Once a year municipal politicians in British Columbia get the attention and respect of senior politicians and media, when they gather for their annual Union of B.C. Municipalities convention. And this year they are gathering in Whistler.
Council members from Fort Nelson, Tofino, Cranbrook and everywhere in between are at the UBCM conference, where, among other things, they will discuss and vote on nearly 200 resolutions, from banning plastic shopping bags to buying carbon credits. There are so many resolutions it's quite likely there won't be enough time to vote on all of them.
And here to listen to the local politicians and administrators are members of the provincial legislature, a few Members of Parliament and, most importantly, the deputy ministers and senior bureaucrats who advise the politicians in Victoria and Ottawa.
This morning (Sept. 30) NDP leader Carole James will address the UBCM delegates. Friday it's Premier Gordon Campbell, who in the past has used the UBCM meeting to announce some significant initiatives. The timing of the speeches by the leaders of the two major provincial parties, in the last two days of the convention, and the attention they will receive reflect the nature of the relationship between local governments and Victoria. That is to say, while municipal politicians may feel strength in numbers during the convention, their ability to act is largely defined by the provincial government.
A case in point is policing costs. Many municipalities in B.C., including Whistler, contract the RCMP to provide policing. Those costs have been climbing for a variety of reasons, including growing populations, which require greater manpower and resources. The province is negotiating a new long-term RCMP contract with Ottawa but the municipalities, who pay the majority of RCMP costs, don't have a seat at the negotiating table.
Whistler is at the head of what has become known as the Resort Collaborative, a group of British Columbia municipalities whose economies are largely based on tourism. After years of lobbying, five years ago Whistler finally was granted the "financial tools" it had been seeking. It came in the form of additional hotel tax. That is, the province turned over an additional chunk of the hotel tax it was already collecting. Other members of the Resort Collaborative, such as Sun Peaks, Tofino and Rossland, also receive this tourism-generated funding, now known as the resort transfer tax.
The original resort transfer tax agreement, which produces between $4 million and $6 million annually for Whistler, was for five years. It was always expected that the province would extend the agreement for another five years, but there was no guarantee. Today the province is expected to announce that the agreement will be extended, giving tourism-based municipalities some more resources.
But it's always at the discretion of senior governments. The Canadian system is that federal and provincial governments set and collect most taxes and then distribute funds to lower levels of government as they see fit. Municipalities are limited to setting property tax rates and collecting fees - and many would say thank goodness for that. What would it cost to live in a town like Whistler if local governments were given the right to impose additional taxes?
But it is an assumption that local governments would immediately boost taxes if they had the authority. That assumption is based partly on the fact that local governments and politicians are closer at hand and their decisions often more immediately tangible than are decisions made in Victoria or Ottawa.
There is evidence that local government officials, who have had numerous costs downloaded from Victoria and Ottawa over the years, are more sensitive to taxpayers' limits than are federal or provincial politicians. In a story in the Globe and Mail this week Kitimat Mayor Joanne Monaghan told reporter Frances Bula citizens of her town "...have less in their pockets and we have to think more carefully about the taxes we add. It's a ripple-down effect." Monaghan was speaking specifically about the HST costing taxpayers more, a contention that is open to debate. But her larger point was provincial and federal governments make policies and decisions first and local governments have to react to them.
Perhaps it's time federal and provincial governments gave up a little of their authority to local governments. Al Raine, who is now the mayor of the new Mountain Resort Municipality of Sun Peaks, knows a thing or two about tourism and policies that encourage and discourage it. He produced a report on federal taxation policies and what they were doing to discourage foreign visitors to places like Sun Peaks and Whistler. He couldn't get any traction with it - until he asked his wife to get involved.
Senator Nancy Greene Raine was able to convince federal officials Al's ideas were worth looking at.