Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Jim Eglinski, and I am the mayor of the city of Fort St. John. I have with me Mr. John Locher, my city manager. Thank you for inviting us to speak here today.
We agree with the premise of your consultation initiative that if Canada is to have a meaningful place in the world, our citizens and our businesses must prosper. We also agree that for citizens and businesses to prosper in this increasingly competitive world, Canada must have the infrastructure required to ensure a high quality of life and efficient local, regional, and national economies.
But people and businesses don’t just live and work in Canada or even in a province or territory. They live and work in communities, large and small, like Fort St. John or Whitehorse. If you want individuals and firms to be happy, healthy, and prosperous, you must support not only federal and provincial infrastructure but the infrastructure of each of these communities, large and small.
While previous federal governments have attempted to support a narrow range of municipal infrastructure, like roads, water, and sewer, and the current government is supporting roads, bridges, and border crossings, it is my humble submission that these programs are short-term and costly to administer and suffer from a lack of accountability and transparency. We believe you can do better.
You have asked what specific federal tax or program spending measures should be implemented to ensure our nation has the infrastructure required by citizens and businesses. Our answer: you must change the way it is funded. Communities like Fort St. John need this to be done as soon as possible.
You may find it hard to believe that a city like Fort St. John needs your help with infrastructure. After all, the city is in the midst of rapid growth and transformation.
We are the oil and gas capital of British Columbia and the primary service centre for the province’s northeast. Fort St. John has a major softwood forest industry, including a world-class oriented strand board plant. We are at the centre of the largest agricultural region in the province. Our city boasts the second youngest population in Canada, and its residents have the highest net incomes in the province. The BMO Financial Group recently ranked the city third on its list of small business--it's a hotbed among 111 communities across Canada--second for small business growth in the next five years, and first in the number of businesses per thousand people.
So why do we need your help? A booming economy is a double-edged sword for small municipalities like Fort St. John. We are challenged to attract sufficient employees to the community to support the resource industries and the growth in the community. Our revenues don’t go up as much as those of the private sector, individuals, or the two senior levels of government when the economy booms. Our only significant revenue source is property tax, and we are constrained by both the property values and the political costs of increasing the already high tax burden of our citizens.
However, the demands on our municipal infrastructure--roads, sewers, parks, cultural amenities, sports facilities, and other programs--are skyrocketing. More goods are moving on our roads, and companies expect us to provide cultural and arts facilities to attract and keep their employees in the area. The list goes on to include expanding libraries to meet growth, working with our senior levels of government to renew health facilities, and establishing additional post-secondary training facilities in these communities.
But while these demands increase, our revenues do not. And Fort St. John is among the luckier small communities; our economy is strong. I can only imagine how difficult it is for communities that don't have a strong economic base.
What do we recommend for all our small communities, those trying to keep up with a booming economy and those that don't have one?
One, eliminate the short-term, one-off federal infrastructure initiatives, whereby programs take longer to design, negotiate, and implement.
Two, adopt the principle of subsidiary by which key decisions affecting local communities, like infrastructure spending, are made locally. This will not only speed things up, but it will clear things up.
Three, expand the definition of infrastructure to include not only roads, bridges, and sewers, which may not be a priority for every community.... Each community has a different set of priorities and should be able to set them.
How can you do this when your own budgeting process is an annual one, usually no more than four years? It has to become local, simple. This is my message to you today. Work with the provinces and territories to give municipalities, both large and small, an appropriate share of the wide array of income, sales, and other taxes collected by senior levels of government; reduce our dependency on property tax; and give back a portion of what is generated locally in sales, income, and other taxes.
We already have a precedent that's been set, whereby municipalities can secure a share of the gas tax. We believe this should be expanded to include goods and services, income, corporate, and other taxes you collect.