It may be wise old King Solomon who is credited with the phrase, "there is nothing new under the sun," but anyone who has read brochures put out by municipal election candidates can attest to that pearl of wisdom.
This November, thousands of candidates will seek office in city halls across British Columbia, looking to serve their fellow taxpayers as a mayor, councillor or director. Their brochures will offer familiar themes: warm, fuzzy pictures of landmarks in their community; and the usual vague promises to spend tax dollars wisely and make their particular city hall more transparent.
Taxpayers need more than platitudes. Municipal government in B.C. is a $10.8 billion business -- more than the combined budgets of the provincial ministries of aboriginal relations, advanced education, agriculture, children and family development, citizens' services, energy, environment, finance, forests, jobs, justice, social development and transportation, and the premier's office.
Needless to say, taxpayers deserve more than the same-old, same-old from potential mayors and councillors. We want details and real ideas. And, in a world where "there is nothing new under the sun," one hopes that a few ideas that have popped up in cities across B.C. might take root everywhere.
Candidates looking to hold the line on taxes should look first at labour costs and work by Prince George and Penticton.
Penticton set the standard for municipal labour negotiations by negotiating down starting wages. Three years ago, a core review showed Penticton was paying lifeguards and parks staff $8 more per hour than private operators in the same community.
That core review gave Penticton council the ammunition it needed to push for a better deal. Starting wages were slashed by $5 an hour. Meanwhile Penticton found other efficiencies within municipal departments, eliminating overlap of personnel and equipment. The result: a three-year property tax freeze.
This month, Prince George council went even further when it settled a four-year contract with its union. The first two years were "net zero"-- the same model used by the provincial government to hold the line on its labour costs.
After 28 years of annual increases in pay, Prince George stuck to their guns -- even in the face of a one-day walkout -- and got two years at net zero, followed by two years of very small raises. "[Continual raises are] not sustainable for the taxpayer that has reached a tipping point in their ability to pay," said Mayor Shari Green.
When it comes to consulting taxpayers on large projects, Port Coquitlam broke the mold this year.
Instead of putting a major recreation centre renovation -- and 1.5 per cent tax increase -- into their budget, Port Coquitlam went to the public with a 0.34 per cent tax cut, and an option to add the rec centre, if the community wants it. Usually cities resist giving taxpayers the facts on what they could save by forgoing flashy projects; this subtle shift to showing what the budget would be without the big project is a major step forward.
Annual business licences have long been an annoyance to entrepreneurs. While some jurisdictions have tried to push regional licences, the best solution can be found in the City of Langford, which decided to scrap annual business licences all together.
Instead, Langford businesses will pay the old fee once for a "perpetual" licence. As Mayor Stewart Young pointed out about the old annual system: "What are we going to do [if they don't pay]? Kick them out? They're already employing people. We're happy they're here in Langford. They give us three times the [property] taxes as residential and then we mess around with these little $50 business licences."
Langford expects to make up most of lost annual revenue through increased business and cutting bureaucracy at city hall.
There is nothing new under the sun, Solomon taught us. Hopefully that chestnut holds true and we see many candidates stealing from the playbooks of Penticton, Prince George, Port Coquitlam and Langford this fall.