Groups pressuring Metro Vancouver politicians to sign pledges or contracts promising to rein in their rising tax rates are so far getting few takers.
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business wants B.C. mayors and councillors to sign a “taxpayer pledge” to hold operating expense growth down to the combined increase in population and inflation, and narrow the gap between property tax rates for businesses and home owners.
But just 14 incumbents running for re-election in November have so far signed the pledge since it was launched in late September.
“We’re seeing a lot of hesitation,” said CFIB director Shachi Kurl, adding some candidates initially said they’d sign but later got cold feet.
“In many cities, they’re not actually facing any strong challengers,” she added.
No Metro mayors have made such a commitment, nor have most incumbent councillors.
Some of those who won’t sign say it’s difficult to predict what financial challenges await future councils and it would be unwise to fetter those decisions.
“Please be serious,” said Surrey Coun. Marvin Hunt, who ridiculed the pledge as “absurd” in light of rising costs forced down to cities by senior governments.
“As long as we have federal and provincial governments willing to make us the bank of last resort we can’t possibly sign that kind of a deal.”
Hunt said overall tax bills across Metro Vancouver are set to rise due to soaring Metro sewer and water rates, which are being driven up by the high costs of more advanced treatment mandated by Ottawa and Victoria.
He said local councils will be blamed even if their city’s property tax rate doesn’t increase.
Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts said she might be able to sign the tax pledge – if it was revised to fairly reflect the impact of federal and provincial government downloading on civic budgets.
“That’s costing us money,” she said. “I’m not opposed to signing something like that, but we need to make sure the downloading is not cost-prohibitive.
“It’s easy to say sign on the dotted line, but let’s look at the bigger picture.”
The CFIB says municipal operating spending soared nearly 58 per cent from 2000 to 2008.
Metro cities also gave unionized workers pay raises totaling 17.5 per cent over five years in a deal that bought labour peace through the 2010 Olympics.
But civic leaders say spending is up largely due to factors beyond their control, ranging from the rising costs of RCMP service to government-mandated rules that cities become carbon-neutral.
Cities also pay millions of dollars to provide fire department-based first responders that Watts said should be provincially funded.
The province also requires Metro cities to be partners in new social housing initiatives, she added.
“The expectation is the city puts in the land, so again that’s millions of dollars required that wasn’t required before,” Watts said.
The Canadian Taxpayers Federation is also pushing candidates to sign a taxpayer “contract” that would force their council to take a 15 per cent pay cut if they raise taxes beyond the rate of inflation without the consent of voters through a referendum.
CTF B.C. director Jordan Bateman said it mirrors the pay cut that awaits provincial government ministers who outspend their budgets.
“We’ve had probably a dozen candidates from across B.C. sign it proactively,” he said, adding a formal push will begin now that last-minute candidates have entered the race.
The CTF’s contract would require councillors to try to pass a local bylaw enshrining the pay-cut penalty.
“Pledges are nice but they’re just pieces of paper,” Bateman said. “What we’re looking for is some council in British Columbia to pass a taxpayer protection bylaw to put these things into place legally. We’ll get behind those guys and make that council famous.”
Bateman said he’s not surprised there’s been little support for the tax-control initiatives so far, adding incumbents will be less motivated to sign than challengers trying to break onto the civic scene.
A former Langley Township councillor, Bateman said he wishes his council had gone to referendum when it switched to full-time firefighters, driving tax rates up.
“Our point is you can raise taxes beyond inflation, but get voters’ permission first,” he said.
Kurl and Bateman said they hope voters pressure candidates to sign the promises at local debates in the weeks ahead.