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Scarce infrastructure funds and mounting pressure to privatize were hot topics at the recent Federation of Canadian Municipalities conference, and CUPE was a key part of the conversation.

Nearly 200 delegates attended a CUPE-sponsored forum during the FCM that cast a critical eye on public-private partnerships (P3s). The forum urged municipal officials to ask the right questions when considering a P3 – offering a preview of a new P3 guide CUPE will be launching in the fall.

Forum chair and national president Paul Moist summed up what municipal governments are facing. “How will we respond collectively to our infrastructure needs, and do a good job for future generations.”

Economist Marvin Shaffer unpacked the facts behind the value-for-money claims many P3 advocates make. He analyzed the value-for-money calculations for British Columbia’s Sea-to-Sky P3 highway and found they were “seriously flawed.” When he re-ran the figures, he found the P3 would cost $220 million more than the same project delivered publicly.

Patricia Ross talked about what led her to be the only city councillor that opposed a water P3 in the city of Abbotsford. She described the city’s aggressive and expensive sales job, and the intense federal P3 pressure.

“The city’s tagline was vote P3s or we won’t have water,” says Ross. After 74 per cent of voters rejected the P3, it became clear there was no imminent crisis.

While the neighbouring city of Mission rejected federal strong-arm tactics that made water funding conditional on privatizing, Abbotsford did not.

I didn’t have a lot of confidence that the federal government would rescue us if we had problems [with the P3],” says Ross. “I’m not willing to take that chance…with something as significant as water.”

CUPE researcher Keith Reynolds walked delegates through 10 essential questions municipal officials must ask when a P3 is on the table. He urged participants to have a “healthy skepticism” about any information put before them.

Several questions deal with access to information. Transparency is at the heart of informed decision-making, yet it is the exception – not the rule – for P3s.

Reynolds described how most P3 calculations and assessments are cabinet secrets in British Columbia, and are exempt from access to information legislation. It means municipal officials can’t answer one of the most basic questions: What is the total cost of a project as a P3 compared to public delivery.

“If you can’t get the answer to that question – or you can’t make it public – then I think you have a problem,” says Reynolds. Delegate reactions at the forum – and at an Infrastructure Canada session the day before – point to growing municipal frustration that the only source of funding available forces local governments into P3s.

The 10 questions are part of CUPE’s new P3 guide for municipal officials, written by University of Manitoba economist John Loxley.