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.