A city government expert who addressed Campbell River’s business community may be able to brag about having one of the longest shelf lives as a city manager, but he’s also been carrying around an unfortunate name.
“My name really is Jerry Berry,” Berry, 56, began. “My grandfather’s name is Jerry Berry, my father’s name is Jerry Berry. My son’s name is Christopher. History can change and that’s part of what I’ll be speaking about today.”
Berry spoke to a crowd of about 50 people at the Chamber of Commerce’s membership lunch in the Royal Coachman’s Carriage Room Wednesday afternoon. Berry’s talk was lined up to coincide with Local Government Awareness Week in a joint effort between the Chamber and the City of Campbell River.
Berry, a University of Victoria graduate, started his career in local government in the early 1980s as an administrative assistant for the City of Nanaimo after following his wife to the Harbour City. He worked his way up to the role of city manager for the City of Nanaimo and kept that position for 22 years. Today, he travels around speaking to local government officials, the public, and students. He also works as a teacher at Capilano College.
Berry’s work has provided him the opportunity to see many different places and of those, Campbell River stands out.
“I would argue Campbell River is the poster child for making transitions in a positive way,” Berry said. “It’s a good news story in Campbell River. I don’t know if you realize the challenge this council was faced with coming in. I’ve never seen a mill leave so abruptly. Campbell River has done a fantastic job with turning a corner after such an abrupt hit to the economy.”
And speaking of council, Berry tried to put into perspective the task council has shouldered.
“Anybody who’s married knows it’s hard to get two people to agree; it’s even harder to get seven people to agree,” Berry said. “I just want you to think about that when you think councils are a three-ring circus.”
Berry acknowledged the incredible burden councils, and local governments have to work with.
In 1961, around 17 per cent of local taxation went to city governments, while in 2007 that went down drastically to nine per cent. Further, 50 years ago 74 per cent of a person’s income tax went to local taxes whereas in 2007, that figure decreased to 24 per cent.
Berry said the bulk of our taxes go to the provincial and federal government, but it’s local government that has the most noticeable impact on our everyday lives as city government provides services such as: water, sewer, garbage and recycling, parks and recreation, police and fire.
“Local government is the one that’s doing things, on just eight cents of every dollar,” Berry said.
He said the biggest problem is that local government is unsustainable.
“The problem for cities is you can’t provide growth if you don’t support infrastructure but if you don’t support infrastructure you can’t accommodate growth,” Berry said. “You’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t.”
Berry said the first step in fixing local government is identifying there is a problem. He said the next step is recognizing “that there’s never going to be enough money, ever.
“The reality is there’s never going to be enough money and there’s infinite good things to do in the community and it’s about making tough choices,” Berry said. “You can’t say yes to everything but our political system is set up to reward those who say yes.”
Berry said his solution to making local government sustainable is not more taxes, rather implementing consumption taxes – those who use the services pay, and the more you use, the more you pay. Those who live far from the city core, which makes it more expensive for the city to connect its sewer and water lines, for example, could be charged more in taxes.
Berry said the reality is taxes will go up and the situation for local governments is likely to become harder and harder unless changes are made to a property tax system which has been in place since Queen Victoria was a little girl – roughly 200 years ago.
“Cities are now more important and probably always were more important than the so-called senior governments in our lives,” Berry said. “They are the biggest employer in the private sector in B.C., larger than the province, larger than the feds. People don’t see that.”