The Soapbox: Infrastructure needs less talk; more money and action

Justin Crann
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Moose Jaw's budget committee has failed to deliver an operating budget that will result in meaningful improvements to this city's infrastructure.

Coun. Brian Swanson discusses the fine points of the 2014 preliminary operating budget during the first of two full-day budget committee meetings.

With a diminutive mill rate increase of 1.64 per cent and only a paltry investment in rehabilitation efforts compared to what is needed, the committee has again signed off — by a vote of four to two — on a budget that will see prolonged infrastructure degeneration in what appears to be the pursuit of a minimal tax hike.

Coun. Brian Swanson left the meeting for an appointment prior to the vote.

To its credit, budget committee dedicated some funds to priority areas. 

Pavement rehabilitation received some love in the form of a $100,000 increase to its sealing and capping line and $7,500 for training and education.

Toss in the $20,000 parks and recreation will see to improve its tree pruning operations — the city hasn't seen a full pruning in more than a decade — and Moose Javians are looking at a new commitment of $127,500 in funds to maintain existing assets.

But in a budget of millions, $127,500 is — as Swanson has said about paltry spending in the past — a drop in the bucket.

Last week, I advised caution and patience while the committee deliberated its operating budget. That was because there were good signs in the two full days of budget talks held before the new year. 

A comprehensive, line-by-line review of departmental expenses was new to the process this year, and a tightening of the belt around certain city departments — as well as a slash of $100,000 to the subsidy to Mosaic Place and YaraCentre — appeared to signal a genuine commitment to doing this city better.

But then, some members of budget committee seemed to flinch away from what was needed most.

That would be more money for more training and more operations.

In his report to council as part of the 2014 preliminary operating budget, Director of Engineering Tyron Stokes pulled no punches in what his department would need to perform on a sustainable level.

"The city's infrastructures are aging day by day and many of these infrastructures have already passed their service life," he wrote. "The replacement rate is not consistent with the rate of deterioration."

Stokes specifically discussed water mains: "city staff are spending significant time on the construction of city-owned subdivisions and have limited resources for capital projects, in particular regular water main replacement projects."

He also spoke to road and sidewalk rehabilitation: "Due to shortage of adequate funding, the engineering department is unable to complete timely maintenance of road pavement and sidewalk. This causes the rehabilitation program to be more expensive through direct and indirect cost."

These honest insights into the shortages city engineering is facing — in money, in equipment, and in manpower — are, presumably, the sort of assessments council desired when it hired Stokes in the fall of 2013.

And yet, with the exception of $107,500 for road and pavement — a paltry sum amounting to a less-than-one per cent tax increase — his remarks appear to have gone unheeded.

On Wednesday, Mayor Deb Higgins told Times-Herald reporter Lisa Goudy the city would be looking at a comprehensive, step-by-step infrastructure plan.

The plan, Higgins estimated, might take up to six months to be completed.

That would be six more months where infrastructure rehabilitation progress is impeded (or in the very lest slowed down) and, assuming a consultant is hired to draft the plan, money is thrown at something it needn't be thrown at.

Meanwhile, the water mains will keep on bursting and the roads will keep on cracking — and that infrastructure deficit will just keep on growing.

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