My latest column for 24 Hours Vancouver.

Finally some good news for taxpayers. Well, sort of.

Burnaby ran a big surplus in 2014. In fact, they took in $158 million more than they spent. It’s a big number and what’s even more impressive is that it is about $100 million more than was expected.

Revenues were up and spending was kept under control. Sounds great, just the sort of prudent management of public money by a city council that I argue in favour of in this column.

But that’s not the whole story. Burnaby may have had a windfall, but what are they going to do with the money?

It turns out they put it in the bank, which isn’t a bad idea, but they are forgetting an important fact. It’s not their money. It belongs to the people of Burnaby.

Government surpluses are great – way better than running deficits and having to borrow money. But what surpluses really are is the government collecting more money than they need.

If they don’t need it, how about giving it back? Surpluses mean residents are paying taxes which are unnecessarily high.

What makes things worse in Burnaby’s situation is that taxes are going up. City Hall announced a tax hike of 2.98% for 2015. Now, they claim this is a great deal and if they weren’t so good at managing things the tax increase could have been as much as 5%.

What the City of Burnaby should do is pass this $100 million in extra cash back to families and small businesses by not raising their taxes. It’s a lot of money – it is close to one quarter of the City of Burnaby’s entire budget.

In their draft 2015 Financial Plan city staff lay out plans for tax hikes over each of the next five years totalling $42.2 million. Why not start by cancelling those tax hikes? It would still leave a healthy surplus. In fact, why not go a bit further and actually cut taxes a little?

We live in an expensive part of the world, and it is only getting more expensive. If we want everyday people to be able to afford to live here, government should try to make things a bit cheaper. Every little bit helps families, seniors on fixed incomes and small businesses.

The people of Burnaby should win from their City Hall’s good fiscal management and not be asked to shell out for higher taxes.

My latest for 24 Hours Vancouver.

Way back in 2008, Gregor Robertson was elected on a wave of hope and change. Things were going to be different. Vancouver was going to be the greenest city in the world.

Robertson also made a massive promise – to end street homelessness. How could we call ourselves a world-class city when people were literally dying on the street in the Downtown Eastside?

If anyone could end homelessness it was Robertson because he cared – right?

Way back in 2008, there was a feeling that things were going to change – and in seven years street homelessness would be a thing of the past.

The trouble is that seven years came and went, and street homelessness is still very much a reality for far too many people in our city. In fact, in 2014 the homeless count found 538 people living on the streets – an increase from 273 the year before.

If you don’t believe the statistics, try seeing it with your own two eyes by spending a few minutes in the Downtown Eastside.

So how does Robertson explain his utter failure to end street homelessness?

Believe it or not, he blames it on the weather. That’s right, our mayor blames his failure to achieve a major promise on the fact that it is pretty warm out here all year round.

Apparently it never occurred to him or any of his Vision Vancouver pals that the weather in Vancouver is nice.

For as long as anyone can remember, homeless people have been drifting into Vancouver. Maybe it is true that the mild climate has something to do with this trend, especially given the extra frigid sub-zero winter weather we have been seeing lately in places like Toronto.

But this is all news to Robertson – who has seemingly just realized that Vancouver has lovely weather which has been attracting people to our coast for a long time.

As excuses go, it is spectacularly weak, and frankly insulting to voters who expect politicians to achieve results.

The weather in Vancouver has always been better than the rest of the country. It was true in 2008 when Gregor first promised to eliminate street homelessness and it is true today.

It is lazy to find excuses not to fix problems, it takes hard work to recognize challenges and fix problems despite those challenges.

But this is what we expect our elected leaders to do – find solutions, not excuses.

Ending street homelessness is a big goal – hopefully in seven years we will see some change for the better, not more excuses.

My column in this week’s 24 Hours Vancouver.

The housing market is the ubiquitous topic of conversation in Vancouver.

Everyone has an opinion about it. It’s an obsession that is rivaled only by our compulsion to talk about the weather.

Keith Roy, a Vancouver realtor, is one of them. After years of buying and selling homes for his clients, he is building a house for himself under the new 2015 City of Vancouver building bylaw.

He is detailing his home building adventure on his blog “Building in Vancouver,” found at buildinginvancouver.com. His hope is to share his experience step by step to give people an idea of the cost and red tape associated with building a house in Vancouver.

“I want to highlight how decisions made in the council chambers affect end users, because sometimes I think good intentions have very expensive consequences”, says Roy.

For people who have a phobia of government bureaucracy, this excruciatingly detailed blog will surely give them nightmares.

Something as simple as removing a dead tree stump and a diseased, almost-dead tree from his property has turned into a costly and time-consuming process for Roy.

The Protection of Trees ByLaw is a staggering 46 pages long. It is a verbose document which Roy amusingly points out must have resulted in the death of several trees just to print.

The protection of trees in our city is important, and we all love the beautiful oak and cherry blossom trees that adorn our city streets and help maintain a healthy ecosystem. There should absolutely be laws to protect them.

