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Public unloads on core services review

The difficulty not-for-profits would endure, including curtailing some programs that aid the most vulnerable citizens of the city, and avoiding privatizing city services were the two predominant themes during the ‘community conversation’ public meeting held at CNC Tuesday night to discuss the suggestions KPMG forwarded to council following the core services review.

About 200 people filled the CNC atrium, with more straggling in as citizen after citizen spoke, outlining a number of concerns.

Councillors Garth Frizzell, Frank Everitt and Brian Skakun all attended the meeting as well, while Mayor Shari Green and councillors Murry Krause, Dave Wilbur, Albert Koehler and Cameron Stolz were absent, as they said they would be.

Some chose not to attend after the community charter regulations were discussed at a previous council meeting, with some concern expressed over what constituted a quorum of council when outside chambers.

For others, like Stolz, it was a matter of standing for the process for public input council had already agreed to, an additional service KPMG undertook for them which increased the price of the core review.

He also questioned the motive for the public meeting, which was at least partially organized by the union, as a “reprehensible” effort to make “political hay” out of the process.

PRIVATIZATION

One resident spoke out against privatization and defended her right to do so as a union member.

“My union wages build your economy,” she said, adding tax-payers’ money should not be spent on private companies.

The money would then leave the community, she said.

The goal of private companies, she added, is to turn a profit and improve that profit each and every year.

She pointed out privatization has been a dismal failure in England.

“I was at every core review meeting,” Chris Stern, a city resident, said. “People don’t want work to be contracted out. They want good service.”

He said it’s the lowest bidder that wins the tender, and said he is concerned about a subsequent drop in service levels.

PERMISSIVE TAX EXEMPTION

Several well-known and respected community members came out to talk about how changing tax exemptions for not-for-profits could hurt not only those organizations, but in the end cause the city to lose money.

Taylor Sapergia, president of the Prince George Rod and Gun Club, pointed out the exemption allowed them to pass on the savings by offering their range to everyone from the Girl Guides to the RCMP, either for free or at a reduced rate.

Donalda Carson, executive director of the Prince George Hospice Society, said the city built the first free-standing hospice house in the province in 1995, something it should be proud of. Losing the permissive sales tax equates to the loss of about 20 shifts per year, something that will affect families, and in particular a program put in place to help youth deal with dying and grief.

Karen Underhill, executive director of the Phoenix Transition Society, said they already got the letter stating they face a three per cent tax fee this year.

“To us that’s five jugs of milk,” she said, pointing out they housed 385 women and children last year.

They also have houses they can rent at a lowered cost, thanks in part to the tax exemption.

Gary Campbell, a member of the local horse community, said he had a bit of a different view of the importance of not-for-profit organizations. He pointed out the core review is all about saving money, yet the horse community, with the not-for-profit organizations that support them, scrape by while bringing about $2 million into the city through tourism every year.

St. Andrew’s Church minister David Wood questioned the numbers behind the stats, which say there are 185 NFP’s in the city, compared to 42 in Kamloops. However, he pointed out the church’s property is counted as two places, one being the parking lot.

Three NFP groups operate out of the church, he said, all on a shoe-string budget, mentioning in particular the food hamper program.

Wood said the bureaucracy at city hall continues to increase. At first, churches were automatically exempt from taxes. Then they had to fill out a form each year to claim the exemption. He said since there are 185 NFP’s, the bureaucracy adds staff time and cost to the process. Now one option listed in the KPMG report, he said, adds again to that bureaucracy.

Mostafa Mohamed, president of the city’s Muslim Association said they finally saved enough money to build a worship centre, and now they are being told it will be taxed.

“We struggled hard to establish a place of worship,” he said.

He added the existence of a place of worship in Prince George helped draw at least 200 international students  primarily from Saudi Arabia to the city, injecting $500,000 every month into the community.

“The city can’t run like a business,” one resident said. “It’s not here to make a profit. Do not tax not-for-profit’s. tax the people downtown, for crying out loud. They already have enough tax breaks.”

Captain Neil Wilkinson said the Salvation Army has been part of Prince George for 92 years. He said the city should celebrate the fact it has 185 not-for-profit organizations.

“Celebrate the 185 not-for-profits that make this one of the best communities in all of B.C.,” he said. “Show us your support by not taxing not-for-profits.”

OTHER IDEAS

The crowd expressed its appreciation for former city mayor, Dan Rogers, who spoke at the meeting as well, by greeting him with an exuberant round of applause.

Rogers said the suggestions laid out following the core review are short on revelations and new ideas. The potential impact of some of the proposed changes are questionable.

He pointed out that consolidating 9-1-1 services may sound rational, but it was a possibility the city looked into a decade ago resulting in a document called the Mitchell report which concluded doing so would risk public safety.

Janet Bigelow, president of CUPE local 1048, and one of the event organizers, asked why Initiatives Prince George wasn’t scrutinized like other organizations.

“What about IPG? They get $1 million dollars while similar organizations in cities. like Chilliwack get $500,000 annually. We have not-for-profits who can’t afford milk, who can’t afford to help the people who need it the most, but we can give IPG $1 million?”

Several things could be done to save money that wouldn’t hurt the local not-for-profits, she said.

She suggested the city can save money in simple ways, like not adding fluoride to the water, to discontinuing financially supporting the sports centre at the university.

The I ‘heart’ PG organization said it intends to continue the conversation started last week by organizing another public meeting soon.

 

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