Deep in the cranial folds of most Canadians, particularly those whose lineage that can be traced back in the direction of John A Macdonald, there is a region where the cerebral blood flows quickly and the neurons snap to attention whenever the word "government" is used in the same sentence as "taxes" or "spending." As characteristically Canadian as being indoors watching hockey playoff games in June is the deep suspicion that governments don't know how to manage money, our money.
And every once in a while an example screams out to prove the rule. All the good work done by a government - and that is not a facetious statement - is undone by an egregious screw up that gets the synapses rapid-firing like an automatic weapon.
Such an example has come to light in the Resort Municipality of Whistler, although it's been overshadowed by the hue and cry over pay parking. The municipality has not been charging some pool owners - in fact, 64 pool owners - for water. This has gone on, in at least one case, for 28 years. It's estimated the municipality has overlooked up to $50,000 in water user fees annually.
That $50,000 is a far cry from the $2 million the municipality expects to collect from pay parking in the day skier lots each year. And the water fees go to water services, rather than general revenue. So while some of the pay parking revenue may be allocated for increased or subsidized bus service, a carrot-and-stick approach producing - at least in theory - a tangible benefit, the water user fees just go back into water services, something we take for granted.
But water user fees went up this year - from $89 to $111 on residential properties, at the same time sewer user fees, the sewer parcel tax and the water parcel tax were increased - and the justification for the increase was that the municipality was undercharging for the water utility; it was not covering its costs. The temptation is to say that if the municipality had been charging everyone for the water they used perhaps the utility would be covering its costs, but we don't really know. Water meters that show actual water use have long been talked about by municipalities but are uncommon. Instead, water rates are based on estimated use.
The real issue is that for up to 28 years the municipality has somehow overlooked water user fees for 64 properties. It lends credence to the deeply Canadian suspicion that government has been less than diligent in managing money and begs the next question: what else has been overlooked?
Some credit is due the current regime at municipal hall for finding this oversight. But the cry for "additional sources of revenue" has been so loud and heard for so many years that the water fee debacle leads one to wonder how closely spending has really been examined. Maybe if we heard more about spending reviews and less about the need for more revenue we'd feel more confident.
Whistler's profligate reputation was furthered by the news last week that Aerial, the dance work commissioned by the Whistler Arts Council for the Olympics, had been scrapped. But only after $110,000 had been spent on the project. Canadian taxpayers are on the hook for $100,000; Whistler taxpayers, through the arts council, spent $10,000.
None of this has generated as much outrage as pay parking. Taking cash out of your pocket for something that previously was "free" is always difficult to accept. And introducing it in the middle of a recession, even if it had been planned for years, guaranteed dissent.
Many points have been raised, including the municipality's failure to communicate prior to implementing pay parking. What is perhaps most troubling is the "us and them" argument that some people have made - that Whistler residents should get a break on parking while tourists should pay full price. It shows that some people don't understand how Whistler works.
But at the heart of all these matters is the Canadian faith - like the faith that a Canadian team will someday win the Stanley Cup - that government doesn't know how to manage our money. The 28-year oversight of water user fees keeps that faith alive.