B.C. mayors are demanding a new deal with senior governments to address the growing financial squeeze on their cities, but they deny they have their hands out for any new streams of cash.
Instead, they emerged Friday from the first B.C. Mayors Caucus in Penticton with a list of priorities they want addressed, from recognition of the rising pressure on cities to provide more service – often due to government downloading – to the need for more consistent and predictable long-term delivery of federal and provincial grants.
“We’re not asking for new money,” Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts said. “We’re saying let’s use existing resources more efficiently and effectively.”
That may mean persuading the province or federal government to allocate more of what they collect in taxes to the cities, preferably through long-term agreements.
Too often, Watts said, cities have stepped up to cover off services that have been downloaded by Ottawa or Victoria without receiving any contributions.
Social service delivery is a particular mess, she said, adding there’s some duplication in what’s provided by both cities and senior governments, and service gaps in other areas.
Surrey has faced higher costs helping immigrants integrate.
Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan said cities have also been pressed by the province to help provide social housing, usually by contributing land.
“Municipalities are saying ‘When did it become our responsibility to provide social housing?'” he said. “We need a clear delineation of our responsibilities.”
Cities have enough money to provide core services, Corrigan added.
“The problem is we’re obligated to take on so many other duties in trying to make our communities livable and safe.”
The manifesto released by 86 mayors does include some references to funding.
It says government downloading of services must be accompanied by a sustainable revenue source.
It also demands B.C.’s new Auditor General for Local Government probe not just the value for money in city budgets but also examine the question of government downloading.
“We’re saying that’s fine, fly at it,” Watts said of the municipal auditor, which many cities opposed last year.
“But you need to expand the mandate and look at the impact that downloading has had on municipal budgets.”
Watts said illogical government rules like inflexible requirements that projects include a green component – resulting in bike lanes sometimes being created in the north regardless of need – can waste money.
Also sought is an ongoing round table with the premier to discuss policy changes affecting cities, as well as another one that also includes federal representatives to discuss the need to replace aging civic infrastructure.
It’s not the first forum where cities have sought change – calls for a new deal have been a recurring feature of civic gatherings for years.
Despite the lack of traction, Watts said she’s optimistic reform can happen.
Watts is on the B.C. Mayors’ Caucus steering committee, along with counterparts from Port Coquitlam, Victoria, Smithers, Fort St. John, Cranbrook, Prince Rupert, Prince George and Penticton.
Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts speaks at the B.C. Mayors Caucus meeting Friday in Penticton. Szabo Photography
Sewage costs loom large for Metro Vancouver
Metro Vancouver’s need to replace its Lions Gate and Iona sewage treatment plants – at an expected cost of $1.4 billion – is a prime example of why funding reform is critical for cities, according to the region’s finance committee chair.
“We’re heading into a vaccuum on how to pay for this,” North Vancouver District Mayor Richard Walton, adding there’s no commitment yet from Ottawa and Victoria to share in the capital costs.
Walton said cities’ share of total taxes paid in Canada has dwindled from a historic 30 per cent to just eight per cent, and property taxpayers are maxed out in their ability to pay more.
But one idea that has been quietly raised by a consultant to Metro Vancouver – creating a regional sales tax – is not one that is likely to fly, Walton said.
U.S. cities make extensive use of local sales taxes, but he said the province would not likely share that power.
Nor would it be a good idea, he said, noting American communities end up undercutting each other to try to lure shoppers.
“It creates a tremendous amount of not necessarily healthy competition between communities,” Walton said. “I think sales tax is best left provincial.”
Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan said there was a clear acceptance in Penticton that taxpayers aren’t prepared to pay anything more.
“There’s no other easy option for revenue,” he said. “So we have to go toe-to-toe with the other levels of government to get a reapportionment of what they collect.”