Sunday, January 22, 2012

Pineview Terrace Funding - Why Not Look at All the Options?

The issue of how to fund the city's share of the Pineview Terrace construction costs was raised at last week's executive meeting. Administration brought us a number of options - a levy based on the assessed value of the property (as we're doing for the soccer centre), a levy on residential users only, or another flat tax across the tax base (either residential or one including commercial properties). All would be new hits on the tax payer.

Most members of council seemed to think that the flat tax option would be best. I don't like flat taxes. Because they aren't proportional, they are a heavier burden on low and fixed income earners, many of whom live in my ward. Council appears to recognize that flat taxes are inequitable when it comes to commercial properties, because even the current flat tax is graduated for commercial properties, based on value, but there doesn't seem to be the same recognition for residents.

It appears that we're likely to go with a flat tax of $27 for the next three years for residential properties, plus a graduated rate for commercial. Not much, on the surface, you might think. However, this is a city where some residents felt that a $20 annual licence fee for cats, brought in a year ago, was too much, and I've already had a senior from my ward call to express her concerns about the $27.

I proposed that, instead of dipping our hands once again into the tax payers' pockets, we instead divert some of the money that we're already collecting - a portion of the $60 flat tax that was imposed last year, and supposed to be reserved specifically for infrastructure projects. Although there was some pious talk about not using this money because it's supposed to be saved for infrastructure, it hasn't been. More than $1 million was collected through the flat tax last year - only $600,000 remains, because the remainder was used to balance the city's budget over the last year, not set aside. We could do this for three years, as proposed for the flat tax, and still put more than half of the flat tax revenue aside for other infrastructure reasons.

So why not specify that a portion of the current flat tax be set aside specifically to meet our Pineview Terrace obligation? While not solely a city responsibility, it is being built to meet the needs of the community. As is often the case, I didn't get a clear answer.

I'm afraid that, once again, we're going to go for the simplest, easiest answer. Need more money? The easiest way is just to slap on another tax. If we can keep it off the books as part of the official tax increase, all the better, especially in an election year. But all of these incremental costs, whether it be levies, flat taxes, or increased sanitation charges, add up.

Figuring out how to do things better and more fairly would require some innovative thinking. Not enough members of council seem prepared to take the time or make the effort to do that. And, as usual, the tax payer ends up paying.

"The path of least resistance is what makes rivers run crooked." - Elbert Hubbard

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Looking Back, Looking Forward

The end of one year and the start of the next is a time of reflection for most people. Part of it is the changing of the date that is a definitive indication of the passing of time; part of it may be that the quiet time between Christmas and New Year's provides more time for thinking.

Looking back, on the personal side, the past year was more challenging than most for me, with the passing of my mother, and dealing with Andrea's health issues. As is usually the case, these difficult times were made a lot easier by the support and kindness shown by friends. I really don't know how we would have gotten through these events without that support, and I'm truly grateful to have such a network that we can rely on.

Working as part of council also had its share of challenges this past year, as always. A highlight was the relatively early financial information that we were given by adminstration, although I don't think that we spent enough time discussing and using that information to provide direction to administration on budget development. In fact, I'm looking forward to the budget discussions this month to find out how they made the leap from needing a minimum increase of 5.5% just to maintain current levels of activity, to a budget that only requires a 3.9% increase - and that change came barely a month after we got the initial information.

On the positive side, I'm looking forward to the implementation of the landfill pass system, so that we can get an accurate idea of how much providing "free" access to residents actually costs. Since council originally approved taking this action in the fall of 2010, but administration did not follow this direction in 2011, this has been a change somewhat overdue.

2012 will be an election year. Election years are always interesting, although at least we won't be trying the 0% tax increase that was passed three years ago - I think that most members of council have realized that costs deferred merely become increased costs, and nobody benefits. This is the time to start asking your councillor the tough questions about how they have voted in the past, whether they would vote differently now, and how they stand on some of the ideas that are being noised about for the future, such as a new arena or an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

This is also the time that those who think that they would like to try a run for council should take a test run. Review the budget, come to the public meeting, think of where you would make cuts or propose different ways of doing things. Read over council agendas, come to some meetings to see how things work. Read up on parliamentary procedures (something that I wish some current members of council would do), so that you know what you should and shouldn't do when it's your turn to chair part of the meeting. As I'm sure every member of council would tell you, it's a lot harder than it looks from the outside.

And this time, the council that is elected will be in place for four years, rather than three. That's an extra year for council to try to work to improve all facets of the city, and achieve various goals. Let's hope that the council that is next elected sets as one of its goals becoming more fiscally open and responsible.

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." - Margaret Mead