Key civic by-election issue is about the money

Armchair Mayor
By Mel Rothenburger
September 23, 2017 - 8:01am



The Kamloops civic by-election is a week away, and it’s coming down to money.

Public money, that is. Tax money.

The poster child, er, building, is the deceased Kamloops Daily News HQ at Fourth and Seymour, slowly but surely being crushed and soon to be paved over.

This daily spectacle in the downtown core provides a visual reminder of how things can go wrong, and a rallying point for those unhappy with City Hall.

That includes pretty well all of the by-election candidates except mayoral hopeful Ken Christian, who was part of the decision process and therefore must defend it, while at the same time supporting the idea of a scaled-down second try if the arts community will take the lead.

On the other side of the issue are those convinced the City wasted millions on buying a perfectly good building it didn’t need, then tearing it down and turning it into parking.

Christian’s main challenger, Bill McQuarrie, says it was the wrong place for a PAC anyway, and wants to look at a Plan B.

But it’s the issue of annual tax increases that has drawn Christian out of his comfort zone — which was a campaign based on name recognition and avoidance of contentious issues.

Keep in mind I don’t endorse candidates, having learned my lesson a long time ago. It’s also been years since I lived in the city, and I don’t have a vote in this by-election. No horse in the race, no skin in the game, no dog in the fight.

But from this vantage point it’s clear there’s disaffection with the way things are.

Incumbents generally have to defend the status quo, and McQuarrie is challenging the status quo on taxes. 

Christian defends the City’s practice of steady, modest annual budget increases of 2.5 per cent, give or take. McQuarrie says it’s time for a reset. If elected, he’ll seek a zero-percent increase for the coming year. It’s an appealing idea.

Christian calls it “naïve and overly simplistic.” He says it’s been tried elsewhere and is always followed by a whopping tax increase. He calls it Zero Zero Ten.

And reinforcements have arrived. In a lengthy Facebook post late this week, former MLA and former mayor Terry Lake endorsed Christian and called McQuarrie’s zero-per cent proposal “populist but unreasonable.”

And, also this week, Christian upped his campaign with robo calls.

Clearly, McQuarrie has hit a nerve. But Zero Zero Ten doesn’t fairly describe what he’s talking about. It’s not the same as Zero Once.

He has clearly said it would be a one-year breather, during which time the City’s budget could be thoroughly reviewed. He says City council should stop treating tax increases as an annual entitlement. And he wants to use his business innovation experience to develop a new framework for the local economy.

If that’s populist, it’s because people are pissed off.

McQuarrie is correct that it’s entirely feasible to freeze the budget for a year. If City council can set a 2.5 percent target every year before even looking at the budget (which is the process both Christian and Lake were part of for years), there’s no reason it can’t set a different number — like zero.

Here’s how City budgets are put together. Each department head sits down with his managers and looks at how much more they need for the coming year than they did in the previous year.

The department heads take these numbers to the CAO in individual and group meetings, and they come up with a potential increase.

A wish list is then drawn up from which council chooses what it considers the most important projects, throws out others, and makes compromises until they get to the magic number, one that’s close to 2.5 percent.

I’ve long believed City councils should do a zero-based budgetevery few years, starting from scratch and figuring out what they need instead of what they want on top of what they’ve already got.

Zero-based is a much respected budgeting methodology and McQuarrie’s plan isn’t far off it.

We’ll soon know whether Kamloops voters want the status quo on tax spending or whether they want to try something different, but the important point is that zero per cent is every bit as practical as 2.5 per cent.

Whether Kamloops voters are ready for a change, of course, remains to be seen. With advance voting suggesting the turnout might be comparable to a regular general election rather than the low number we pundits have been suggesting, it becomes very intriguing.

Are people feeling motivated to vote because they want change, or because they don’t?

Either way, I’m betting it’s about the money.