A challenge to city council

Have you had a 12.56 per cent increase in your annual income over the last four years without taking on a new job? If you haven't, do you know anyone who has?

Have your pension and old-age benefits increased by 12.56 per cent in the last four years?

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Unless you've taken an internal promotion that comes with significantly more responsibilities or found a better opportunity with another employer, it's unlikely your yearly income has gone up by anywhere close to 12.56 per cent. Some of you may have - through no fault of your own - seen your income frozen or even reduced in the last four years.

Unfortunately, none of those possibilities stopped Prince George city council from increasing property taxes by 12.56 per cent over the last four fiscal years. On top of last week's 4.3 per cent hike for 2019, the rates were raised by 1.87 per cent in 2018, 3.18 per cent in 2017 and 3.21 per cent in 2016.

Don't take it out on unionized City of Prince George employees because they are also negatively affected. The current four-year contract for the city's CUPE workers gives them a 6.75 per cent increase, so they're not keeping up, either.

Constantly raising taxes well above the cost of living unites people on both sides of the political divide. As the above example shows, public sector union members have just as many reasons to be appalled by tax hikes as fiscal conservatives.

Last week, labour lawyer and two-time provincial NDP candidate Bobby Deepak got into a tussle on Facebook with city councillors Frank Everitt and Brian Skakun about the tax hike. Deepak demanded to know when city council was going to get serious about responsible fiscal management, rather than just treating local taxpayers like a bottomless ATM machine. Both Everitt and Skakun pointed fingers at the provincial government's Employers Health Tax, stressing it added an unexpected $1 million expense to the city's bottom line. Naturally, they glossed over the fact that expense is less than a quarter of the $4.45 million in additional city spending for 2019.

When Deepak brought up the significant wage hikes given to the city's senior management team, linking to a Citizen editorial from last summer, Everitt waved it away as "misinformation" and said senior city managers were only getting a 1.5 per cent increase this year. Of course, there is a big difference between a 1.5 per cent increase when someone is making $200,000 or more per year than the unionized employees making a third of that wage getting 1.5 per cent more under their collective agreement but Everitt didn't mention that.

Nor does he mention that the "misinformation" on the wage increases for senior staff in 2015 and 2016, along with the overtime they collected during the 2017 wildfire evacuation crisis, came from the city's own statements of financial information. No one from city administration or city council has ever said up to this point that the data or the way The Citizen reported was incorrect in any way. Jillian Merrick complained on Facebook last August that "the Prince George Citizen is at work with city staff" and urging people to be "wary of the facts provided in an editorial" but also never said which facts - if any - were wrong.

As for Everitt, a longtime union man elected to city council three times with the generous support of local labour defending management wages is rich with irony.

So maybe this discussion needs to happen face to face, rather than through editorials or on Facebook.

In that spirit, Deepak has agreed to join me in offering a challenge to any two members of this city council to a formal public debate on city tax increases and spending. The Citizen will book the facility, arrange with the UNBC JDC West team to moderate, with questions from the audience afterwards and admission being a nonperishable food item donation, with collected proceeds going to St. Vincent de Paul.

Hopefully two members of city council are up for the challenge.

As for who got 12.56 per cent pay increases (or more) over a four-year period, there were a select few who just happen to be senior managers at the City of Prince George.

The community services general manager's income increased by 14.1 per cent from 2014 to 2016.

The planning and development general manager's income went up 30.2 per cent from 2014 to 2016. The administrative services general manager's income went up 23.7 per cent from 2014 to 2016. The human resources director's income increased 44.1 per cent from 2014 to 2016. The engineering and public works general manager's income went up 58 per cent from 2014 to 2016. The engineering and public works director's income increased 44.5 per cent from 2014 to 2016. The finance director's income went up 62.1 per cent from 2014 to 2016.

These increases came with new job titles and the shuffling around of management responsibilities, while the number of individuals on the senior management team grew.

Meanwhile, the city manager's income only went up by 8.8 per cent from 2014 to 2016 but a 2017 consultant's report commissioned by the city recommended an immediate 15 per cent raise for the city manager. No word on if the previous or the current city council has followed the recommendations of that report.

Hopefully we'll be able to discuss all of that during a public debate.

Will keep you all posted on date and time details if the challenge is accepted.

-- Editor-in-chief Neil Godbout

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