And now for their next trick...

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The Prince George Citizen - - FRONT PAGE -

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

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