Over the past few years, municipal governments have begun to trumpet their growing infrastructure deficits. Waterloo, Ontario, a city of about 100,000 people, claims its infrastructure deficit is around $250 million:
Q. What is an infrastructure deficit and why is it so high in Waterloo?
A. This is a common issue across Canada. The solution must be long term and include senior levels of government. Municipalities own a large portion of Canada’s infrastructure, yet we receive only 3½ cents on every tax dollar to maintain it. With just 3½ cents, our municipality has been asked to fund all city services as well as to maintain and build new infrastructure. Funding for ailing infrastructure has not been at a sustainable level for many years, so more assets are falling into a deficit category. We estimate our infrastructure deficit is $250 million.
What is an infrastructure deficit? It is the aggregate cost of all maintenance required on city infrastructure.
I’m sure municipalities would love to have you believe that this just popped up out nowhere completely by surprise. Unfortunately though, this deficit arises from a systematic failure to maintain existing infrastructure over time. It’s like owning a house, doing no maintenance for 20 years, then being surprised that it needs a new roof and new windows.
They aren’t calculating these numbers in a rush to fix things; as you’ll notice in the paragraph above, this is merely a tactic to shame higher levels of government into coughing up some cash.
Spending on infrastructure isn’t sexy. It’s much more fun to build ice rinks, a theatre, or an LRT. In fact, they might even stop cutting the grass to save money (though enough complaints might make them reverse that decision), but isn’t cutting the grass and maintaining the roads pretty much the core of municipal services?
Municipalities like to complain that they don’t have that much money, but the truth is that their revenue growth has far outstripped population growth. They have just chosen to spend in on other things, mainly salaries and benefits for employees, which account for more that half of their budgets. (I would quote a paragraph from this article but the National Post doesn’t seem to understand the concept of fair use or fair dealing – their loss as I probably won’t link to them again, though I could easily subvert their right mouse click capture).
Municipalities aren’t going to rush to fix the infrastructure problems. The potholes in my neighbourhood make that abundantly clear. They just want more money, so that they can spend more, without having to answer to their constituents. They just ignore the fact that there is only one pocket to take the money from in the end.