Thursday, November 26, 2015

A Sinkhole of Debt

It is remarkable how tiny pieces of news help us to see much larger, worrisome trends.

For instance, we now learn that the Natural Resources Ministry has been poking about, seeking a partner to help  maintain the Sherborne Road. The gravel road winds 12 kilometres from Highway 35 just south of Dorset through the bush to Sherborne Lake.

It is an access road for anglers, hunters, hikers, campers, snowmobilers, ATV riders and logging operators.

The ministry is asking various sources, including Algonquin Highlands Township, to take on the costs of maintaining the road. It says it can no longer afford the upkeep.

The good news here is that the Ontario government may be getting serious about its dire financial situation. It must be when it goes begging for help maintaining a 12-kilometre gravel road.

The bad news is that if the government cannot afford to maintain the road, nature will take it back, limiting access to a huge wilderness recreation area. Also, the Sherborne Road is a glimpse of the new trend in which citizens pay more to receive less.

The Sherborne Lake road story illustrates how badly Ontario is hurting from years of less than brilliant financial management. And, how the current government is relentless in squeezing taxpayers for more and more dollars to try drag itself out of a quicksand of debt.

Our electricity bills will increase at least an average $120 a year Jan. 1, on top of a series of stunning increases this year. Driving and vehicle licensing fees have increased and will increase more. We all will receive higher municipal tax bills in the spring because of more downloading of Ontario Provincial Police costs onto rural municipalities.

Then we have the service fees placed on top of service fees at Service Ontario outlets. And, the plans to make High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes.

Not to mention the new three-cents-a-litre provincial tax on beer, which took effect this month.

The government is desperate for more money to service its overwhelming debt. Ontario residents can expect this trend to continue, and likely worsen.  

Ontario’s debt has surpassed $300 billion. California, poster child for reckless government spending and poor financial management, has less than half the debt of Ontario.

Bonnie Lysyk, Ontario’s auditor general, expects the Ontario debt to reach $325 billion by 2017-18. To pay off that debt Ontario would have to collect $23,000 each from every woman, man and child in the province.

Ontario pays more than $11 billion a year in debt interest charges. That is more than the province spends on post secondary education for our children.

Credit raters have been following closely this plunge into deeper debt. Moody’s Investor Services and Standard and Poor’s have downgraded Ontario’s credit rating in recent months.

The province plans to spend another $130 billion on infrastructure over the next 10 years, which will increase the debt load even more. Much of the spending will be to alleviate the nightmare of Toronto-area transportation.

The government says going deeper into debt will spur economic growth, which will produce more dollars to pay off debt. We all hold our breath and hope this is true. Past performance leaves us skeptical.

Another reason for skepticism is the controversy surrounding the government’s selling off 60 per cent of Hydro One. It hopes to bring in $9 billion from the sale but in fact will realize only $3.5 to $5 billion after the utility’s debt is paid.

Some observers call the Hydro One offering a disaster in the making.
Stephen LeClair, the province’s financial accountability officer, says that selling the utility to private investors will cost the provincial treasury more than it takes in.

“The province’s net debt would initially be reduced, but will eventually be higher than it would have been without the sale,” he wrote in a critical review of the plan.

Deterioration of the Sherborne Lake access road would be a disappointment to users, but not a catastrophe. Real catastrophe will come to all of us if the government does not create a strong plan for reducing its debt.


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