While the full social and economic cost of the wretched pandemic to Greater Victoria residents won’t be known for months, we already know it’s profoundly life-changing.
Nearly 5.4 million Canadians are receiving emergency aid to replace incomes lost, businesses will close and life savings will be decimated.
Local politicians better quickly figure out that the public’s business must be done with increased frugality and better focus — it’s the new municipal government paradigm.
The outbreak has shaken our leaders, but sufficiently to consider consolidating the region into five municipalities? Or freezing the salaries indefinitely for the 91 politicians in the region? Or establishing a regional auditor to squeeze out municipal savings? Or ordering a core services review to find savings by immediately expanding shared services as recommended by the provincial report Capital Integrated Services and Governance Initiative?
If precious tax dollars are spent on ping pong and poets, instead of potholes and police, our leaders will face a public backlash. If precious tax dollars are burned on partisan pet projects, they will be dumped.
Just prior to this shockwave, Grumpy Taxpayer$ scanned the community and strategic plans of the 13 municipalities and the Capital Regional District. We looked for mention of reducing cost, of improving service effectiveness or of improving the efficiency of service delivery. We looked for references to low-cost service alternatives and fiscal responsibility, along with any action statements.
There was no mention of any of the above in North Saanich, Central Saanich, Sidney, Metchosin, Colwood, Highlands, Esquimalt, Sooke and Victoria. In the remainder of the jurisdictions, there was scant passing reference.
Our organization has never opposed municipal taxes — it’s the cost of civilization — but we are appalled by the waste and duplication of services as a result of a dysfunctional governance model. We want better value for our tax dollars, which leads to the improved well being of our residents and community.
COVID-19 hit Greater Victoria following a decade of considerable prosperity and unprecedented growth, making the pandemic all the more jarring to our lives and magnifying the need to adapt to a new reality.
Up until now, judging by our review, “frugality and improved focus” have been lacking in many local municipalities and are simply not a dominant part of the conversation.
Municipalities have already started reviewing and chopping budgets this spring, while resisting changes to staffing levels. Local governments cannot run a deficit like higher level of governments.
Take note of the sea change in Saanich— just days before budget deadline — which got little media attention. Out of compassion for taxpayers, council recently approved a core budget for 2020.
Mayor Fred Haynes summed it up: “We will concentrate on continuing our current service levels and we also recognize that expanding our services is not realistic right now. Saanich is committed to protecting our residents, both owners and renters, as well as businesses from financial impacts wherever possible, and that’s why we will limit the property tax increase to only support the basic municipal services.”
The motion reflected a property tax increase of 3.74% instead of 7.2% after a lengthy debate (NOTE: On Apr. 20 it changed again to 2.64 per cent). “Accelerated climate action” and “active transportation” plans were eliminated, and little was earmarked for updating infrastructure.
The City of Victoria went further and brought in a 0% increase after deferring capital projects and reducing the amount of money it puts in reserves.
COVID-19 has turned our lives upside down, resulting in far more limited financial resources to run local government. There’s diminished ability to pay property taxes and opportunity for business to collect them from customers that are self-isolated. Revenue from parking, permit and service fees will decrease.
Remember, prior to the pandemic, many residents were already trying to cope with record-high personal debt, sharply escalating condo-insurance fees, high rent, crippling auto-insurance costs, and other financial pressures.
Despite calls to the contrary from starry-eyed, utopian academics ensconced in ivory towers, there are practical limits to what municipal governments can do. Local government can’t provide every service for everybody, in and outside its jurisdictional mandate, all the time and at any cost to the taxpayer. There are limits.
Until society heals, tough choices and decisions will need to be made on municipal budgets to provide the best essential, core services possible.
Local government will be transformed by this crisis, and after normalcy, there will be silver linings eventually. If local government is more frugal and better focused, we can stretch the use of those tax dollars to improve the well-being of all for years.