B.C.’s largest cities on a spending spree for last decade: report
Wage increases for municipal workers, property taxes and city hall spending have all grown far faster than the rate of inflation and the population growth over the last decade. This new report, by a national business group, comes out as mayors and councillors are about to run for re-election. Less than six weeks before municipal elections, a new report is criticizing B.C.’s cities and towns for jacking up both spending and property taxes by 43 per cent between 2006 and 2016, during a time when the province’s population increased by just 12 per cent. The report, from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, ranks 152 B.C. municipalities on their operational spending, which includes costs such as policing, parks and transportation, but does not include capital expenditures such as infrastructure projects. If spending during that decade had been limited to inflation and factors such as population growth, the federation argues, the average family of four could have avoided paying nearly $8,000 in property taxes — the main source of revenue for municipalities. “Every year has seen spending grow beyond a sustainable rate, which raises the financial burden on British Columbians, including entrepreneurs,” says the report, titled B.C. Municipal Spending Watch: Trends in Operating Spending 2006-2016. The business group analyzed the municipalities’ fiscal performances by using data from federal, provincial and municipal governments, including collective agreements, annual reports, and statistics. The federation gave equal weight to two measures: overall operational spending increases for 2006-2016 (adjusted for inflation) and the 2016 per-resident spending total, which takes into account population growth. It highlighted the 20 biggest cities, where three-quarters of B.C.’s population lives, and found operational spending went up 26 per cent between 2006 and 2016, with an average of $1,537 spent per resident in 2016. It gave the worst marks to Langley Township for accelerating its expenditures by 50 per cent over that decade, although even with the highest pace of growth its per-person output was lower than average, at $1,388. “Each municipality has it’s own unique challenges that will at times increase their spending, and for us it was fire,” said Langley Township Mayor Jack Froese, who is running for re-election. During that decade, he said, Langley went from a paid-call to a full-time fire department, and taxes had to increase to fund that. “For a community that has gone from primarily rural to now rural and urban, we are really seeing challenges in growth that are really affecting how we do our spending,” he said.He added that some cities, such as Langley City, Richmond and Coquitlam, get revenue from casinos, while his does not. The second-worst ranking went to New Westminster, which has increased its operation spending at an average pace (29 per cent) over the decade, but spends the most money per resident of any of the other city: $2,225. New Westminster Mayor Jonathan Coté, who is running for re-election, could not be reached for comment. Other cities that ranked poorly include Abbotsford, Delta and the District of North Vancouver.Top marks went to Port Coquitlam, Maple Ridge and Kelowna, which all had below-average spending increases over the decade, as well as relatively low per-person expenditures in 2016. Port Coquitlam Mayor Greg Moore, who is not running for re-election, said his city consults with residents about where they want money spent, most notably through a budget summary sent to every home, which generates about 1,400 responses a year. The city then uses that feedback to determine less-popular spending areas where savings can be found.“When you are looking at spending in each local government, you have to balance spending with what the priorities are that the community wants. That’s kind of the art of governing,” Moore said. Surrey, which ranked ninth out of the 20 biggest cities, had intriguing statistics: it has increased spending over the decade by 31 per cent, but still has the lowest per-person spending at $1,057. Vancouver ranked 11th. The report found B.C. municipalities spent $7.9 billion in 2016 on operations that include running government, protective services, garbage, social services, transit and recreation. Wages for fire, police and CUPE workers have outpaced inflation, as have salaries for some executive positions, such as chief administrative officers. The document suggests municipalities can save money by sharing resources, leasing out public facilities when not in use, investing in new technologies, and changing inefficient practices. “The broader implications of these results is that population growth does not always necessitate municipal spending growth. Thus, it is clear that municipalities have the capacity to decrease their spending while their population grows and retain service levels,” the report concludes.