Opinion » Editorial

UBCM conference puts politics front and centre



With more than 2,000 attendees at the annual Union of B.C. Municipalities Convention in Whistler this week, it is hardly surprising to overhear snippets of political conversation almost everywhere.

A glance at the resolutions document of the conference gives some idea of the breadth of interests municipalities around B.C. are looking at when it comes to governing.

And while each municipality has its own set of concerns there are several which easily cross borders of interest amongst them.

Take the issue highlighted in Pique last week about ambulance response times in some areas, and the request from local government for the province to investigate the service and change the funding.

In its resolution, the City of Langley states: "The number of first responder or medical emergency service alarm (MESA) calls that the City of Langley responds to represents 78 percent of all calls received by the Langley City Fire Rescue Service (LCFRS)."

As you can imagine that costs the taxpayers of Langley a tidy sum.

Squamish too is looking for relief on this front and put it's own resolution forward on the issue.

Said Kitimat-Stikine Regional District in its resolution: "Whereas the current model for providing ambulance service throughout BC is not working in rural communities, resulting in BC Ambulance Service having numerous out of service shifts in rural communities and patients not being able to receive timely, essential health care;

"And whereas recruiting initiatives in rural communities have produced only short term results due to unsustainable wages paid to call-out attendants:

"Therefore be it resolved that UBCM request that the provincial government recognize BC Ambulance Service as an essential service and establish a new model for rural communities that would ensure full time ambulance coverage and timely access to health care."

Other resolutions are asking for more support on issues such as wildfire prevention and to help stop invasive species.

Both can have huge economic impacts on various industries in B.C. including forestry, farming, fishing and, of course, tourism.

While habitat loss is still the No. 1 threat to the abundance and diversity of nature, invasive species have rapidly become the second-largest issue.

A recent report estimates that invasive species cost more than $30 billion a year — this is a combined estimate of costs to Canadian forests, lakes and agriculture.

A Canadian Food Inspection Agency summary report (2008) found that the economic cost of invasive alien plants to Canadians is enormous, with weeds in crops and pastures alone costing an estimated $2.2 billion annually. Invasive alien plants also damage the environment by changing the diversity, structure, and function of an ecosystem.

(For more on this, read Pique's cover feature this week on page 34.)

So it's no surprise that UBCM delegates are asking the province for help to combat these alien invaders. Near the top of the list is Japanese Knotweed.

This is not the first time the municipalities have called on the government for help, particularly to deal with the menace of invasive species on Crown land.

Other resolutions deal with derelict vessels — being brought forward by Squamish, which is struggling with the issue currently; Multi Material BC — the organization mandated to recycle in B.C., the environmental assessment review process and more.

And, of course, there has been the slamming of the provincial government's record on BC Ferries after the first-ever socioeconomic report on the Crown Corporation was released by the Union of B.C. Municipalities. The Larose Research and Strategy report suggested that there was an 11-per-cent drop, or 31 million fewer people travelling on B.C. Ferries in the past decade because of the higher rates.

The province refuted the findings, of course. But it is an interesting study in the back and forth between levels of government, which always seem to come down to money.

There is no doubt the municipalities want more. And conveniently another just-released report by the Vancouver-based Columbia Institute, Who's Picking Up the Tab — Federal and Provincial Downloads onto Local Governments, concludes local governments shouldered about $4 billion in reduced federal and provincial transfer payments between 1995 and 2008.

But wait — there are always two sides to a story. Last week also saw the leak of a government report by Ernst and Young that found salaries for municipal employees increased by 38 per cent from 2001 to 2012 while government and public-sector salaries rose between 19 per cent and 24 per cent during the same period.

Here at home, total municipal salaries in 2014 — including Employment Insurance, Canada Pensions Plan, health benefits and taxes, and taxable benefits — paid by taxpayers, increased by more than $453,000 from the 2012 report to a total of $25 million.

And in June the sitting council voted to give the next council a pay rise of 4.2 per cent — so from January 2015 councillors will earn $32,772 while the mayor will earn $80,927.

It feels like all levels of government are at the poker table. And with municipal elections around the corner perhaps the taxpayer, who is providing all the chips, needs to make sure local government continues to act responsibly.