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Get ready to say goodbye to your progressive nirvana

This week's Market Squared offers a warning about the budget that when everything's on the table, especially the usual line items
20190715 library ts
Concept drawing of the new main library.

You may have heard of Grover Norquist, a conservative activist who founded Americans for Tax Reform who demands that Republican candidates sign his pledge to not raise taxes under any circumstances.

He’s been so successful in this endeavour that there’s been entire generations of GOP politicians who have taken him up, and then voted against raising taxes even as they vote to increase budgets and debt.

Grover’s logic, if you can call it that, is that you have to make government so small that you can drown it in a bathtub, but his ideas haven’t made government smaller, they’ve just made it malnourished. The point is that if budgeting is like making a big dinner, Grover recommends getting rid of the oven and just using the fridge, the sink, and the microwave.

In other words, you have to put all options on the table, and it was nice to hear that this is the plan for Guelph’s financial future at this past week’s council workshop for multiyear budgeting. Even if you don’t like key terms like “privatization” and “service cuts”, we have to talk about them, and if there’s a better option, we need to know why.

Having said that, coun. Leanne Piper Caron raised a good point when she said that whenever a service is privatized, there almost always has been regret. In the end, if a municipality isn’t forced to find a way to reabsorb the service, like in the Guelph example with the public-private partnership that was supposed to launch the Guelph Sports and Entertainment Centre (AKA: the Sleeman Centre), they’re forced to deal with hiccups for years like in the case of private garbage collection in Toronto.

Is that to say that there’s no such thing as a “good” P3? I don’t know, and I can’t think of one. Plus, I’m forced to wonder if the whole idea of a P3 represents an old way of thinking about private industry as being more efficient than government. I think it’s safe to say that they’re both capable of incredible inefficiency, but there’s more oversight of your local government than there is of a private-held company.

Now let’s tackle the most controversial aspect of the budget debate to come: library or no library.

I find it fascinating that the proposed new main branch of the library has become such a strawman. Any and every article about the City of Guelph budget begins and ends with a comment about the pointlessness of a new main library, and what a waste of money it is because who the hell uses a library anymore?

I’ve said this before, but I would find these arguments persuasive if I hadn’t heard them so loudly 20 years ago. And 10 years ago. Whenever we get close to putting a damn shovel in the ground, our council starts getting the Frighteners about the expense, and then it’s 20 years later and there’s still no library.

Ever been to upper Wyndham lately? That’s where the new main library was going to be built over a decade ago, and the constant discussion of the area’s redevelopment put it in a kind of purgatory that has persisted years. It’s interesting to note that the last time the new main library got this close to construction the whole thing was called off because of what was then the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. You might almost think that the project is cursed.

Having said that, some might take it as a sign that the project is not meant to go forward, but if nothing else, the new main library has a business case, a data-driven justification for its existence. If council indeed makes decisions based on evidence, as it claims, then they have no choice but to follow the proof to its conclusion.

The bigger question is the proposed Operation Centre, which is three times the cost of the library, has yet to present a business case, and seems like a much more appropriate subject if we’re talking about cost savings, but even that’s tricky because there’s Federal and Provincial money at stake for the transit portion of the campus. You can’t have electrified buses if you can’t have a place for them to get electrified.

Transit is going to be a big issue because at least one member of council publicly made the point that less ridership means less revenue, and our transit service runs on a delicate balance of fares and tax-supported investment. As per usual with penny-pinching times, I’m concerned that transit will be the first line of cuts because no one concerned about that loss of that service often ranks too highly in the estimation of council as a body.

Unfortunately, history is the only indicator to go on even in unprecedented times, and I think council needs fair warning that going for the usual low hanging fruit is not going to be the budget winner they think it is. Otherwise, we’re going to be back here in 2040, talking about whether we can afford a new library, and offering tepid support for transit.