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Op-Ed: Getting infrastructure right in Nova Scotia

A variety of opinions makes for a lively op-ed section.
A variety of opinions makes for a lively op-ed section.

By Donna Chiarelli 

In October the 2019 Canadian Infrastructure Report Card was released – a major national report on the state of Canada’s core public infrastructure assets, including roads and bridges; culture, recreation and sports facilities; potable water; wastewater; stormwater; public transit; and solid waste.   
The report tells a story about aging infrastructure, some of it in poor or very poor condition. That means it needs attention now or within five years because it presents risks to local services.
The findings aren’t a huge surprise to Nova Scotia municipalities that contributed data for the report. Like in other parts of the country, much of Nova Scotia’s infrastructure was built in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Its management follows the same 20th-century story that plagues most Canadian municipalities, which simply didn’t invest enough in proper maintenance over the years or put enough (or any) money in reserves to fund replacement.  
Almost two decades into the 21st century most communities are in a financial crunch – struggling to find dollars required for the needed work.  Finding the right balance is no easy task. Councils are faced with tough decisions when it comes to prioritizing.  No council would disagree their top priority must be to keep the community safe and ensure essential services like drinking water, transportation and emergency services are reliable, safe and affordable, now and into the future.  
An important way to face infrastructure challenges is to develop a longer term, more proactive approach to planning and decision making to ensure limited dollars are wisely spent.  There is an approach that’s starting to take hold across Canada supporting this called asset management.  Asset management enables municipalities to beef up their data and analysis about the state of their infrastructure, the full costs of managing it over its lifespan, and the risks to service delivery, which could be because of age, condition, climate change impacts or some other factor.  It brings key staff in a municipality together, including finance, public works and planning, in a way that allows them to see and bring to council the big picture costs and risks associated with community services. This supports councils in setting priorities and budgeting.  
While the Report Card revealed only 29% of communities with under 5,000 people in Canada have asset management plans, there are 14 N.S. municipalities leading the pack on asset management, eight of which are in southwestern N.S., including the District of Yarmouth, the Town of Yarmouth, Shelburne, Mahone Bay, Argyle, Lockeport, Annapolis Royal and Annapolis County. They have been working together for over a year in a peer learning program delivered by the Atlantic Infrastructure Management Network, a not-for-profit organization and network dedicated to strengthening asset management in municipal governments in Atlantic Canada.  AIM Network is an implementing partner of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities Municipal Asset Management Program, funded by the Government of Canada. 
Joyce Young is the town clerk for Lockeport and learned that residents need a better understanding of what’s underground and its condition. It’s easy for people to take for granted the services they rely on when they are invisible. Lockeport has been working on strengthening its communications about infrastructure to residents to build support for the investments needed.  
Victoria Brooks is CAO for the District of Yarmouth.  Her key goal is to help council be good stewards of its assets. She sees asset management as the best way to bring an objective analysis to council.  Some work they’ve been doing has been to review recreation services. They have been engaging the community on their service needs (and wishes) with the support of AIM Network’s community engagement training and will be in a good position to develop a plan for recreation that takes into consideration the full costs of infrastructure needed.
All participating municipalities have learned from the process and most importantly, from each other.  
They have shown that big changes are possible, no matter what size of community they represent.

Donna Chiarelli is a freelance writer and consultant supporting communications for the Atlantic Infrastructure Management Network. 

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