Last week’s Union of B.C. Municipalities convention in Penticton didn’t produce any headline-grabbing pronouncements or radically new ideas, but the growing frustration of municipalities and the important role this "junior" level of government plays is starting to be recognized.
There have been some minor changes to the Municipal Act this year through Bill 31, which now gives municipalities the ability to make their own agreements with respect to activities, works and services; acquiring, managing and disposing of land; and granting financial aid — things municipalities should have been able to do on their own for years. More importantly, Bill 31 is part of a multi-year commitment by the province to update the whole Municipal Act.
But there were tangible signs coming out of Penticton that the municipalities are fed up with a provincial government that has cut transfer payments, passed on additional costs and generally bungled the economy at the same time it expects local governments to do more with less.
The UBCM and the Council of Forest Industries announced an alliance in Penticton. The memorandum of understanding signed "recognizes that economic activity in the forest sector enables communities to grow and diversify." What was left unsaid was that the province hasn’t been paying enough attention to the forest industry and rural communities dependent on the industry.
At the heart of the municipalities’ frustrations is the inability, through lack of authority, to generate additional revenues as costs are being passed on to them. New UBCM President John Ranta said in a release: "Right now the province generates revenue on property transfer taxes. We certainly are involved in land use planning issues and maybe local government should be getting a portion or all of the tax generated through the sales of property."
That’s one of the ideas Whistler council members brought back from their trip through Colorado and Idaho resorts at this time last year. But with the provincial government currently scrambling for every spare penny it can find it’s unlikely Victoria will be quick to give up revenue it receives through the property transfer tax.
Municipal Affairs Minister Jenny Kwan wouldn’t even commit to maintaining present transfer payments, saying only that the budget was being discussed by cabinet. Meanwhile municipalities are organizing their provisional 1999 budgets.
Still, the provincial government may have recently set a precedent for increasing the power of local governments. Municipalities and their lawyers across the province are studying the text of the Nisga’a treaty to see exactly what authority that First Nation has been given and whether there is a case for doing the same for municipalities.