Ball in council's court as infrastructure gap goes unchecked

The gap between what Ottawa should spend to keep its roads, parks and other facilities in good condition, and what it is spending, has grown to $70 million per year. How city council deals with that shortfall is expected to shape the upcoming budget debate.

More than half of Ottawa's parks in poor or very poor condition, review shows

Ottawa's Gabriela Dabrowski played her first game of tennis at Russell Boyd Park. She later became the first Canadian woman to win a senior Grand Slam title. (David Vincent/Associated Press)

Before she hit the international tennis circuit, Gabriela Dabrowski spent 15 years swinging a racket on the public courts at Russell Boyd Park, just down the street from her south-east Ottawa home.

Today Dabrowski is the first Canadian woman to win a senior Grand Slam title. The fate of the court where she began her career is less inspiring.

Gabriela Dabrowski says the court at Russell Boyd Park is unsafe to play on. (City of Ottawa/ supplied)

"The Russell Boyd court, in its current state, is not clean nor safe to play tennis on," Dabrowski said in a statement emailed last week to CBC from Shanghai, where she was competing. She said the courts where she cut her teeth are now cracked and covered in weeds.

When Coun. Diane Deans asked Dabrowski earlier this year if she would allow the City of Ottawa to name the courts after her, the tennis star replied that she would be "honoured," but the city needed to make some repairs first.

Park infrastructure gets failing grade

According to the city's latest review, 51 per cent of the infrastructure that falls under the parks and recreation department — think community centres, sports fields, arenas and wading pools — are in poor to very poor condition, compared to only 17 per cent in that state just five years ago.

While making the necessary repairs will be costly, it's a drop in the bucket compared to the city's overall infrastructure deficit. According to the review the city is spending $70 million less per year than it should to keep its roads, public facilities — and yes, parks — in good shape.

That gap has narrowed slightly since the last infrastructure review in 2012, when it was closer to $85 million (in 2017 dollars).

Overall, the city's infrastructure appears to be faring better than its parks: On a scale between very poor and very good, the overall state of city assets has been in "fair to good" condition since 2012.

At that time, Wayne Newell, then general manager of infrastructure, told council the city's assets were safe, but were at risk of deteriorating.

This past September council approved a 10-year plan to close the funding gap with a one-time injection of $5 million in 2018, and an additional $6.8 million every year until all the city's roads, parks and buildings are up to scratch.

Where will the money come from?

Council has capped property tax increases at two per cent per year this term as part of a promise to keep rates low. But Coun. Jeff Leiper said his colleagues might need to reconsider that stand if they want to keep up with infrastructure needs. 

"There's not a lot of fat at the city that can be cut," Leiper said.

There's not a lot of fat at the city that can be cut.- Coun. Jeff Leiper

This year council had to spend an additional $3 million to fill potholes and repave roads after a nasty season of freezing and thawing wrought havoc on city streets.

But Leiper said maintaining roads is a challenge every year, and every year conditions get worse.
Coun. Jeff Leiper measured this pothole on Roosevelt Avenue by sticking his foot into it. He says it gets bigger each year. (Jeff Leiper/ supplied)

He visited a pothole on Roosevelt Avenue that reappears every spring. Every year crews patch the hole, and every year it comes back bigger than ever..

When he stepped into it this spring he went in up to his ankle.

"The roads are not getting resurfaced and they're not getting repaired to the degree that I think residents expect," he said.

He's one of several councillors floating the idea of increasing taxes by more than two per cent to speed up infrastructure improvements, but he knows it's a long shot — especially with an election looming.

Indeed, the very suggestion is already polarizing council.

City may need to consider cuts

Coun. Stephen Blais said it's irresponsible to propose tax increases to cover the city's infrastructure costs. He's been going door to door in his ward in preparation for this month's budget debate.

He said he keeps hearing the same message from residents.

We have to make choices.- Coun. Stephen Blais

"Almost universally it's, 'Please keep costs in check,'" Blais said.

Instead of raising taxes, he said the city may have to make cuts.

"You move the money around between the envelopes so that you can invest in those things that residents are asking us to," he said. "We have to make choices."
Coun. Stephen Blais said his constituents have asked him to try to keep taxes as low as possible in 2018. (Laura Osman/ CBC)

Wherever the money comes from, Gabriela Dabrowski said she hopes some of it will be spent on improvements to the tennis courts at Russell Boyd Park so others can benefit from a public facility that helped her achieve her dreams.

Meanwhile they remain unnamed, and the ball's in the city's court.

City council will receive a draft of the 2018 budget Wednesday morning, and will approve a final version in December.