Skip to main content

New MLA Mike Bernier toured a Dawson Creek water reclamation plant with Premier Christy Clark while campaiging in April.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Canada's local government leaders wrapped up their annual conference on Sunday with a predictable call for long-term infrastructure funding from senior governments. But critics say municipalities first need to do a better job of managing their day-to-day spending.

Municipal leaders at Vancouver's gathering of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities were on the defensive when challenged about spending growth in the large urban centres. But small towns, rarely in the spotlight, are also facing new scrutiny – especially in B.C. with its new spending watchdog.

In the community of Dawson Creek in B.C.'s booming northeast, the city uses most of an annual $12-million "Fair Share" grant from the province to pay for daily operations.

Story continues below advertisement

That kind of fiscal management needs to be put under the microscope, said Mike Klassen, B.C. director for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. The CFIB released a study last week showing municipal spending is growing far faster than population growth and the rate of inflation.

"Our message to local government is, you have to find a way to deal with what you have," Mr. Klassen said in an interview. "Stop saying 'yes' to every request."

Mike Bernier, who recently stepped down as Dawson Creek's mayor to assume his new post as the B.C. Liberal MLA for Peace River South, is leaving behind some tough choices for his successor.

The city of 13,000 people is only posting a balanced budget by siphoning more than 75 per cent of its Fair Share dollars to cover operating costs for services that include a "state of the art" arena, the Encana Events Centre, and a money-losing regional airport.

"There is not enough tax revenue coming in to meet operations needs, so some of the Fair Share is used to offset that," Mr. Bernier said in an interview. "That's the decision the people in Dawson Creek are going to need to make. If they don't want as much Fair Share used in operations, that means taxes go up, or we start cutting services. Not too many options there."

Earlier this year, a consultant's report commissioned by the city under Mr. Bernier's watch concluded that Dawson Creek is facing a fiscal crunch in the future and needs to look for capital investments that are self-sustaining. "Paying for a new sporting complex is one thing, managing it in the future from operating budgets is another," the report warned.

Under the Fair Share agreement, the provincial government will transfer almost $40-million this year to eight communities in the Peace region, a deal that is supposed to compensate for regional economic activity that doesn't directly benefit local government. Premier Christy Clark promised during the election campaign to extend the deal, which is set to expire in 2020.

Story continues below advertisement

But Lori Ackerman, mayor of neighbouring Fort St. John, said her city is reluctant to use their Fair Share funds for operations because there is no certainty that the money will keep flowing. More than 97 per cent of the money is used for capital investments in Fort St. John. "There is a sunset clause on that fund and if the province enacted that, we don't want to be stuck for day-to-day operations which must continue," Ms. Ackerman said.

Dawson Creek's spending habits will be under the microscope this year – the city is one of the first communities to undergo a review by the province's new Auditor-General for Local Government.

Basia Ruta, the municipal auditor, said her role is to help local governments improve accountability and fiscal planning. In the case of Dawson Creek, that means looking at the business case for projects like the community's subsidized arena.

"We'll be asking questions about, how did they come up with those needs, and then taking it over the longer term."

Jordan Bateman, B.C. director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said he wants to see the auditor move quickly to provide scrutiny of programs like Fair Share. "This is taxpayers' money, there should be strings attached to it. We shouldn't be encouraging wild, unaccountable spending."

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter
To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies