by Danny Zanbilowicz
Most of us don’t spend a lot of time thinking about our infrastructure- the state of our roads and water, sewer and stormwater pipelines doesn’t usually keep us up at night. That’s because we pay other people to worry for us. Still, our health, safety, and lifestyles depend on sound infrastructure, and when things break down, we do start to pay attention.
The person in Courtenay who spends the most time on the subject is probably David Allen, the City of Courtenay’s Chief Administrative Officer.
The fact is- our country faces a crisis of aging infrastructure. Our new Prime Minister’s apparent commitment to targeting new spending in that area couldn’t be more timely.
At the same time, there is a new way of thinking in municipalities across the country called “Asset Management”, and it so happens that David Allen is co-chair of Asset Management BC.
Allen says- “This approach is required now to obtain federal and provincial grants for infrastructure. It’s like peeling back layers of the onion. We have limited capacity and resources. We need an engagement process, to find agreed upon levels of service. Council must engage the public, and ask them- What level of service do you want, what are you willing to pay for City services?”
So part of the new thinking tries to open up tough decision-making, to include more feedback from the community.
Allen continues – “People don’t know what we do. We are responsible for a vast amount of assets and services, far outweighing provincial and federal levels. This in spite of the fact that for every tax dollar collected, only 8 cents goes to the local level. And municipal tax is essentially all property taxes and user fees, not the “consumption taxes” which fuel other jurisdictions.”
A rule of thumb in the management of assets is that the upfront cost of infrastructure is only 20%, while the cost of maintenance over its useful life is 80%, representing a huge long-term burden on the municipalities.
Adding to the load are increasing federal and provincial regulations for services like water quality, for example, resulting in higher costs.
Allen states bluntly- “On paper we don’t have the funds to take care of all the infrastructure. But he quickly adds- “The problem took years to get here and will take years to solve.”
He is adamant that “We need to spend money now so as not to burden future generations.”
As a way to engage the public in setting priorities, for the third year the City of Courtenay has prepared an online survey which explains the different types of services the City provides- recreation, general government, water, sewer, transportation (roads, street lighting and sidewalks), police and fire, and asks tax payers what they are willing to pay for each of these services . This “Citizen Budget” will be up and running later in the fall- find it here:
Asset Management also starts to look at ways of integrating and “putting value on natural systems” starting with City services like stormwater management. While not a new approach, “ecological economics”, has gained much greater attention in recent years, and sees the economy as a subsystem of the ecosystem aimed at preserving natural capital for future generations.
This is something especially dear to Allen’s heart, as he comes from an environmental management background.
He says “natural systems are sustainable- they last forever. But what is their value? If you can’t quantify it, it’s difficult to account for. In Gibsons on the sunshine coast, they value their aquifer in financial statements- it’s cutting edge. A way to think about it is- If they lost it, how much would it cost to replace?”
He continues- “We need to start doing this, in how we plan our developments. It is expensive to retrofit- we need to do it up front.”
A big part is avoiding the widespread blanketing of the earth with impermeable surfaces- It’s about “the collection and gradual release of water. Home Depot has a large cistern which percolates the water gradually. How to value natural storm water? The art of hard engineering compared to wet lands. West Vancouver and Saanich have been doing it for years. It’s not so much a plan as a process, moving along a continuum, constantly refining.”
Allen is enthusiastic about planning staffs throughout the valley communicating on green approaches to building guidelines, and a natural systems approach to runoff.
Another aspect of moving forward on Asset Management is cataloging what already exists- doing an inventory of infrastructure. Last year in Courtenay, more money went into “condition assessment”- determining where the pipes and other infrastructure are, and what is their state.
Allen says there’s a “sweet spot”- you want to replace at the right moment, when materials are nearing the end of their useful life, without waiting so long that costly emergency situations cause service disruptions.
Crews send little cameras through the pipes, transmitting images which let engineers know the pipes’ condition. Also, trucks equipped with sonar technology provide information as they pass over the roads. Repairs to road surfaces need to be coordinated with examination of the pipes underneath, to prevent unnecessary extra expense.
Overall, David Allen is stoked about working in local government- “Local government is the most accessible of governments- you can walk in the door and talk to the mayor at his monthly drop ins (for 15 minutes between 9 and noon the first and third Wednesday of every month). There are no party politics by and large. Still- everyone wants to keep taxes low, which is a challenge to staff. There are always new issues- affordable housing was downloaded from the provincial and federal levels. “Should we care? Sure- but do we have the capacity? It’s council’s choice. But it’s not just money- it’s also about staff, and having the competence.”
Finally, when asked about recent discussions to open up the issue of regional governance, Allen says “It has to be well thought out. The initiatives that failed were forced, like in Metro Toronto. There is talk about seeing cost savings and greater efficiencies, but that is often not the case. It’s a trade-off with your ability to be responsive to a larger number of people. I have no comment on whether it’s good or bad.” http://www.courtenay.ca/.