During the course of this campaign, we've all heard a variety of tax “plans.” It seems like every candidate, especially in the mayoral race, has a plan to somehow raise revenue without significantly raising property taxes. If it is not explicitly stated, they clearly imply it with lots of ideas of things the city needs to pay for be it infrastructure or other projects without a plan of how to pay for them. City Hall is essentially limited to generating revenue through property taxes, and licensing/permit fees, so it is unclear how any of those plans will be successful without new ideas and reform of old ones.
One idea that's out there is a property tax freeze. Proponents of this agenda seem to believe that the revenue shortfall can be made up by selling off city assets. The one time influx of cash from those sales would do little to address our long term needs. In fact, part of the reason we're in our current state is that there was a freeze on property taxes for a decade starting around the new millennium. The argument is during the tax freeze of 2003-2010, city revenues grew 41%, which is true. The issue is because of various projects that were undertaken without oversight costing massive overruns and other non-essentials that the city spent tax dollars on, the revenue growth didn’t keep pace with inflation or project costs. Also, a pledge to freeze taxes ignores the reality that there are legitimate civic needs that can arise, often unexpectedly. For example, nobody thought we would have to spend millions of dollars thawing water lines and supplying affected homes with water this past winter, but sure enough, we did.
Other candidates have pledged small, incremental tax increases, roughly keyed to the rate of inflation. This is a fine plan, but it does nothing to address our infrastructure needs. Inflation in the overall economy and inflation in the construction sector are not increasing at the same rate, with construction rates increasing 4-5% year over year. A property tax increase in the 3% range, between the two numbers, would only increase city revenues by around $15 million. The city's costs rise by about $25 million per year in inflation costs alone. This alone would not be adequate and certainly wouldn’t allow for any new growth or keep up with the rate of deterioration our city infrastructure is experiencing.
The proposal garnering the most attention is the abolition of property tax in favour of a citywide sales tax. There are a number of problems with this, most importantly that the City of Winnipeg has no legal right to impose or collect such a tax. Such a move would require the cooperation of the provincial government. Additionally, in order to avoid “leakage” of the sale of goods and services just outside the city borders (who wouldn’t make the trip to Steinbach to save 4% on a vehicle), such a tax would have to extend to exurban communities, if not the entire province. This would also be a very regressive form of taxation, as it would have the largest impact on people with low incomes. It also fuels the taxation shell game (more on that in a minute) we already have going on with the province and leads to more bureaucracy and higher administration costs to run this program. The biggest issue is we would essentially be raising the PST by 4% and if you think the province is going to jump on board and take that bullet, I’ve got a bag of magic beans to sell you.
Of course, anybody can poke holes in the plans of others. I have a revenue plan of my own. Like everything else in my platform, I back up what I would like to see done with a tangible solution for doing so. I encourage you to visit the other city council candidates’ websites, if they have one, and see not only what they would like to accomplish, but exactly how they get it done. It is important for leader not just to take a stand on a topic, which again I challenge you to find, but to explain how it can be achieved. A goal without a plan is a dream and we are past the fairy tale world of dreaming of what this city should be like and into the reality of making it happen.
First and foremost, I am proposing a moratorium on large, non-infrastructure projects until we can get a handle on our finances, and sort out a way to ensure that those projects can be tendered and managed efficiently. This would include a suspension of all activities on the southwest bus corridor, and on the Bus Rapid Transit program generally. In order to compensate for this, I would push for a lower cost alternative of more frequent buses and expanded service to outlying areas and industrial zones. While this would be a cost increase, it would also increase ridership as people could get to and from their intended destination easier, safer and on time while saving money needed for other essential city projects.
