It’s that time of year when many of us follow the ups and downs of gas prices following the summer driving season. Maybe you’re the sort to rush out of your way to the gas station that’s a few cents a litre cheaper.
But in the end, how much does this really save you? Likely not enough for a cup of coffee. The impact is more psychological than practical.
We also find ourselves in the run-up to the next municipal election. Here too, public fascination fixes on the minutiae of dollars and cents. What if city council (in Ottawa) hadn’t held to an arbitrary limit on property tax increases?
How much more money would have been available to city coffers if property taxes had gone up in each of the last four years by a quarter percentage point more, or a half, than they actually did?
Media – I can only assume because of too much time on their hands during a slow summer news cycle – have been indulging in this kind of speculative editorializing which strains to create a story where there isn’t one.
Running in circles with “what if?”
Case in point: The CBC recently ran a piece which looked at the City of Ottawa’s cash flow and asked those “what-if” questions. Mayor Jim Watson has held to his guns throughout the current term, limiting annual tax increases to two per cent.
The CBC story argues that if the annual tax increase had instead been 2.5 per cent, there would have been an additional $26 million in city coffers for more policing, additional crossing guards, pot hole repair, etc. This averages out to an additional $20 or so per year for the average residential home owner.
Another 20 bucks spread over 12 months really is peanuts, but the real question we should ask is, where should our tax dollars be spent first?
The more money we give city hall, the more it can do (thank you, Captain Obvious). We can have whatever we want, so long as we are prepared to pay for it.
But we all have our limits. It’s the job of our elected officials to take the pulse of a community and determine where that line must be drawn.
Then it becomes an issue of setting priorities, to decide how best to allocate that finite money pool.
From my perspective, the priorities are those critical elements that keep people safe and the economy running. This begins with what trumps everything else, even law enforcement – public health:
1. Clean drinking water
2. Safe waste water disposal
3. Garbage disposal
Then we fund those things that make it possible to reliably operate a place of business and employment, deliver the services we rely on every day for food, clothing and shelter, and provide the means for everyone to access them:
4. Appropriate transportation infrastructure at a level where taxpayers are prepared to fund both the capital cost of its construction and, equally important, its maintenance
5. Electric distribution: Even in a city like Ottawa, where there is a local utility, it still operates as a branch of the city
Now we have a viable urban ecosystem in need of:
6. Police and public safety services
7. Fire and ambulance services
8. Municipal responsibilities in health care and social services (in cooperation with what is provided by the higher levels of government)
Only then, we concern ourselves with:
9. Parks and recreation (including expensive new libraries, like Ottawa’s)
10. Land-use policy and governance: If we don’t have effective policies and a rigorous process with which to apply and manage them, urban growth and development becomes a chaotic nightmare that undermines 1-9.
You might then argue that No. 10 should rank higher on the list. Despite its importance, land-use policy and governance should not be such an onerous effort that it demands anywhere near the time and resources of the preceding nine.
Politicians will make decisions in a vacuum
Anything else we want comes after these first 10 have been paid for. And by paid for, I mean adequate funds allocated for operational expenses, including periodic repair and maintenance, in addition to the upfront cost.
This is particularly important with No. 4, appropriate transportation infrastructure. This is about much more than a new LRT line. It includes all roads, streets, sidewalks, bike paths and bridges, along with that big fat annual snow removal bill.
Could your municipality have raised taxes more? Should it have? It really comes down to what you want from city hall, and what you are prepared to pay for. Politicians need to hear from their constituents – at the door and in the ballot box. They must make decisions, and are quite willing and capable of making ones that impact your life and your wallet, even in a vacuum.
Speak now, or forever hold your peace.
To discuss this or any valuation topic in the context of your property, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I am also interested in your feedback and suggestions for future articles.