Cities have room to tighten belt, they don’t need a pandemic bailout


Municipalities are feeling the pandemic pinch.  Just like their residents, municipalities are dealing with reduced income, but unlike vulnerable citizens already living near the poverty line (who have been disproportionately impacted by the covid crisis) there is plenty of room for our municipalities to tighten their belts.

But begging the upper levels of government for help is easier, so it only took a couple months for some municipalities across the country to put their hands out and ask for help.  Restrictions baked into the various municipal acts which govern Canada’s cities and towns makes it much harder for them to quickly bring in extra cash.  Most cities are reliant solely on property tax for funding, and are legislatively barred from running budget deficits.

The pandemic has blown a hole in most of their 2020 budget planning, and in response, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced this week that he was handing out gas tax revenues early, and in a single lump sum rather than installments.  The extra $2.2 billion being dished out by the feds to the municipalities is just a start, according to Trudeau, who said provinces will be expected to kick in some cash also.

But do municipalities really need it?

By many early accounts, the answer appears to be: not really.  Through a series of not-very-radical cost cutting measures, cities have been finding that with a little bit of penny pinching, they are able to significantly reduce their expenses to at least the amount they’re losing as a result of the pandemic.

Some of the savings are happening by accident, but in retrospect, are just good ways to save cash.

Take municipal conferences, for example.  Putting a couple hundred people into a big conference room is a major no go during the pandemic.  They’ve all been cancelled.  As a result, cities aren’t spending huge amounts of money sending their staff and councillors to pointless conferences.  No money for hotel rooms, per diem meals, travel expenses.  It’s all been cut off.

And what’s the downside?  Nothing.  These conferences are largely a management consulting scam anyway.  Are we really getting our money’s worth by sending our city hall staffers across the country to sit together in some crowded convention centre and watch a lame PowerPoint presentation hosted by some sketchy management consultants called, like, Synergetic Solutions Inc. or something equally obnoxious?

Every August, hundreds and hundreds of councillors gather together in Ottawa for the Association of Municipalities conference where they spend 10 minutes watching a slideshow about wastewater management best practices followed by two days of fun in the sun doing nothing.  It’s a big fat waste of money and if there is one good thing that comes out of this pandemic, it will be the death of pointless, money sucking municipal conferences.

Other cost savings are being found at municipalities by doing nothing more than a little trimming around the edges of the budget.  Often that has meant a little bit less literal trimming, in the form of fewer trips around town on the lawn mower.

Cutting the grass along the side of roads, bike paths, parks, and other public spaces is not cheap.  Amid the pandemic, grass cutting is one of the things that has been scaled back in the name of savings.  Some people don’t like it, and admittedly it does look a bit odd to see waist-high grass along some bike paths, but it’s not really hurting anything, and it’s a good way to save cash.  It’d be great to see municipalities simply keep this up and spend less money on grass cutting, but it seems to drive a lot of people nuts.  One councillor told me this week that he is now getting more calls about the long uncut grass, than about physical distancing complaints, which signals an important shift in what people are whining about during the pandemic.

Elsewhere in the cost savings crosshairs, two of the biggest ticket items on any municipal balance sheet are the police and firefighter budgets, both of which could easily be pared back by millions, but that’s a whole other can of worms.

Speaking of cans; public washrooms are closed for the most part, and that too has resulted in significant cost savings for municipalities.  Since they can’t guarantee a decent level of sanitation amid the pandemic, municipalities have largely opted to simply close public washrooms, and honestly, it’s fine.  Public washrooms are kinda gross and the less we all use them the better.

The only exception is public washrooms in Japan, which are awesome.  The seats on Japanese toilets are heated and they automatically lift when you walk into the bathroom and clean themselves as soon as you stand up.  It’s pretty great.  The little device that pops out and squirts water up at you does take some getting accustomed to, but after a while I was sold on the whole thing.

The first round of bailout cash from the federal government is specifically earmarked for municipalities to spend on infrastructure, and if they were wise, they would all dump that money directly into one thing: installing Japanese toilets at all public washrooms.

Photo Credit: CTV News

More from James Culic.    @JamesCulic

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