Brighton budgets for Councillors to each attend up to two conferences relevant to our work per year. This helps keep our team in a constant state of learning and growth, which is really helpful for ensuring we have open minds and innovative approaches. This year I chose to attend the Rural Ontario Municipal Association conference, along with a few other councillors. For the next few days I’ll be attending sessions on all sorts of interesting and important topics, nerding out over municipal issues and processes. That means that you get bonus blog posts!
What is Asset Management?
Today I attended a session called Asset Management for Better Outcomes: Strengthening Council Decision-Making. It was a panel discussion featuring the Mayors and Finance Directors from three municipalities, talking about how they’ve implemented Asset Management Plans in towns of 3,800, 15,000, and 52,000 people, respectively.
The gist of Asset Management Plans is that a municipality makes a list of all of the municipal assets (i.e., the infrastructure and equipment we pay for), and creates a database of the expected lifespan and replacement cost of each one. Then we update our database whenever that infrastructure or equipment is serviced or inspected, so that our estimate of the remaining lifespan of each asset is accurate.
The idea is that if we know that a Public Works truck is going to last ten years, then we can set aside some money every year to pay for a new one when, ten years from now, this one is worn out. No major infrastructure or equipment expenses should come as a surprise, or require us to dig into reserves (at least in theory).
How Do We Use It?
Brighton has an Asset Management Plan, though I understand that we’re fairly new to using this approach. Many smaller municipalities are: it can take a lot of work to build up a good database of all municipal assets, and value and monitor them accordingly. One municipality on the panel noted that it isn’t quite finance, and it isn’t quite engineering, and there aren’t a lot of degree programs in Asset Management Planning out there; another noted that their Manager took a job at another municipality, and they’ll have a hard time replacing him. One of the themes of the talk was the importance of making sure that asset management wasn’t just considered one person’s job, or a special exercise, but trying to make sure that councillors and staff include Asset Management in everything they do, integrating it into municipal operations as a mindset and a part of all planning.
In terms of concrete things that Asset Management does:
- It’s how we determine which roads need resurfacing and when (along with other infrastructure and equipment replacement);
- It’s central to our discussions of the capital budget (just finished);
- It should be central to our Strategic Plan (February/March);
It also gives us a ton of data to help understand how our infrastructure is used and how we should prioritize infrastructure. For example, the lifespan of roads and bridges are based on engineering data about wear and tear from use, weather, etc. If we find that a given road is used very little, but we’re spending a lot on maintaining a more expensive type of surfacing for it, we might decide to downgrade that road so that those funds can be used elsewhere. There was a good discussion about how a few different municipalities, through the data they were collecting for their Asset Management Plan, discovered that it wasn’t actually worthwhile to replace a bridge that was closed from disrepair; a controversial move, but one supported by the data.
So the short of it is, Asset Management is about making sure that we’re taking care of our infrastructure and equipment, prioritizing our investments appropriately, and making sure that we can afford to replace it as needed.
What’s Missing? Natural Assets
One of the mayors in the room asked the question I was going to ask before I could get to it: is anyone including their natural assets in their Asset Management Plan? A few of them responded, yes, their trail systems are included, though it can be harder to value them, as the condition of a trail is more subjective and variable than the condition of a highway or bridge.
I found that mayor afterward, Mayor Andrea Matrosovs of The Blue Mountains, and discovered that, like me, she wasn’t satisfied with that answer. She wasn’t talking about trails and parks as “natural assets”; she was referring (as I was) to what is sometimes called “ecosystem services.” She’s been writing a Master’s thesis on this, so I’ll have to follow up with her research!
Ecosystem Services is a term economists and others use to refer to the fact that nature is useful and valuable to us. We tend to take the natural world for granted, because we don’t have to pay it for the things it offers us. Our oxygen is free, after all!
Except that it isn’t; without the trees and grasses and algae that turn carbon dioxide into oxygen, we couldn’t breathe. Without the wetlands, we wouldn’t have clean water to drink, or a way to filter our own waste. Without the pollinators, like bees and butterflies, we’d have no crops.
When we calculate the value that these things add to our economy, the numbers are enormous. The idea of including these costs in our Asset Management Plan is that it would make sure a) we monitor the health of our local ecosystem, b) we take its health into account as something that we are responsible for managing, and c) we have a somewhat objective basis for valuing “greenfields” (undeveloped lands) and “green spaces” (parks and woodlands and wetlands).
Imagine if the ecosystem services of, say, a lot adjacent to a wetland, were taken into account. Developing that lot would not just be a matter of ensuring that the development doesn’t infringe too much on the local ecosystem to the point where it might threaten endangered species who live there. Instead, those species and their use of the land would be able to be quantified. We’d be able to say that the ecosystem services of a given “vacant” lot add $_______ to the residents, we’d have a list of similar “assets” remaining in our community, and we could weigh the relative value of a given development proposal against the real, quantified value of the land just being land – a value that otherwise is counted as $0.
I should point out that this practice is controversial. Some have argued that we should put a price tag on everything: just as we have a price on carbon emissions, so too we should price water and air. Critics of this approach have pointed out that this would mean that literally everything would have a price tag, and that wealth inequality already has enough impact on the poor without adding air and water into the matter. I would argue that the wealthy are already able to pollute the air and water without significant consequence, while still enjoying cleaner air and water than poor people can afford, simply through the way that we place polluting industries near the poorest people. At least this way we could put a price tag on that, and use the funds to protect more places and people. It might be one of the few actual checks on pollution and sprawl that could be effective in our economic system.
Anyway, I’m headed out soon for dinner with some colleagues from Brighton. I also ran into Council members from Trent Hills and Cobourg today. I’ll have another update for you tomorrow!
One more thing…
It’s worthy of a post in itself, but I wanted to make sure that I mentioned the opening keynote presentation from the incredible storyteller, Jesse Wente:
Jesse told us about his grandmother’s experience in Residential Schools, and unpacked the notion of Truth and Reconciliation in ways I had never heard before. He pointed out that:
- Truth and Reconciliation is NOT for Indigenous people. They already know the truth about what happened, and have been telling it for years, while Residential School denialism is still extremely common in Canada. It’s up to Canadians to hear the truth, and reconcile it. Not to feel guilty about it, but to reconcile ourselves to the reality of what happened so that we can change course.
- Truth and Reconciliation therefore have to stick together. It’s common to hear politicians talk about “Reconciliation”, but we can’t forget the Truth part. Without it, we can make Reconciliation be about whatever we want. We need to keep the concept grounded in the truth, the reality, of our genocidal history.
- The “and” in Truth and Reconciliation carries a lot of weight.
He illustrated that last point with a story. When he was 10 years old, back in 1984, he was given a bmx bike. It was glorious, a ten-year-old’s dream. But on his first time taking it for a ride, a bully punched him out and stole the bike. He was devastated, and went home to tell his dad what had happened. His dad took him to the bully’s house to address the theft.
Here, Jesse asked the audience: do you think his dad said “just apologize, and everything will be okay?” Of course not. Give the bike back, and then apologize, and everything will be okay. There’s no just scenario that involves not getting the bike back.
There’s a lot to unpack about what “giving the land back” means, and it’s worth a post or two in itself. (It doesn’t involve deporting all settlers.) But let that story sit with you a bit: would you think it was okay if the bully got to keep the bike? Would the apology ring true without it?