December 1, 2016 NPA

Opinion: Vision’s spendthrift ways are making Vancouver more expensive

Okay, everyone, hold on to your party hats. It’s that time of the year again. No, I don’t mean your plans for New Year’s Eve. I mean the City of Vancouver’s annual operating and capital budget.

Yes, that’s right, the most under-reported, least-interesting, pre-Christmas financial juggernaut that has, in fact, become one of the many reasons Vancouver is so unaffordable and, if properly analyzed, would demonstrate clearly that Vision Vancouver and Mayor Gregor Robertson are short-sighted, out-of-control spendthrifts when it comes to managing your tax dollars.

I have voted against every single operating budget since being elected in 2011. People may say, “Well, George, you are just doing what opposition politicians do.” But no, that’s not the case. I understand the importance of social responsibility and the many issues Vancouverites hold dear, including how we might build, with partners, truly affordable housing.

But we can’t bankrupt the city in the process. We need to make balanced decisions.

Let me simply put the math on the table. Don’t be afraid. It won’t hurt (well, it won’t hurt much … bear with me).

This year, we will see one of the highest property tax increases in Vision’s eight-year reign of error: A 3.4-per-cent increase for residents, plus, averaged out, another 1.2 per cent increase in various fees, including water, sewer, and solid waste — the big three. That works out to a total tax increase of 4.6 per cent, more than twice the current rate of inflation.

If you look back a little over 10 years ago to 2005, the city’s Annual Financial Report (the only place you can find anything close to line item budget info from City Hall these days) shows that Vancouver taxpayers handed over a combined total of $622 million to the city in property taxes and related penalties and utility fees. That money paid for roughly 75 per cent of the city’s operating expenses.

Now, jump ahead 10 years to 2015 and look at those same four budget items: property taxes and utility fees (water, sewer and garbage). The total take is $937 million. Nearly a billion dollars to pay for roughly 75 per cent of the city’s operating expenses!

When you compare 2005 to 2015, it works out to a total revenue increase from property taxes and utility fees of $315 million. If you convert the 2005 numbers into today’s dollars, you will discover that it works out to a 30-per-cent increase in tax and fee revenue for the city in just 10 years.

Now, the mayor and Vision might argue that this revenue increase is justified because of population increase. This is patently untrue.

The population of Vancouver has only gone up by 10 per cent in the same 10-year period. This means revenue from property taxes and utility fees has outstripped population growth by a factor of three to one.

Sadly, amid all this talk about affordability — mostly related to the housing market — there is one thing that we as a city council can control: spending. But Vision has clearly not controlled spending and they show no interest in ever doing so.

With taxes and fees increasing 30 per cent over a 10-year period (or three times the rate of population growth), it has indisputably contributed to making Vancouver a far more expensive place to live than ever before.

So, on Dec. 13, when the vote comes down on the budget and I, as usual, vote against it, don’t mark it up to George just being George. No, we need to get our house in order at City Hall. For too long Vision has treated the taxpayers of Vancouver as complacent writers of blank cheques.

We can no longer accept this annual dip into our wallets with blank stares. Money matters. The buck-taking has to stop somewhere. And there is no better time than now, this year, maybe even today.

George Affleck is a Non-Partisan Association Vancouver city councillor.

Published in the Vancouver Sun on December 1, 2016