Municipal Spending a Concern

I read with interest on November 6, 2009 the Times-Colonist article by reporter Bill Cleverley that suggests that municipalities spend too much, based on a recent study released by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. Based on data collected between 2000 and 2007, North Saanich's "fiscal sustainability gap" was quoted at 2.98.

Results for other CRD municipalities varied between a low of 1.71 to a high of 8.62. Questions were raised in the article by some local Mayors about the validity and context of the data, given consistent provincial downloading to municipal governments during the past 8 or 9 years. It was argued that downloading programs and services negatively impacts local government's ability to meet and sustain demands, such as increased police services. Another factor is salaries paid to municipal staff that apparently average 35% higher than the private sector.

Financial issues and municipal spending are ongoing concerns of mine, especially for a municipality the size of North Saanich. Large infrastructure projects such as the new sewer system for Deep Cove/Pat Bay and McDonald Park Road was about a $15M bill that frankly should not have been imposed on taxpayers at a time when construction costs were at their highest and the real estate boom was at its peak. This capital cost, however, was just half of the equation; the cost of maintaining this infrastructure is the other half, borne by all North Saanich taxpayers.

The unexpected increase to the Panorama pool expansion was another major impact on North Saanich taxpayers that will be reflected in next year's tax bill. At $12M, up from approximately $5.7M as cited in the 2005 North Saanich pool expansion referendum, it seems to me project management and planning for the pool had challenges related to spending control. Many North Saanich taxpayers I talked to have been concerned about this and again, capital cost is one thing but ongoing maintenance and operation are others. I also understand that staffing at Panorama has increased by about 50% as a result of opening the new pool and it is argued that a larger more complex facility needs more staff to run it. Having said that, many see the pool expansion as a community asset that will benefit social and recreational needs over time.

But at a time when the economy is still fragile and private and public sectors continue to make significant cuts, it's my view that adding staff in any organization can be a difficult decision to sell to taxpayers who have to foot the bills.

In my opinion, these are just two examples that demonstrate local government's fundamental responsibility to carefully manage or scale back big projects that may not be fully sustainable or affordable over time. Sustainable spending is one of the reasons why I supported the current North Saanich Council when it moved to cap at 5% this year's municipal tax increase. Further, I believe that this Council is taking a prudent approach to any new spending, asking staff to ensure, on behalf of North Saanich taxpayers, that whatever we do spend we can afford to sustain.

It was argued during the last municipal election that a cautious approach might mean that North Saanich would be "shut down," with comments such as "No Saanich" making the rounds. But in reality, I believe that North Saanich residents and taxpayers opted for a new Mayor and Council majority they believe will check spending, bring greater fiscal accountability to financial management and make sure that taxpayers are respected. The saying that best fits this Mayor and Council majority's approach may be simply "Ask North Saanich Taxpayers Before We Spend."