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Municipalities are unsustainable: speaker

The way municipalities are run now isn’t going to work in a future of growing infrastructure deficits, says the City of Red Deer director of planning.

“The model we’ve done doesn’t work or it’s broken, and we’re going to have a very big problem,” said Kim Fowler, who is a municipal sustainability expert and former directory of sustainability for the City of Victoria, B.C.

For too long, municipalities and other levels of government have not put the money aside to ensure existing infrastructure can be maintained and replaced. Unless something is done, taxpayers could face a big spike in property taxes and utility rates down the road.

A majority of Canada’s major infrastructure was built from the 1950s and 1970s and is nearing the end of its useful lifespan.

How that will be replaced at a time when budgets are already tight is a question municipalities will have to address, she said in a presentation for the Alberta Professional Planners Institute on Thursday.

Currently, municipalities don’t have enough money put aside to maintain and replace all their assets, which includes everything from playgrounds and pools to sewers and roads.

“We need to do communications to the community to understand that’s why those costs are going up and that’s what those issues are,” she said in an interview.

Municipalities try to recoup some of the costs of building sewers and roads for new developments. But the amount collected falls far short of the actual cost of maintaining and eventually, replacing infrastructure in neighbourhoods.

The amount collected is based on norms that have been in place for decades.

“It’s not based on a model of recovering those costs. That ends up in the infrastructure that we have across the county, and the United States is in even worse circumstances than we are,” she said.

“We need to review why we’re doing it and what those implications are.”

The development industry needs to remain viable, so its players will need to be part of the discussion on how best to fund future communities, she said.

Challenges posed by an aging population, and the results of climate change, which are expect to speed up damage to infrastructure, must also be addressed.

Fowler said the city is already looking at ways of doing things differently.

“We have a corporate strategic planning process, which is going to be looking at things like fiscal sustainability or financial stability policy.”

It will look at where the money is coming from and where it is going.

How much residents pay for recreation, which is heavily subsidized by taxes, and other services will need to be addressed, she said.

“The message is we’re not talking about huge amounts of change overnight. The model isn’t working and we’re going to be shifting the model to a more sustainable one.”

Some of the issues about sustainable community were part of the design thinking behind the city’s Riverlands area. It is earmarked for medium-density development, which offers a number of advantages, among them is that it is more cost-effective for municipalities.

pcowley@reddeeradvocate.com

 
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