Second, I would institute a property tax credit for homeowners who undertake projects to increase the value of their properties. This would include a provision that in order to qualify, all materials must be bought from businesses within the city, and similarly, that all work must be done by contractors based in Winnipeg. All qualified purchases would be eligible for a ten percent credit on a homeowner's property tax bill, up to a maximum of $500 per year. The end result of this credit would be that the property value of not just the renovated homes, but also the homes around them, would increase, thereby increasing the amount of property tax revenue generated over time. This would also put more money into our economy with people purchasing supplies and labour needed. In turn, it would create more jobs and make our city a more attractive option for families to call home. Additionally, we would create more affordable rental properties as people invest in homes in need of repair turning them into revenue properties and create better living space and suites, such as newly created basement suites, to be available to renters.
The next part of my plan is to end what I referred to earlier as the provincial tax shell game. Winnipeg currently has one of the lowest property tax rates of any major city in Canada. However, when it comes in the mail, it appears that our property tax bill is significantly higher. This is because the provincial government requires municipalities to fund education through property taxes. I would lobby the province to end that shell game, and to fund education through their own revenue streams. That way, the people of St. Boniface, and all of Winnipeg would finally be able to see what their actual property tax obligations are.
The City of Winnipeg currently has no way of addressing the issue of exurban residents using city infrastructure and services, but not contributing to property tax revenue. While I would support annexation of a number of so-called bedroom communities, I realize that this is something that would take a significant amount of time, and may not be feasible at all in some cases. While this gets sorted out though, we can end the “free ride” issue by setting up toll roads into the city. This would require exurban commuters to contribute to the city's revenue base, and all funds collected would be designated for use on infrastructure renewal projects. I have been around the world and seen a number of cities where this is in place and successfully creating revenue for their municipality. Regular commuters could take advantage of a transponder-based system, much like the 407 toll road in Toronto, and infrequent users would be able to pay per use with cash or other conventional tenders.
Another way to reduce our overall infrastructure problem is to encourage density of development. Presently, our city's downtown contains numerous surface parking lots. These lots do little to promote any kind of development in the core. Were those lots developed into mixed use residential/commercial space, they would generate significant revenue for the city on their own, as well as increase property values in the area. In order to encourage more development on those parcels of land, I would enact a tax on surface lots in order to more accurately reflect their true value. This tax would be lower should there be a multi-level parkade on the site, allowing for affordable parking options for a greater number of people. We need affordable parking rates to draw people downtown but we cannot waste space with a surface lot servicing only a small number of visitors and employees in the downtown area.
Finally, I would increase user and licensing fees in many different areas. However, I would ensure that the additional funds taken in would be directed back into the activities or services from which they were collected. For example, an increase in dog licensing fees would be used to create new dog parks, and to improve existing ones. This would help to improve many of our recreational offerings, while ensuring that those improvements are funded by end users, and without taking funds away from core infrastructure projects.
This is hardly a comprehensive list, and the impact of many of my proposals might be limited, however, these ideas represent an important starting point. We will need to be creative in order to solve our long term revenue issues. Simply toying with tax rates and service levels alone will not push us forward. We also need to accept that there are no free rides. Shaping the future of Winnipeg will not be free, and we have hard choices to make. We must accept that one way or another, we will probably have to pay more in taxes and fees, or expect much less from the municipal government. Most likely, we will have to do both. A task like this requires leadership. It requires bold new thinking, and most importantly, it requires that our civic leaders be open and honest with residents about the true state of our city, as well as their plans to fix it. My thoughts and plans are clear. I would love to hear from the residents of St. Boniface about their thoughts on my plan, and I would love even more to hear what your ideas are. Whoever you vote for on October 22nd, make sure that you ask them the difficult questions, and make sure that they can actually provide you with goals and plans rather than wishes and dreams. Our city has amazing potential and incredible people who understand what it is to sacrifice for the greater good. We need leaders who reflect that vision with tangible goals and real plans like I have laid out time and again. It’s time to stand up and demand more than a smile in photo opp and expect more from our public servants. I hope I have earned your support and that you will spread my campaign philosophy to your friends and neighbours. I encourage you to leave a comment or reach out to me at email@example.com . If you like what you are reading and wish to support my campaign in any way, donation, yard sign, hand out fliers or other forms, please let me know. It’s with your help spreading the word and ending the reign of the career politician we can make a change in our city and make it a better place for everyone.