Municipal government is a “Democratic Service Provider” as it plays the dual role of delivering services to the citizens in addition to representing their political interests. If there are two things our city should know (being the seat of the provincial government and having a booming service industry) it should be governance and service delivery. However, in recent years, Victoria City Council has grown stagnant and shied away from making the hard decisions necessary to get our capital city back on track and instead focused on the minutiae like what to order for lunch. Below are the priorities I believe the 2014 Council needs to focus on and those which I intend to champion as a City Councillor. A Capital city deserves capital ideas:
Fiscal Management & The Economy
Victoria has found itself in a situation where property taxes are far too high, especially in comparison with many of the other municipalities. Rather than address this issue, City Council has resorted to political spin by proudly declaring that this year saw the “City’s lowest tax increase in 14 years.”
This has created an environment where many who once called Victoria home have been forced out. They work, shop, and recreate in Victoria but now live elsewhere in the CRD and tolerate the commute in to town. Victoria saw a 27% increase in residential tax rates (by total assessed values) between 2009 and 2013, compared to a 16% increase in Saanich and an 18% increase in Oak Bay. We now have property tax rates nearly 19% higher than those in neighbouring Saanich. On top of this, the City’s Financial Plan has set out to increase taxes by nearly 18% over the next four years. What makes this situation even worse is the fact that our finances are still not in good shape with three times the debt per capita of neighbouring municipalities.
This is especially worrisome considering the decaying infrastructure that must be dealt with soon. It’s now been half a decade since Council promised to present long-term plans to respond to the fact that 60% of the city’s existing infrastructure is “past its useful life.” Victoria is bound for serious financial trouble by the end of this decade and Council seems far more focused on putting on a show and getting re-elected rather than making the hard decisions. The fact that in 2008 the number of City of Victoria employees making more than $100,000 a year was 16 and six years later in 2012 it had drastically jumped to 46 employees is something that should concern all tax-payers. I am also strongly in favour of a reduction of City Councillor salaries, as it is not intended to be a full-time position, and will stand by that position if elected.
In order to tackle this financial problem we must consider alternative sources of revenue as well as some meaningful cost-cutting measures as tax rates simply cannot continue to increase beyond the rate of inflation. Council must re-evaluate its priorities and adapt to the post-recession economic climate. Having bureaucrats getting in the way of entrepreneurs, developers, and home-owners is not helping either. Development and business permits should be given out and the projects left to the scrutiny of professional inspectors rather than bureaucrats. We must re-establish an Economic Development Office here in town, something that all other Capital cities in Canada fund and reap the benefits from. Making Victoria an increasingly expensive place to live or do business is stifling the diversity and innovation that made this city great.
We must also look into long-term solutions involving the region. While amalgamation may occur eventually, that is no excuse not to strive towards closer cooperation and service integration for the time being. Inter-municipal cooperation and integration is a reasonable and viable option in many cases in the CRD when approached with genuine intentions rather than as a political talking point.
My generation has grown up being told that climate change and global warming is a problem that we must deal with in our lifetime. It’s not a topic to be taken lightly, and I believe my commitment to environmental sustainability demonstrates this. The City of Victoria has the opportunity to be at the forefront of municipal sustainability initiatives in Canada due to our location, burgeoning technology industry, and long-time collaboration with the University of Victoria (a world-class innovative centre for climate studies and research).
We must look towards expanding public transit, encouraging conservation, supporting anti-pollution projects, and ensuring that sustainability is an important factor in all infrastructure decisions. Environmental sustainability and economic sustainability are not mutually exclusive concepts; both can be achieved as long as those making the decisions on City Council keep each priority in mind.
Beacon Hill Park can truly be the jewel of our Capital city. Having lived across from it for years I truly understand the value of the park and realize that it could easily parallel Stanley Park in Vancouver. It should be maintained and celebrated as part of the allure of our great city. It is not just the downtown core which attracts tourists from around the globe. We can and must work together to preserve the beauty of Victoria. In doing so, we can better our present, whilst ensuring a better future as well.
Public Safety & The Downtown Core
I’ve been told by countless Victorians that they no longer feel safe in the downtown core. With the development of shopping centres elsewhere in the CRD, such as Uptown, a dirty, tired, and unsafe Downtown begins to lack the commercial appeal it once had. I can remember a time when the streets were regularly cleaned in the early mornings and there was a more noticeable police presence on our downtown streets. We must work towards restoring Victoria to the world-class status it once proudly had. We can no longer sit idly by as “For Lease” signs on storefronts spread like an epidemic, as panhandling goes unrestrained, and as civil infrastructure continues to decay.
In order to counter this slow but steady decline of the downtown core, we must promote investment and encourage development in the area by cleaning up the city and cultivating future business and tourism. This can easily be done whilst still keeping with the charm and character of the city. The rise of more affordable housing options downtown set to occur in the next few years, catering those who work in the core, will only help revitalize the region as long as Council supports further commercial development. 15% of all Baby Boomers in Canada intend to retire in Victoria and the city expects to see a 21% increase in population over the next 25 years. We must be ready for the demand.
Transparency & Accountability
A crucial pillar of any democracy is the transparency of government and accountability of elected officials, two issues that I am passionate about. The current council has abused the private ‘in camera‘ sessions at council meetings by using them to avoid public accountability and to give them political cover on countless decisions. It has gotten to a point where nearly every single council meeting in 2011 had a private session behind closed doors. Compare that to Toronto, Canada’s largest city with a budget of $9.4 billion and 50,000 employees, whose council only had 12 private sessions in 2012, accounting for a mere 5% of the total time council sat. While I genuinely applaud the recent initiative by council to broadcast their meetings live and post them on the Internet, it is quite telling that the very first meeting broadcast saw Council vote to retreat from the cameras for a private session.
Not only will I work relentlessly towards ending this abuse of ‘in camera‘ privileges, I will also have council strive towards providing more information about critical decisions made by ensuring access to government data and information is readily available.
Elected officials have a duty and an obligation to to explain their actions to those they represent. We cannot go on having important decisions directly impacting the future of our city made behind closed doors.