Supersize the entire region

Monday, October 31st, 2005

With nearly two dozen municipalities and districts, the Lower Mainland is run by a hodgepodge of governing bodies. Could they do better by banding together?

Don Cayo

The cost of civic government in the two North Vans — the city and the district — appears, according to a study released last week, to be way out of line.

The study, commissioned by the North Shore Industrial Waterfront Association, compared the North Shore‘s per capita cost of municipal government with Delta and Coquitlam, which are roughly the size of the two North Vans combined. The difference was substantial — as much as 28 per cent.

That led the authors of the report to ask the obvious question — a good one any time, but never better than when a civic election campaign is underway. How much could be saved if some North Van services were merged and delivered jointly for greater efficiency?

A variation of that question could be — and I think should be — asked by voters in every municipality in the Lower Mainland, a region with nearly two dozen cities, districts and villages crowded cheek by jowl.

The problem is that no one has stepped up to the plate like the North Shore Industrial Waterfront Association to sift and compile the information that’s needed to jump-start an informed discussion of the question.

The North Shore study, wisely I think, is not married to the idea that the two municipalities in question should or should not amalgamate — although the data would help inform an intelligent discussion of that possibility. Nor should amalgamation per se be at the heart of a broader study.

Even though I froth at the unaccountability of regional bodies like the GVRD and TransLink, and I like even less the idea of formalizing a fourth level of government, a proposal to amalgamate the whole of the Lower Mainland would be a tough sell with me. I believe our communities are simply too different and the priorities of the suburbs and the urban core would be too much at odds for a single municipal government to effectively represent all interests.

But the idea broached by the study of adjacent municipalities offering joint services when it makes financial sense to do so? That’s a whole other story.

So, for that matter, is the possibility of selective amalgamations of like-minded communities — two or three that might find it mutually beneficial to meld together on the North Shore, or south of the Fraser, or in between. Whether or not these make sense, and what the new boundaries should be, is hard to say without much more information — without, for one thing, the kind of basic spending data that’s in the North Shore report.

Yet even a cursory analysis of civic expenditures and populations shows there’s often a big difference in the per capita cost of municipal government as soon as you step across a municipal boundary.

Our library staff did some simple math for me — dividing population numbers from census data into spending totals that were obtained from the provincial Ministry of Community Services. The per capita costs for the two North Vans turned out to be a little lower by our calculation than in the sophisticated analysis of the study, which arrived at its conclusions by analyzing and combining three dozen different spending categories. I don’t dispute their figures, but I’m using our simpler ones for the sake of consistency because we calculated figures for the other municipalities in exactly the same way.

The upshot is that our figures show the cost of government in the North Vans to be $1,088 per resident in the city and $996 in the district. That compares to a regional average of $984.

But that average is arrived at by adding up numbers that range from just $577 in Pitt Meadows to a whopping $1,550 in West Vancouver. That’s a huge difference.

Of course, it’s not fair to treat those simple numbers as absolutes and conclude that Pitt Meadows is roughly three times more efficiently run than West Van. There are a lot of variables that have to be considered.

The North Van study breaks it down into not only per capita expenditure, but also the cost per adult resident and the cost per household. That’s because the proportion of adults to population and the number of people per household can vary widely between family-friendly suburbs and the more dense urban areas that are more attractive to singles and childless couples.

Valid questions also stem from geography. Is a place hard to service, like steep, rocky West Van, or easy, like flat Delta? Are most homes tightly packed together or spaced widely?

And what about service levels? How good is maintenance? How richly endowed is the community with public amenities such as street lights, parks, playgrounds and community centres?

All of these things are the stuff of conversations that voters ought to be having with the people who are running for municipal office. Do we think that we, compared with our neighbours in the cities next door, get enough value for the money our council spends on our behalf? And do we, as individual voters, think that our council is spending our money on the right things?

It’s unfortunate that North Van city Mayor Barbara Sharp didn’t seem to see it that way when the study was released last week.

She responded with a highly selective and not very relevant defence of the city’s property tax rate. Or, at least, of its residential property tax rate, which she described as the second-lowest in the region. But she very noticeably did not address the city’s sky-high rates for businesses and industries, which are four to 11 times higher than what homeowners pay.

Since only residents vote, not businesses, Sharp’s response might be politically smart. But it’s not good policy to let business tax rates reach the point where they start to chase expansions and start-ups — in other words, new jobs — into some more moderately priced municipality.

The North Vans are at that point. They’re now in the same undesirable ballpark as Vancouver, Coquitlam and Burnaby, all of which have steadily worsening business tax rates that are four to six times higher than their residential rates, and industrial rates that are much higher still.

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