Another bombshell hit the news yesterday - the city owes Domtar over 2 million dollars for overpayment of taxes. This isn't just Domtar's claim, it's a judge's decision, and as such, the taxpayer is on the hook, both for city taxes and for whichever school system you support.
The problem is - we've known that this, or something in this financial neighbourhood, was coming for some time. I suggested several times in previous years' budget processes that we set up a reserve fund to pay for whatever the final bill was - most of council didn't think that was necessary. Those who think that just because Domtar is a big company they should just forget about this relatively small (to them, not to us) amount are forgetting that Domtar is not responsible to the city, they are responsible to their shareholders, and they didn't get to be successful by forgiving debts. Perhaps that's a lesson that the city could use, in tracking down delinquent taxpayers.
In any case, I feel badly for the five new councillors - this was not included in this year's budget, even though administration knew about it. And now these rookies are being asked questions for which they have no answers, and will doubtless be blamed for not coming clean, even though they didn't know. There's something wrong with the system when administration keeps vital information from members of council. After all, council is supposed to be in charge, not administration. For those members of council who were re-elected in this fall's election, once again they were prevented from talking about this because it was discussed in camera, making it confidential. Personally, once the court decision was made, which was some time ago, I think that it should have been made public immediately, because court decisions are public, if you know where to look.
No question, this will be a big hit to the city. So what can be done to lessen the blow to taxpayers? Well, the budget process should be reopened, to make sure that this legal requirement gets paid before we spend money on wants. When I talk about wants, I mean the nice-to-have-if-you-can-afford-them things, like paving the Art Hauser Centre parking lot, or golf course improvements, or the mayors' slush fund to pay other people's parking tickets - big or small, all these unnecessary expenses need to be cut. And an immediate hiring freeze should be put in place. These are the kind of actions that a normal person would take when faced with a big bill - save wherever you can and put the money towards the essentials. Because as we all know, interest payments won't stop on this amount - it will only get bigger the longer payment is deferred. Paying it has to be a priority.
Second, some change in process should be made to ensure that it's not acceptable to try to keep this kind of information under the carpet. I'm not sure what world some of the people involved in this mess live in, but where I come from the longer you delay letting people know bad news, the worse it gets, and the more people get angry because they feel they were deceived. Nobody realistic would ever expect their members of council not to make mistakes; what they want is to be kept informed. That's what transparency is supposed to be all about - it doesn't mean coming clean long after you know that there's a problem.
And that results in immediate loss of trust. It takes a long time to build a trusting relationship - it takes only one incident such as this to destroy it, perhaps irreparably. All the fast talk that can be mustered to try to put a good face on the problem means nothing if it's not followed up with action, and demonstration that a lesson has been learned, by changing the ways that things are done.
"What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say." - Ralph Waldo Emerson