While no one likes to pay more, would anyone want their government to become skin-flints with people’s safety?
The likely answer from the majority of people is ‘No’, however the reality is that elected officials from small communities to provincial governments are regularly making choices that are putting people at risk on a daily basis.
That realization came to light last week — much like getting hit with someone’s high beams from 50 feet — with the release of the report on the 2017 deaths of three men in Fernie, B.C. stemming from a discharge of ammonia from the ice plant at the city’s arena.
The official report cited the main cause of the incident was the failure of an aging, yet critical, piece of equipment combined with poor operational and management decisions.
More specifically, a 31-year old chiller unit had one piece of pipe that corroded to the point where a very small hole — about one millimetre long — opened up and began leaking ammonia into the brine used in keeping the ice surface cold.
In fact, the leak was discovered that spring, but it was determined the plant could still be operated. That decision proved fatal when, after starting up the system and then shutting it down when leak alarms sounded, a coupling under pressure broke and released high concentrations of ammonia gas that ultimately killed the three men when they returned to make repairs.
Now, the life of the chiller unit is estimated to be 20 to 25 years and the city had determined it needed replacement back in 2013 at a cost of around $70,000. It was deferred to 2014 and then taken out of the budget altogether.
It’s realistic to say that if the money was allocated to replace the unit, this situation may never have occurred.
Safety first, not savings
That being said, the loss of these three individuals certainly wasn’t caused by not replacing the unit.
However, it speaks to what change in thinking that governments need to make when it comes to setting spending priorities.
There are a vast number of things that both administration personnel and elected officials have to take into account when determining how and where to spend the dollars it receives — whether through grants, taxes or other revenue streams.
Unfortunately, the trend being witnessed — especially at the municipal level — is one of attempting to get the most out of everything for as long as possible and to spend as little on it as possible.
That thought process keeps taxes artificially low plus has other consequences, such as less services and higher fees to use facilities.
It also generates a culture where safety isn’t among the top priorities when it comes to spending decisions.
For many communities that kind of choice hasn’t had such fatal ramifications, but it may only be a matter of time before it does.
More often these days, many Alberta municipalities are choosing to scrimp on road repair and construction, wait on replacing critical equipment and infrastructure until it fails or deciding to save a few dollars on emergency services that they feel aren’t used enough to warrant that kind of spending.
Only when an issue affects them — like a pothole on their road, the pool they go to is closed as it waits for parts or an emergency response involving someone they know is delayed — will these individuals cry wolf and howl that these things need to get done now regardless of the cost.
However, if priority consideration was given to safety aspects, there would be less spent in the long run, residents would feel safer and better about the community and a potentially larger base of taxes both residentially and business wise.
Towns don’t grow and prosper because they can show how many pennies they can save people, but by prudent, efficient, effective and measured spending of the money they have available.
There are some examples not that far away and, despite higher property taxes, these communities are steadily advancing instead of shrinking and asking why.
But that is…just an observation.