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Whittaker: Municipalities should share their nifty cost-saving initiatives
Monday, 6 June 2016 - 10:30am
Across Canada, the narrative that municipalities are severely underfunded and simply require additional taxing powers continues to receive significant attention.
Something that doesn’t receive as much attention is the fact that many municipalities could improve how well they spend public funds. A new municipal efficiencies report by the Manning Centre shines a big spotlight on some very good initiatives undertaken by municipalities across the country.
The report may spark a renewed interest in municipalities sharing best practices, rather than appealing to raise taxes, as is commonly the case.
In November 2015, a councillor from Nova Scotia penned an article headlined “Municipal Revenue Tools Unequal to Task.” A month before that, Toronto’s city manager was on the record saying that “revenue tools” should not be considered dirty words.
The Federation of Canadian Municipalities, Canada’s national municipal umbrella organization, hosts a big city mayors’ caucus each year. At their February meeting, at least two mayors were on record demanding block grants from the federal government and “(money for) public transit, affordable housing, and the types of infrastructure that are not particularly sexy.”
The municipal chorus of calls for other levels of government to fund their “needs” is quite consistent across Canada.
Earlier this year, the Manning Centre decided to contact a selection of municipalities across Canada and solicit examples of initiatives they had undertaken to deliver municipal services in a more cost-effective manner. The responses were very encouraging and positive. It’s a shame that more hasn’t been done to highlight some very good cost-saving initiatives that municipalities have pursued.
Fredericton, N.B., demonstrated how small alterations can lead to significant savings and help the environment. Prior to city policy changes, buses typically had to wait 10 minutes at a hub for mass transfers of passengers. When the city tested an anti-idling policy for its bus fleet, the results were significant. Shutting down buses for those 10 minutes of wait time eliminated 17,353 litres of fuel consumption, which translated into annual savings of $20,000. Imagine if even larger cities pursued this idea.
Victoria created an efficient and competitive public tendering system for virtually everything that it purchases. This system was modestly billed as saving $20,000 annually in photocopy and courier costs, but the efficiency gains through a modernized online vendor registration system extend far beyond saving paper. The number of responses to tenders has increased dramatically; bidders now come from all over the world, some as far away as China and India. During conversations with staff at the City of Victoria, we were told the savings from increased competition have saved millions of dollars.
Another great savings example that caught our eye comes from Brandon, Man. The Prairie city estimates that it will save between $23 million and $29 million over 20 years by entering into a partnership agreement with two private businesses to build a new water reclamation facility.
Previously, Brandon had two wastewater treatment facilities – one for industrial effluent and the other for municipal effluent. By combining the two facilities, and sharing costs with two businesses that also required new treatment facilities, Brandon was able to take partial ownership of an $81-million facility through only a $20-million contribution.
These three examples are just a few of the more than 200 best practices received from 25 municipalities across Canada. Given that there are more than 3,600 municipalities in Canada, imagine if the other local governments started sharing their best practices regularly.
We have shared our municipal efficiencies report with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and municipal governments across Canada. With any luck, it will spark a discussion about sharing good ideas that save taxpayers money.
- John Whittaker is a policy analyst at the Manning Centre in Calgary.
This column was published by the Calgary Herald on June 3, 2016