The Union of British Columbia Municipalities is meeting this week in Victoria.
The current hot button issue at the UBCM is how municipalities can engineer a method of confiscating more money from their residents for pet projects, without actually appearing to be the entity raising taxes.
Over the past three decades, municipalities in B.C. have generally misspent property taxes, on non-essential programs and services. The cumulative effect of this mismanagement of property tax dollars, and the commitment to continue funding programs indefinitely means municipalities have no money to provide basic services. These basic services include capital investment in local infrastructure, things like roads, sewer and water. These are the services most taxpayers believe they have paid for and expect to receive. But these are services most municipalities can no longer afford to provide without tolls, user charges or P3 schemes.
There are many programs municipalities fund for which municipal governments have neither to authority to implement nor the authority to fund. That hasn’t stopped them.
“Green initiatives” stand out as programs municipalities fund and implement that fall outside their domain and ability to fund. In these cases, the provincial government confiscates taxes from residents and transfers the funds back to municipalities to meet the funding shortfalls. Curbside “Blue Box” programs cost at least as much, and often more than standard garbage collection, but the cost of processing the recycled material outweighs all the benefits of recycling. Provincially mandated public transit, in Penticton for instance, requires that the city subsidize each rider approximately $7 each time they get on a bus.
Various municipalities continue to direct resources in support of health facilities that are clearly the responsibility of the province. There isn’t a mayor or councillor in the province who doesn’t like to have his or her picture taken cutting a ribbon on a new health centre or community college. They’re not so keen when it comes to repairing potholes and water mains.
The cost of these examples is borne by local taxpayers whether directly via property taxes, or via transfers from either the province or the federal government. There is rarely any suggestion that inefficient and wasteful programs should by cut in order to direct money to basic services. The odd time a local politician does speak of cuts, it is couched as a threat of withdrawal of safety services and seniors programs.
What is most troubling about municipal spending, beyond the wasteful programs, is the cavalier attitude municipal politicians have when it comes to tax dollars. There is no appreciation of whose money it is. The politicians believe it is theirs, and that it has no end. And they spend like it.
Currently, the UBCM is looking to get their hands on revenue from the “gas tax”. Gasoline has replaced cigarettes and liquor as the go-to commodity from which our local politicians can confiscate more of our money. Ironically, while local governments look to increased gas taxes to generate more “infrastructure dollars”, the provincial government views gasoline as a bad thing, and is taxing it to encourage us to use less. Only a group of politicians would try to reduce demand to increase revenue.
UBCM politicians have failed at their basic duties. They have only to provide roads and bridges, sewer, water and public safety and maintain city-owned lands and property for the benefit of taxpayers. The City of Penticton, for instance, has 13 standing committees, and a Climate Action Plan. None of these has anything to do with providing basic services to residents. All consume taxpayer-funded resources, with no appreciable benefit to the taxpayer.
The primary reason UBCM members don’t have the resources to provide basic services and infrastructure is because they have wasted your tax dollars on programs and initiatives for which they generally have no authority to provide.
The drivers behind this mismanagement are demands for non-essential services by special interests. The first duty of politicians is to get elected; the second is to be re-elected. When it comes to spending your money to stay in power, your local politician will spend every cent you allow, and then some more. But we have given them permission.
Get ready for higher gasoline prices; don’t expect your street to be paved.
Mark Walker is the publisher of the Penticton Western News.