift) is expected to cost the city  $129,000;  five fitness centres (most located in the outlying areas) are expected to cost the city $376,000.  All citizen and leisure services taken together account for only ~ one tenth of the total budget.

It would seem to make sense to look for the largest saving opportunities within the largest budget item.  Roads is top of the list for city expenses, accounting for ~ a quarter of the total budget, and over a third of the capital budget. Strangely, the cost cutting mentality does not seem to apply here, where there is instead pride in extra funding given.   As well as having the biggest piece of pie when it comes to the core budget, roads received 60% (over one million additional dollars) of budget option funding. 

Over ten million dollars in capital funding is allocated for new arterial road construction/widenings/intersection improvements, with every section of new road permanently adding to the city’s operating budget for road maintenance costs.  If we want to reduce the municipal budget, we will need to reduce spending on roads.  We can start by moving away from new and bigger roads, and look to other ways to meet transportation needs.  Transit (currently 0.05% of the city budget) and cycling infrastructure costs much less, and leads to lower maintenance costs for existing road infrastructure.  These type of deeper savings require more analysis than line-by-line inspections. 

Bottom line?  True fiscal sustainability will require a rethinking of how and where municipal funding is allocated.  True fiscal sustainability always goes together with social and environmental sustainability.  Any rethinking of the budget needs to be done through the lens of our values as a ‘healthy’ community.  Do people grumble most about roads?  Probably.  But ask people what kind of city they want to live in, and you get a whole different answer.