A new report about municipal spending suggests New Westminster is in the middle of the pack in B.C.
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business's fourth annual B.C. Municipal Spending Watch report states that municipal operating spending has ballooned by nearly four times the rate of population growth.
"New West falls almost right smack in the middle of the pack," said Shachi Kurl, the federation's director of provincial affairs for B.C. and Yukon.
Kurl said New Westminster ranks 93 out of 153 B.C. communities in terms of the report's overall rankings, which take into account real operating spending per capita growth from 2000 to 2009 and 2009 operating spending.
"They are doing OK, middle of the pack," she said. "I think every community can do better. Every community must do better."
Kurl said local governments are spending more money than ever, which isn't sustainable over time.
Several city council incumbents say the report is contrary to the "wild claims" that some council candidates are making about New Westminster's spending. They pointed out that the federation's report shows that New Westminster's population growth (13 per cent) and real operating spending (12 per cent) are very close, while that gap is much greater in many communities. (Penticton, for example, had a five per cent population growth and 59 per cent increase in operating spending per capita.)
Incumbent mayor Wayne Wright proudly pointed out that the study found that the gap between spending and growth is much better in New Westminster than in many other B.C. municipalities. He said municipal spending has been one of the biggest issues in the 2011 election campaign.
"This is independent. It has nothing to do with us," he said about the report. "Our citizens should know this."
In previous years, Wright said the City of New Westminster hasn't fared so well in the B.C. Municipal Spending Watch report, but it's made considerable improvement. He said that's contrary to statements made by council candidates and mayoral candidate James Crosty, who have voiced concerns that the city's spending is out of control.
"They are the ones that normally slam us," incumbent councillor Bill Harper said of the federation. "When you look at the chart, you can clearly see where the other cities are at. We are at 13 per cent increase in population but a 12 per cent increase in costs."
Incumbent councillor Jaimie McEvoy said the situation is different in many other B.C. municipalities, where spending has greatly outpaced the population growth.
"This is a percentage thing," Crosty said. "You look at a money thing - this is when it really hits home.
After reviewing the foundation's report, Crosty pointed out that New Westminster's per capita spending was $1,696 in 2009. (On this front, the city ranked 51 of 153 municipalities.)
"The problem I have is this is 2009. This doesn't take into account what we have spent on the park or anything else," he said of costs incurred since that time.
According to the foundation, among B.C.'s largest municipalities, New Westminster ranked 15th of 29 communities in terms of its operating spending.
"It's not about these charts and where we fall. It's about where we can do better," Crosty said. "We don't have to be in the middle of the pack. We should be the best."
Kurl said New Westminster's overall results aren't too bad, but there's room for improvement.
"We had a 13 per cent increase in population and a 12 per cent rise in spending," said incumbent Coun. Bob Osterman. "In comparison across the Lower Mainland for dense urban centres, we are the very best in Metro."
Osterman said the city is on the right track with its finances.
He noted that expenses such as funding a social planner position have helped on other fronts, such as reducing street homelessness by 45 per cent in the past three years.
"It's the standard story that we are spending too much money," said council candidate John Ashdown about the federation's report. "I think it's the reality."
In related news, Ashdown has signed the Canadian Federation of Independent Business taxpayer pledge.
The pledge supports property tax fairness, with a commitment to narrow the gap between commercial and residential property taxes in each year of a term on council.
It also supports spending restraint (a commitment to keep operating spending increases reasonable, such as no more than population and inflation or growth in disposable income) and municipal accountability (support creation of a municipal Auditor General) to increase accountability and transparency of the state of municipal finances.
"I will endeavour to do that," Ashdown said. "Of course, you are only one person on city council."
Ashdown and council candidate Gavin Palmer are among 90 B.C. candidates who have signed a
contract with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, pledging to bring in a taxpayer protection bylaw if elected.
"The reason I did that, I agree the spending in the municipal budget is out of control in a lot of areas," Palmer said.
"Budgets should be tied in with the economy of the country. We don't live in a fishbowl."
Palmer said he reviewed his property taxes and found that they increased 60 per cent over a 10-year period. In addition, he said residents have faced increasing costs with utilities.
"Bottom line, when you are the person paying the bill, it is money out of your pocket," he said.
While Crosty is concerned about spending and taxation in New Westminster, he didn't support the pledges.
"I find it's too open," he said. "I followed the lead of (Surrey mayor) Dianne Watts on that. You can't be tied to any particular pledge for the mayor's position because you have to remain open."