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Maybe you can fight city hall

Reforming municipal government

Candis McLean - February 28, 2005

Calgary pays more than any other city in Canada for most of its services. In policing, for example, it pays $168,000 for every cop on the street, nearly twice as much as the $89,000 Winnipeggers pay. "Calgary has the highest concentration of civilian staff of any police department in Canada," nearly three times the average, says Stephen Chapman, a Calgary cop for 10 years and co-author of the new book, Take Back City Hall. Calgary also has the highest number of supervisors overseeing officers of any municipal force in the country (tied with Toronto).

That's just a taste of the wastefulness that Chapman's new book, co-authored with Marcel Latouche, an accountant who worked for the City of Calgary for 17 years, aims to expose. Cities everywhere have grown dependent on raising taxes to improve service delivery, rather than becoming more efficient. In January, Calgarians learned the city was planning a 3.15 per cent property tax increase for this year. With rising user fees for transit, sewers and water, even golf courses, the average household could pay a minimum of $80 more to city hall this year.

Alderman Dale Hodges notes that business taxes in Calgary have remained flat for the last 12 years and Calgarians still enjoy the lowest property taxes of any major city in Canada. But Latouche believes citizens still pay too much. "Our neighbours are being shot with a .40-calibre gun, but our council is shooting us with a .22-calibre," he says. "What we forget is, they can both kill us."

Without regular reviews of expenditures, dropping some activities and privatizing others, he predicts that at the current rate, Calgary's annual budget, now $1.7 billion, will balloon to $3 billion by 2016. "We simply continue to add employees," Latouche says. "Between 65 per cent and 70 per cent of the operating budget is salaries, benefits and wages. It becomes an uncontrollable cost because once we settle with a union, everything automatically goes up with continuous inflation." The authors say their suggestions could be used to reform city halls across Canada. Recommendations include more transparency about potential conflict of interest among councillors and city managers, and term limits for aldermen. Not bad ideas. After all, Canadians have been demanding accountability from their federal and provincial politicians for years. Maybe it's time they started paying attention to how their municipal tax dollars are being used.

More articles by Candis McLean