The most predictable response to Vancouver council’s decision to raise property taxes seven per cent next year (nearly eight per cent if utilities are included) is visceral infuriation. After all, how many of us will experience that growth in income, that leapfrogging over inflation, or that easy access to revenue to slake our thirst for spending?
Then there is the typically Canadian, sorry-to-quarrel, happy-to-be-relieved-of-a-worse-fate response. Fine with the toes being amputated because we still have our fingers. This is the reaction our council would like us to experience and seems eager to trot out: yes, it could have been 8.3 per cent (9.2 per cent with utilities), but we went to the mat to bring it down, down, down on behalf of you, the taxpayers. Happy holidays.
Along the way amid the justification for the triple-inflation-rate whammy has come the explanation that the city needs to compensate for its languid approach to, say, the climate emergency — even though the mantra of the city for a decade has been to boast an ambition and bestow the funds to be the world’s greenest. Was that just fake news?
And, naturally, when someone like Coun. Pete Fry says it’s clear our infrastructure needs an upgrade, we could just as easily say it would have been clear to any would-be councillor that said infrastructure was in disrepair in, oh, September 2018, during the heat of the last election campaign. Funny, can’t recall any of them campaigning to spend a lot of money to meet said need.
But no, infuriation and relief are not the most appropriate responses. To me, the situation deserves a combination of pity and compassion.
Pity for the incompetence of ferreting through a $1.6 billion budget and not finding material savings before layering on the new council’s pet projects. It takes inherent unskillfulness to do so — that is, to do nothing, to be oblivious to the obvious, to lack the savvy to age out some of the city’s spending so it can usher in youthful initiative. It is akin to hoarding tried and trodden shoes as you open boxes of new kicks.
Thus the council deserves our pity, as does it deserve compassion in this piteous state. For whom among us hasn’t been an utter failure in a pivotal moment? When the call came, who hasn’t fumbled? Who dares say it was one’s spontaneous reflex to assert leadership when a vexing situation arose and public clamour was apparent?
It is true, as Coun. Colleen Hardwick asserted, that people did not cast ballots last year with the expectation of being socked with a seven per cent solution. It wouldn’t have gotten anyone elected, of course, and it seems council is now of the view it won’t get anyone unelected. Hold that thought.
For some time now, our mayor has not had to worry about where the money would come from — in academia, in Parliament, and now in municipal office. He has a generous salary, a terrific MP’s pension in the wings and a tenured job to return to at Simon Fraser University when he so chooses. In my examination of his contribution to the discussion on the proposed municipal budget, I did not sense ingrained lament of the imminent impact on property owners or of any concern about downstream effects.
We can now expect a spate of evictions of tenants and miserly maintenance of their residences, now that cumulative increases have reached nearly 16 per cent over three years. And it is true: taxes have been suppressed for political purpose, needs have built up under the skin and we are now into a protracted lancing of the boil. But the greater quality of leadership needed at our city hall is to dispense with outmoded spending, with the same diligence that it applied to the concoction of new programs and staffing, no matter how worthy. We need scrupulousness and scruples. But no, that’s not how this council rolls — at least, not a majority of it, not to this point.
Weaker beings would have wilted in the outcry, sought refuge in risk aversion, and pandered to the masses. Let the record show: this council stood firm in the face of widespread hostility, and for that we should acknowledge and remember its unique talent.
Kirk LaPointe is editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.