City taxpayers stuck with tab from Vancouver council's stratospheric spending

The truism in politics is that no matter how many levels of government come calling, there is only one taxpayer.

In Vancouver, that taxpayer today is a) depleted, b) dismissed, c) dispirited, d) debased and e) defeated. It’s not all the city’s fault, but the city cannot help but contribute.

In any other pandemic household that recognizes the need to squeeze down on expenses to mitigate the anxiety of uncertainty and dull the throb of an increased cost of living, one would expect cost-cutting as the first order of business. Really, is anybody wantonly and proudly spending more without an underlying need?

Well, yes, there is this otherworldly council here. This council idealizes, fantasizes, then realizes.

It was clear Tuesday in approving its 2022 budget that this is an amnesiac administration that conveniently decides to eagerly spend and conveniently forgets the bill must eventually be paid.

Indeed, as was evident in watching council debate the details, if any councillor dared to suggest something was an excessive outlay, there would come a quick reminder from a fellow councillor favouring the spending of an earlier collective, usually unanimous approval of it.

Even those who voted against the $1.7 billion budget and 6.3% property tax increase it brings – along with increases in utilities, fees and other charges – must feel a little sheepish about their earlier glee in supporting measures that Tuesday came home to roost.

This is a budgeting approach in economic parlance commonly referred to as bass-ackwards.

But it is a result that establishes a great set piece for the coming election.

On one side are Mayor Kennedy Stewart, Green Party councillors Adriane Carr, Pete Fry and Michael Wiebe, COPE councillor Jean Swanson and One City’s Christine Boyle. They constantly find ways to max out the credit card from the Bank of Vancouver. They would like to think of themselves as trend-setters: true enough, they are at the vanguard of inflation, with a more than 25% rise in property taxes over four years.

The five elected in 2018 under the Non-Partisan Association banner, all but one of them since exiting the party, voted against the budget. But their window of opportunity to curb the madness closed when they began their infighting shortly after the last election. It was nice to see a band reunion Tuesday for a brief show of nostalgia, but their opponents know they will quickly resume their solo careers.

The Vancouver that the spendthrift councillors know is one that is hard to discern. Yes, there is conspicuous wealth here, but mostly there is an irritable unaffordability and a substandard service that begs serious reconsideration of some civic programming.

Instead, what we got was a $9 million series of expenditures that only surfaced as council convened Tuesday, proposed by the more-popular Carr as a clear setup so the mayor would not take the heat.

The mayor and council earlier this year declared their intentions to keep property taxes to less than 5%. It took only a few months to walk away from that pledge, but it was done so cleverly – by including increased police and fire department budgets. (What? You want to vote against stronger police and fire prevention? Want our streets to be unsafe, our homes alit with no response?)

It served as perfect canopy for the climate emergency measures that, were they so important, ought to come from general (but managed) expenditures. Well-played, climate activist councillors.

The spending on measures that will do little or nothing to mitigate climate change are nonetheless signals to the unquestioning cohort of citizens who believe those gestures have consequence beyond symbolism. For many seeking re-election, that is more than enough to turn the trick.

It is, like so many deeds from City Hall in the last decade, a façade to make us feel better than we ought to feel as a small city with big-city problems. It furnishes a conceit of global importance on a Potemkin village.

The other common council stunt is to impose on property owners then degrade their attempts to pass along that cost to renters, thus motivating those put-upon tenants with overbearing leases to fight the man by voting for the people who actually set the wheels in motion.

It has worked like a charm four times now and may yet again next October, particularly given the budget supporters’ splintered opposition. The irresistible temptation for hoards to run against the mayor is providing the perfect path to his re-election. The dilemma now is how the forces to show them the door can themselves unite.

As it stands, there is more 2022 likelihood of a Canucks Stanley Cup. Unless, of course, another progressive coach emerges.

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.