June 19th, 2018

Between a rock and a hard place

By Medicine Hat News Opinon on March 16, 2017.

Doing more with less, working smarter not harder, avoiding duplication and getting out of the way.

So constant is the refrain in business and government circles these days that its almost become ever-present, but hardly noticed white noise in the background of many issues.

It’s certainly present in Medicine Hat where the city government is grappling with a major budget shortfall.

Calls for more privately contracted or non-profit delivery of government services, as well as a more business-like response to social problems, have been growing for some time.

Several recent issues highlight just how loud the cry has become without many perhaps ever realizing.

For example, the City of Medicine Hat is now negotiating with a private company to run a new curbside recycling program.

This is without concern or kudos outside a general discussion of whether the service is needed.

The union representing city workers doesn’t have a public position on the move. Even those who tend to champion so-called market-based solutions didn’t seem to notice, either.

It’s just, apparently, the way things are done now.

Yet, Medicine Hat’s reputation persists as a large government town, capable of offering services and public facilities beyond the scope of an average mid-sized municipality.

That’s really no longer the case.

Like it or not, a budget review, new fees, new taxes and spending cuts approved in the current city budget all but certify the city’s move to slim down the size of government.

It is ironic though that one of the biggest planks in city cost cutting is becoming one of the biggest symbols of waste.

This month a new push for private operation to save the Medicine Hat Arena from demolition has at its heart the idea that the city has been mismanaging the facility.

Though the Save the Arena committee hasn’t said it outright, the general idea is that business people could cut costs to the point of viability.

The city says the operating loss at the massive facility is $700,000 per year without major tenant income to offset expenses.

That’s a monumental figure to overcome simply by streamlining operations. Equally massive is a fundraising goal that would also cut into the deficit from the other direction.

For comparison, it’s highly unlikely that any local charity brings in $600,000 per year from the general public donations.

Every Medicine Hatter should be curious to see the results.

Should the beams balance, contracting out the operations would not be totally out of the question.

The City of Medicine Hat has privately contracted management company handling the Canalta Centre.

In terms of pound service, the city has contracted out the service to first the local SPCA for decades, and now contracts the Alberta Pound and Rescue Centre.

It’s currently negotiating to contract out proposed curbside recycling program, including the sale of its sorting plant, that is managed by a community group, REDI.

Council has also been criticized that provisions should be made to keep that group in the loop with some special consideration.

Many of the same voices, however, are likely to first to demand that city lower prices by applying only the strictest business principles when awarding contract.

It’s an unwinnable position, and for charities and non profits as well.

There should be some sympathy here too for non-profits, which are increasingly pressured by the public and cash-strapped governments to find sustainable funding by engaging in side business.

The answer used to be better government support, but that would take us back to step one in this continual search for gain at no pain.

(Collin Gallant is a News reporter. To comment on this and other editorials, go to http://www.medicinehatnews.com/opinions.)

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