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Letter: There are great opportunities to demonstrate leadership in Didsbury

Questions of “what can we get away with” and “what are other towns doing?” are pressing against “what is the right thing for us to do?”

Major agencies like the Canadian Chamber of Commerce have estimated that Canadian municipalities collectively carry $200 billion of infrastructure deficit, doubled from $100 billion 10 years ago. 

At over $5,000 per person, our town of Didsbury with some 5,200 people is conceivably $26 million under water in unfunded liabilities of the essential capital responsibilities in our town. 

Inflation, deterioration and lost economic development all compound to accelerate this 10 per cent annual capital deficit. 

Liabilities of infrastructure are as real as bankers debt, they just collect differently.

Capital asset deficits incur all kinds of problems. For example, Didsbury water leakage was measured at over 40 per cent last year, and we've been purchasing 40 per cent more water than we actually use. 

As sewer and roads deteriorate, they become increasingly expensive to maintain, repair and replace.  

Additional effort is required to juggle the broken pieces as public tensions mount and polarization sets in. 

Guiding principles and policies of good practice are pressured to be compromised. 

Questions of “what can we get away with” and “what are other towns doing?” are pressing against “what is the right thing for us to do?”

The 2021 election question about raising taxes versus deferring street repairs, is being used to relieve political pressures, but it neither legitimizes nor addresses the challenge of managing capital assets.

We are a long way down this road. For a number of years people bringing legitimate concerns to our council and administration have been dismissed, ridiculed and blacklisted. 

Some have been threatened by the town with legal retaliation, others have launched social and legal actions against the town. 

With every conflict, with every excuse and with every accusation, our municipal culture is affected negatively. Basic functions fatigue and become less efficient. 

Staff is added to cope with additional work this incurs. Managers are added to manage the increased staff.  

Focus becomes fragmented and capital asset management is pushed to the future. Meanwhile, we have become addicted to grants from the province and the feds, responding to their technical criteria and political desires as we continue to fall further behind.

The administration floated a plus 16 per cent property tax increase in the public preview of Budget 2023. Had council effectively led the process, this never would have happened. 

That is a compounded shock, because this year property values have risen and we may be assessed as much as plus 10 per cent higher. 

Council reacted by cutting some items and suggesting they would accept plus five per cent. 

They have tentatively acknowledged administration's request for a second plus four per cent wage increase, increased staffing, and some capital items, while choosing to again defer road and sidewalk repairs. 

At our past council meeting, I stated, during the permitted two minutes of limited public feedback, that the administration should be required on condition of their employment, to find whatever cuts are needed for a net minus five per cent tax reduction. That raised a few eyebrows.

I reminded council it's easy to forget that many Didsburians (20 per cent) are retired, that many are on fixed incomes and get no cost of living increase at all. 

We have a limited number of good paying jobs in town because our local economy is not thriving.  

We simply cannot afford to keep increasing administration and operating expenses while falling behind in our basic infrastructures.  

New trucks and landscape equipment, painting the empty railway station, amounting to $340,000, are neither priority nor affordable for the town and for the folks of Didsbury, when they are still serviceable with regular care. 

Administration should be reduced, and capital asset management diligence should be reinvigorated. 

Didsbury committed years ago to build a major arena and pool complex. Economic forecasts did not pan out, and it has never paid its way. 

In spite of valiant efforts to make it work, every other part of the town budget seems burdened to help carry the Memorial Complex’s expenses and loss.  

For Didsbury to grow strong enough to support our complex, we need to decisively and forthrightly restructure ourselves to become robust and agile enough to overcome past, present and future challenges.

Didsbury is a unique and desirable place to live. It is a great retirement town with many opportunities for young and old alike. 

We have a lot of capable and enthusiastic people, some longtime residents, some new. We need to humbly start living within our means, and also to take rigorous responsibility for our capital responsibilities. 

Drifting into insurmountable deficits while saving face is not something we want or can afford to do.  

We should realize that every town has its struggles, and that there are better ways for us all to proceed forward. 

We have great opportunities to demonstrate leadership and to make significant improvements.

Fred Van Vliet,