Time to prove taxpayers come first

The bitter dispute erupting between Queen’s Park and the city of Toronto should give taxpayers of Northumberland County pause for thought since our own version of the divisive battle may be coming here very soon.
Cabinet minister Chris Stockwell accused Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman of using provincial downloading as an excuse to raise property taxes. Both sides were quick to point to the other saying it was their fault for the financial bind. Deloitte and Touche, an independent auditor, will present a report shortly, aimed at clarifying the situation. But in the meantime, Lastman is making as much yardage as possible. But the province is not backing off either. Both are trying to tar the other in the minds of taxpayers so they won’t get blamed when the bad news arrives in the spring – YOUR TAXES ARE GOING UP.

Downloading began in earnest in 1998 when the provincial government took over funding of education while passing back the full costs for services ranging from public housing, public health, transportation, ambulance, police services and a larger share of welfare administration, among others.

While that all sounds well and good, it has left municipal governments writhing. The burden of paying for additional services without provincial subsidy meant massive cutbacks with little or no debate, as municipal politicians try to balance the books without a tax hike. Certainly there was a lot of blame handed out in the 1997 municipal elections as downloading was about to take place, but it was noticeably absent this past fall.

Politicians across Northumberland will be starting into serious budget discussions shortly. For the next three months there will be plenty of number crunching and hair pulling as the new councils arrive at the final figures.

It will be very easy for local decision-makers to lose their way. Fresh into a new mandate, it is politically easier to raise taxes in the first term of office because people will forget the pain three years from now in the next election.

It will also be easy to point at the province as the bogeyman, just like Mayor Lastman. But that will serve no purpose other than be a distraction. Obviously that is what Lastman wants and Stockwell knows better than to pick a fight he will lose. When the report comes out, don’t be surprised if you get dizzy with all the public relations spinning that will take place.

But there is another agenda working here. The provincial government will be able to hold out Toronto as an example. This fight will be the focus of all the attention. Smaller municipalities will be lost in the scuffle and the plight of places like Northumberland will be shoved aside. Our voice will be drowned out.

Local politicians can do better.

First, a full accounting must be done. Hopefully, we won’t have to pay $85,000 for an audit. But somebody has to put down on paper what is going on. This will assure local taxpayers of the accountability of local and county governments, while hushing provincial critics.

This should not be just the usual endless spreadsheet, but also a serious look at services being delivered. While money may be saved, the end result for residents may not be good.
Next, under the newly amalgamated councils, a comprehensive economic plan must quickly emerge, showing how these unified townships and towns will function to find efficiency and better delivery of services.

With all this in hand, the second step for local leaders should be to sit down with Northumberland MPP Doug Galt and make their case. They should not count on provincial lobbyists like the Association of Municipalities of Ontario to do their job. This should be a frank and meaningful discussion. Hopefully, Galt will hear the concerns and take them to Queen’s Park for a full airing. It is one time he should resist any urge to be partisan. He has done this in the past and he can do it again this time.

The timing couldn’t be better. Municipal Affairs Minister Tony Clement is going to deliver a new Municipal Act shortly, aimed at giving more powers to local government. While this may look good, it really doesn’t help us, if we just end up paying more property tax or some kind of additional local tax.

The province may be proudly telling us it is cutting our taxes this year, but it won’t do us any good if we have to spend it on more municipal taxes. It is just a shell game and we lose every time.

In the end, a lot of this is really silly. As taxpayers, we end up paying the bill, whether through our property tax or provincial taxes or whatever creative way someone finds to fund government. It still comes out of our bank account. Like many things in politics, somebody doesn’t want to shoulder the blame or take responsibility to be accountable. In some cases, the province might be better off taking back some services. Municipalities should get a break. But they also need to be efficient and cost effective.

Politicians will tell you taxpayers come first. Well, prove it.

First published: Jan. 3, 2001

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