Last week, Winnipeg city council endorsed a proposal to ask the provincial government to allow the imposition of new fees on residential and commercial development. It was the latest turn in a decades-long struggle by the city to overcome an infrastructure deficit of at least $7 billion. The proposal, followed by a quick refusal from Broadway, unleashed a flurry of news and commentary.
From the start, the fees were referred to as taxes, and for the most part, comments by both writers and readers focused on taxation. Absent from the discussion was a recognition of the fact that the infrastructure crisis wasn't caused by insufficient revenues and will not be resolved by the imposition of additional fees or taxes. A major but completely overlooked cause of the crisis is the city's failure to draw up a coherent growth plan and stick to it.
Although the city publishes a lot of profusely illustrated planning documents, the growth and development of the city are, in fact, driven by development proposals. Developers cherry-pick the areas that are the easiest, the most convenient or the most profitable to develop and bypass others, secure in the knowledge that the city will extend roads and other municipal services as required by the new developments, regardless of the expenses incurred ultimately by Winnipeg taxpayers. That includes not only roads, sewer and water lines, but also transit service and more.
These expensive services have to be extended across lands that generate the low levels of taxation typical of farmland or unoccupied tracts, rather than the much higher taxes that come from urban development. Once occupied, new developments beyond the empty tracts require conveniently located community centres and library branches and the same response times for firefighters, police and paramedics that more densely populated areas of the city enjoy. Street-cleaning, snow removal, grass-cutting, insect control and everything else the municipality does have to serve empty parcels of land as well as full ones.
There are many examples of land that earn minimal revenues, served and/or bypassed by the full range of municipal services, but before I cite one, here's the context: In 2006, Winnipeg city council was debating how it should respond to developer demands to make a vast new tract of land available for development. The tract, Waverley West, contained enough land for decades of future development, but developers, drawing on an analysis helpfully produced by the department of property, planning and development, argued that it must be opened immediately, because without it, the supply of lots available for development would last only eight to 10 years. City council acceded to the developers' demands.
Seven years later, Waverley West is partly developed and developing rapidly -- though the bulk of it remains undeveloped -- but substantial areas nearer the centre of the city as well as land bypassed or serviced by older infrastructure remain undeveloped.
The story of Waverley West and Transcona West offers only a sample of the reckless way we have squandered our resources optimizing developers' profits at public expense, but it helps us picture what's happening when we let developers' preferences rather than the public interest dictate the sequence and phasing of new development: Imagine crews building roads, sewer lines and water lines, buses driving past empty fields and other crews traversing the vast emptiness of Transcona West for street-cleaning, snow removal, grass-cutting, insect control and more. We're all paying for almost all of that because Transcona West generates minimal revenue.
(Don't get mad at the developers -- their job is to make money. It's the government's job to regulate.)
Of course, if the city starts to insist that development practises respect the public interest, developers will look for opportunities in rapidly urbanizing municipalities beyond Winnipeg's boundaries. The only serious way to address this issue, therefore, is for the provincial government to impose guidelines on all municipalities. I propose that the provincial government formulate them, and name them "A taxpayers' bill of rights for the effective, economical expansion of municipal services."
If you want a more detailed discussion, see http://christopherleo.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/aspirationchaos.pdf.
Christopher Leo, a senior scholar at the University of Winnipeg, has retired from university teaching after 38 years. When he's not blogging at christopherleo.com, he continues his research, funded by the Social Science and Humanities Council of Canada.