However, as Roy points out, his trees are, in fact, a stump and a dying fruit tree that hasn’t produced a piece of fruit in a decade.

Nevertheless, Roy has to go through the same permit process as someone looking to remove a healthy, old growth tree. This doesn’t make a lot of sense. As Roy points out, why is the City of Vancouver applying the same level of protection to a tree stump as it does to a healthy, beautiful mature tree?

To get his permit, Roy has to pay application fees, obtain arborist reports, produce a tree plan, possibly get a report from a plumber and fill out a permit application.

Roy estimates it will cost him about $561 to $650 just to get the green light from the city to remove the stump and the dying tree from his property.

This is a shining example of government making things unnecessarily hard and expensive for people.

When getting permission to remove a tree stump costs the same and requires the same permit process as getting permission to remove a 100-year-old Arbutus tree, something isn’t right.

My latest column for 24 Hours Vancouver.

In this column I often tell sad tales of public money waste being perpetrated by our municipal governments – from larger-than-life civic salaries to politicians golfing on the taxpayers’ dime.

Unfortunately, there are too many tales to count.

Thank goodness the provincial government appointed a watchdog to keep an eye on municipal spending. In 2012, the Office of the Auditor General for Local Government was created, headed up by Basia Ruta.

What a great concept. An auditor general specifically tasked with sniffing out waste at the local level and holding city councils to account.

Too bad it has been an utter failure.

Only two years into its infancy, it seems like this agency needs its own watchdog – and badly.

Here are some numbers that would make any auditor cringe. The AGLG has ten staff and an annual budget of $2.6 million. Ruta earns $200,000 annually, and her office has spent about $5.2 million in the past two years. With all this staff and resources, Ruta’s office is supposed to be auditing local governments across the province. However, to date the AGLG has only released one audit of one municipality. One single audit, that’s it.

This glacial pace of productivity is truly astounding – and unacceptable.

To make matters worse, a report that looked at the work environment in Ruta’s office was recently leaked and it suggests there are some serious problems. The report details frustrations expressed by Ruta’s staff that their time and work were wasted.

It sounds like Ruta’s office is a picture-perfect example of the sort of waste and inefficiencies her office was mandated to fix.

Ruta attempted to defend the issues in her office by chalking it up to “growing pains.” She has promised there will be audit reports released soon.

But at this point, it is too little, too late.

Taxpayers have doled out $400,000 in salary for Ruta and all we have to show for it is one audit report. A failure of this magnitude would never be tolerated in the private sector, so why is it tolerated in government?

An auditor general whose own office is wrought with waste and inefficiencies, according to the leaked report, does not have the credibility to audit and call out the waste of others. The AGLG needs to be leading by example.

Enough is enough. It is time to replace Ruta, bring in a new AGLG and hold local governments to account for their spending.

My latest for Huffington Post.

March 8 is International Women’s Day.

Unfortunately, recent events in our world have not given us a whole lot to celebrate. Female genital mutilation is a serious problem in places like the U.K.women and girls are being kidnapped en masse by extremists, and ISIS is determined to strip females of their personhood.

Domestically, the picture isn’t rosy either.Death by domestic violence is on the risesex trafficking is a growing problem and thanks to social media “rape culture” is more prevalent than ever.

It is clear that even in 2015, there is a lot of work to be done both at home and abroad to advance the rights and equality of women.

Let’s take a peek at what the federal political parties in this country are doing to make a difference.

Over in the Liberal camp, MP Mauril Belanger has tabled a bill to change the lyrics of Canada’s national anthem to make it gender neutral by removing gendered terms like “sons.” In a 1,205 word speech delivered in the House of Commons by Liberal MP and one time Liberal Leader Stephane Dion, he states “it is a seemingly simple bill, perhaps one of the simplest bills we have ever debated in this House.

Too bad the real issues facing women’s equality in this country aren’t simple. They are complicated, and can’t be fixed by altering a word or two on paper.

What about the NDP? They have always been outspoken champions of women’s equality — surely they are working on something that will make a real difference in the lives of women, right? NDP MP Irene Mathyssen has tabled a private member’s billaimed at abolishing the GST on women’s menstrual products like tampons. According to proponents of this bill, female hygiene product taxes are discriminatory.

Too bad that tax free tampons won’t do anything to stop the discrimination faced by women everyday in places like the workplace and even on school campus.

Last but not least, what has the Conservative Party been up to? Well, the Minister of Health Rona Ambrose recently invested $100 million dollars towards the fight against domestic violence. The money will go towards helping the victims of family violence and preventing violence. It will make a real, tangible difference in the lives of women for years to come.

Alright Liberals and NDP, either step up your game or give credit where credit is due by joining forces with the government to put an end to violence against women.

Cheaper tampons and lyric editing are simply not the best use of parliament’s time and resources when women still face very serious issues that impede their safety and equality.

Making the country, and the world, an equal and safe place for women should be a non-partisan goal. On International Women’s Day 2015, let’s see all parties take a stand against domestic violence, and pledge to work together to fight it.

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