Friday, October 10, 2014

The cost of sprawl: election issue?

Election time is upon us; much is at stake. Which will be the main issues on the table? We'll probably once again see the same old discussions about shopping, garbage, council and staff salaries, and our ever rising property taxes, none of which ever seem to get resolved to our satisfaction.

Metro Vancouver is facing significant challenges, as a region and as individual municipalities.

The experts are telling us we will see continued population growth for the next 30 years in Metro Vancouver, with the expected addition of a million more people and 600,000 more jobs. We'll have more than our fair share happening in Maple Ridge and to a lesser extent in Pitt Meadows. After that, population  growth is expected to level off.

That means that how we grow and develop our cities over the next 30 years will determine for a large part how we will live for the next few hundred years.

If Maple Ridge decides, with our present land use pattern and with our soon to be adopted Transportation Plan, that we will continue to allow a significant amount of hopscotch, sprawling, inefficient greenfield and largely residential development instead of opting for contiguous, more compact and mixed-use smart growth, then an ever increasing number of residents will be car-dependent for a very long time to come indeed. That's a scary thought!

The threat of the real possibility of a failing transit referendum next Spring means that we may not be able to look forward to any significant expansion of transit and increased spending on cycling to improve the balance of options we have in our area.

In Maple Ridge we're not doing much to reduce our community Greenhouse Gas Emissions, even though the majority of present Council members a few years ago committed our City to the goal of 33% reduction from 2007 levels by 2020.

There are so many other reasons why we need to get serious about getting people out of their cars and onto transit, and walking and biking for shorter trips. Growing smarter, more efficient, is one of the most important things we can do to help convince more people to look for options in the way they get around for at least some of their trips.

There's another urgent reason why we can't keep growing the way we do: the "Infrastructure Deficit".

It's a significant and complex problem, not unique to Maple Ridge, that past and present Council members have so far not wanted to address.

Mr. Gill, our diligent penny counter at the City of Maple Ridge, has tried to warn us earlier this year. The article 'For every 'burb built, Maple Ridge pays' by Phil Melnychuk in The News seemed to generate a lot of interest. I added my two cents about it in "We need to stop Suburban Sprawl"As explained, other communities that have done the math have realized they can save many millions of dollars and significantly reduce their infrastructure deficit by growing smarter.

Why is Council still not talking about this? Is it because their constituents are still not concerned?

I think they should be, so I would like to raise the issue again, hoping that the average voter will understand we have a variety of more important things to worry about than not having some big box shopping in our community, which seemed to be the main determinant of the outcome of our last municipal election.

What's the problem? Well, when a new development gets built, the developer builds the infrastructure within the development - roads, sewer, water - and also pays Development Cost Charges to the City to pay for some of the necessary upgrades of surrounding infrastructure that are impacted by the development. Sounds good, right?

Development cost charges are provincially legislated and can only be used for things like roads, water, sewer, drainage and parks, but not for things like a new fire hall or added police services and community halls.

If you've ever taken a look at where our tax money is spent, you'll know that RCMP and fire services together make up a whopping 40% of all municipal expenses. When we approve more development and another fire hall is needed, all tax payers, including existing ones, are paying for that. Every time we build a new fire hall, if we need additional police services or we need to expand our library, all tax payers are on the hook. The more spread out and disconnected the development patterns, the more these services cost per household.

The infrastructure that's paid for by the developer is handed over to the city as soon as it's built. So now it's ours. Nice, eh?

Maybe not quite so nice once you realize that about 80% of the cost of infrastructure is in the operational budget. In other words, all tax payers pay for about 80% of the cost of the infrastructure over its lifetime. So on the one hand, it's nice that we get this gift from the developer, but on the other hand, it's a gift that keeps on taking, from all of us tax payers.

So it's essential that the long-term cost of any development application is carefully considered, in the interest of existing tax payers, but also and especially future tax payers: our kids.

Right now, the infrastructure items that appear on the municipal books as "assets" are valued at over $1.5 billion. The maintenance cost as estimated in 2006, when we had about $1.3 billion worth of infrastructure, was about $30 million per year. Of course the cost of maintenance goes up over time as more infrastructure gets built and also the cost of material and labour goes up. Looks like these "assets" are more like "liabilities"!

So are we actually paying the required $30+ million per year to maintain these assets? No, not by a long shot. We have been spending roughly one tenth of that. The good news is that, since 2008, a 1% annual cumulative tax increase is being set aside to start dealing with this Infrastructure Deficit. If we keep raising our property taxes in this manner, by 2031 we should have cut our infrastructure deficit in half. That means, in the best case scenario, it's highly unlikely that most of us would see the problem resolved within our lifetime, but if we're principled enough, we can make a significant dent in it.

However, because of our low tolerance for ever increasing property taxes, Council already caved in and reduced this increase by half last year and it'll probably be at least a few more years before we should be back to being charged the full 1% increase. To make up for some of the difference until then, we're using some of the gaming revenues.

The question is, are tax payers going to tolerate these cumulative annual increases for the next 20+ years or so, and are the increases even keeping up with the infrastructure added during that time?

What happens if we don't put enough money aside to pay for maintenance and eventual replacement? Well, roads start to crumble, and bridges will start to collapse. We've seen that for example in Montreal, and many cities in the U.S. offer frightening examples.

Like Mr. Gill says: "pay me now, or pay me much more later". If we don't look after the infrastructure now, it's going to be much more costly to fix things when they start to crumble.

My take-aways from this:

  • We need to start tackling the problem at the source: we need to stop inefficient, hopscotch sprawling development that makes more of us more car dependent and that we simply can't afford; 
  • Our new Council will need to work with other BC municipalities, through the Union of BC Municipalities, to appeal to the Province for changes in the legislative framework of Development Cost Charges and property taxes, to ensure that new development pays for the full cost, and that smart development does not unfairly end up subsidizing new dumb development, of course recognizing that the unfairness in the way existing development is taxed cannot be simply undone from one day to the next.
  • BC Municipalities can't tackle the problem on their own. Both the federal and provincial governments will need to share more of their tax revenues with municipalities as more responsibilities get downloaded by higher levels of government to municipalities. Municipalities need to band together through the UBCM to get reliable long-term funding from the province and the federal government to help pay for maintenance of the infrastructure that's the backbone of our cities and economy.

So this should give you some ideas as to questions you can ask your mayoral and council candidates!

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