Courtenay’s year-over-year tax increases compare favorably with surrounding municipalities. So what’s all the fuss about? Maybe the answer lies in the city’s transparency — or lack of it
There’s been a lot of debate this fall about taxes in the City of Courtenay. Some people say they are too high, that low-income people are being driven from their homes and seniors are choosing between taxes and food.
Other local government observers have said the problem isn’t the amount of taxes collected, but the lack of transparency about how and why increases were needed.
The city made itself a target of this debate about a year ago when, in a single meeting, the City Council approved the hiring of 16 new employees and promoted another to a management position.
It was a dramatic move bound to attract attention from fiscal conservative voters. Some would say the optics were terrible. If the city had hired three or four new people over a multi-year period, it might not have drawn such a negative response.
A group calling itself the Comox Valley Taxpayers Alliance (CVTA) has since purchased full-page ads in The Record newspaper to criticize the hirings, Courtenay tax increases in general and to specifically call out the most progressive council members.
FURTHER READING: Courtenay candidates discuss taxes
Several conservative candidates have jumped on this “high taxes” bandwagon as the basis of their campaign platforms and to win the support and endorsement of the CVTA.
But how much have taxes increased in the City of Courtenay? And how do its increases compare with neighboring municipalities?
Courtenay’s year-over-year tax increases were 1.7 percent in 2014, 3.2 percent in 2015, 4.0 percent in 2016 and 2.0 percent in 2017.
In Comox, tax increases for the same years were, 2.8 percent, 2.7 percent, 3.5 percent and 3.4 percent.
In Cumberland, the increases were 1.0 percent, 4.5 percent, 5.5 percent and 5.0 percent.
In Campbell River, the increases were 4.3 percent in 2016 and 5.6 percent in 2017.
In Nanaimo, the increases were 3.8 percent in 2014, 2.3 percent in 2015, 1.3 percent in 2016 and 4.2 percent in 2017.
In almost every year in all five municipalities, the year-over-year taxes collected for general municipal purposes were higher than the Canadian Consumer Price Index.
But Courtenay tax increases compare favorably with its immediate neighboring municipalities.
So what’s the fuss all about?
Dick Clancy, the spokesman for the CVTA, sat down with Decafnation to explain why his group has focused on Courtenay and not Comox or Cumberland.
Clancy maintains that the city used surplus funds to pay for the 16 new hires, and when you add in the money they took out of reserve funds to balance their budget, the tax increases in 2017 and 2018 were more like 6 percent.
Clancy couldn’t provide detail for his calculations during our meeting, so Decafnation sought an expert analysis from a retired B.C. city chief administrative officer (CAO), who is not a member of the CVTA.
Our source analyzed it this way:
“Without new hires the city requires tax increases in the period from 2018 to 2021 of 5.9 percent.
“But the proposed budget increases taxes during that time by 9 percent. The city budgeted a tax rate 3.1 percent higher than actually required by expenditure increases.
“The total value of the new hires was equivalent to about a 5+ percent tax increase in 2017, but the city didn’t want to pass that along to taxpayers. So it used surplus funds in 2017 and 2018 to balance the budget, as a one-time solution.
“But the city needed an ongoing funding solution for the new hires so it budgeted excess tax increases over the next 4 years to smooth out the impact and cover the cost of the new hires. And Courtenay’s budgeted increases aren’t out of line with neighboring cities, towns and villages.”
Also, there’s nothing illegal or uncommon about such financial maneuvers in municipal governments when they are discussed and explained in open meetings.
But it appears that the Courtenay City Council discussed this solution during in-camera meetings, and has never fully disclosed the nature of those deliberations. As with most cover ups, this lack of transparency has jacked up criticisms and suspicions.
The CVTA seems to have inside information that the budget details were discussed during in-camera meetings, but Clancy denied it. The alliance did endorse incumbent Larry Jangula for mayor and incumbent Mano Theos for council.
By law, councillors have a duty to respect the confidentiality of in-camera meetings and may be personally liable if leaking the substance of a closed meeting results in a liability for the municipality.
Discussions in closed meetings are limited to selling or buying land through expropriations and legal matters, such as lawsuits.
But the B.C. Ombudsman says municipalities should record minutes for closed meetings in at least a much detail as open meetings, including a detailed description of the topics, documents considered, motions and a voting record.
Most importantly, the Ombudsman says local governments should “have a process in place to regularly review the information produced at closed meetings. Information that would no longer undermine the reason for discussing it in a closed meeting should be released as soon as practicable.”
Based on these best practices, Courtenay could release the minutes of any discussions about the hirings and subsequent budget discussions during closed meetings.
And it’s a principle that Cumberland, Comox and the Comox Valley Regional District should also adopt.
The Ombudsman goes on:
“Local governments should strive to release as much information as possible as often as possible, in order to demonstrate their commitment to the principles of transparency and accountability and to receive the benefit of a more informed, engaged and trusting public.”
Decafnation doesn’t recall any Comox Valley government ever voluntarily releasing the minutes of a closed meeting as the Ombudsman suggests. Members of the public can request the release of minutes from closed meetings, and also seek them through the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
Given yet another opportunity to follow its own Master Plan this week, the Courtenay/Comox Sewer Commission chose to ignore it. Again.
A letter from two residents of the Area B neighborhood most affected by the proposed construction of a multi-million dollar pump station requested a minor restructuring of the commission’s membership.
But the residents were really questioning the commission’s governance of matters outside of its existing mandate. A matter that the commission’s 2011 Sewer Master Plan said should have been addressed six years ago, but which they have disregarded.
