Recently, this paper ran a news piece outlining how spending at Red Deer City Hall is routinely increasing at a rate that far outstrips the ability of the taxpaying public to shoulder the burden. That was no surprise, nor was there any surprise that some of the powers that be at city hall took the time to defend their consistent tax hike mentality on the basis that a growing city like Red Deer can’t avoid tax hikes.
The problem is, that attitude is simple intellectual claptrap that has no basis in reality.
Let’s go back a few years.
A few election cycles back, during budget deliberations, one of our longtime city councillors made the throw-away observation that there were at least 25 items on the budget list that hadn’t been there just a few years earlier.
What astounds me to this day is that no one in the room at that very moment was able to make the intellectual leap and grasp the significance of that, and take the time to question the need for the taxpayers of the City of Red Deer to be funding those items in the first place. Nor was there any discussion as to whether or not there are budget items that are no longer necessary or relevant.
There seems to be a tremendous disconnect between the plans and wishes of our city government and the ability of the taxpayers to fund them.
As was outlined by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, spending by the city is increasing at a rate almost 50 per cent higher than the rate of expansion of the city economy.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that spending increases of that magnitude quickly outpace the ability of the taxpayers to keep up.
Every dollar of tax burden is a dollar that the citizens who earn it aren’t able to spend as they see fit. Instead it’s increasingly spent by civic leaders who routinely look down their noses at those who suggest that taxes at all levels of government have to be brought under control.
When government spending increases at a rate that exceeds the rate of growth of the tax base, there are only a few plausible explanations.
One, of course, is that the governing body is expanding the services that it provides to the citizens. This is fine if the governing body can confidently make the point that it is providing services demanded by the citizens.
In Red Deer, as in most municipalities, voter turnout is at one-third or lower. This alone creates a moral imperative for the city to hold the line on spending increases. It’s impossible to make a reasonable case for a mandate for expanded services on 25 to 35 per cent voter turnouts.
While it’s a given that we should take the time out to vote, citizens are increasingly tuning out government simply on the basis that governments will simply take the bit in their teeth and do whatever they damn well please anyways, and that particular cancer is exceptionally virulent at any city hall you can name.
Illustrative of that is our ongoing downtown revitalization project. When I came to Red Deer in 1978, City Hall was deeply engaged in the idea of “revitalizing” the downtown core.
Three decades on, we’re still at it, and likely will be at some point after a manned Jupiter landing.
The problem is not so much the emphasis on this idea, but the cottage industry of consultants, hangers on and (essentially) groupies who exist simply to make a living off of the concept of helping the city reinvent its downtown at the expense of taxpayers.
We’re a generation past the point where the city should have signed off on this.
The point here is that we face continual expansions of government at every level, far beyond the ability of the taxpayers to keep up. While there are those who claim that government spending creates jobs, we know that is as far from the truth as Tiger Woods is from being named Husband of the Year, simply because if that were true, every Albertan would already have two jobs just on Ed Stelmach’s spending increases alone.
At the municipal level, we now have street nurses to help the homeless, yet homeowners can’t get their streets plowed. In spite of dozens of planning experts, the bulk of our commuters are squeezed onto one route from the southeast, where they live, to the northwest, where they work.
Maybe it’s time we start shrinking our city government.
Bill Greenwood is a local freelance columnist.