Civic ‘overspending’ slammed by business lobby

We buy what our citizens want, one mayor responds

Most B.C. cities are ramping up their spending far faster than is affordable, warns the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

The business lobby group’s third annual Municipal Spending Watch report found expenditures of B.C. cities rose twice as fast as the combined rate of inflation and population growth from 2000 to 2008.

“They are addicted to overspending,” CFIB vice-president Laura Jones said, noting spending rose 58 per cent over those years, compared to a 29 per cent rise in inflation and population.

The CFIB, which has repeatedly called for municipal budget restraint, says civic spending should be capped at the combined rate of population and inflation growth.

Had that been done in in 2000, the study says, the typical B.C. family of four would have had an extra $904 to spend in 2008 alone.

Cities on average spent 9.7 per cent more on operating costs in 2008 than in 2007, while population and inflation rose a combined four per cent.

Jones said civic leaders are masters at making controversial spending cuts to “perpetuate the myth that they are hard done by” while neglecting to tackle other costs.

“It’s grossly unfair to taxpayers who suffer tax and fee increases that outstrip their pay increases.”

The report lists Prince George as the worst offender among large B.C. cities, with 2000-2008 spending climbing almost four times faster than inflation and population.

In the Lower Mainland, spending rose more than three times faster in North Vancouver District (3.41) and West Vancouver (3.19); and two to three times faster in Pitt Meadows (2.8) North Vancouver City (2.76), White Rock (2.58), Maple Ridge (2.38), Delta (2.36), Chilliwack (2.34), Langley Township (2.33), Coquitlam (2.26), Langley City (2.14) and Port Coquitlam (2.12).

Spending also outstripped population and inflation growth in Vancouver (1.92 times), Surrey (1.90), Richmond (1.83), Burnaby (1.67), Mission (1.64), Port Moody (1.38) and New Westminster (1.15).

The business group says programs and services will ultimately be at risk and it also wants a municipal Auditor-General created to oversee cities.

Pitt Meadows Mayor Don MacLean said the CFIB is out of step with what most citizens want and are willing to pay for.

“We buy what our constituents want us to buy,” MacLean said. “If our people want a new indoor swimming pool, we buy it for them.”

If most citizens shared the business lobby’s view, he said, city councils would respond accordingly.

“I’m a businessman,” added MacLean, who runs an insurance office. “Because their position is so stridently one-sided, I quit the CFIB three or four years ago. They’re not looking at the big picture.”

Municipal leaders also contend unionized labour costs are difficult to control and there’s less fat to cut from local government than business critics believe.

Cities in Metro Vancouver are bracing for a worsening cost squeeze in the years ahead.

They say major utility expenses they say are being forced upon them by federal or provincial policies – including water and sewage treatment mega-projects estimated to cost billions of dollars.

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