Thursday, August 15, 2013

Could a Rob Ford be coming to Victoria?

It would not take much work to create a cynical populist campaign ala Rob Ford in the City of Victoria.   A few well chosen slogans and a couple of nice graphs on a website and you could tap into a long term rising anger among the electorate.   I have no desire to see a Rob Ford type of confrontational person elected as mayor in Victoria but I am afraid that is where we are headed.

There are enough people out there that own homes or have businesses that already feel they are being taxed too much and not getting useful services.   Homeowners are more important in the civic election because when you look at voter turn out in the City of Victoria, it is the homeowners that are much more likely to vote, not the renters even though the majority of people living in the City are renters.   These homeowners who are the bulk of the municipal electoral get reminded constantly that they are paying the freight for the City and ever increasing number them want it to stop.

The right populist candidate could resonate with the home owners and win the mayor's seat with something similar to Rob Ford's "Stop the Gravy Train" slogan in 2010.   There are enough examples out there to make a Fordesque slogan ring true to the people you just need the right people to create the message and the right candidate to deliver it.   We do have our own angry rich older white men in this city.

In the 2011 municipal elections we saw some evidence for a desire in change in the public.  Three sitting councilors were defeated by three new comers promising a more open and accountable city.   In Victoria, Saanich and Langford, the three largest municipalities in the CRD, it has been very rare to see an incumbent councilor defeated, to see three lose meant something more was at play .   There was an interest in seeing change.

I am afraid of a Rob Ford character happening here because I was asked to go for coffee with someone and their campaign manager who could be a the western version.  OK, no one can be Rob Ford because no one can be that farcically entertaining all the time.  But there seems to be at least someone in Victoria that wants to run for mayor to slash and burn City Hall.  I said no to the coffee and since their business is not one that has impact on my world I felt OK telling him I thought he would not make a good mayor.  The phone call got rather frosty at that point.

This populist anti City Hall anger is not happening randomly for no reason, the City of Victoria has a major financial problem that has to be addressed effectively and over time.   The City of Victoria has allowed costs to rise faster than it should and at the same time has not planned well for the financial future.  A barbarian at the gate is not going to improve the situation.  The reality is that the single biggest cost for the City is the staff and no change there is going to be possible easily or quickly.  A dramatic mercurial mayor will only cause the situation to worsen.

City Hall has to bite the bullet and work hard to hold salary costs well below the rate of inflation for a decade.    As the City I would be seeking a five year deal with CUPE that sees 0% increase in return for no job loses.  The union has to accept that the wages and benefits in Victoria are not insync with elsewhere and be realistic.  That will not be easy for them and asking it of them will not be easy of City managers or the council.   This part will suck for them but they are not the only ones that will have to suffer.

At the same the City has to look at raising taxes faster than the rate of inflation.  I think 5% to 6% tax increases for the next few years on houses is more of what is needed to deal with the chronic under funding of capital replacement among other things.  The City also needs to raise the taxes higher on homeowners because the current property tax burden sits too much on the business community.    This sucks for the homeowners but the financial needs of the City have been neglected for several decades now and can not be fixed fast enough to avoid larger tax increases.  There are important capital projects that the City is simply not prepared for.

What we need is a pragmatic, hard nosed mayor that is sensitive to the needs of the staff but places the long term needs of the City first.  This person has to be smart and diplomatic with the ability to develop and implement a long term vision.  I do not know who that is, but I have a couple of ideas.   What the really City does not need is a Rob Ford.

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