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Editorial: UBCM looks out of touch

The Union of B.C. Municipalities seems determined to prove its critics right. The organization’s convention, which closed last weekend in Victoria, was a bonfire of the vanities.

The Union of B.C. Municipalities seems determined to prove its critics right. The organization’s convention, which closed last weekend in Victoria, was a bonfire of the vanities.

On the one hand, the province’s mayors are calling for a greater share of provincial revenues. This is a recurring theme of municipalities across the country, and it does indeed have a legitimate basis.

Federal and provincial cost-sharing has declined over the years, leaving cities to bear a growing burden in areas such as transit and low-income housing. There has also been off-loading by senior levels of government in areas including mental-health and addiction support. So yes, there is a case to be made for a more equitable distribution of resources.

Yet on the other hand, a majority of convention attendees supported a motion to divest themselves of fossil-fuel investments. As the Municipal Finance Authority pointed out, this can only lead to weaker revenues.

Local governments in B.C. are required to invest in fixed-income securities such as corporate and public-sector bonds. But the authority could find no instance, anywhere in the world, of municipalities purging energy bonds from their portfolios.

A majority of delegates also called for a complete ban on old-growth logging across Vancouver Island. Here, too, it seems they found no inconsistency in asking for more money while backing measures that will depress the province’s economy.

This air of detachment came to a peak when compensation policies were raised. Two years ago, the provincial government commissioned Ernst & Young to conduct a comparative study of wage and benefit packages.

The study showed that between 2001 and 2012, municipal salaries increased twice as fast as provincial-government wages and far ahead of inflation. The province’s community minister, Peter Fassbender, noted this fact at the meeting, and offered to help municipalities adopt a more disciplined approach.

Without question, this was classic bait-and-switch politics. Fassbender’s transparent objective was to deflect complaints about inadequate provincial funding.

Nevertheless, uncontrolled salary growth is a legitimate concern, particularly if you mean to plead poverty. No doubt being scolded by the province irked mayors. Yet they have a duty to their taxpayers to give this issue their attention.

Instead of promising action, delegates took shelter behind a study of their own that suggested salary differentials were trivial. That was little more than game-playing.

To create those findings, the study took the early 1980s as a start point, when inflation and wage increases were in the double digits. But going back that far obscures the contemporary reality. In recent years, local governments have not held the line on wages.

There was one point of agreement. David Screech, mayor of View Royal, and Esquimalt’s Mayor Barb Desjardins both asked Fassbender’s help in managing police and fire salaries.

Under provincial legislation, the wages of essential employees automatically go to arbitration if agreement can’t be reached through bargaining. Since arbitration awards frequently exceed negotiated raises, incomes in these two areas have substantially exceeded the pattern for other municipal employees. If Fassbender is serious about addressing local-government salary levels, here would be a good place to start.

The convention also made a useful contribution to the growing debate about Internet-based companies such as Uber and Airbnb. Proponents see these new service providers as the way of the future.

Yet there are serious questions about the impact on established taxi companies and hotels. Delegates wisely pushed for a closer examination of the pros and cons.

Still, the basic challenge remains. If local governments want to be taken more seriously, sloganeering and spin-doctoring are not the way to get there.

Let’s hope next year’s convention has a firmer grounding in reality.

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