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Politics, Life and Journalism in Northumberland County, Ontario

Road reconstruction costs outrageous, demand public reaction

First published: May 25, 2000

County taxpayers should be screaming after council approved spending $1.5 million – triple the original estimate – on the reconstruction of the Elgin/William/Burnham intersection approved last week.

The original $500,000 contribution was an estimate made three years ago. But when Cobourg council reviewed tenders in the past few weeks, the total cost skyrocketed to $2.6 million. The project is important for Cobourg, since the intersection is a long-time problem. Traffic coming along the former Highway 2 moves south down William Street. To continue along Elgin Street, in either direction, drivers must make a small jog along Burnham Street. The plans have been on the books for many years and are regularly proposed in any long-term plans for roads.

The county is involved because Elgin Street was a county road many moons ago. It shares costs as part of its ongoing commitments. It has similar agreements for streets in other towns and villages.

Haldimand Reeve Bill Finley is right to call for a review the cost estimates. Since the original request was done three years ago, it would not be improper to take a look at what is being done. Port Hope Mayor Ron Smith also chimed in; saying this type of cost overrun would total the entire roads budget for a single year. In fact, Alnwick Reeve Howard Sheppard tried to pass a motion to delay the entire project. Several other attempts by politicicans were made to stop the construction.

Cobourg Mayor Joan Chalovich deftly defended the project by calling on the spectre of higher costs. She argued the costs could even go up higher if the current tender was not accepted. The delay would also have a huge impact on future road construction. It could be another three or four years before anything could be done, she said. She is likely right.

What is also shocking is Chief Executive Officer Lynda Mitchell’s response. Saying she was surprised by what has happened is certainly not the type of response taxpayers want to hear. We need to know who was asleep at the switch.

This is most important in light of the state of county roads. County roads manager Wayne Patterson said there are at least $43 million worth of work that needs to be done. The county has a five-year, $15 million plan to begin addressing the problem. But dipping into reserves is certainly not good beginning.

What is also distressing is the lack of fortitude of county councillors. While many barked at the expenditures, in the in final vote, only Smith and Sheppard voted against the project. What happened to everyone else? It seems the group was barking at the moon with no real intention of protecting tax dollars.

Considering the project is already underway (just take a look at all the realignment of overhead wires going on to know this is a done deal), it appears nobody had the stomach to pull the plug.

What is really needed is some type of municipal Auditor General, just like the federal and provincial governments have in place. Municipalities are audited each year by an accounting firm; usually a local company who checks the books are balanced. But since council does the tenders, no accounting firm in its right mind would point out wasted spending or cause political embarrassment for fear of never getting the contract again.

What is really needed is an independent investigation each year or two. Not only should the books be balanced, but also politicians and staff should be made to justify how money is spent and determine if any waste is taking place. That is what takes place at the federal and provincial levels. Those reports should be made public. And, unlike the provincial and federal governments, the municipalities should be forced to act on any recommendations.

This latest incident with roads is not the only one. Almost annually, when the expenditures for waste management come up, there is a cry from some politicians and environmentalists who feel the figures are not accurate. Other examples exist, as well.

Municipal Affairs is suppose to be a municipal watchdog, but when was the last time an investigation was carried out. It must be pretty drastic before any action is taken place.

And, if there were nothing to worry about, then politicians and civil servants would welcome the opportunity to prove their good management. In the end, taxpayers would get to sleep more soundly knowing there would be no more fiascoes.

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