Needed: private partners

David Shipley
New Brunswick Telegraph Journal
January 23, 2007

A wave of new privately funded roads, water and wastewater facilities, hospitals and schools could reverse New Brunswick’s demographic woes and attract new investment, say experts.

As Premier Shawn Graham’s Liberal government explores ways to make New Brunswick economically sustainable and self-sufficient, proponents of increased partnerships with the private sector say such deals are part of the solution.

"If you can enhance your health care services or your school services, that can certainly help your economy," said Jane Peatch, executive director of the Canadian Council for Public-Private Partnerships, a non-profit think-tank.

"If you’ve got good services, you’re more likely to attract investors."

New infrastructure and recreational facilities would also help attract new immigrants to the province, said Peatch.

But with New Brunswick’s government facing a deficit of upwards to $400 million unless it cuts services or raises taxes, financing major new projects could become increasingly difficult.

Signing deals with private companies to design, build, finance and operate facilities and assets such as hospitals, schools and roads could allow the province to benefit from new infrastructure while reducing its financial burden and risk.

Public and private partnerships aren’t new to the province.

They’ve helped build two major highways, Moncton’s municipal water system, two public schools and the Centracare psychiatric hospital in Saint John.

Elizabeth Brubaker, author of new study on the benefits of public and private partnerships for water and wastewater systems, said such partnerships could help the province deal with an estimated $2 billion worth of needed investment in water and wastewater facilities.

A 1998 deal between Moncton and USF Canada to finance, design, build and operate a state-of-the-art water filtration plant is an example, Brubaker said.

She added that the plant delivered safe, quality water to the city for 25 per cent less than what Moncton had planned on spending.

Bringing in private companies to build and manage water and waste water systems can eliminate a conflict of interest that exists when governments are responsible for both operation and regulation. There is also a ready supply of North American and global companies interested in investing in Canadian water and wastewater systems.

"I don’t think there would be an absence of interest from the private sector," Brubaker said.

Provincial Health Minister Mike Murphy, in Moncton on Monday to announce a new $4-million heart catherization lab for the Dr. Georges L. Dumont Regional Hospital, said public and private partnerships would be considered as part of the major reforms for the health care system.

But such partnerships will only be struck if they do not jeopardize universal access to public health care. With health care monopolizing 38 per cent of the provincial budget, New Brunswick must get its costs under control, he said.

"If there’s any way to save money, we’ll do it."

Charles Cirtwill, acting president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a Halifax-based think tank, said he hopes the Graham government will embrace partnership deals with the private sector.

"I’d certainly be happy to see them talking about it," he said.

"The simple fact is no province, except Alberta, has the dollars to do all of these (infrastructure) projects on their own."

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