Village of Canal Flats mayor Ute Juras was one of 86 mayors to attend the first province-wide mayoral gathering to ever take place in B.C. and said what she found most amazing about the inaugural BC Mayors’ Caucus was that the concerns shared by everybody present were “almost identical.”
“For me [it] was quite incredible,” Juras told The Valley Echo. “We are facing these same issues whether we’re small municipalities or large municipalities.”
The three-day meeting took place in Penticton from May 16 to 18 and at its close, the mayors who participated called for an immediate discussion with the Province to properly examine the challenges facing their residents and to adopt a more efficient approach to managing existing resources without putting a burden on the taxpayer.
“It didn’t take much to get consensus with everybody, which was kind of amazing with that many people in the room,” Juras said.
Juras said the main concern expressed at the conference was the fiscal imbalance facing B.C.’s communities.
“What we have to pay, what we can collect out of our taxes, and what we have to cover with that is just not possible for us,” she said. “And then programs are being downloaded to us that we don’t even have any input on.”
The mayors expressed wanting to have a voice at the table when such decisions were being made, in order to have a say as to whether or not their municipality could afford what the Province wanted to download and — if not — discuss where the funds would come from.
“That was the message we were hoping to give out,” Juras said. “That there is only one taxpayer and they’re maxed out.”
That the provincial and federal governments are able to operate at a deficit while municipalities are required to balance their budgets was another bone of contention raised.
Juras is hoping the unique problems facing smaller communities will also be addressed by the mayors’ caucus moving forward. For instance, the Canal Flats fire department is being held to the same standard as a big city professional fire department, Juras explained, and a recent Worksafe BC inspection has identified some issues that are simply too expensive to fix.
“There is no difference between a small town volunteer department and a big city department,” she said. “Short of building a new firehall, we’re not going to be able to meet them.”
The next BC Mayors’ Caucus meeting is set to take place the day before the Union of British Columbia Municipalities (UBCM) conference planned for September in Victoria.
BC Mayors’ Caucus event co-ordinator Laura Balance said the decision to tie a one-day meeting to the UBCM was made to encourage greater participation and keep costs down for the smaller municipalities. Short notice of just seven weeks for the Penticton meeting made it difficult for all the mayors to attend, said Balance, and the date and location of next year’s event in May will be finalized in the next two months in order to guarantee close to 100 per cent attendance.
Village of Radium Hot Springs mayor Dee Conklin said she was disappointed with the short notice. She had pre-booked six months in advance for the Federation of Canadian Municipalities annual conference, which takes place June 1 to 4 in Saskatoon, and she also recently attended the Association of Kootenay Boundary Local Government (AKBLG) in April. Three conferences within two months was just too costly, she said, adding that she would have participated had there been more advance warning.
District of Invermere mayor Gerry Taft said he wished he could have gone but the event was in too close proximity to the May long weekend, when his business opened in a new location, but that he is anticipating the next meeting in September.
Juras said she made the choice to attend the inaugural BC Mayors’ Caucus over the AKBLG because she couldn’t justify the expense of going to both.
“It was amazing sitting side by side with big city mayors who had the same issues, and it was such a sense of, ‘let’s help each other out,’” she said. “It was incredible.”