Are city bureaucrats really that bad?

A few days ago I was watching a Toronto mayor’s debate. Candidates Olivia Chow, John Tory and Doug Ford were discussing important issues affecting Canada’s largest city. What I found interesting was the number of attacks on city government and municipal bureaucrats from Doug Ford and John Tory. They criticized the cost of revitalizing Union Station (one of the most important train stations in the country), the city’s role in garbage collection, roadwork, the size and scope of government, and much more.

When you listen to these guys talk, you would think city officials are a bunch of free spending incompetent fools who couldn’t properly manage a project if their life depended on it. But are municipal bureaucrats really that bad? When you take a look at the evidence, you will see that municipal bureaucrats over the past 200 years led important initiatives that improved the quality of life in our cities.

Let’s go back in time to Paris, France in 1850. This metropolis of nearly one million people didn’t have a sewage system. When you take a look at old pictures of Marseilles, you will see large amounts of refuse and excrement in the streets. Back then a private company would collect people’s excrement door-to-door for a fee and dump it into the swamp outside the city walls.

But it didn’t have to be this way, and city officials knew that. Municipal bureaucrats, the people Ford and Tory love to attack, advocated strongly for a modern day sanitation and sewage system that would clean up the city’s streets. They led the charge for clean public water, our sewage system and garbage collection. The city finally began building a sanitation system in the late 19th century but it faced tremendous opposition from the business community, property owners and other wealthy elites. They didn’t want to spend any money constructing water and sanitary piping in their buildings. And this battle lasted for years. They even fought garbage collection! Even though poor sanitation led to cholera outbreaks that killed thousands, the wealthy didn’t want to pay higher taxes for government services that would stop health pandemics.

Now I am not saying Doug Ford and John Tory want to take us back to the times of cholera. But the policies they are advocating may not be the best for our public health. Doug Ford wants to contract out garbage collection throughout the entire city. He wants to reduce public services as much as he can. What’s next? Will conservatives want the city to stop collecting garbage all together? If it did, there would be a lot more room to cut property taxes. But that would mean people would be forced to pay for their own garbage disposal. Some wouldn’t be able to afford this fee and would simply toss their garbage onto the city streets. And not everyone would benefit from a property tax cut. Landlords would likely not pass these savings on to tenants, and tenants would be less likely to afford private garbage disposal than homeowners.

Would you rather pay an extra $1,000 in property tax or would you rather walk the streets filled with garbage, excrement and disease. I hope you chose taxes. You get what you pay for!

On that note, here is a great quote from a comedian named Lewis Black talking about on the benefits of tap water over bottled water. It’s only two minutes and it’s very funny!


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