I attended the all-candidates meeting at the Civic Centre on October 2, and left with the impression that not many of the candidates had bothered to look at the municipal budget. There were what I considered smart remarks from one quarter, where the 2% increase figure in taxes was brought into question. I think that the phrase was “if you budget for a 2% increase, then that is what you are going to get”.
Anybody who cared to look at last year’s budget would see that there was an “under the line” amount in excess of $7 million. This is what staff thought needed to be done, but that couldn’t be done, because it wasn’t politically expedient, and because we don’t have the tax base.
I heard from several candidates that the municipal portion of our taxes is 60%. The other 40%, presumably, is from the county and from the school boards. However, nobody said what portion of that 60% came from the business community. As almost everyone was hand wringing about the lack of businesses in town, then I am going to take a guess that currently homeowners are paying 80% of that, and that business/commercial taxes are 20%. The $7 million shortfall is in the municipal part only, so with 6,900 households contributing this 80% of the budget, then 80% of $7 million is $5.6 million, which is about $800 per household. For my house, here in Kemptville, that would be a 35% increase in my municipal taxes, (assuming that the 60% figure is correct), which is what I meant about it not being politically expedient. As a point of interest, that works out to a 21% increase in my total tax bill. Even if my numbers are off a bit, you can see the problem.
The 2% annual increase in taxes is what is presumably acceptable, that being about the average of the rise in the cost of living. That the 2% increase should be called out by some candidates as being too much, when what we need is 35% in order to provide the sidewalks and trails that everyone seemed to want, seemed absurd, and somewhat disingenuous on their part. How do they expect to provide all these trails and sidewalks if the money isn’t there?
Of course, if you give staff a 2% increase, they are going to spend it. When you are 35% behind where you need to be to function as you think is necessary, you are going to take all that you can get. I had a meeting a while ago with two senior members of staff, and they told me that the problem is that we are too small to be big, and too big to be small.
Obviously, we are at a transition point where the tax base isn’t big enough to do everything that needs to be done. Some candidates suggested that we needed to get out of the way of businesses establishing themselves here as part of the solution, so that their taxes can be a part of the tax base. It sounded to me like they were planning to give them carte blanche. While I agree that there seems to be a number of unnecessary obstacles to business here, (you only have to remember the Vichos Honey debacle), giving business a free rein is not the answer. There have to be rules and regulations. They just need to be fair. I have heard some business owners have referred to the current council as like an old boys club, where, if you wine and dine, you can get favours, like moving to the head of the line in the approval process. If council is more open and accessible, as some candidates are suggesting that they will push for, then maybe that will curtail this practice.
A couple of candidates talked about sustainable development, and increasing green spaces, so that we have a more liveable community. They will be getting my vote, and then maybe we won’t continue to have the filling in of wetlands and the removal of tree cover that was referred to in the recent article in this newspaper regarding the road works on CR44. That this sort of environmental vandalism has been allowed by the current council is unacceptable, but no doubt the problem starts with what the Planning Department recommended. The new council will need to keep a closer eye on them.
One thing that stood out in this meeting was the lack of any policies to help our rural areas. Elwood Armour did a good job of identifying problems, but came up short on solutions. We must do more to help our rural areas, and stop concentrating on sidewalks as being the be all and end all of why we elect someone.