The challenge is vast. Maintaining and investing in water and waste water treatment facilities, roads, bridges, vehicle fleets, public buildings and other core municipal infrastructure, to ensure people in communities receive the best services possible, is a major and costly undertaking for municipalities everywhere in Saskatchewan and throughout Canada.
The challenge increases exponentially when you add the harsh climate, great distances, rugged and diverse terrain and widely dispersed population of Saskatchewan’s north. It’s a region that makes up 44 percent of the geographical area of our province, and is home to about 3.5 percent of our population, 34,000 people, according to the most recent (2006) census.
Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs, with the guidance of the Northern Municipal Trust Account management board, which oversees municipal investment in the north, scoped out an ambitious piece of work related to asset management.
Our ministry, after an extensive and meticulous request for proposal process, hired consultants Associated Engineering to undertake a pilot project to help municipalities in the province’s north develop an inventory of assets, initially to help northern communities meet accounting requirements and water and waste water regulations.
Ultimately, our ministry and the consultant, working with SaskWater Corporation and northern municipalities, developed a robust asset management system to help municipalities and the province build the capacity to plan maintenance, repairs and investments for critical infrastructure into the future.
Weyakwin, Saskatchewan, population 99, represents ground zero for our odyssey.
In early August 2009, the northern hamlet 150 kilometres north of Prince Albert was the first community the consultants visited, the proving ground for the initiative. From August through October, the consultants travelled thousands of kilometers, to 36 communities as far north as Uranium City and Camsell Portage near the border of the Northwest Territories, gathering and recording information for what would become the largest asset management project of its kind in Canada.
More than 27,000 municipal assets, worth almost $600 million, in northern communities dispersed within the 250,000 square-kilometres of Northern Saskatchewan, were captured through the project, compiled in a robust asset management system, the web-based Northern Municipal Asset Viewer.
Most important, the project achieved its goals of helping northern municipalities gain the capacity to comply with the accounting requirements to report, value and amortize tangible capital assets on their annual financial statements. It also provided a detailed assessment of water and sewer infrastructure as required under Saskatchewan’s water regulations.
But of paramount importance, the long-term strategy was building the capacity in the north to move from an inventory where assets are valued, amortized and reported for accounting purposes, to an asset management paradigm.
With the asset management system we’ve developed, northern municipalities and the province can store, view, query, manage and report asset information. And in addition, the system offers a detailed picture of the current value, location and useful-life of each asset.
It helps municipalities and the province address key questions: “What do I own?” “Where is it?” “How long will it last?” “When does it need replacing?” “How much will it cost to replace?” and, “How much do I need to invest today to pay for it in the future?”
The system offers full access to a detailed asset inventory for all common infrastructure classes, including asset costing, financial planning, lifecycle costing, capital planning and service life assessments. It offers summary statistics with graph and chart displays, and a map view to locate and depict assets. Results can be filtered by asset class, municipality, municipal type or population.
It offers specific views for individual communities and broad views useful to the province. It chops, slices and dices.
It isn’t perfect. There is a need to include more detailed asset condition information to refine the projected “useful lives” of our infrastructure assets. The next step involves learning and building administrative capacity.
To build better infrastructure for Saskatchewan people, we need to build capacity and learn to use asset management tools at the municipal and provincial level. It is the way we will arrive at the maximum value from public investments in infrastructure. We need a better basis for planning multi-billion dollar, multi-year funding for municipal infrastructure. Better municipal asset information will improve our collective ability to project and prioritize municipal infrastructure needs.
Beyond our own borders our project is catching the eye of the government of Yukon Territory and folks in Ontario’s provincial government.
We’ve come a long way from our beginnings in Weyakwin. Our next journey begins today.
Van Isman is the Deputy Minister of Saskatchewan Municipal Affairs and Deputy Provincial Secretary. He previously served as executive director for small business, community economic development and co-operatives with Saskatchewan Economic Development.