There is no gravy train in municipal politics

Donna Thistle
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Donna Thistle

By now you have either put your name forward for a municipal election, or not. If you have, my hat is off to you. If not, may I suggest you can — and should — still participate.

From now until Sept. 24, you have the opportunity to affect the next four years of your municipality.

We trust the candidates will contact you and ask for your support. Be an active listener. Are they complaining about the incumbents or are they talking about the positive, progressive actions that can happen in the future?

If you have a would-be-politician complaining about a building/park/trail that is already built, run! We aren’t going to tear down a multi-million dollar building regardless of whether it was a good idea or not. Let’s start a conversation about its future, find a way to build on the legacy. Ask your candidates if they have an idea for how the building/park/trail can now contribute to the future fabric of your community or its economic development.

Next, what do you want your community to look like? Do you want your council to spend money on trails, swimming pools, pavement, more buildings and/or attracting new business?

Don’t wait until you disagree with what council does; tell them now and then pay attention to what happens.

While you are waiting to see if it happens, there is some homework that will help you understand there may be a reason your elected council cannot accomplish all the things it set out to do.

Let’s start with a lesson in pavement: every square foot of pavement you expect your municipality to roll out costs, on average, $25 per square metre. This does not include the cost of the foundation that must be built before it’s paved. Measure your driveway. Get perspective.

It’s easy to say “fix the potholes” and much harder to find the money to do so.

Now for that nasty money word: taxes. It feels like we pay a lot of municipal tax because the number is staring right at you when you open your tax bill every year. Did you know, of all that taxes most of us complain about paying, only nine per cent goes directly to your municipality via property tax?

It doesn’t seem like much to manage virtually all the infrastructure that touches your daily life does it? The remaining 91 per cent goes to levels of government whose expenditures we don’t see on a daily basis. And, you don’t see the amount you pay other levels so clearly because of the way it’s collected — a little here and there, as we’ve grown used to sales tax, feel helpless about income tax. Next tax season, never mind your refund or amount owed, take a good look at how much you let them keep.

Get perspective. It’s easy to say “fix the potholes” and much harder to find the money to do so.

Your municipality has to go hat in hand to do almost anything significant. Depending on the size of your community, between 70-90 per cent of your municipal infrastructure costs comes from the provincial/federal pot. And, getting their hands on that money is #justnotthatsimple. There is no gravy train in municipal politics.

Follow the money, find the truth. Here’s how the money trail works for municipal funding:

– A municipality decides it needs, say, a new bridge/water distribution system/building or park.

– Community tax base can’t afford it. The town asks another level of government for help.

– An engineer has to get involved.

– An application has to be sent to the province. (The preceding four points is a two-year process.)

– The province ranks the need as compared to the need of other communities and prioritizes funding. (By now we are at Year 3 for sure.)

– Your community may not be successful, but you, as a citizen, will assume your municipal politician did not do something he or she set out to do. Some of your fellow citizens will yell and scream about broken promises. It is not a broken promise; it is an unsuccessful effort.

– If your council is lucky enough to get financial assistance, it may get the project accomplished in the fourth year of the term but most likely, it will be the next elected council that gets the public credit, or abuse, for the bridge or building or trail or whatever.

It makes for a stronger system when we actually know the reality of expectations.


Donna Thistle is the outgoing mayor in Steady Brook. She is also a business owner in Corner Brook and has or currently serves on the boards of Flowers Canada, Revenue Canada Advisory, Junior Achievement, Marble Mountain Development Corp, Board of Referees for HRDC, Rotary Club of Corner Brook, Writers at Woody Point and many others. She has considerable experience in governance on a national and local level.




Organizations: Flowers Canada, Revenue Canada Advisory, Junior Achievement, Marble Mountain Development Board of Referees for HRDC Rotary Club

Geographic location: Corner Brook, Steady Brook, Woody Point

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Recent comments

  • Mike
    September 13, 2013 - 20:17

    All good and well but what happens if say 70-30 split and banks won't loan money even w/ a government guarantee. See Paradise.

  • Thinking outside the box
    September 06, 2013 - 13:17

    Much like a typical politician, what Donna displays here is a case of bureaucracy gone wild. In this article, the process and planning for municipal infrastructure is displayed and it clearly demonstrates a process that is arguably too lengthy and ultimately inflated in cost. 25 dollars a square meter Donna? And how much of that 25 dollars was spent on the actual road versus the bureaucracy associated with getting the road in place. Can that cost be reduced? How many engineers did it take to screw in THAT light bulb? Does your tendering process work? How many change orders to you allow? Has any empirical data been even collected to look at reducing the time and ultimate costs of municipal affairs in your region? Bottom line Donna, smoke and mirrors is what I see from this article, more political pandering, you would clearly do well in the Dunderdale government. I will note though, that I am not saying that things don't take time in government and yes people often expect a lot, but maybe, just maybe, if municipal and provincial politicians spent a little more time thinking outside of the box instead of sitting around following the bureaucratic status quo...maybe a little more would get done in a lot shorter time. There may not be a gravy train in municipal politics but the wasted resources are nothing to scoff at.

  • Steve
    September 06, 2013 - 12:22

    The problem lays in how the system is set up, if 75% of the voters do not vote you call it voter apathy whereas I truly believe that those are the people whose voice has been silenced due to how this system runs--if ten people were allowed to vote and only three did then whomever received at least two votes wins, and the same as winning by acclimation, what about the voice of the others? The system is set up for administrative appointments to deal with administrative duties of the municipality, but I can not vote for that option until a desirable slate of candidates presents itself, instead I'm left with the low life's and crooks running the system now. Not everybody wants to run, but we do need the municipality to function. Give me my voice back and let me vote for NOTA (none of the above) on the ballot so I can show my displeasure and disapproval of the current crop of candidates.

  • David T
    September 06, 2013 - 10:42

    Great column donna and thanks for helping some of us understand better how the money works........politicians go in with all these dreams.........hopefully theyll read this and understand they cant have the moon.