Dan Fumano: As municipal responsibilities increase, expenses increase

Opinion: BC cities have been trying to sound the alarm about “downloaded” services hurting their bottom line. There is no clear solution.

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The largest municipalities in Metro Vancouver have seen an average increase of 15.2% in spending per person, after inflation, over the past decade, according to a report.

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Few people want to pay higher taxes. But whether it’s always better to tax and spend less is an age-old debate, one that is likely to recur in municipal elections this fall, as different metropolitan municipalities face distinct pressures.

The new Fraser Institute reportwhich looked at municipal spending in Metro Vancouver’s 17 municipalities between 2009 and 2019, does not make subjective assessments of outcomes and which municipalities performed better or worse, but merely presents and compares the numbers .

“It’s a starting point for important conversations about citizens and their municipal governments. Hopefully that’s the basis for a lot of questions,” Fraser Institute analyst Jason Clemens said. “But that certainly doesn’t provide the answers.”

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The report considers both operating budgets (items such as police, fire, garbage) and capital budgets (including infrastructure such as sewers, sidewalks and community centers). He found wide variations between metropolitan municipalities: the top spending city per capita was West Vancouver at $3,267 per person, followed by New Westminster at $2,558 and Vancouver at $2,415. The lowest spend was Surrey at $1,435.

Typically, the largest item in a municipality’s operating budget—often the largest by far—is policing. It is perhaps no coincidence that the top three spenders in this week’s report are all part of the minority of municipalities in Metro Vancouver with their own municipal police services instead of RCMP detachments, which serve the most municipalities in British Columbia.

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Since the Fraser Institute report only goes to 2019, when Surrey was still fully policed ​​by the RCMP, it offers no indication of how the transition to the Surrey Police Service will affect spending per capita. in British Columbia’s second most populous city. . Many other cities in British Columbia that rely on the RCMP are likely watching Surrey’s transition closely.

The Vancouver Police Department faces unique pressures. Although the City of Vancouver is home to only about 25% of the metro area’s 2.8 million people, as a regional hub it has to control a disproportionate number of major protests, big events and other policing challenges. Earlier this month, Victoria Police Chief Dal Manak made a similar point on the challenges facing its force, as a relatively small but central part of the capital region.

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Recent regional crime statistics, Manak said The Victoria Times Settler this month, showing “that a small police service of our size cannot continue as it is without having a regional approach and a regional lens”.

As municipal expenditures in British Columbia have increased over the years, the responsibilities of municipalities have also increased. In a memo late last year, Vancouver’s chief financial officer quantified some of the city’s funds being spent on what is called “downloaded services— areas “traditionally under the mandate of higher governments, which have been explicitly or implicitly transferred to municipal government without adequate funding or sources of revenue.”

This memo estimated that Vancouver was spending nearly $250 million a year on areas of federal and provincial jurisdiction such as child care, homelessness, affordable housing, climate change mitigation, emergencies, mental health and addictions.

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The “download” challenge is not unique to Vancouver. A Union of British Columbia Municipalities report last year sounded the alarm about the download threatening “the financial viability of local governments in British Columbia.”

“In particular, the expansion of services, often the result of the transfer of services by provincial and federal governments, has placed increased pressure on a local government financial system that is already under strain,” the report says.

A recent analysis by CBC reporter Justin McElroy found that nearly 75% of Metro Vancouver’s “emergency shelter and homeless housing” beds are in the City of Vancouver, although the city has only a quarter of the region’s population.

Polls show most people want expanded services from their governments, but most people don’t want to pay for them through higher taxes, said Clemens of the Fraser Institute. “So the easiest thing for the federal government to do is kick the provinces, and the easiest thing for the provinces is to kick the municipalities. And municipalities can’t give it to anyone.

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So what are municipalities to do when they have to deal with some of society’s toughest problems, with less capacity than other levels of government to generate revenue? A discussion in the Vancouver boardroom this year addressed this issue.

In June, as council heard from members of the public about Vancouver’s next four-year capital plan, Stephen Roberts, a candidate for city council this year with TEAM, raised concerns about the size and scope of the budget.

“This new 2023-2026 plan includes new equipment and infrastructure, additional housing and child care, and significant spending on climate action,” Roberts said. “While most of us believe these are laudable initiatives, they are not our core municipal services and are best handled by higher levels of government.”

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After his presentation, Roberts answered questions from several council members. He said the city should consider reducing spending on affordable housing programs because they make the city “less affordable for the average Vancouver resident.”

COPE Council. Jean Swanson asked, “If the federal government and the province refuse to deal with homelessness, do you think we should just let these people suffer?”

Roberts said, “I don’t think we can let the federal government and the provincial government refuse to deal with it.”

Swanson asked, “But how do you get them to do it?”

Roberts replied, “Well, you know perhaps better than I, it sounds like you’re an aspiring provincial politician yourself, with your agenda.”

Municipalities across Canada are wrestling with this question: “How do you get senior governments to do this?”

There was no clear answer that day in council.

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Melissa C. Keyes