05/11/2012 04:48 EDT | Updated 07/11/2012 05:12 EDT

Vancouver Bureaucracy More Convoluted Than the Subway Map

What was once a simple sewer, water and garbage disposal utility has become a bureaucratic, democratically-unaccountable spending machine. It's time to move the Metro Vancouver Regional District back to basics.

Local decision-making is the best decision-making -- that's the core of the concern many Lower Mainland taxpayers have with the Metro Vancouver Regional District. They aren't comfortable with a fourth level of government taxing them without democratic representation.

While the current Langley Township debate over leaving Metro Vancouver is likely just sabre-rattling, there are ways to reform Metro into a fairer, more taxpayer-friendly agency.

Metro chairman Greg Moore notes that 84 per cent of the regional district's $614.5 million annual budget goes to building, operating and paying the debt on the region's water, sewer and garbage collection infrastructure. That is precisely the work Metro should be doing -- and only be doing. Unfortunately, Metro bureaucrats and politicians love to insert themselves into things they have no reason to be in.

What Moore is admitting is that 16 per cent -- or $96.1 million annually -- of Metro's budget is being spent on non-essential items, or things the province or individual municipalities are better equipped to oversee.

Worse yet, the decisions made on these expenditures are done by mayors and councillors who are appointed by their own councils, but not directly accountable for the votes they cast at the Metro table. A decision that is bad for Maple Ridge, for example, can be imposed without Maple Ridge's representative agreeing. Maple Ridge taxpayers have no ability to vote out the Metro reps from Vancouver or Burnaby -- they are at the mercy of the mayors of those two communities, whose slates control the seats on the Metro board of directors.

This happens a lot, especially on planning issues. Metro's planners, unaccountable to any directly-elected official or public hearing process, act as though they alone have the ability to determine how the region should develop -- not the municipalities that have the official community plans, local expertise, held public meetings, and are led by directly-elected mayors and councillors.

Land use decisions should be made by politicians directly elected in the cities where that growth occurs -- not by Metro staffers or politicians from other Metro communities.

Most of Metro's non-core functions could be taken on by other levels of government that are better equipped to do the work.

Metro's social housing functions, air quality mandate, 9-1-1 and agriculture work could be absorbed by various provincial government agencies. Parks and planning functions could be taken over by local municipalities. Arts and other grants could be scrapped, allowing taxpayers to decide what causes they would like to support with their hard-earned money. Unincorporated areas could be added to existing municipalities, if they so choose.

If a taxpayer doesn't like the way a provincial government or local council handles these services, he can vote them out. Today, he simply has to grin and bear it unless he lives in Vancouver or Burnaby, where the power of the Metro Board lies.

The three remaining Metro services -- water, sewer and garbage collection -- could be operated as utilities run by boards with a mandate to deliver good, safe services as cheaply as possible. Some services, especially garbage collection, could be privatized or at the very least contracted out. The tax burden for most Lower Mainland property owners would be reduced by refocusing Metro on core services.