The quality work of city staff has a value
If I read the news report correctly, TV production company Force Four would put something like $400 in a bank account for me, if Red Deer were to be chosen as its venue to shoot their reality show Axe the Tax.
That represents eight weeks of my municipal taxes, more or less. The company would then film me paying as I went about my life, over a course of eight weeks.
A small fee for the use of the streets to ride my bike to work (or to drive when the weather is really bad), or to do my shopping. A little more every time I took a shower or flushed the loo. A point here and there whenever I went to the library, a bit more on top of the entry fee for my morning swim.
The cost of a stroll on our trail network? So little, that if I saw the change on the street, I probably wouldn’t stoop to pick it up (and I’m a notorious cheapskate).
For the right to call police and complain about a neighbourhood drug house, I would pay just about anything. I already know what happens in some towns in the U.S. when people don’t pay their voluntary fire protection fees. Their house burns to the ground, while the firemen hose down the buildings owned by those next door, to keep the fire from spreading.
In all, it might be interesting for other people to find out if I get $200 a month value for the right to live in Red Deer. But for myself, I already know. (It’s why I haven’t left town.)
As far as value for services goes at any level of government in Canada, municipal taxes are pretty well the best deal you can get anywhere.
That must be why Penhold Mayor Dennis Cooper is so sanguine about a proposal that his town be chosen for this social experiment-cum-TV entertainment project. If he wasn’t as convinced as I am that municipal government is simply the most efficient means of delivering collective services in a democracy, then the stress of his job just wouldn’t be worth the pay.
I wonder what portion would be taken from every Penhold resident’s “bank account” for a town meeting at the Penhold Multiplex. In fact, I wonder if Force Four paid anything at all to use the centre for their meeting Tuesday. Do they think multiplexes grow on trees?
That, of course, is the shortcoming of an eight-week experiment of this type. Most of the benefits of living in Red Deer that I mentioned at the beginning of this article involve long-term infrastructure investments.
People were outraged, yes, outraged, at the cost, the waste, the wanton profligacy of building Red Deer’s Collicutt Centre. Today, it’s a source of community pride — and too small at that.
That’s the easiest, most obvious of examples. What I don’t see inside my $200 a month is the dedication, education and expertise of the staff who make my city work, even if the snow does get too deep on some city streets.
Engineers, planners, clerks, bylaw officers, parks personnel, transit workers, librarians and more, these people are where the best value is achieved for my taxes. Yet these are the very people that tax complainers devalue and disparage whenever the cost of running a municipality gets discussed.
The total dollar values are indeed high, but think about how great a deal this all works out to, for $200 a month (in my case). Even that ultimate evil — bike lanes — cost each household less this year than a ticket to Life of Pi, with popcorn and a soft drink. What’s the value of safe passage to work, even if it’s only used when the weather is better than it is today?
The shortcoming of this experiment is that it cannot take a full measure of the value we get for our taxes. If some people don’t use certain services (and therefore don’t pay) during this experiment, should these services therefore not exist, or be priced out of reach of the people who need them?
There is a value beyond mere taxes in a community where people take care of their neighbours. TV shows don’t measure that. So count me out of any experiments like Axe the Tax. You can keep the change.
Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at readersadvocate.blogspot.ca or email firstname.lastname@example.org.