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Sooner or later, city must invest in infrastructure

It is time to invest in Brantford. It is time for smart strategic investments to develop our city toward becoming the pre-eminent 21st century city in Canada.

As a community, we have to change the way that we look at ourselves and start to plan for a future that recognizes our unique circumstances. In past columns, I've talked about the importance of being a single-tier municipality. Well, you are going to hear it more often in the coming weeks and months.

Being single-tier is the most important factor in making decisions for our future because we are on our own.

I was mayor in the 1990s when the Mike Harris provincial government started downloading costs onto municipalities that increased our budgets. While promoted as being revenue-neutral, it was anything but. We began a multiyear process of budgeting at that time, bringing in successive budgets of minus-5%.

With municipalities teetering at the brink of disaster, the province stepped in and began a program of grants to municipalities. The grants, now called the Ontario Municipal Partnership Fund, ends this year, and our municipality is closer to self-reliance than ever.

We also have seen changes in our relationship to our hydro utility, as the province has ended a program that allowed the municipality to charge a fee on the services offered to our hydro group of companies. This year we will see a reduction of $850,000 from hydro. We should see a decrease in our hydro bills to reflect this decrease, and more than likely the province will claim the credit. But, as my father used to tell me, nothing in life is free. Any decrease in hydro bills -not likely to be a dollar-for-dollar match - means increased pressure on the city budget.

The other major factor we must consider is a program called the residential tax grant that started two councils ago. This was a means of borrowing from previous budget surpluses to keep down taxes. It was a short-term solution. And, when the program started to be phased out, it meant an automatic increase of 2.2% annually to the residential levy. It was like borrowing from your credit card to pay your bills, and not worrying about how you were going to pay off your credit card bill. The total cost to taxpayer of phasing out this program was $16 million.

Why am I telling you all this? The more cynical in the crowd immediately will assume it is because I am announcing a tax increase in the budget. Well, you can relax. We are not that far in the budgeting process for anything to be announced. What I am doing is trying to change people's thought process toward municipal budgeting. I want you to think about budgeting and taxes as tools to community development.

More important, I am proposing a more progressive process of strategic investment in our community, which, in all honesty, could see improved service and more reasonable tax levels now and in the future.

We are currently reviewing the process of the five-year capital budget, to allow for a true multi-year program of capital investment in the community. As part of that discussion, we also have begun to talk about a multi-year budgeting process for operating. That's so that, instead of staggering from year to year, we can plan for the length of a term of council and, early in the mandate, set our priorities and funding.

We are underfunded in capital, having not increased the amount for roads, sewers and other capital projects for more than a decade now. During that time, costs have gone up, our infrastructure has further deteriorated, and we have even taken money out of capital to put into the operating budget to keep taxes artificially low.

So, what if, as a council, we were to say at the beginning of a four-year mandate that we are proposing a 3% tax increase across the four years, with 1% going into operating to help offset inflationary increases and 2% going into the capital budget to help restore our infrastructure?

We would engage the public in what they believe to be the most important factors and services, and even the most important areas of capital development. This would be an open and inclusive process that would offer a voice to everyone, and not just during one hour on one night during the budget.

To be successful, we will have to continue to grow our assessment through attracting and developing new businesses and residential development because the strength of our future is in strong sustainable strategic growth.

Discussing tax increases, and particularly assigning even hypothetical value to an increase, will undoubtedly prompt a degree of outrage, but I am writing this to begin a dialogue. I want to start our community thinking about our budget and the future development of our community in a new and progressive way.

We truly understand the impacts of tax increases on people's budgets and their homes, but I am trying to explain how shortsighted knee-jerk reactions to taxation levels have actually increased your taxes over time. These are usually decisions made for political reasons, and with increases that fall on future councils.

Take the time to learn about the budget, and accept the opportunities to have your voice heard. There has never been a council more willing, or more open to hear your thoughts and respect your opinions.