British Columbia

UBCM convention kicks off with speculation, health taxes top of mind for municipalities

After one year as minister of municipal affairs and housing, Selina Robinson has a rosy view of her government's relationship with city halls across British Columbia.

Annual event is the biggest opportunity for municipalities to lobby provincial government

John Horgan after his address at the 2017 UBCM convention, where the provincial government announced a province-wide homelessness count, along with funding for modular homes in Vancouver. (Justin McElroy/CBC)

After one year as minister of municipal affairs and housing, Selina Robinson has a rosy view of her government's relationship with city halls across British Columbia.

"I think we've done a really good job over the past year of fixing what had been a broken relationship. We've focused a lot on making sure we had an understanding we were committed to working together," said Robinson in advance of the 2018 Union of B.C. Municipalities convention.

The annual event, which begins Monday, is an opportunity for local governments to come together, share best practice and lobby the provincial government — both in direct meetings with ministers and in resolutions passed on the convention floor.

Robinson pointed to cannabis legalization, funding for TransLink and the reforms to campaign finance on a local level as areas where the provincial government has worked well with municipalities.

"Our government has really tackled the idea of partnership and relationship building. We work so much more when we work well together," she said.

Provincial governments typically make at least one policy announcement during the UBCM — last year it was a province-wide homeless count and funding for modular housing — but Robinson declined to say if there would be any announcement in 2018.

The convention ends Friday with an address from Premier John Horgan. The full UBCM program can be found here

Tax criticism

Local governments submitted 205 resolutions for the convention, the majority of which will be debated over the course of the week.

While many of them concern longstanding issues of contention between local and municipal government, several resolutions focused on two new taxes the province introduced earlier this year: the speculation and health payroll tax.

Some municipalities have criticized the speculation tax for being implemented in their jurisdictions without any local control, and criticized the health payroll tax — which replaces MSP premiums — because it will increase expenses for local governments.

"The payroll tax is a million bucks a year to us. A full point of tax increase is likely," said Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart.

"When the government says 'we're going to get rid of MSP', what they're really saying is 'we're going to take it out of a different pocket.'"

High marks for minister

However, Robinson said that municipal lobbying against the taxes would likely be ineffective.

"We've been clear as a government and British Columbians have been clear: they want a speculation tax, and we've done that," she said.

"And we also have to remember with the employer health tax, this is about saving money out of people's pockets. We're the last province with MSP, which is a regressive form a taxation."

Despite his criticism of the payroll tax, Stewart largely gave Robinson high marks for her handling of local issues during her first year in office.

"I think she's done a good job of responding to issues on the housing file, on the municipal file," he said.

"She's got a lot of capability and we're trying to work with her, and I have a lot of confidence she can bring to bear some solutions."

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