THE BLOG

There's Nothing Impoverished About B.C. Cities' Budgets

09/15/2013 09:04 EDT | Updated 11/15/2013 05:12 EST

Don't hold your breath hoping mayors and councillors will come home from this month's Union of B.C. Municipalities conference with a stack of cost-saving ideas and strategies.

In 2011, cities in B.C. combined to bring in $7.87 billion in revenue. Regional districts added another $1.6 billion. Throw in TransLink and its $1.3 billion and you have a combined annual budget of $10.77 billion to run everything from Abbotsford to Zeballos.

To put that into perspective, if local government were a provincial government ministry, it would be bigger than anything except health, and more than double the size of education.

It's more than the premier's office, and departments of aboriginal relations, advanced education, agriculture, children and family development, citizens services, energy, environment, finance, forests, jobs, justice, social development and transportation - combined. That's a lot of government spending.

But the UBCM, yet again, is focused fully on manufacturing ways to extract more money out of federal and provincial taxpayers.

In a book of 155 policy resolutions to be considered by mayors and councillors, only five would save taxpayers any money -- and three of those will save pennies at best.

Surrey wants to use e-mail instead of Canada Post to send out statutory notices. Sicamous wants the B.C. government to stop renaming its ministries, citing a "large cost to taxpayers and [that it] is time consuming for local government staff to update files and develop contacts." Delta wants ICBC to keep cities out of driver lawsuits. Not exactly earth-shattering stuff.

Squamish is looking for something a bit more substantial, by getting the provincial government to overturn a decision that ties firefighter wages across B.C. to the Vancouver salary structure. And Cranbrook wants to add a second, cheaper level of policing called peace officers -- an idea deemed unworthy of a recommendation by the UBCM policy committee.

And that's it. Slim pickings, to say the least.

The centerpiece of the conference will be a debate over a policy paper on local government finance reform or, in layman's terms, "how to get more money from Ottawa and Victoria." On page 102 comes the only concrete cost-saving suggestion -- sharing services across municipalities. Great idea, but given just a page-and-a-half, and buried on page 102 of a 115-page document.

And that's it. A page-and-a-half in after 101 pages of discussion on whether cities should get a cut of income taxes, the PST, targeted consumption taxes, property transfer taxes, hotel room tax, fuel tax, carbon tax and resource revenues.

The provincial government should reject any suggestion of sharing more tax dollars until municipalities and regional districts agree to embrace public sector wage mandates, aggressively cut costs and find efficiencies. It can be done: Penticton has frozen property taxes for three straight years thanks to its focus on core services and negotiating lower starting wages with their union.

So how cash-strapped are our local governments? Well, not enough to cut their own wages. Or eliminate programs that are not purely infrastructure or health and safety. Or to aggressively cut regulation so they do not need to continually add staff and consultants.

They're also not cash-strapped enough to follow the provincial government's lead and bring in two years of net zero wage freezes. Or to follow that up with two years of cooperative gains, where unions have to help find cost savings to fund their own raises.

And they're certainly not cash-strapped enough to actually schedule a UBCM session on money-saving best practices or offer up any significant work on cutting costs.

Why bother, when shaking down taxpayers is so much easier?

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