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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Out of sight, out of mind?

On Monday’s council agenda, two issues will be of particular interest: the proposal to slow down our infrastructure renewal in order to freeze taxes and a proposal to add a special tax in order to stimulate economic growth.

The former has been dealt with in previous blogs. In November 2009 a number of members of council attempted to take a holiday from our 20-year sustainability plan by reducing the rate increase. At that time I wrote:

We have an aging system, it's as simple as that. Some of our pipes are more than 100 years old. We need only to look back to Hallowe'en Day in 2007 for a stark reminder of our vulnerability with respect to infrastructure. On that morning, a watermain burst on Wellington Street resulting in power outages, lost business, and traffic disruptions for weeks to come. It was not a pretty picture. For more detail on what happened that day go to this story at LondonTopic.

We have a significant investment in our infrastructure: $1.8 billion in water and $3.6 billion in wastewater. To protect that investment, we have to maintain and replace it as needed. For too long we have taken our infrastructure for granted so that now we are playing catch up. That is why staff have prepared, and council has approved, a plan to invest aggressively until we have eliminated the current infrastructure deficit estimated at more than half a billion dollars. Once we have caught up in 2015 for water and 2011 for wastewater, we can go back to rate increases that simply keep pace with inflation.

So tonight, history repeats itself. Anxious not to appear to renege on the zero tax increase, Committee of the Whole recommended that the rates be frozen at the 2010 levels for 2011, saving the average homeowner $37 for the year. This received support from nine members: Mayor Joe Fontana, Bud Polhill (Ward 1), Joe Swan (Ward 3), Stephen Orser (Ward 4), Matt Brown (Ward 7), Dale Henderson (Ward 9), Paul Van Meerbergen (Ward 10), Denise Brown (Ward 11), Sandy White (Ward 14). Voting to stick with the original plan recommended by the City Engineer and approved by the provincial government were Bill Armstrong (Ward 2), Joni Baechler (Ward 5), Nancy Branscombe (Ward 6), Paul Hubert (Ward 8), Harold Usher (Ward 12), Judy Bryant (Ward 13).

What can residents expect for their $3 per month in savings? Higher ongoing rates once sustainability is reached, increased risk of major breaks and associated costs, increased construction costs for deferred projects, loss of construction jobs. Long term pain for short term gain.

Fortunately, Joni Baechler had the foresight to insist upon a more comprehensive staff presentation for the new council members to ensure that they fully appreciate the impact of this decision. That presentation will be provided at the Committee of the Whole meeting starting at 2:30 p.m.

It is ironic that, just as council is hijacking its infrastructure sustainability plan to save a few tax dollars next year, it is also contemplating a new tax, starting in 2012, for an economic development reserve fund. The new economy projects identified as requiring funding include a partnership with Fanshawe College to create a Downtown Theatre Arts District, a world leading research centre for water and wastewater technologies, a 401/402 interchange requiring significant provincial cash injections.

While it is easy to appreciate the irony of investing in a water and wastewater technology centre of excellence while deferring life cycle maintenance on that very existing infrastructure, it should also be noted that the other projects will depend heavily of infrastructure funding.

The Theatre Arts proposal is to aid the restoration and repurposing of vacant heritage buildings in the downtown, the very location of aging pipes. Why fix up the buildings above the ground when we are unwilling to maintain the essential services underground?

And why invest in roads and interchanges at the outskirts of the city, thereby stimulating industrial, commercial and residential growth to the Urban Growth Boundary and beyond, when we are not prepared to do the life cycle maintenance on our existing infrastructure?

Kitchener is frequently cited as the model for economic growth and vitality.

But Kitchener too, like the communities around it, will be facing the prospect of significant water and wastewater rate hikes in the coming year.

It is always easier to get excited about sexy new projects than to look after the stuff you already have, especially when that stuff is invisible. But that is the job of the councillors: to be good stewards of our existing assets.

If they can’t be trusted to look after what we have, why would we trust them with something new?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well put Gina. Also interesting is Joe F's desire to accelerate development in Southwest London. And where is the money going to come from for the city's share of the infrastructure? $4 M per year won't be enough. Too bad about the lack of analysis.