Not many politicians win by campaigning to raise taxes.
Oak Bay’s new mayor, Kevin Murdoch, did just that, in a municipality that has already earned a reputation for higher-than-average property taxes.
Not only did he win, Murdoch crushed it, out-polling incumbent Mayor Nils Jensen by more than two to one, with 5,042 votes compared with Jensen’s 2,138.
“It was a little humbling,” said the 48-year-old Murdoch, an engineering IT specialist and a two-term Oak Bay councillor. “But now there’s an expectation of me. I’ve got to do some stuff.”
Much of that “stuff” will be getting a start on repairing and rebuilding the district’s sidewalks, roads and sewers — which Murdoch says are falling apart after years of neglect.
“We have to spend more money on our roads and our sidewalks. That’s just a reality,” he said.
Murdoch, who for months has been putting in many hours meeting with more than 500 residents in small coffee groups, said tax increases are needed to do that, and most residents understand that. Their feedback helped inform his platform.
“People in Oak Bay really love our community. They feel a sense of ownership of it,” he said.
“Frankly, people understood that the cost of this maintenance is so much lower than replacement that this is smart financial management more than everything else.
“Yes, we have to pay more in taxes, but it’s pay 10 per cent more now or 50 per cent more later.”
It’s not as if the municipality has been a tax haven for property owners. The average property tax bill in Oak Bay is $6,015 — more than 155 per cent of the Victoria average. And over the past seven years, Oak Bay’s taxes have increased 35 per cent and water bills have risen about 80 per cent.
The deferred infrastructure maintenance deficit is “well over $200 million for the pipes alone,” Murdoch said.
“But there’s no single bullet of how we do it. You change the culture of how we fund it so that there’s certainty and you prioritize the projects and then scale projects so you get the maximum bang for the bucks,” he said, noting that property taxes will have to increase four to five per cent just to cover needed work on roads and sidewalks.
Every decision, he said, has to be looked at “in the context of how do we get the maximum benefit of those dollars spent.”
Those who have worked with him have little doubt Murdoch will succeed.
“[He’s got a] tech background. He’s very disciplined, very organized, knows the subjects inside out,” said former mayor Christopher Causton, who acted as Murdoch’s financial agent during the mayoral campaign.
“Kevin can’t wait to get to work,” said Causton, adding that at the same time, he’s got his priorities straight.
“I was impressed that he’s a family guy. Even on election day I think he was out coaching his son. I think he was coaching soccer,” Causton said.
Retiring Victoria Coun. Chris Coleman, who worked with Murdoch on the Greater Victoria Labour Relations Association, agrees.
Coleman describes Oak Bay’s incoming mayor as “thoughtful and with an engaging sense of humour.”
“He seems to be a consensus builder,” Coleman said. “So I think he will be an interesting person to watch.”
Consensus seems likely. The mayor-elect jokingly says “it’s a bit of a curse” that he always sees all sides of every issue.
“And, I don’t see the mayor’s job as being right. I see the job as one of trying to bring out the best of all of the council and the staff so that we’re all being effective at our jobs and enjoying our jobs.”
Murdoch’s ties to Oak Bay run deep. His grandfather, George Murdoch, served as Oak Bay councillor and reeve from 1946 to 1963, and he notes on his website that his two young children, Harper, eight, and Everest, 11, are the family’s fourth generation to be raised in Oak Bay.
A triathlete, until he blew out a knee, Murdoch said he still enjoys cycling and golf. He coaches soccer and is an avid reader, having just finished Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow and a biography of Abraham Lincoln.
He and his wife, Dr. Elizabeth Swiggum, a cardiologist at Royal Jubilee Hospital, and family live in a 1912 heritage house that they renovated beginning about 11 years ago.
That project, finished about two years ago, began in much the same way the new council will have to approach the district.
“It was a beautiful 1912 house that had a leaking basement,” Murdoch said.
They hired an architect to develop a sympathetic design that would accommodate future family needs and then did the foundation work, pre-plumbing pipes where they knew they were going to need them in the future.
“We’re kind of in that stage right now with [Oak Bay] having to do all that foundational work. We’ve got to do it because you can’t build on top of it unless it’s structurally sound,” Murdoch said.