Local governments are facing critical challenges with respect to internal and external change. Although the Ontario Provincial Government has uploaded some of the services that were downloaded unto municipalities during the Harris years via the LSR exercise, municipalities are still tasked with a very wide range of service delivery responsibilities in the face of increasing resident expectations, aging population, infrastructural deficit, and economic volatility.
Exacerbating these challenges would be some degree of confusion as to “who does what,” sub-optimal means of communication whereby municipal leaders are not vocalizing their challenges effectively (to residents and upper levels of government), and an ill-suited property taxation system that does not afford the revenue-generation flexibility municipalities require to meet budgetary needs in providing sufficient service delivery or making the necessary capital expenditures to repair or build new infrastructure, replace aging fleets and facilities, and upgrading equipment (just to name a few).
Hume’s article takes aim specifically at the need for taxation reform that would better acknowledge the inequality of taxation collection between different levels of government and the services provided. In essence, a revisiting of the revenue sharing model between different levels of government is required, especially in light of infrastructure needs. Although Hume does not specify this in his article, even maintaining an existing sufficient level of physical infrastructure in a municipality will invariably lead to higher costs per fiscal year given such factors as labour and material costs alone. During the period extending from the Rae Government’s “fiscal neutrality” exericse, through the Harris Government LSR, service swaps were arguably unequal as they took a discrete fiscal moment in time with respect to costs as though comparable between services such as road maintenance and social assistance. In reality, such costs fluctuate over time (social assistance is contingent upon such factors as unemployment rates that may increase or decrease costs, while the cost of maintaining roads shows a consistent increase over time).
Hume warns against the consequences of “doing more with less,” which is part of the neoliberal model of downloading risk and responsibilization to local actors and individuals (cf. the work of David Harvey, Peck & Tickell. and Christian Fuchs et al). Hume rightly points out that there are limits to “doing more with less” as there may come a point when the only means by which to meet core service delivery targets is to engage in a drastic cost-cutting exercise that may reduce or remove valued services from a community. This accelerates budgetary unsustainability and community dissatisfaction.
Hume also references shared responsibility as part of a broader alternative framework for service delivery, and such activities have been in the offing if we consider PPP (public-private partnerships) whereby services are contracted out to private companies, or efforts such as ceding responsibility to service clubs, non-profit organizations, etc., that may take on (for example) the responsibilities of maintaining a swimming pool or community centre. Shared services have emerged between municipalities: e.g., the sharing of a Fire Chief in the municipalities of Bluewater and Central Huron). It should be noted that there may be issues in pursuing PPPs, especially given that private companies are motivated by profit rather than the public interest, and that accountability to the public may be lower. Also, a problem with ceding more responsibilities to service clubs - inasmuch as this depends on a strong social capital network of voluntarism - would be that service burdens might become unsustainable. And, finally, a problem with shared roles might include such issues as conflict of interest between municipalities being served by the same individual.
Hume points to improvements in IT as a potential tool for developing more cost-efficient methods for service delivery. His view demonstrates a complicity in proselytizing globalization and the integration of information technologies without necessarily addressing some of the problems associated with said integration (for example, streaming Council meetings does not necessarily improve transparency, accountability, or even citizen engagement; the use of social media also contains inherent problems of attention fragmentation and a reliance on brevity over substance, if not “reactive” rather than reflective forms of engagement). Technological change is not a necessary and sufficient condition to the development of creative, dynamic communities any more than a hammer is the necessary and sufficient condition for building a house. It should be noted that, from the perspective of political economy, various aspects of globalization and information society should be properly scrutinized rather than simply adopted without more critical inquiry.
Place-making also features in this article, and is tied to notions of grassroots community development, mixed-use housing, and eco-friendly spaces. Each of these items requires a significant level of detail and exploration that the spatial constraints of the article does not afford. This can be especially problematic for smaller municipalities that may have more socioeconomic homogeneity. and where the NIMBYism of the urban reform movement may be more vocally opposed to such policies as the provision of more affordable housing or public transit.
Summarily, Hume itemizes many of the challenges many municipalities are intimately familiar with, and he subsequently transmutes these into potential opportunities if certain conditions are met such as property tax reform for fairer revenue sharing, cultivating more shared services partnerships, mixed-use housing, and effective IT integration. In such a way, Hume attempts to demonstrate options for creating opportunities out of challenges. What Hume does not make clear is that a one size fits all approach may not suit every municipality, and that adjustments to aspects of scale and pace of transformation must be tailored to the individual socioeconomic conditions of each respective municipality, cognizant of their capacity for change (personnel, equipment, etc).