It’s time to shoot down the fiscal hawks.
During civic elections, candidates find it easy to push platforms that decry previous council spending habits and promise a tighter fist on spending.
Taxes are too high, the mantra goes (again and again).
Services are too extravagant, critics say.
Council’s budgetary process is too cursory and its level of scrutiny into spending is too trusting of administration’s recommendations, voters have been repeatedly told during the election campaign.
But what is the truth about municipal taxes, in Red Deer particularly, and in Central Alberta communities in general?
And what is the value that voters should place on the services that their municipalities provide?
Municipal voters need to be careful not to be drawn to candidates espousing fiscal responsibility without considering the cost to quality of life, and the ultimate savings offered.
Average Red Deer ratepayers (with a home valued at $300,000) will pay $1,617.42 in municipal taxes this year (and another $723.93 in education tax, levied by the province but collected by the city). That $1,617.42 amounts to a daily cost of about $4.43 per household.
Tack onto that average utility bills of about $80 a month (or about $2.66 a day) and the cost per household is about $7.10 a day, or about $1.78 a day for each member of a family of four.
For that, residents get municipal roads, parks, facilities and services that far surpass anything you receive from either the federal or provincial governments.
You get the basic tools for life in a municipality, from recreation to transportation (with some user fees attached). You get sewer, water, garbage and recycling pickup, maintenance of civic facilities and the operation of a host of local social and cultural programs.
The average adult Albertan from a family with a combined income of $75,000 pays $7,211 in federal tax each year and another $3,710 in provincial taxes, for a total of almost $11,000.
In addition, you also pay thousands in GST every year (gasoline alone will cost you $140 in GST annually, if you use a modest 60 litres a week).
Big ticket items generate even bigger GST revenue for the federal government.
But can you honestly say you get better value for your money from either the federal or provincial government?
Likely not, unless you spend all your free time travelling on highways or you have unrelenting health issues that require regular hospitalization.
So if municipal taxes represent a small fraction of the average person’s total tax bill (and an even smaller fraction for business owners in our business-friendly municipality), what’s all the noise about?
Part of it is that candidates recognize that a quick way to get voter attention is to hammer away on a message of fiscal restraint.
Part of it may be that candidates (and citizens) are unaware of or unconcerned about the value that voters get for their municipal tax dollars, and how critical those services are to the quality of life.
Part of it is that municipal politics truly is grassroots. If you express concern to a councillor, their vote has value and their voice will be heard. Try complaining to provincial or federal politicians about the level of your taxes and see how far they carry the message, or how much weight your one vote carries.
It would be far better, as voters, if we asked candidates hard questions about how they will spend our money, what programs are priorities for growth and what programs don’t service the public well.
Instead of candidates harping on proposals to indulge in itemized budget scrutiny (rather than trusting skilled, competent public employees, who make choices based on direction from council), they should be looking at how they can improve the quality of our lives.
And pinching pennies for the sake of a misguided political fiscal philosophy won’t get the job done.
John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.