BRODBECK: City should follow provincial lead on cost controls

BRODBECK: City should follow provincial lead on cost controls

If city council is looking for ways to free up money for things like road repair and the expansion of transit, they should take a serious look at some of the things the provincial government is doing right now to find efficiencies and control costs

Mayor Brian Bowman and some city councillors continue to complain they’re not getting their fair share of funding from the province for infrastructure and for services like Winnipeg Transit. As a result, they’ve cut the road repair budget and are blaming the province for all their financial woes.

Instead of rolling up their sleeves and looking for savings within, including making the tough decisions many governments have had to make across Canada, city hall is essentially operating on a business as usual basis. They’ve made a few nips and tucks here and there. But there has been no wholesale review of city spending and no deep dive into city hall finances to find ways of spending tax dollars more wisely.

The reason Bowman and city council haven’t done so is because it takes a lot of work. It’s not much fun. There’s no glory in the daily grind of reviewing how every dollar in your government is spent. But when a government does commit to putting all aspects of spending under the microscope, the results can be surprising.

The provincial government is doing that right now. The public doesn’t see most of it. What they hear for the most part are complaints about “cuts” from public sector unions and from the recipients of provincial dollars, including the city and some school boards. In reality, there aren’t many funding cuts in the provincial budget unveiled last week. Overall spending is up slightly. And while there are some cuts in certain areas, they’re largely modest.

But you have to look beyond just the dollars spent to get a clearer picture of what’s going with the provincial finances right now. There are many examples of where savings have been found, or where new and more effective ways of delivering a service have been identified. It may cost less, resulting in a “cut” in spending, but the same level of service is being delivered.

For example, regional health authorities had been borrowing money from commercial lenders, paying higher interest rates than they would if they borrowed from the provincial government. That was recently changed, saving the health budget about $4 million a year.

Procurement for things like the purchase of heavy equipment or the construction of buildings had been decentralized in the past. Different parts of government were doing their own procurement, missing out on the economies of scale of issuing bids on a government-wide basis. That’s been changed, saving millions.

Government got rid of the East Side Road Authority which was costing taxpayers a small fortune with no tangible benefits. In fact, it remains a mystery where many millions spent by ESRA ended up. The province is now tendering the all-season road work ESRA had been doing for First Nations communities on the east side of Lake Winnipeg and it’s saving taxpayers millions a year.

The province revamped its Pineland Forest Nursery because it was losing a half-million dollars a year and was racking up debt. It was contracted out. The service is still there but it’s being delivered in a more financially sustainable manner.

So are air services for government workers and for water bombers, which were contracted out. Air ambulances will follow. Government discovered they were wasting millions a year paying for private air services on an ad hoc basis where no contracts existed.

There are many examples where this kind of wasteful spending has been identified and eliminated.

In fact, when government looked into how internal spending was approved through what’s called the general manual of administration, they found it wasn’t applied consistently. They also discovered there were many exemptions granted over the years that allowed spending to occur while bypassing the normal approval process. These are the kinds of things you find when you dig deep into government spending. When you’re spending $17 billion a year, there’s bound to be some savings.

There is no magic bullet, though. It’s a daily commitment to seek out savings and to scrutinize spending on an ongoing basis.

City hall has not done this. And until they do, they’re not in a position to complain about a lack of funding from senior levels of government.

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