Especially during a crisis, leaders must be held accountable

In tough times, the best and the worst comes out of people. Our elected officials are people, too, and the same principle applies to them.

The City of Prince George has done a good job so far, following the direction of the B.C. government and provincial health authorities to close public facilities and urge residents to do their part. They also deserve praise for denying the Prince George Farmers’ Market Association’s demand to open its downtown indoor facility. The farmers market is simply not an essential service in Prince George at this time, recognizing that some community markets are an essential service in other towns and cities.

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Yet the tone-deaf, business-as-usual decisions also continue to roll out from city hall.

Last week, the city announced it would not be deferring utility bill payments due next Friday, nor would it offer any payment grace period on city taxes due in July. They can't do that without  the province's permission under the Community Charter but now's the time to ask. Would the B.C. government really say no to that right now? 

Instead, the City of Prince George wants homeowners and businesses to pay up as usual, preferably online to avoid any direct contact with city employees. For those that don’t pay on time, the standard interest charges apply (something the city can act on without provincial government permission).

On Monday night at its regular meeting, city council approved borrowing $2.8 million to buy replacement fleet vehicles and equipment. Of course, that spending is needed for city workers to do their jobs effectively. It’s the borrowing part and the timing that are brutal.

The amortization of equipment is built right into any annual budget, both in the private and public sector, to encourage corresponding spending on equipment servicing and the necessary saving for replacement down the road. At the household level, most homeowners budget for the eventual replacement of their roof, their hot-water tank, their windows and so on.

Based on this borrowing, amortization at city hall is nothing more than a fancy accounting word.

The timing of taking on more debt is equally atrocious.

The local and regional economy was already being slammed by the significant downturn in the forest sector. Now add the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic to that for months and potentially years to come. Yet mayor and council approve borrowing money in the middle of all of this because their city manager tells them “it’s a very good deal.”

Borrowing should be seen as a failure of city council and senior bureaucrats to properly budget for these necessary routine expenditures. Changes should be made so future city councils don’t have to borrow money for these kinds of purchases when interest rates will not be as favourable.

There are many people insisting this is not the time to criticize our politicians. They say we should unite behind them as they tirelessly work to manage the many difficult and unprecedented challenges of the COVID-19 crisis.

They are right. 

We should heed their directions and those of the health authorities. We should be asking ourselves what we could do to support our leaders and our communities. We should all be working together to mitigate the direct and indirect suffering many are feeling now and will feel for months and years to come as the result of this pandemic. 

But that support is not a blank cheque, nor should it be. 

In both Canada and the United States this week, opposition members of the ruling federal government did their jobs as elected representatives of their constituents. They held difficult negotiations, urgently working through the details of the massive aid programs being offered to individuals and businesses. 

As always, it came down to money and power. Nobody in opposition was prepared to give Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Donald Trump even greater political control than they already enjoy so they could bypass legislative approval.

In the end, broad support across the political spectrum was achieved.

Meanwhile, in the cozy confines of Prince George city hall, where senior bureaucrats already get two weeks of time off in lieu of overtime, over and above their six weeks of annual vacation, it’s business as usual.

Why did nobody speak up?

Why didn’t a single member of city council offer a dissenting voice?

Laziness? 

Ignorance?

Negligence? 

Incompetence? 

The reasons are irrelevant because the result is exactly the same.

- Editor-in-chief Neil Godbout

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