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Tax Increases

The story this weekend about the County of Brant having to increase taxes by 6.17% is a wake-up call for the County but also for the City of Brantford.  I spoke with Mayor Eddy on Friday morning, and we discussed how difficult budgeting has become for municipal councils across the province. 

This year we all experienced an end of municipal grants, and, in the County’s case, there is also an increase of more than half a million dollars going to contracts in policing.  Debt charges on debenturing for infrastructure charges will also cause a dramatic increase to the budget.

When I read this story two things really struck me, first, municipalities remain a level of government that has too short a visioning period.  I believe this comes from the immediacy of municipal government, being that all our services are day-to-day as opposed to the province and federal government which have a vision (or at least should have a vision) across many years.  Municipal government is the single most important level of government in your day to day life; we provide the services that affect you, your families and friends from the time you wake up in the morning until the time you go to sleep – and even all through the night.  Hydro, water, sewers, roads, street lighting, police, fire, paramedics, social services, recreational services, engineering, planning and the list goes on.

As municipal councillors we are more in touch with our constituents than the other levels of government as well (this is not a knock against our MP and MPP who do a fine job, but who, by the nature of their positions, must be in Toronto or Ottawa much of their time.)  We can’t go to the coffee shop, movies, dinner, or a child’s hockey game without a contact with a constituent.  This allows us the opportunity to do our job much better, it allows us to be more responsive, but it also focuses our attention on the immediate and away from longer term visioning. 

We must work hard to pull ourselves out of that short term thinking and work toward keeping a longer term, realistic vision of where the vision of the community is and where it needs to be.   The County is in a position that years of no tax increases has meant that a larger than expected tax increase happens in one year.  I am not criticizing the County Council, as I know how hard these decisions can be, and I know how important it is for municipal council’s to invest in the infrastructure and the community as a whole.  I offer my County colleagues nothing but support through this time.

The second thing that struck me is how poor a job we do in communicating and educating the public about our decision-making.  The current City Council has put communication and educating the public as our number one priority, and we should strive to do this during our budgeting process.

What you will see is that we currently stand at a 2.54% increase to taxes; this is what has been reported and this is where we stood at the end of the evening a week ago.  I can’t fault the media because they are reporting on the snapshot of the budget that we offered them at that moment.  What we need to be doing is explaining our decisions as we go, and to highlight that although we are at 2.54% that is not where we are going to end up, and yes the tax increase will go down.  As a Council we need to view the budget in its entirety and make decisions at key moments so that we have all the information available. 

For example, it was reported that we are increasing municipal staff by 21 and that this is what is driving the tax increase.  In fact, four of those positions have no impact on the tax base as they come from revenue supported areas – meaning their impact on the budget this year, and in the future, is 0%.

7 of the positions, and the largest percentage of the increase, comes from adding 7 new constables to our police service.  It was highlighted during the presentation by the police that our community is underserviced by almost 25 constables when compared to communities of our size provincially and nationally.  We are adding a new constable to each of our five platoons, one to the downtown beat, and one will lead to the creation of a Dangerous Offenders Monitor.

Three more positions are directly related to health and safety issues.  We added two positions at the John Nobel home (for a total of just over $50,000 for the two) to assist in our ability to support our senior residents.  2.5 positions relate to creating a Site Alteration By-law team which will assist us in being able to end a number of long-term, on-going and future problems with neighbours and regular litigation.

The decisions are not taken lightly, nor are they frivolous in their undertaking. The Council reviewed the input by staff, denied many more potential increases to the employee base, and focused on immediate health and safety positions that are a sound investment in our community.

What we have done a poor job of is letting people know what the full decision is, why we made it and how it will benefit the community.  Because we did do a poor job of communicating this information, it is now easy for people to play fast and loose with the truth, and to promote incorrect information about what is happening in the budget – making bold statements that focus on 21 new positions, without explaining what really happened.  Makes for a nice sound-bite, but so does the truth.

We haven’t done a good job in this area during the budget, but I guarantee you that this Council will become the model for communication with the public.