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Smaller Ont. towns struggle to pay for infrastructure

Shawn Jeffords, Political Bureau Chief

By Shawn Jeffords, Political Bureau Chief

(Craig Robertson/Toronto Sun)

(Craig Robertson/Toronto Sun)

As communities age and money for big projects dries up, top municipal officials are saying “something has to give.”

A report on the perspective of chief administrative officers (CAOs) — by Strategy Corp. — found that just as Toronto is struggling to find ways to pay for much-needed infrastructure work, smaller communities, too, are finding it increasingly difficult to come with badly-needed cash.

“You thought Toronto was just having these problems,” said John Matheson, report co-author and a principal at Strategy Corp. “Actually, the report indicates it’s the municipal sector as a whole ... These problems are fairly common across Ontario which is why it’s important people pay attention to them.”

The group interviewed 26 CAOs — the top bureaucrats of towns, counties or cities — to get their views on the future of municipal government. The report focuses on small- to medium-size communities, and was provided exclusively to the Toronto Sun.

The report says CAOs are seeing a gap between what the public expects of local government and what they are prepared to pay for has grown. One participant told the authors “something has to give.”

The report says councillors in those communities are hesitant to raise taxes or create new revenue streams to pay for the work which isn’t surprising, he added.

“There’s a lot of infrastructure put in the ground between 50 and 75 years ago,” Matheson said, adding that years of deferring infrastructure work are catching up with communities.

The CAOs also expressed concern about the rise of a divisive brand of populism in city halls across Ontario. A number of councillors are mimicking U.S. President Donald Trump’s brash style, often publicly attacking bureaucrats and questioning their work.

“(Municipal governments) are not designed to have a somebody on council who is structurally opposing everything,” he said. “It’s contributing to only half of them saying they had good relations with their councils.”

The interviews used for the report were conducted confidentially. The findings offer a rare, unvarnished view of major issues taking place in these towns and cities, said Ron Shaw, a senior advisor with Strategy Corp who co-authored the report.

Shaw, a former CAO with over 30 years experience in Stratford and Kincardine, said top municipal bureaucrats don’t want to be critical of their communities publicly.

“They’re not going to say much different than what their councillors may be saying,” he added. “They want to make sure they represent the views of the municipality. Speaking confidentially, they can speak to us ... and give honest, open feedback.”

Releasing the report at the Association of Municipalities of Ontario’s annual meeting in Ottawa this week will help bring the concerns of the CAOs into focus, he said.

Matheson added that the concerns raised in the report will need to be addressed through a variety of means, including the provision of more cash to municipalities.

sjeffords@postmedia.com

 



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