In their letter, David Battle and Lorraine Aitken asked that the Area B director be added to the commission on a limited basis. He or she would participate and vote only “on issues relating to any existing or proposed infrastructure in Area B.”
It’s a reasonable request. If the elected officials of Courtenay and Comox propose to build infrastructure outside of their municipal boundaries, then the elected representative of those in the affected area should have a voice and a vote.
Democracy is based on the idea that all citizens will have a voice in government — their own or their elected representative’s — on matters that concern them. But residents of Area B have been denied representation.
The Courtenay/Comox Sewer Commission comprises members only from Courtenay, Comox and CFB Comox. But where it places sewer pipes, pump stations and treatment facilities affect people outside of those jurisdictions.
The commission’s 2011 Sewer Master Plan anticipated this problem, and is absolutely clear about the appropriate resolution.
The Master Plan says that before the commission embarks on any of the plan’s identified projects, it should create a governance structure for areas outside of the City of Courtenay and the Town of Comox.
Presumably that would entail giving fair representation — voice and vote — to people in areas affected by the commission’s actions.
It’s no surprise that commission members haven’t undertaken even a simple review of governance structure in the six years since the Master Plan was adopted. The commission has consistently neglected those parts of the plan that seemed troublesome, expensive or that might have prevented them for doing whatever they want.
For example, the Master Plan calls for the commission to review and revise the plan every three years. It wasn’t done in 2014, as it should have been, and still hasn’t been done. Other plan initiatives have also been ignored.
The commission and Comox Valley Regional District engineering staff have a long history of ignoring the advice and concerns of the community on sewerage issues. The regional district has been successfully sued twice over engineering mistakes that citizens warned against.
And history is repeating itself. The Sewer Commission has bungled the proposed Comox #2 pump station project from the beginning. It planned the project and purchased the property in secret. It intentionally withheld announcement of its plan and property purchase until after the 2014 municipal elections.
And the commission continues to treat legitimate citizen concerns with disdain, adopting a confrontational posture, rather than trying to find a win-win solution.
The letter from Aitken and Battle presented the commission with an opportunity to change course, and resolve the Comox #2 pump station outrage before the situation devolves into new lawsuits.
The commission should have treated the residents’ letter with respect, and fulfilled its obligations under the Sewer Master Plan, by undertaking a review of its governance structure and decision-making framework that would address Aitken’s and Battle’s concerns.
Instead, they deferred the matter to their June strategic planning workshop. That could be seen as a positive step.
But without advance work to develop possible options and process requirements, legal opinions and geopolitical analysis, nothing definitive can come from the June session. At best, the commissioners will ask that this same work be done and they’ll discuss it again. Later.
To those already suspect of the Courtenay/Comox Sewer Commission’s intentions, this looks like an insincere stalling tactic, perhaps to avoid immediate legal action.
It would be lovely if it were not, and the commission finally recognized the legitimacy of the neighborhood’s concerns and the better and less expensive options available to them.
The strong undercurrent of government mistrust that shades the American landscape is something relatively new to Canadians. But the recent Comox Valley Regional District open house on the HMCS Quadra sewer line replacement shows how and why that mood is changing.
The open house meeting should have been an opportunity for citizens, bureaucrats and elected officials to communicate in a collaborative manner that resulted in some positive meaningful action.
Instead, the HMCS Quadra meeting erupted into a vitriolic condemnation of the CVRD’s lack of transparency on this project. You can read a report of the meeting here.
It’s a sad commentary on the openness of local government in general that this expression of anger and frustration surprised no one at the meeting, including the presenter, CVRD Senior Engineer Marc Rutten, who appeared to accept the citizens’ mistrust as routine.
Throughout the contentious meeting that at moments threatened to spin out of control, Rutten never once acknowledged the possible veracity of a citizen’s concern. But why would he? The project’s details were presented as a fait accompli which “are too far along in the process to change now.”
Rutten couldn’t have done a better job of fostering distrust in the regional district.
If governments don’t genuinely want input from citizens, especially those directly affected by a specific project, then why invite them to a meeting on the pretence that their input might matter? It’s disingenuous and elevates people’s rage. And it creates mistrust of government. People start concocting conspiracy theories to explain what might seem like simple logistic solutions to CVRD staff.
Open house public meetings are usually held before finalizing a project’s details. For example, the CVRD presented several options to Royston and Union Bay residents at an early open house on the South Sewer Project, and residents picked their preferred one.
But the Courtenay-Comox Sewage Commission and CVRD engineers have turned a deaf ear to public concerns about its sewerage system planning, which has caused widespread suspicion, mistrust and anger.
Some of the blame for perpetuating government mistrust lies with elected officials who make these decisions but intentionally avoid the open houses they know will be contentious. Their absence forces staff to take all the heat.
Sewage Commission Chair Barbara Price and Courtenay director Bob Wells made token 15-minute appearances at the beginning of the open house, while everyone looked at informational posters and mingled with coffee and cookies in hand.
But they both left before the serious work of the question and answer period began. Why didn’t they stick around and absorb the public reaction to their decisions?
No other members of the Courtenay-Comox Sewage Commission showed up at the HCMS Quadra public meeting. Even the CFB Comox representative, Major Marc Fugulin, was absent.
The lack of good watchdog journalism in the Comox Valley contributes to the mistrust of local government. Not one reporter attended the question and answer period. And no local media has reported on the meeting.
Without a public watchdog to hold elected officials accountable, governments naturally adopt a less communicative and responsive attitude.
Elected officials are, after all, volunteer public servants. Most of the time they are sincere about achieving the common good. But the public needs to know if and when apparent altruism cloaks a personal agenda or a conflict of interest, or when governments steamroll projects over powerless citizens.