Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance

This is the Life – Grants come at a cost

“Last week we in the Creston Valley got good, even great news.”

Last week we in the Creston Valley got good, even great news. Through the largesse of the federal government and its Gas Tax Fund, the Town of Creston gets more than $2.8 million for an important upgrade to the waste water treatment plant and the RDCK’s costs to create a multi-sport park on our Community Complex grounds will be nearly fully funded by a grant of more than $3 million.

Full credit to our local governments for creating the capacity to have “shelf-ready” projects ready to go when these funding opportunities come along. Both the RDCK and Town of Creston have done a great job in that regard in recent years.

But something gnaws at me about these grants. Each one comes with self-congratulatory comments from senior levels of government, and deep gratitude from the recipients.

How did these recent grants come about? From an RDCK press release:

“Each year, the Government of Canada provides over $278 million in funding for local government infrastructure across British Columbia through the Federal Gas Tax Fund. The Union of BC Municipalities administers the Federal Gas Tax Fund in British Columbia in partnership with the Government of Canada and the Province of British Columbia.”

And a comment included in a press release from the Town:

“Communities across BC are looking for funding to replace, upgrade and expand local infrastructure”, said Wendy Booth, President of the Union of BC Municipalities. “The Federal Gas Tax Fund is accelerating the pace of infrastructure renewal through the transfer of close to $3 billion since 2005 for projects in our province. I appreciate the Government of Canada’s long-term commitment to fund priorities identified by BC local governments.”

The underlying problem, of course, is that municipalities and rural governments are simply unable to raise enough money to build infrastructure and amenities that their residents need and want. Property taxes, their prime source of funding, are insufficient to do the job, something provincial and federal governments are well aware of—they get reminded on a regular basis by organizations like the Union of BC Municipalities.

The feds respond, not by revisiting the way local governments are funded, but by creating granting processes, which are one-off “gifts” and which pit municipalities and regional districts against one another. So, instead of getting a larger share of the overall tax pie, local governments go, time and time again, into competitions to get grants, which funnel through governments and agencies, bureaucratic processes shrinking the original dollars as each level handles the process—at a cost.

It seems weird, doesn’t it, that the replacement of the century-old Arrow Creek water system main line pipes took years and several grants. The much-needed project ate up dollars and resources at all levels before the money actually got into the hands of the contractors who did the work.

It’s easy to argue that the competition created by the granting processes means the projects are vetted closely, and protect the taxpayers’ interests. But it should not be lost that there is always a quid pro quo at work here. The governing federal party wants to get credit for its generosity and so does the province, and junior government representatives are expected to show their gratitude for money that came, originally, from their very own taxpayers. At worst, those tax dollars shrink as the feds, provinces and yes, even the Union of BC Municipalities, take their administrative share.

It would be more fiscally sane to provide local governments with steady streams of tax dollars so they could keep up with infrastructure and amenity needs. But that would create fewer desk jobs, and eliminate the politicking that comes from the granting system, so don’t expect change any time soon.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance

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