The best-run city in Canada

Lean, debt-free, and offering great public services, Burnaby is a model for the country

The best-run city in canadaBurnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan presided over a Grade 3 field trip to the city hall council chambers on the second last day of the school year. He worked the room, assigning each child a task. Some were council members, others city staff or reporters. He draped the chain of office on the shoulders of a girl named Nicola, after extracting a promise she wouldn’t run against him next election. “I need someone to look after my money,” Corrigan said, looking to another girl. “Do you have pockets? No? Okay, then, you can be my director of finance.”

Lucky kids. Burnaby, B.C., ranks as the best-run city in Maclean’s first annual survey of municipal governments, conducted by the Halifax-based Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS), a public policy think tank. AIMS based the ranking on extensive criteria, tracking performance in areas as diverse as socio-economic status, crime, fire services, transportation, road and sewer conditions, economic development, recreation spending, and such indicators of civic engagement as voter turnout and library use. “Generally when you end up first, it means you’re doing well across the board, and that’s pretty much what you find in Burnaby,” says AIMS executive vice-president Charles Cirtwill.

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Corrigan, an advocate of open government, was pleased at Maclean’s first attempt at ranking municipalities, even before learning of Burnaby’s first-place finish. “I think it’s a healthy exercise,” he says. “It’s important to always be benchmarking yourself against what’s happening in other cities.” Burnaby was the only community to rate a B, scoring at or near the top in areas like environmental health, recreation and culture and economic development. It has spent millions to achieve its goal of turning 25 per cent of Burnaby into parkland, one of the highest rates in the survey. It bought out private lands surrounding its two lakes, creating, at Deer Lake Park, one of the great concert venues in the Lower Mainland. The city has also bought industrial lands along the Fraser River and converted them to public use. Its overall cost of government, $148 per person, is substantially below the $235 national average. Spending on economic development initiatives is also modest, yet it has reaped an A-list of knowledge-based industry giants, including Telus and video-game maker Electronic Arts. Members of the region’s development community heaped praise on Burnaby’s planning department this year, rating it the best in the Lower Mainland, “based on competence and ethical professionalism.”

While many Canadian cities are hamstrung by borrowing costs, Burnaby is not only debt-free, it sits on $633 million in financial reserves and a municipal land bank worth hundreds of millions more. The refusal to go into debt, says Corrigan, is a legacy of the dirty thirties, when welfare costs drove Burnaby into bankruptcy and the community was run by trustees. “We always save for what we’re going to buy,” he says. “If we buy a fire truck, we immediately start saving for the next one.”

Burnaby is in good company. Its two larger neighbours—Surrey to the south and Vancouver to the west—finished third and fourth respectively of 31 cities in the survey. Saskatoon ranked second overall and Longueuil, Que., was fifth, all with scores of B-.

There’s no simple explanation why all four top cities are from Western Canada, and three of them are from B.C., says Cirtwill. “What you find is that the top five or six cities do very well in terms of efficiency and effectiveness on recreation and culture,” he says. They have been able to balance economic development and growth pressures with a focus on quality of life issues. “They’re doing good in terms of creating green space, and areas for people to gather and experience the arts,” he says. The western communities have high growth rates, and such quality-of-life amenities as arts, parks and sports facilities help attract and keep young families. As Saskatoon Mayor Don Atchison puts it: “We don’t want people to use this as a stopping point before moving off to what are called the MTVs of the world,” a reference to Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. “We want people, when they move here, to say this feels like a home to me.”

Even top-ranked cities have their share of problems. Crime rates are historically higher in Western Canada and the top cities are not immune. Saskatoon’s rate of all crimes per 100,000 population ranks second in Canada, Surrey ranks fourth and Burnaby ninth. Much of the crime is limited to localized pockets in all three cities, and when policing costs and fire services are taken into account, AIMS graded the efficiency of all three safety and protection services with above-average Bs.

Growth presents both opportunity and challenge. Burnaby, with a current population of about 220,000, has the second largest influx of immigrants of the cities AIMS surveyed—50 per cent of the population, including historically the province’s highest intake of refugees. In the short term, immigrants place a strain on schools and social services, but they offer a long-term benefit to the community and its culture, says Corrigan, and AIMS concurs; it sees immigration levels as a predictor of other successes. In Saskatoon, which has among the lowest immigration levels, just eight per cent, the province’s strong economy has spurred growth from elsewhere in the country. Projections show the city will grow to 260,000 by 2026, an increase of some 50,000. But part of its challenge is that the number of people age 65 and over will more than double by 2026. Keeping pace has necessitated an $800-million infrastructure deficit, for everything from “kneeling” buses to building arterial roads and overpasses to developing areas. Still, Saskatoon maintains a top-ranked AAA credit rating, says Atchison.

Then there’s Surrey, where a third of its residents are under age 25. It is expected to swell to 633,000 by 2026 from the 395,000 measured in the AIMS survey. Surrey’s phenomenal growth rate, and the resulting commuter traffic, has proved one of the greatest headaches not only for its mayor, Dianne Watts, but for Corrigan, across the Fraser River in Burnaby—and for those caught in the perpetual traffic jam that is the Trans-Canada Highway, linking Surrey to Burnaby and Vancouver. “It’s kind of an Achilles heel,” Cirtwill says of Surrey’s transportation scores. “Their spending is a little bit above average and what they’re getting as a result is a little bit below average.” Watts is acutely aware of the problem. When she spoke at a recent Vancouver breakfast meeting of real estate developers, she set her alarm for 4:45 a.m. to make the commute. Each morning traffic from Surrey and further east in the Fraser Valley crawls across the overwhelmed Port Mann bridge and spills into Burnaby, choking its streets en route to Vancouver. “It drives our community crazy,” says Corrigan. “It’s the biggest source of complaints.”

The long-term solution, both Watts and Corrigan agree, is for Surrey to move from a commuter suburb to a self-contained community, a transformation already in the works. “That’s why we’re concentrating on making sure we have jobs for our residents so they can stay within the city,” says Watts.

Meantime, though, the two mayors squared off over a provincial commitment to build a larger 10-lane replacement bridge over the Fraser. Watts supports the multi-billion-dollar expansion on behalf of her car-bound constituents. Corrigan opposed it, winning no friends in Surrey, or the provincial government, but plenty of support at home. Corrigan is so adept at reading the local mood that his left-leaning Burnaby Citizens Association won every council seat last fall. (The party has held the council majority for 24 years.) The resulting lack of suspense may be to blame for one of the worst municipal voter turnouts in the country, 26 per cent, earning Burnaby an F for effective governance.

Corrigan doesn’t mind. He’s still beaming after ushering the students of St. Helen’s School out the door with a handshake, and souvenir pencils and pins. Such visits make politics “real for them,” he says. “It takes away a lot of fear. I think kids, especially, want to know there’s stability around them, there’s structure around them.” It seems their parents value that, too.

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