Jeff NAGEL and Kevin MILLS
B.C. mayors are demanding a new deal with senior governments to address the growing financial squeeze on their cities, but they deny they have their hands out for any new streams of cash.
Instead, they emerged last week from the first B.C. Mayors Caucus in Penticton with a list of priorities they want addressed, from recognition of the rising pressure on cities to provide more service – often due to government downloading – to the need for more consistent and predictable long-term delivery of federal and provincial grants.
“We’re not asking for new money,” Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts said. “We’re saying let’s use existing resources more efficiently and effectively.”
That may mean persuading the province or federal government to allocate more of what they collect in taxes to the cities, preferably through long-term agreements.
Too often, Watts said, cities have stepped up to cover off services that have been downloaded by Ottawa or Victoria without receiving any contributions.
Social service delivery is a particular mess, she said, adding there’s some duplication in what’s provided by both cities and senior governments, and service gaps in other areas.
Abbotsford Mayor Bruce Banman called the inaugural meeting “incredibly productive” and believes municipalities should continue to work on strategies to deal with the extra downloads from higher levels of government.
He said there are many examples.
“The feds gave us the airport, but not a lot of money to run it,” said Banman.
Other examples he noted include South Fraser Way being turned into a municipal governance, rather than a provincial one, 80 per cent of Abbotsford Fire Rescue calls are for medical reasons, which he said should be a provincial responsibility, and the city also deals with social housing needs.
“So there are many, many, many examples where they subtly and quietly download costs to the municipal government.”
The manifesto released by 86 mayors does include some references to better funding for these kind of services.
It says government downloading of services must be accompanied by a sustainable revenue source.
It also demands B.C.’s new Auditor General for Local Government probe not just the value for money in city budgets but also examine the question of government downloading.
“We’re saying that’s fine, fly at it,” Watts said of the municipal auditor, which many cities opposed last year.
“But you need to expand the mandate and look at the impact that downloading has had on municipal budgets.”
Watts said illogical government rules like inflexible requirements that projects include a green component – resulting in bike lanes sometimes being created in the north regardless of need – can waste money.
Also sought is an ongoing round table with the premier to discuss policy changes affecting cities, as well as another one that also includes federal representatives to discuss the need to replace aging civic infrastructure.
It’s not the first forum where cities have sought change – calls for a new deal have been a recurring feature of civic gatherings for years.