Curing a community cash crunch

Tom Fletcher looks at subjects likely to be addressed at next week's UBCM.

VICTORIA – Local politicians from across B.C. are in Vancouver Sept. 16 to 20 to take part in the annual Union of B.C. Municipalities convention.

There will be trivia reported as news, such as the cost of hotels. Suggestions to license mobility scooters or lower speed limits to 40 km/h, dreamed up in Vancouver Island retirement locales, will be rejected by delegates from the rest of the province.

Serious discussion will revolve around a report by a UBCM executive committee to reshape the financial relationship between the province and local governments. If this proposal gets the support it deserves, Premier Christy Clark’s government will be asked to undo a couple of decades of political meddling in that relationship.

One problem for local governments is that they depend on property tax, a stable source of revenue but one that has no relationship to the property owner’s ability to pay. It tends to load costs onto lower-income groups such as seniors and renters.

Economic growth results mainly in increased corporate and personal income tax revenues as well as sales taxes, which aren’t shared with local governments.

One key proposal is to return to a system of revenue sharing grants introduced by the Social Credit government in the 1980s. They were funded by one point each from personal and corporate income tax and six per cent of sales, fuel and resource tax revenues, thus increasing in years when provincial revenues were strong.

The UBCM proposal is to put a share of provincial revenues into an infrastructure bank, to be distributed by the organization on a more stable basis.

Saanich Mayor Frank Leonard, one of the authors of the report, uses a basketball analogy to describe the current system of federal-provincial grants for road and bridge projects. It’s a “jump ball,” where communities have to apply to a fund when it’s offered and then see who gets it.

Even if a community wins the jump ball, they may find themselves with costs inflated by a hot construction market and an arbitrary deadline to get the job done.

Then there are new regulations imposed by senior governments. The most dramatic example these days is a 2020 federal deadline for Greater Victoria to construct land-based sewage treatment. Even with federal and provincial cost sharing, this project is going to land heavily on property tax bills, including those of pensioners and poor renters who will have it passed on to them.

Leonard points to another arbitrary system, provincial facilities that pay grants in lieu of property taxes. Saanich is home to the University of Victoria, a community of 25,000 people that needs water and sewer service, as well as police and fire protection. Saanich gets an annual grant in lieu of property taxes of $120,000 for UVic, enough to cover wages and benefits for one cop and maybe some gas money.

Cariboo Regional District chair Al Richmond, co-chair of the UBCM committee, is concerned about new water and flood protection legislation the province is preparing to impose. His district and others like it have thousands of kilometres of riverfront, with relatively few property owners.

Interior communities also want BC Hydro to pay something for power lines, as is now being done with some aboriginal territories.

Local politicians will be expecting a sympathetic ear from the new version of the B.C. Liberal government. Former Quesnel councillor Coralee Oakes is the new community, sport and cultural development minister, with direct responsibility for local government issues.

And one of the original members of this UBCM committee was former Langley City mayor Peter Fassbender, who is now minister of education.

Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter and columnist for Black Press. tfletcher@blackpress.ca

 

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