Thursday, December 2, 2010

Tax shifting and municipal spending

Municipalities have been picking up the tab to fight federal and provincial deficits for years.  Federal governments have been withdrawing support for affordable housing and the provinces have been dumping mental health and addiction issues out onto the streets of cities across the country.

At council I push back at one colleague often enough. one who consistently votes against municipal investments in housing, steadfastly holding firmly to his principle that this is a job for the province and the federal government.  We've been in a housing crisis long enough.  I'll continue to argue that our constituents don't care which level of government gets the job done, they just want more action on housing on homelessness.

We've been the catalyst for some innovative programs aimed at increasing the supply of market housing, as well as funding partners in new projects to build affordable housing or, as was the case with our recent acquisition of two hotel properties, taking advantage of immediate opportunities to secure other housing options for some of our more disadvantaged citizens.  We have to get beyond petty debates about whose job it is, and just get the job done.

To be fair, both provincial and federal governments in BC have come to our aid.  We could not have done this by ourselves.  Still, it has been, for Victoria, a much more proactive and responsive agenda we've been pursuing to tackle the scourge of homelessness, a challenge that has been consistently identified by voters as a top of mind issue.

The entry of local and regional governments into the housing field has been sometimes more incremental over the several years that critical analysts are again focused upon in their camapign to promote the fiction that municipal government spending is out of control.  It isn't and we've heard the same story before.

The fact that the spending trends are outpacing inflation and population growth across the board, sometimes, ironically, as is the case in the Capital Region, with more right leaning local governments seeming to be growing spending faster than those of us seen to be on the left, suggests that there is more to the spending growth than irresponsible governanance.

None of us likes spending more than we have to in order to deliver the services citizens expect from their municipal governments.  Sometimes they are even more than willing to pay the difference. The Capital Region has a parks acquisition levy that passed several years ago with overwhelming voter endorsement.

Those other incremental costs, the shifting responsibilities for housing, and for many local governments, what used to be provincial roads, or any number of other tangible assets we own that now face us as the "infrastructure deficit", are adding costs to municipal budgets.  The shell game going on in the background is the tax shift.  The province and the feds have been running successfully on a tax cutting agenda - an appealing platform for any beleagured taxapapyer.  Most of the responsiblities for public services are still there, it's just who does the work and how is it paid for that has been changing.

Dissecting a pattern of tax shifts and spending reallocations from one level of government to another would be a more honest analysis of your tax burden, who is pinching your harder and who is spending how much and what for.  Municipal governments provide a good product at a fair price and its still a bargain, despite what the critics are saying.  You aren't paying more for less, you are just "paying Peter, instead of Paul".

Local governments will be spending time over the next few months fine tuning their budgets, and they do so at meetings open to the public.  It may not be as entertaining as the latest movie or as important to your day as picking up the groceries or taking the kids to soccer, but it's worth coming down to watch the process at city hall sometime.  We'll be at the table early and often in the new year.

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