GUEST COLUMN: City halls keep on spending, and evidence is at UBCM

METRO VANCOUVER — An important travel advisory for provincial politicians attending this week’s Union of B.C. Municipalities (UBCM) conference in Whistler: Keep a close eye on your government-issued credit cards – B.C.’s mayors and councillors are out to pickpocket taxpayers yet again.

The UBCM is a once-a-year gathering – not to be confused with the half-dozen other once-a-year gatherings for municipal politicians – where mayors and councillors eat, drink, meet and apparently push for more money from the provincial government.

Even by UBCM standards, this year’s stack of resolutions from various municipalities is expensive. Fully half of the 159 resolutions proposed by various councils demand more money from the provincial government. If the B.C. government acquiesced, we’d be talking about several billion dollars in new spending. Provincial daycare and a dozen other new programs wouldn’t come cheap.

Then there are the usual series of goofy resolutions, most of which fall wildly outside any mandate given a local mayor or council. Central Kootenay wants to give ICBC more business by having them offer home insurance. Sechelt wants the Workers Compensation Act applied to elected officials.

Santa Claus doesn’t get this many requests.

What mayors and councillors forget is that this money doesn’t come out of some magical money tree. It’s not provincial government money, or BC Liberal money, or even Premier Christy Clark’s money – it’s taxpayer money. Last year, the same gang produced a 115-page report on local government finance reform, but offered one cost-saving measure, suggesting cities share services, buried on page 102. That’s it.

British Columbians already pay 44 per cent of our income in taxes, yet there are as many resolutions demanding new taxes as there are calls for cost-saving measures. New Westminster wants a civic liquor tax. Central Kootenay wants a designated disaster relief tax. Sicamous wants a province-wide tax to buy up unused rail corridors.

Meanwhile, cost-saving ideas are mighty thin. Comox Valley wants the CRTC to eliminate one-touch 911 cell buttons, to cut down non-emergency calls. Delta wants exemptions to groundwater remediation rules in areas where that water isn’t used for drinking.

Local government is now an $11-billion-a year enterprise in this province. Since 2001, they have hiked wages 38 per cent – far more than the 23-per-cent inflation rate, and twice what the provincial government did with its employees.

This has meant more spending than ever before, even when adjusting for inflation and population. “Real per-capita municipal spending across Metro Vancouver grew by 32 per cent between 2000 and 2010, compared with approximately 10 per cent in the provincial government,” Ernst and Young reported.

The one worthy idea that may actually save considerable money is Nelson’s call to change police and fire arbitration rules, which have been criticized by many communities across the province and the B.C.’s Mayor Caucus.

Because police officers and firefighters cannot go out on strike without society collapsing, labour disputes are sent to arbitration. Many communities want the rules governing arbitration changed to make settlements more affordable. One such option, says Ernst and Young, is to ensure that arbitrators “apply local economic criteria and consider the financial impact of salary and benefits on the municipality and its taxpayers.”

In other words, arbitrators shouldn’t hand out deals that taxpayers can’t afford. Makes sense.

Mayors and councillors aren’t following that same principle when it comes to the provincial government. Instead, they continue to ask for billions of dollars that simply aren’t there.

And one smart, cost-saving resolution out of 159 shouldn’t give taxpayers much to cheer about.

Jordan Bateman is director of Canadian Taxpayers Federation, B.C. region.

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