Tempers flared Tuesday night among audience members as the five candidates representing Kelowna’s first municipal political party in this November’s civic election held their first public meeting.
Prior to the meeting, the group touted its intention, if elected, to introduce a motion calling for no property tax increases in the city for the next four years.
While several people in the audience were clearly opposed to such a plan, one, local activist Diane Varga, was so vocal and critical of the TaxpayersFirst.ca candidates that several in the audience, including some of the candidates themselves, tried to shout her down, sparking a lengthy verbal altercation.
Varga, critical of the candidates both for both the no-tax-increase pledge and for what she said were comments by one of them, former city councillor Carol Gran, that TaxpayersFirst candidates would not appear at upcoming all-candidates meetings because with a large number of people running such meetings would be “useless.”
At the meeting, Gran that was not true, she and her running mates would appear at all- candidates meetings during the campaign if invited to participate.
But as Varga made several lengthy statements that she said were forming questions during a question and answer session with guest speaker Jordan Bateman of the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation, the crowd of approximately 50 people grew restless and some started shouting at her to hurry up and ask a question. When she responded that that she was doing, but continued making her statement, Bateman attempted to answer what he thought was a question in here comments. Varga, clearly upset, accused him of interrupting her and then more members of the audience chimed in accusing her of trying to monopolize the meeting. At one point, Varga told the crowd that a man doing what she was doing would not be treated as she was being treated.
In the end, one of the candidates, another former city councillor Graeme James, diffused the situation telling Varga he and the other candidates would stay at the end of the meeting and answer her questions about their campaign.
Meanwhile, Bateman attempted to make a case for a tax freeze, saying first it’s critical for a municipality to get its labour costs under control. But some in the audience took that to be an anti-union stance, something Bateman denied.
“I’m not against unions,” he told one man. “I’m against unrealistic expectations.”
Borrowing heavily from a recent Ernst and Young study that the city has taken exception to, as well as responding to a recent letter about the report by Mayor Walter Gray sent to local newspapers, Bateman said while provincial spending has increased by 19 per cent over the last 10 years, municipal spending in B.C. has gone up 38 per cent in the same time. He said part of the problem is generous labor contract settlements between municipalities and their unionized workers.
He said later he would recommend a municipality get control of its labour costs before introducing a so-called “zero per cent increase” budget. Gran, however, said her party plans to do it the other way around.
She said she feels no tax increase in the first year of the upcoming four-year council mandate is doable and in that time an audit could be done to show where the “fat” that TaxpayersFirst claims is at city hall is located. The party claims trimming that fat could help pay for the lost taxation revenue.
Gran stressed her party is not going after unionized workers with its plan, rather trying to control costs overall. She said she is more concerned with large salaries paid to top city managers and other city workers than with the salaries paid to lower-level unionized staff.
The most recent public report on city wages showed 300 people at city hall—about 38 per cent of its 840-person workforce—are paid $75,000 or more per year. The top earner is city manager Ron Mattiussi at more than $200,000 and several managers and directors received well over $100,000 last year. The city’s total total budget in excess of $400 million and it took in just over $100 million in property taxes last year.
Gran said she knows her party’s plan is controversial but said it must be done to make the future better for the next generations.
“It’s my generation that made this mess, so we have to clean it up for our children,” she said.
But that did not convince some in the audience. One man, who identified himself as a professional negotiator—a professional Bateman urged the city to hire to hammer out future contracts with its unions instead of using city staff— said council could open itself to lawsuits if its arbitrarily tries to change salaries or working conditions of the employees at city hall. Others questioned where the city would find the money it needs to maintain services and add to them in the future if there was no tax increase.
Gran said her party plans to announce a series of innovative measures over the next month that will show how it can be done. She would not, however, elaborate on what those measures will be.
Gran is running for a councillor position along with James, local realtor Dale Olson, local coffee shop owner and mortgage broker Billie Aaltonen and healthcare worker Michael Gorman.
The five, if elected, would have the numbers to ensure no tax increase would be an instruction to finance department staff only during the next four-year term. Under the rules in B.C. Community Charter, a municipal council today cannot tie the hands of a future council when it comes to its budget.