Editorial 

Message is clear: give local governments more authority

There was a strange convergence of forces affecting municipalities last week, in Victoria, where the Liberals outlined cuts in provincial services, in Vancouver, where the mayors of five of the largest cities in the country met, and in Ontario, where a report on the Walkerton tragedy was released.

In Vancouver, the mayors of Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver got together, along with legendary urban planner Jane Jacobs, to discuss new ways of running cities. Among their ideas was the creation of a new order of government for cities that would detail the services cities alone would provide and would reduce municipal governments’ reliance on provincial and federal governments for funding.

"We’re saying cities should govern themselves the way provinces do, and like 40 U.S. cities with home rule do, and like European cities do," Winnipeg Mayor Glen Murray told the Vancouver Sun .

But to do that municipal governments require new sources of revenue. Property taxes usually account for more than 50 per cent of any Canadian municipality’s revenues. In Whistler’s case, property taxes are expected to account for 67 per cent of general fund revenues in 2002. A further 23 per cent will come from fees and charges, and 7 per cent of general fund revenues is expected to come from interest on investments.

If cities and municipalities were allowed other means of taxation they would not be as reliant on grants from the senior levels of government, and services and programs could be operated more efficiently, the mayors argued.

The mayors appear to have allies in Victoria in the form of the Liberal government. The provincial Liberals have been touting their community charter since 1995. One of the fundamental tenants of the charter is that it will provide individual municipal governments the flexibility to develop their own taxes. "…we added another series of tools for local governments to be in control of their destiny," West Vancouver-Garibaldi MLA Ted Nebbeling said last March. "No more cap-in-hand to Victoria." In Whistler’s case the community charter would likely allow for some sort of tax on tourists.

However, the Liberals’ community charter is still some ways away. A white paper is expected next month but the charter is not likely to become law before next fall’s sitting of the legislature. That would leave municipalities, who have to have their budgets in draft form by December each year, little time to incorporate the new tools into their 2003 budgets.

Meanwhile, the cuts announced in Victoria last week also mean the downloading of additional responsibilities – and costs – on local governments. "We’re seeing a shifting of accountability from the provincial government down to the regional level," University of Victoria professor Norman Ruff said.

Actually, we’ve been seeing it for several years. But now making sure bars and pubs are upholding provincial laws will also become the responsibility of local governments. The Forest Ministry and the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection will have fewer field staff to monitor who is doing what to the natural environment.

In Whistler’s case this may not be all bad. The municipality has in the past asked for permission to manage the local forests and been turned down. Whistler bylaw and RCMP officers and municipal staff have been actively involved with bars and night clubs for some time. And Whistler has budgeted to hire a deputy conservation officer this year to help with bear management. Whistler would welcome some new responsibilities from the province, it seems, but the municipality would also like the financial tools to do the job properly.

In the midst of this debate over government responsibilities the Walkerton report emerged. It is, among other things, a searing indictment of governments and government departments not taking responsibility for one of our fundamental needs.

The Walkerton report raises the basic question: Who’s making sure our water is safe to drink? The answer is as scary as it is confusing. In B.C., ministries such as Forestry, Energy and Mines, Sustainable Resource Development and Water, Land and Air Protection all may have some overlapping responsibility for or impact on a town’s water supply, but their work is not well co-ordinated.

Some people’s response to the Walkerton report is to urge the federal government to lean on municipalities and make sure they look after their drinking water. But the federal and provincial governments haven’t given municipalities the financial tools to make sure their drinking water is safe. Most municipalities are reliant on federal and/or provincial governments for grants to build and upgrade their water systems, and those grants are made when senior governments can afford them, not necessarily when they are needed.

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