TIM SMITH/BRANDON SUN
Elliot Sims (above), the Manitoba provincial affairs director for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, met with mayoral candidates Rick Chrest and Shari Decter Hirst after a CFIB survey revealed its Brandon members share a mostly poor outlook of local government. Chrest said tax increases need to be dealt with, while Decter Hirst noted more than half the city’s wages are based on collective agreements that can go to arbitration.
Local members of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business say the City of Brandon is doing a poor job of controlling government wages and is failing to provide reasonable property tax levels.
These are the results of a CFIB survey of its 200 members in Brandon — all small independent business owners.
"We interview our members and ask them about their views on local government," said Elliot Sims, Manitoba provincial affairs director with CFIB.
"And over the last 18 months … only about (eight per cent) believe they are getting good value for money with their public services. Fifty-five per cent actually believe it’s quite poor."
Sims was in Brandon earlier this week to meet with both mayoral candidates — incumbent Mayor Shari Decter Hirst and challenger Rick Chrest. The goal was to express the CFIB’s "strong concerns" regarding city hall.
CFIB represents more than 109,000 members across Canada, including 4,800 in Manitoba.
"Our members’ ... biggest concern right now in Brandon is the significant growth in the overall operating spending of the city," Sims said. "CFIB believes that increasing spending to reflect population growth and inflation is warranted, but in Brandon’s case over the last five years, it’s been going far above that formula."
Decter Hirst said the city has made a significant effort to make information accessible to residents, such as the corporate scorecard, Roadmap for Growth benchmarks and open data.
"There shouldn’t be any reason why people in Brandon don’t know where their city property taxes are going," she said. "What it might mean is that they disagree with where they see it’s going."
Decter Hirst referenced the "frozen pipe debacle" in Winnipeg, which she said was exacerbated because that city didn’t have internal crews and relied on the private sector. Costs for recreation services, beautification, etc., all comes down to the quality of life one wants in a city, Decter Hirst said.
CFIB looked through the city’s financial reports between 2008 and 2012 and found Brandon’s real operating spending increased by 20 per cent.
"That’s just operational spending, that’s not capital projects or anything like that, so we are quite concerned at that level of growth for what we would consider to be sort of your day-to-day spending," Sims said.
Decter Hirst said she was pleased to meet with Sims, as small business is "the engine to our economy;" however, she did take issue with the 20 per cent figure he presented.
"If he’s going to be positioning this around the municipal elections, he needs to segregate the school board taxes from the City of Brandon property taxes, because certainly a lot of the big numbers he’s talking about … include the school board taxes, and … that’s not something mayor and council have control over."
The Brandon School Division’s 2014-15 budget includes a 2.9 per cent tax increase, while the city’s tax increase is 1.4 per cent for 2014. Combined, it equates to just under $68 ($25 from the municipal tax, $43 from the school division) in property taxes for a house assessed at approximately $220,000.
Rick Chrest said the concerns Sims discussed are in line with what many Brandon residents are telling him.
"Taxation increase is a big topic," he said. "It certainly needs to be dealt with … I find that unlike a lot of issues this one is kind of universal, this one affects all walks of life, every size of home, every size of business."
Results of the CFIB survey show 71 per cent of Brandon members believe the city is doing a poor job of controlling government wage levels. Sixty-three per cent of respondents said the city is doing a poor job of providing reasonable property tax levels.
Decter Hirst said the current council has wrestled with the salary issues over the past four years.
"When over half of your wages are based on collective agreements that can go to arbitration ... you have very little impact," she said. "When other people, third-party people are making the decisions, then you’ve got a real dilemma … You can cut services, and that’s obviously a conversation that council has every year."
Meanwhile, 32 per cent of CFIB members said the city is doing an adequate job regarding the fairness of bylaws and regulations. Fifty per cent of respondents said the city is doing a poor job in having overall awareness in the small business sector.
Sims said the purpose of meeting with both mayoral candidates was to start a dialogue about how they can help small businesses achieve their potential.
"We all know that when small businesses are doing well, that means they’re expanding, the economy’s growing, it’s creating jobs, and that creates prosperity for everyone," Sims said.
"As we go forward, and whoever the successful candidates are in the upcoming election, I’ll be very happy to continue this dialogue … as we start going into the 2015 budget year and beyond."
CFIB members are looking for mayoral and councillor candidates to provide their views in "concrete terms" leading up to the October election, Sims said, specifically what they want to do for the city in terms of taxation and spending policies.
Chrest is working on an "outsider’s game plan" on how he might tackle these issues if he becomes mayor.
"When you’re kind of on the outside looking in … you don’t have access to all the information and all the staff and all the research," he said. "The opposition party has a much more difficult time in putting together facts and figures than the governing party, so that’s kind of the boat I’m in."
Chrest expects to make his plan known closer to the fall.
"It’ll take a bit of time to achieve it, I don’t think there’s any merit in putting it out quite this early," he said. "I think the people are not so focused on the election quite yet."
» Twitter: @jillianaustin
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition July 18, 2014