Denley: Ottawa's municipal buildings are being sadly neglected

Over the last 15 years, city staff have repeatedly flagged the repair and maintenance deficit, but politicians haven’t done much in response.

OTTAWA --May 21, 2020. A young hockey player waits for the doors to open as hockey players take advantage of ice time with skating coach Shelley Kettles at the Minto Arena. Photo by Wayne Cuddington / Postmedia 2020-05-21

One would think, or at least hope, that one of the most basic responsibilities of Ottawa’s city government would be maintaining the $3.4 billion worth of municipal buildings that were paid for with our tax dollars.

Not so much, according to the latest report from Auditor General Ken Hughes.

You might have noticed the brief flurry of news coverage last week when Hughes identified about $487 million in maintenance that should have been done, but hasn’t been. Despite the momentary attention the problem received, this is actually quite a big deal.

A quick reading of Hughes’s report would create the impression that senior city managers are so clueless that they aren’t even aware of just how rundown many of our public buildings are. There’s certainly an element of truth to that because it seems that no one at the city has a comprehensive grasp of just how bad the problem is.

That’s a pretty significant failure of management, but there are a number of reasons for it, none particularly good. To properly understand how the city got itself into this mess, one needs to examine the actions of city councillors over the last 15 years, or more precisely, their inactions.

Part of the solution will inevitably involve taking a hard look at how many rinks, libraries and recreation centres the city can afford to maintain. The unwillingness to close any building that serves the public, ever, is leading to some foolish spending. According to the audit, the city has been pouring money into buildings with little life left in them and that’s not the worst part of it. The city has planned repairs on 37 buildings where the cost of the repairs exceeds the cost of replacing the building.

Not to let staff off too lightly, one must note the failure to fully put in place a comprehensive asset management plan approved by council eight years ago. There was some kind of reorganization of who’s responsible for buildings four years ago, but it’s said to still be in the development phase. Time is money, even in government.

City staff are expected to release an assessment of building status sometime next year, along with a plan to get the repair problem under control. This time, city councillors need to do something about it. Keeping our city assets from falling apart is dull, politically unrewarding work, but it has to be done.

Randall Denley is an Ottawa political commentator and author. Contact him at

Over that time, city staff have repeatedly flagged the repair and maintenance deficit, but politicians haven’t done much in response. Back in the era of former mayor Larry O’Brien, there was a special tax to help tackle the problem, but it lasted only until councillors discovered that people don’t like higher taxes. Three years ago, a minority of councillors wanted a 0.5-per-cent infrastructure levy to help reduce the road, sidewalk and park repair deficiency, a separate problem. Mayor Jim Watson made that go away with some surplus funds.

For city councillors, spending plans that don’t contain the words “new” or “more” are pretty unattractive. It’s difficult to think of anything less appealing than raising taxes or cutting services to pay for upkeep that should have been done years ago.

The public plays its part as well. There isn’t a strong local lobby calling for money to be spent on fixing what we own rather than adding something new.

Ultimately, the responsibility for the shoddy state of repair of our public buildings belongs to city councillors, not the staff or the public. Councillors are the ones we delegate to know what the problems are and to provide solutions to those problems. They are the civic board of directors, responsible for setting priorities and approving money to meet those priorities.

Unfortunately for councillors, the building repair problem has now become so big that there are no easy solutions. Fixing it will require difficult and unpopular decisions, just the two types of decisions Ottawa city councillors are least interested in making.

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