And now for their next trick...
rince George voters (well, about 8,000 of them, anyway) decided Saturday to borrow $35 million to replace Four Seasons Pool and another $15 million to replace Fire Hall No. 1.
Congratulations to Mayor Lyn Hall, the city councillors and senior administrators for their hard work convincing residents of the merits of these two projects. It’s not easy to market the long-term benefits of multi-million dollar public projects to suspicious taxpayers, yet the fire hall passed with nearly 83 per cent approval while the pool earned 62.5 per cent support.
The new fire hall, planned for Massey Drive and Carney Street, should be operational in 2019 but the pool will take at least a year longer, due to the required bulldozing and removal of the Days Inn, along with more complex design and building requirements.
It will be a great moment for Hall – assuming he seeks and wins a second term as mayor – to cut the ribbon when both of those facilities open.
Unfortunately, victories in politics are shortlived. For Hall, the councillors and senior staff, it’s quickly on to the next challenge.
Heading into an election year, the task at hand should be pretty obvious.
It’s time for a budget that features no increases in city taxes and utilities.
That’s a big challenge but ask Coun. Albert Koehler to lead the charge. He’s been rightfully asking for it for years.
And the Canadian Federation of Independent Business has given him plenty of ammunition for why it’s long overdue. In its last report, the CFIB analyzed municipal spending in B.C. from 2004 through 2014. Yes, the CFIB is a right-wing, pro-business advocacy group but the numbers should worry all residents, regardless of their politics.
The data shows that Prince George’s operating expenses increased by 34.6 per cent on a per capita basis in the decade ending in 2014, despite minimal population growth. Contrast that to Kelowna, where municipal spending only increased by 12.6 per cent per capita during the same time period.
In 2014, only four of the 20 largest local governments spent more money per capita than Prince George on annual operations – Delta, Vancouver, Victoria and New Westminster.
Before the “but they don’t have to spend millions on snow clearing” argument is made, Prince George is 10th out of the 29 Northern B.C. municipalities and three of those local governments made the top 10 of best in the province - Fort St. James, Prince Rupert and Chetwynd. Two of those three have to move lots of snow around, too.
Although all three still spend more money per resident on municipal operations than Prince George, all three also slashed spending from 2004-2014 due to declining populations.
Prince Rupert cut spending per capita by 27 per cent in that decade.
The CFIB’s suggestions for how municipalities like Prince George could better control spending are mostly worthless. Eliminating early retirement provisions, switching to defined contribution instead of defined benefit pensions and gassing the banking of sick days are non-starters in unionized workplaces in both the private and public sector.
The challenge locally is to trim expenses, since a zero budget is actually a cut, due to inflation.
There is an opening here, however, to get to that elusive goal.
A month ago, the city agreed to a new four-year deal with its unionized employees, with wage increases of two per cent this year, 1.5 per cent in 2018 and 2019, followed by 1.75 per cent in 2020. Those increases are far more generous and the bargaining that led to them far less acrimonious than what happened four years ago, so there should be some good will on both sides to find the roughly $3-4 million in reduced spending needed to bring in no increases in taxes and utilities.
The savings should start from the top so it’s fair for Hall to task city manager Kathleen Soltis with finding a way to run the city with one fewer department head, dropping the number of directors that report directly to her from eight to seven. From there, attrition – not replacing employees who leave or retire – is a good starting point. Finally, an aggressive look at all spending - both core and discretionary – for efficiencies, with that zero target in mind, should shake loose some savings. Reduced services is fine if the services are minimal or only enjoyed a a small few.
This exercise can be a collaborative endeavour between unionized employees and non-union managers. Both sides pay taxes and the exercise allows staff to share cost-saving ideas and managers the chance to better connect with their staff and learn more about their daily challenges. Eliminating some of those challenges can both save money and boost morale.
Despite the obvious challenges, the political and bureaucratic will was there to get the pool and fire hall referendums passed. Spending public money is easy, though. Now let’s see the same group band together with the same desire to cut spending and save money.
Next year’s election is practically around the corner. — Editor-in-chief Neil Godbout