Interview: Michel Prescott, leader of the Montreal Citizen's Movement

As part of its coverage of the upcoming island wide municipal elections - the first in Montreal's history -- the Montreal Business Journal will profiling likely candidates, and staking out their positions on the issues affecting local businesses. MBJ's government issues columnist Peter Diekmeyer met with Prescott on March 27th at City Hall. Following is an edited transcript of that meeting.


Michel Prescott is head of the official opposition at Montreal city hall. He has degrees in both law and administration, from the University of Montreal. He has been a city councilor since 1982, and was the mayoral candidate for the Montreal Citizen's Movement in 1998.

Mr. Prescott...

The administrative aspects of the merger process - which will bring all 27 municipalities on the island of Montreal under one administration -- are now well under way. Are you happy with the way events are unfolding?

We should have put the priority on the construction of the Montreal Metropolitan Community, which groups together 111 municipalities in the greater Montreal area. We should have worked within that organization to develop a new fiscal pact with Quebec City. The political structure of municipalities on the island could have waited. I would have preferred mergers be handled by the municipalities rather than being imposed from Quebec City.

What are your plans for the up-coming mayoralty race?

I want to run. I believe that with my experience in council, that I am the best candidate. But I also believe that mayor Bourque is strong enough that his opponents should unite behind one candidate. So far in principal Vera Danyluk (MUC chairman) has agreed. But we have not been able to agree on the method of choosing the candidate. With Gérald Tremblay it's a different story. He seems to have been chosen in the back rooms.

One of the reasons that the municipalities on the island of Montreal were merged, was because businesses kept moving further away, to escape high taxes from the municipal administration, creating a so-called "donut effect."

Now that the entire island is one city, many of these businesses will start seeing sharp tax increases. What should the municipal administration do to stop them from moving off the island?

Right now each municipality has a different business tax rate. Some are higher, others like Ville St-Laurent are very low. Once the merger is complete, eventually, the tax rate will be the same throughout the island. Companies know this is coming and may begin locating off the island. So the one city proposal rather than halting urban sprawl, may actually contribute to it.

We need a fiscal pact, where people who use city of Montreal services contribute to their cost. When people from outside the city pass through it, using Montreal roads, there is wear and tear on these roads. But it's Montrealers who foot he bill. Various experts have said that fiscal equity would require $150 million in annual transfers from the province to the City of Monteal. The reason that this inequity continues is that most of the government's members of parliament come from off the island. And they protect taxpayers in their own ridings.

You were a part of the Doré team for most of its term in office (1986 to 1994). In 1992 you left the MCM to sit as an independent, and then rejoined the party in 1997. In retrospect, how do the Doré government's achievements, compare to those of the current Bourque administration?

The Doré administration did many good things, such as the urban plan for the old port, and the modernization of the administration. But at the same time, they added to the bureaucracy, which became too costly and too slow. They made a mistake with the imposition of the business surtax They also bought a lot of land for development at high prices, which they were made to later sell at a loss. The administration became too centralized with not enough emphasis on local services. I left the administration in protest over tax increases that were being levied as a result of a new evaluation role.

According to the Bédard report on municipal reorganization, the province of Quebec is highly centralized. The provincial government controls many powers -- taxation and many others -- which Montreal should control to better manage itself. Do you agree with this assessment?

I do, and I'll give you an example. They are talking about building Metro extensions, to both Laval and to the South shore, and a new bridge. But Montreal has no say. A provincial MNA lobbies to have a hospital built in a certain district -- without considering Montreal's overall needs -- because the district happens to be in his riding. This does not make sense to me. They say we shouldn't complain because Montreal does not pay the cost. A new mayor representing 1.8 million Montrealers will want a voice on these matters.

The test should be which government is in the best position to deliver a particular service.
In Ontario, some municipalities have responsibilities in education. In the U.S. many municipalities have responsibilities in health. If the provincial government is going to transfer new responsibilities to us, we need the revenue sources to go with those responsibilities. We also need intra-constitutional guarantees to protect municipalities against the will of provincial governments.

Another Bédard report conclusion was that municipal employees were overpaid relative to those in the public, para-public and presumably the private sectors. Are City of Montreal employees overpaid?

These numbers are drawn from Statistiques Québec, and I'm not going to dispute them. Municipal employees, when you look at the global remuneration package, are paid more than the rest of the market by something like 25%. That is a problem. We have good employees. But we have to find a way to reduce this gap, probably through an eventual freezing of the global remuneration. Taxpayers only have a limited ability to pay.

One of the reasons that Montreal has so little power in Quebec City, is that there are so few Montreal area MNAs, because rural ridings have less people in them than urban ridings. Do you think in an era of the Internet and low cost long distance calls, that it's fair that rural ridings should have more power in Quebec City than urban ridings?

I think the much bigger problem is that the Montreal mayor will not stand up to the provincial government. Apart from the municipal mergers, mayor Bourque has had very little influence. When the housing program and the City de Multi-Média were announced, Mr. Bourque showed up at the press conferences. But those programs were developed and implemented by Quebec. Mr. Bourque did only the smiling and the public relations. Mayor Bourque is in the pocket of the provincial government. He is very useful to them.

Some estimate that francophones will be in the minority on the island of Montreal within 25 years. Isn't it time that English be made one of the island's official languages?

The individual municipalities that have bilingual status, will maintain it after the merger. The City of Montreal already makes available many documents and services in English. Language is a Quebec government responsibility. But we should go further, and offer services to the extent permitted by Bill 101. Montreal is increasingly a cosmopolitan city. And we should also follow a model like that in Toronto, which offers additional services to a broad range of linguistic communities, and not just French and English.

Tell me a little bit about the MCM and what it stands for. Are you a left-wing party?

We are a center-left party. We do have left wing members. But most members are ordinary citizens. You have to remember, there is not a left-wing way to clean a sidewalk. We are progessive and favor development. Democracy is important to us, as is sustainable development.

Thank you Mr. Prescott.


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