‘Cultural’ Infrastructure Spending Not a Priority
Crumbling bridges... potholes the size of Olympic swimming pools... according to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, Canada’s “infrastructure deficit” is in excess $123 billion dollars.
To pay for all that existing, necessary infrastructure, municipal politicians frequently claim they need to raise taxes, create new ones or develop other “revenue tools.” Yet at the same time, many municipal politicians are out spending money on new “cultural” or “social” infrastructure projects that are anything but necessary. City councils would be wise to rethink such spending.
In Calgary’s case – it is worth recalling just how challenging it was for council to freeze property taxes for 2017. As council was unwilling to make tough spending decisions, they dipped into one of the city’s reserve funds to the tune of $22.5 million.
Yet, on the heels of such debate at City Hall, council voted to approve an additional $900,000 (on top of an existing commitment of $5.5 million) for a new facility for a jazz troupe as part of new “cultural” infrastructure.
If that seems reasonable – perhaps the over $8 million that the city spent in April on bringing pandas to the Calgary Zoo or the almost $25 million they spent on converting the old Science Centre (aka the Centennial Planetarium) into an art gallery should also be cause for some frustration.
If all this all counts as “necessary infrastructure” one has to wonder what wouldn’t count as “necessary infrastructure?”
Since 2013, the city has spent over $165 million on things that it considers “cultural” infrastructure. As the economy worsens, it adds insult to injury for hard working Calgarians – who have either lost their jobs or had decreases in pay – to have City Hall spending their tax dollars on these nice to have expenditures as opposed to need to have core services.
It is cynical for a government to call for extra funding in a legitimate area (in this case, infrastructure) and then squander a portion of that funding in frivolous ways that do not benefit the population at large. That’s especially true in such trying economic circumstances.
That’s not to say that supporting the arts or other cultural endeavours is not valuable – on the contrary – it just seems inappropriate for government to be taking on that role. Taxpayers want to know that their water is clean, that sewers work properly, and that their roads are safe. Government needs to stick to its core services or else there will be an ever-expanding list of questionable projects that receive public money.
This becomes additionally concerning when considering value for money and risk management. By bending the definition of infrastructure to include “cultural” expenditures there is less accountability in terms of performance measurement. This was a major point of contention when council deliberated over funding the jazz centre. It’s far easier to assess the public benefit and performance of a water-treatment plant rather than an art installation in an old building.
Ultimately, Calgarians expect city council to exercise prudence with the public purse. If real infrastructure needs are as underfunded as the Federation of Canadian Municipalities claims, municipal politicians would be wise to repurpose the “cultural” infrastructure spending to areas that actually benefit the population as a whole.
John Whittaker is a policy analyst with the Manning Centre
This column was published by the Calgary Sun on August 3, 2016