Pay freezes, tax hikes and social housing top cities agenda this week

Post by Daniel Fontaine in

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A summary of the week that was in Canadian cities

This is the time year that always heralds the great debate regarding whether our civic politicians should receive their annual pay increase. During an economic recession, the issue of pay raises can be even thornier than normal.

In Calgary, the topic boiled over when Alberta MLAs decided to refuse their annual cost of living increase as a symbolic gesture to the people of the province. They were previously scheduled to receive a pay hike of 4.5%.

Calgary Councillor Al Chabot thinks he has captured a real political winner by demanding his colleagues forgo their pay raises this year.  If he's successful, they would only get a 2.75% annual cost of living increase. Here is what he told the Calgary Sun.

"This is an opportunity to say to the public, 'We understand the pain you're feeling and we're willing to share that.'"

Despite facing a massive 8.29% property tax increase in Vancouver this year, there has been no move by local politicians to cap salaries for local politicians. However, don't be surprised if lone NPA councillor Anton sees the political benefits in raising this issue in the coming weeks. If she does, it will be interesting to see if the debate over pay increases will be as raucous as it has been for other cities. 

Speaking of Vancouver, this week the Province of BC invested a whack of dough to help eliminate homelessness by securing 600 new units of supportive housing. Mayor Robertson simply couldn't take the grin off his face as both Premier Campbell and Housing Minister Rich Coleman made the announcement.

The good thing is the Province is purchasing over 300 units in Vancouver's notorious Downtown Eastside, Canada poorest postal code.  This is in addition to the 11 hotels the Province purchased back in 2007 which provided for an additional 1000 units.

Here's what Premier Campbell had to say about the latest investment:

“An acquisition of this size and scope is a major step forward in protecting and expanding our supply of social housing and helping to break the cycle of homelessness in communities across the province.”

In Calgary meanwhile, the cost of living in the city is about to get a lot more expensive thanks to Council's 2009 budget. In addition to a 5.3% property tax increase, there will be a raft of new user fees and rate increases this year. For residential and business owners, this has the serious potential of offsetting all the tax benefits recently announced in the federal budget.

According to the Calgary Sun, "everything from bus passes and utility rates to green fees and burial plots have soared this year, which will see average residents forced to pay hundreds more for city services than they did a year ago as the city tries to keep up with growing demands."

France Atkins, a University of Calgary economist was very critical of Calgary's approach.

"They appear to be living in a bubble -- I can't believe the things they're doing, raising taxes all over the place in the face of a perceived recession...The mayor seems to have an insatiable appetite for revenue no matter what's going on."

The City's budget passed, despite a number of alderman who voted against it. "In my view we've reached the tipping point where the cumulative impact on taxpayers is very significant and it's even more significant when we're in a recession," says Ald. Diane Colley-Urquhart.

In Winnipeg, Mayor Katz told his citizens last week that he wants to hold the line on new property taxes this year. This would be the 12th year in a row taxes have been frozen. Perhaps that's one of the few side benefits of having such long and cold winters?

He also plans to appoint a new chief performance officer as well as significantly expand the role of the city's auditor. Winnipeg's business community are applauding the Mayor for holding the line on new tax increases.

In an interview with the CBC, Katz said:

"Don't expect to be having this conversation with me in 10 years, and announcing, you know, the 23rd year we're freezing property taxes. It cannot continue forever. But, I believe, I do genuinely believe, we can make it happen this year, and I'm committed to it,"

While on the subject of city budgets, the Vancouver Sun placed a shot across the bow to Vancouver City Council when it said tax increases of 8.29% during an economic recession are unacceptable. Hiring freeze anyone?

In Toronto this week, there was a lot of 'big-picture thinking" as a group called ChangeCamp dropped into town to help bureaucrats and local politicians rethink their city government. Word has it they will be in Vancouver soon to work their magic on Mayor Robertson and company. 

A story in the Globe and Mail outlined some of the discussions that took place which included providing citizens with up-to-the-minute information on where their transit bus was at any given time. They participated in what they are calling an "un-conference". Here's an excerpt from the Globe article:

So it was that, last weekend, Ryan Merkley, a senior adviser to Mayor David Miller, was working an easel in the basement of the MaRS building at College and University. Attendees of an un-conference called ChangeCamp — a collection of programmers, activists, politicians and media types — were shouting out suggestions for what municipal information they'd like to see the city put online.

Garbage-collection statistics! Voting records! Parking-meter revenues! Parks and rec updates! Ms. Surman — whose CSI helped stage the event — sat on the floor near the front, knitting, and calling out suggestions.

Chairless meetings and making your own clothes might be the order of the day as city budgets get increasingly tight.

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