City Hall defends spending habits

Kelowna earned the dubious distinction of being one of this province’s biggest municipal spenders.

Kelowna earned the dubious distinction of being one of the province’s biggest municipal spenders in a Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses report released this week.

But those closest to the city’s books point out there’s more to the new rank than meets the eye.

Keith Grayston, the city’s director of finances, says the report that places Kelowna as the fourth worst spender in the province’s largest cities, doesn’t accurately reflect the demands on a municipal government.

“We’re always looking for opportunities to be more efficient or do things better, and in a lot of cases we run things similar to the way a business would,” said Grayston.

“But the difference is our social obligation and the requirement to provide services the private sector will not. A business would never run a pool, because there’s no profit to be had, but that’s something people expect from a municipal government.”

The federation relied on a simplistic formula that pits the rate of population growth, which was 22 per cent, against the growth of real operating spending.

In Kelowna’s case, real operating spending increased 76 per cent from 2000 to 2009, and that means per capita this city’s costs have increased by 45 per cent since the start of the decade.

“A number of things, have changed in the last 10 years, in terms of service levels,” said Grayston.

“Our transit system has increased the number of service hours quite substantially over the last 10 years, so any time we have an increase in service levels it will cause a cost increase beyond the factors they consider.”

This decade also brought new responsibilities to municipalities, which now have to foot the bill for a larger portion of affordable housing, social housing, police, not to mention new environmental regulations.

“When all tax payers sign on to reducing greenhouse gases, there’s costs associated with that,” he said.

“There are demands from all areas, but whenever we’ve done the citizen surveys we ask, ‘Would you like to reduce service levels to reduce tax levels?’”

To that, the response is always a resounding “no.”

“These reports are frustrating,” said Grayston, noting the city does everything it can to make its finances transparent.

“But this is one group putting their opinion forward, and we welcome the dialogue, just wish it wasn’t presented in the manner or mood it was.”

For its part, the federation said the report card shouldn’t be viewed as a personal attack.

It’s just a “neutral robotic stat-based measure of what’s happening,” Shachi Kurl, CFIB director of provincial affairs for B.C. and Yukon.

“Communities that rank well cheer this report, and communities who don’t, poo-poo the report,” said Kurl.

Regardless of their reaction, however, it is one way to hold communities accountable and get the tax payer thinking about what the federation believes to be are key questions before they head to the polls.

“They need to ask, ‘Am I getting 45 per cent more in services? Is my mayor and council keeping an eye on the bottom line, and am I satisfied?’ If the answers are ‘yes,’ and there are good explanations, then fine. It’s really just another look at what is really going on.”

The CFIB report also recommends municipalities support the creation of an independent municipal auditor-general.

Kurl said if there isn’t some sort of oversight, the tax payer only hears one voice, and that’s city representatives who sing their own praises.