Monday, February 22, 2010

Pen Meets Paper Feb.22'10

Opinion by Helge Nome
Faced with a stream of water bubbling up in the middle of Main Street in the Village of Caroline, an elderly local resident wryly remarked: “There is a ticking time bomb under that street”. As it turns out, he could hardly have made a more accurate and timely statement with profound significance for most of Alberta’s urban residents.
Over the years, while magnificent public buildings have been constructed right across the province, that which is out of sight has also been out of mind: The underground water and sewer systems, particularly in rural communities, have literally been rotting under our feet. And it will cost a fortune to replace them. Just for the little Village of Caroline, with some 550 residents, the cost is estimated to be around $7 million.
And the main water and sewer lines run underneath Main Street which also happens to be the confluence of Highways 22 and 54 with heavy commercial traffic 24/7.
That means blocking off a major highway every time a leak happens.
Speaking to former Minister for Infrastructure, Ty Lund last week, he confirmed the universality of the problem, and noted that an average of two water main breaks has occurred in Edson every winter, right underneath Highway 16, one of Alberta’s main highways.
The Alberta Government has taken some positive preliminary steps towards dealing with this problem by requiring municipalities to establish an inventory of Tangible Capital Assets in their possession. This includes such things as buildings, roads and sewer and water systems. Values are then assigned to to these on municipal balance sheets and depreciation can be noted from year to year.
So, at last, the out-of-sight stuff is being tracked. But this leads into a very interesting question: Once the unpalatable truth of the state of underground infrastructure is brought home to municipal councils in the form of actual numbers, how are they going to address the problem with very limited resources available and a reluctance to increase municipal taxes to pay for loans to upgrade the system?
This is where things get interesting. It would be very tempting for municipalities to form so called public/private partnerships to do this, or just selling the water and sewer systems to private corporations to upgrade and maintain. That could be quite an attractive proposition for well capitalized companies because they would literally have a “captive” consumer base: Who would choose to haul in their water and put in septic tanks with approved treatment technology attached?
Are we facing another potential case for privatizing profits? And socializing debt, because the consumer will always pay in the end. As a shareholder in one of these companies, I want my piece of the action, in addition to the cost of providing the service.
These issues and others will be aired at the upcoming round table discussion at the Leslieville Elks’ Hall this Thursday, February 25, at 7pm. Everyone is welcome to attend.

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