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Is volunteerism an answer for cash-strapped municipalities?

When municipalities are short of operating capital to maintain infrastructure and services, we tr...

When municipalities are short of operating capital to maintain infrastructure and services, we traditionally have had two choices: settle for reduced services and maintenance, or pay more in taxes and user fees.

But what about a third option?

Volunteerism could offer part of the answer for cash-strapped municipalities.

Volunteerism could offer part of the answer for cash-strapped municipalities.

Reduced services sabotage a municipality’s efforts to attract new investment in the form of new retail, residential and commercial development, and to attract new anchor employers – who wants to live or invest in a town that is falling apart?

Shifting the burden to taxpayers isn’t palatable to anyone – neither residents nor business owners want to pay more for the same level, or a reduced level, of service.

As I’ve written before, we live in a time when the costs of delivering public services, and especially building and maintaining infrastructure, involves labour costs substantially higher than in decades past. Rising labour costs have impacted municipal service delivery across the board.

Twice-weekly garbage collection the rule of the day

When I was a kid, we had garbage collection twice weekly in the summer, because no one wanted that stink lingering around. Homeowners didn’t even have to take their garbage to the curb.

Instead, a crew came by and took the garbage cans from your back porch to the curb, then a truck came later to empty them, followed by another crew that returned the cans to your porch. This is now long gone.

Grassy areas across a municipality were once kept trim. With every year that passes, it seems, more of this acreage is left to go wild. And then we have municipalities like Ottawa that suffer from a persistent inability to budget appropriately for snow removal, letting more of the white stuff pile up before dispatching the cleanup crews.

Take this example from earlier this month, in which a small town in Western Quebec, Denholm, may not be able to fix a road washed out by recent storms because the repair bill could be more than the town’s entire annual operating budget.

So, what about that third option?

Now before anyone of senior years bristles at this idea and calls for a grey-haired mob to track down John Clark with pitchforks and torches, know that I am of that same certain age. And I sincerely believe the key to prospering post-career is to feel productive and useful.

So why not volunteer?

I’ve been watching a TVO documentary series on cities that explores the impact a small number of people in urban centres can have when acting on a volunteer basis.

I’m not suggesting you don work boots and a hard hat and pick up a shovel. But there are a lot of services a city delivers and any cost-saving measure in one area is a funding boost for another.

Look around your community – there is lots of evidence of what could be done to make our urban environments better, and I think the future will involve large-scale volunteerism. Such volunteers could work in public recreation centres, libraries, customer service, health promotion, tourism and so forth.

People need to keep busy

In fact, Volunteer Canada advocates the idea of staying active through volunteering in retirement and put out an extensive report on the subject a few years ago. According to the report, volunteering provides significant physical, emotional and cognitive or brain health benefits for older adults.

It also enhances social support, social inclusion and civic engagement.

The report also found Canada’s baby boomers and senior adults give more than one billion volunteer hours a year. Boomers tend to volunteer to supervise events, serve on boards and committees, or participate in fundraising, while older seniors are more likely to volunteer to provide support to individuals through counselling and giving advice and to provide support to health-care services.

Surely there is a wealth of opportunity here for cash-starved municipalities. If volunteering among seniors is big today, I suspect the future will see a much greater involvement, provided seniors are given the opportunity. 

What may be needed to support this is legislation and regulation that allows for volunteers to undertake activities currently not being done at all and located on public property, as well as taking steps to ensure public employee unions are on board.

To discuss this or any other valuation topic in the context of your property, please contact me at I am also interested in your feedback and suggestions for future articles.


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