By Steve Strang, Municipal Mayor of St. Clements and Chair of the Manitoba Capital Region*
Do you remember the book, The Living City? Or how about the TV series, Star Trek? The Living City is a book written by Frank Lloyd Wright, an architect, who envisioned a future with vehicles that float on air and futuristic ways of travel and living. Star Trek often appeared to be a window on our future. Push a button and any type of food appears or gets zapped back to health when you do not feel well. The reality today is nowhere close to those futuristic books and programs. Here we are in 2008, and take a look around.
Do you know that there are presently over 50 boil water advisories in Manitoba? There are treatment plants in need critical upgrades to deal with nutrient removal and our roads and highways are in dire need of repairs. The infrastructure deficit in Canada has reached $123 billion and Manitoba ranks fifth in the country for much needed infrastructure improvements. The Province of Manitoba is facing a municipal infrastructure deficit in the amount of $ 6 billion ($3 billion in rural municipal infrastructure and $3 billion with the City of Winnipeg).
So how do we address this problem?
Presently the Provincial Government provides an infrastructure budget of just over $430 million, which is not enough to make a dent in the infrastructure deficit. At this rate, we will never wipe out this deficit.
Please understand that this is not finger pointing at the current Provincial Government. In fact, this Government is one of the few in Canada to take notice of issues and react in a proactive manner. An example of this is the action taken by the Government to protect Manitoba communities from flooding. This writer applauds the Government’s actions on this problem.
However, Manitoba needs to consider changing the way we address the issue of infrastructure. A healthy community is a more marketable community, one which will attract businesses and development. After all, where would you want to raise a family? In a healthy community or one plagued with water and sewage issues such as a boil water advisory? Manitoba is not a third world Country! We are a vibrant province with great opportunities and potential. An example of this is the creation of the Inland Port that is being developed by the City of Winnipeg and the Government of Manitoba. Both parties recognize the opportunities for developing Winnipeg as the transportation hub of North America.
And if we have the vision to build an Inland Port and a Human Rights Museum, a new arena and a proposed new football stadium, then surely we can have some vision in addressing the infrastructure demands facing the cities and rural municipalities in this province.
The present system which drives monies into the hands of the municipalities leaves us all as beggars to the plate. Municipalities are competing with one another to address infrastructure issues. This should not be the case. In fact, there needs to be a mechanism in place to deal with infrastructure crises, (ex. road collapse, sewage failure or water contamination) which will allow immediate action to be taken to rectify the problem.
Let us review the facts. When the Federal government reduced the GST by one percent, their action was fully supported. When the Federal Government proposed reducing the GST by a further one percent, they were asked to instead give the one percent to the municipalities for much needed infrastructure improvements. This idea was supported by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) and the Association of Manitoba Municipalities (AMM). This of course did not happen and the message from the Federal Government was for the municipalities to levy their own tax.
This has left the municipalities on their own to deal with the problems of failing infrastructure. So what is the solution? We know the current system does not work. However, it is the municipalities that the taxpayers and citizens look toward to solve the problems of the failing infrastructure. When the problems are close to home, the first level of government the taxpayer turns to is the municipal governments. Not the Federal Government and not the Provincial Government. For the most part, our citizens do not understand the politics of infrastructure failure and repair, and when asked, most would support paying more if the monies went directly to infrastructure. A Federation of Canadian Municipalities survey showed that 65 percent of respondents were willing to accept an extra tax to repair and replace our crumbling infrastructure. The Association of Manitoba Municipalities did a similar survey which indicated that 54 percent of Manitobans were willing to do the same.
It appears that if the citizens are willing to pay to have clean drinking water, proper sewage treatment, and well-maintained and safe roads, then who best to deal with this but the municipalities themselves. Since the citizens come directly to the municipalities when they are frustrated at the lack of service or the services they receive, it is suggested that the municipalities be given the resources to solve their concerns!
The Mayors and Reeves of the Capital Region of Manitoba, representing the City of Winnipeg and the 14 municipalities surrounding the City, along with the support of the AMM feel that we have the solution. The Provincial Government needs to allow the municipalities to level a one percent municipal tax dedicated for infrastructure repair and renewal. This tax will generate approximately $180 per capita for infrastructure, plus provide a direct injection into the economy in terms of job creation and economic stimulation.
Change for the sake of change is not productive. But a change such as the one proposed, would address a growing problem, stimulate our economy and allow municipalities to focus on proactively addressing the infrastructure problem. We need not be afraid of change but rather we need to send the message to the Provincial Government that THIS change can no longer be delayed.
* This article is part of the MCC’s effort to encourage discussion about our province’s infrastructure deficit and the opinions expressed therein do not necessarily reflect the views of the MCC. These efforts are partially in response to its 2008-2009 Resolution entitled “Provincial Sewer and Water Infrastructure”. To find out more about this Resolution, click here, to share your views on this issue please email the MCC at [email protected].