Municipalities across Canada, like Brandon, are being put in an untenable position by the federal Conservative government.
Facing crumbling bridges, pot-holed roads, water and wastewater systems in desperate need of repair or replacement, municipal governments are desperate for real help in maintaining the public infrastructure their citizens and local economies depend on every day.
But the only thing those pleas have elicited from the Conservative government has been an ultimatum — privatize or else.
This edict was delivered early last month in the 2014 federal budget. In it, a new Building Canada Fund (or BCF) was unveiled, committing $53 billion over 10 years for infrastructure projects.
Little was revealed in way of details on how the money would be rolled out, except for one caveat that has put a chill on the democratic decision-making powers of every municipal government across the country.
For the first time, if a municipal government wants federal funding for a infrastructure project costing more than $100 million, it has no choice but to first look at making it a public-private partnership.
It will be the unelected officials of a federal crown corporation making the decision if a P3 will be used, not mayors and councillors.
With limited revenue powers, the Building Canada Fund dictate will effectively force hundreds of municipal governments to hand over control of their infrastructure to for-profit corporations.
Either that, or let the infrastructure crumble to the ground.
The potential problems of P3s make them a risky and unattractive non-solution to mounting infrastructure pressures.
While promoted as being cheaper, long-term costs are often up to 15 per cent higher than conventional procurement, with borrowing costs often twice as high for the P3 model than the public model.
Quality also suffers. The for-profit corporations involved in the P3 are, after all, in it for profits. Increased costs, rates and user fees are common.
When profits become the main motivator of infrastructure, it’s the interests of citizens that suffer when their own elected municipal officials hand over control.
It’s for these reasons many municipal governments shy away from the P3 model. There are just too many risks and questions.
Yet for the federal Conservatives, it’s the only model they want to talk about. The Building Canada Fund is just the latest in the not-so-slow march to handing over all control of our public infrastructure to for-profit corporations, whether municipal governments are on board or not.
It is estimated Canada needs more than $127 billion to renew and repair our public infrastructure. It’s a daunting figure, but not an insurmountable challenge.
Municipal governments know their local priorities, and have mandates from their citizens to act. What they need is predictable, stable funding to get to work on long-term plans.
Having the federal government dictate decisions through a Crown corporation it set up explicitly to promote the P3 industry, known as Public Private Partnerships Canada or PPP Canada, is not an effective solution for municipalities.
Many municipal officials, like Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, are worried that having to go through PPP Canada will mean delays in time-sensitive construction projects like his city’s urgently needed upgrades to its sewage treatment system.
As he told the Ottawa Citizen: “We could lose a whole season of construction, which would not be helpful. Every month we delay going through with this project, more pollutants get into the (Ottawa) river.”
This concern is echoed by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, which in a statement called the mandatory P3 screening “cumbersome” and warned the BCF requirements could mean more red tape and higher costs for taxpayers.
These concerns from municipal leaders should make it clear to the federal Conservative government that another layer of bureaucracy will not fix our infrastructure.
What is urgently needed is stable, predictable, long-term public infrastructure funding — as has been repeatedly requested by municipal governments across the country. This funding should not place unnecessary restrictions, such as requiring projects of any value to use a P3 model, that impede the priority-setting and timely decision-making powers of local governments.
As the workers who maintain much of this country’s infrastructure, the Canadian Union of Public Employees is urging the federal government to abandon these P3 requirements and consult with municipal governments, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and other stakeholders on better and more effective solutions.
There is a better way to fix Brandon’s bridges and roads. There is a smarter way to build schools, water and wastewater systems and hospitals. There is a more responsible way to protect and strengthen our public infrastructure.
It won’t be found in a P3, or in strong-arm tactics that diminish the autonomy of our municipal governments.
» Paul Moist is national president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, representing more than 627,000 members across Canada, including 26,000 in Manitoba. The 51st Annual Convention of CUPE Manitoba is being held through Wednesday at the Keystone Centre.