by Jim Bertram
A few weeks ago, I submitted an article which, among other things, briefly broached the subject of downloading of services for which the province is responsible, thereby adding to the fiscal load of local municipal taxpayers. In the article, I suggested that the province, which is in deep financial waters at this time, would be looking at different ways of engaging in such activity in future as a way to lighten the financial load at the provincial level.
Of course, that would be an attractive approach for the province. The new government could, after significant downloading, claim that they have cut vast amounts of money from their financial responsibilities. They could then vaunt their superior “management skills” and appear to be significantly more efficient than their political opponents. Of course, one might ruin the little party and ask: “So where does the financial cost cut from the provincial service load go? What about the services?”
Well, the answer is that, as with past downloading under Liberal and Conservative provincial governments, the financial load largely gets foisted on to the shoulders of municipal and county governments. Which means it gets dumped on to your property or business tax. Which works well for the province, because, generally, municipal taxpayers don’t seem to pay much attention, and are phenomenally inactive in the area of local politics. The belief among many taxpayers is, “Gosh, it’s only a small amount, just another few dollars a year.” Except that it’s not, when one considers the number of times it may be done.
How does it work? Well, downloading can be direct from the province, as in a new function or policy created by the province and shipped to municipalities to pay for. Or, it can come in the way of a service which municipalities have been encouraged to undertake in the past with provincial subsidy dollars; when the province eventually cuts the subsidy payments, the property tax payer has a nice, brand-new service to pay for from the notoriously backward and unfair property tax system. Or – and this is a big or – local government can, on its own, undertake to take over part of a provincial mandate WITH or WITHOUT provincial support.
At this time, for example, North Grenville has, for around six years, been engaged in assuming partial financial responsibility for provincial health services by contributing significantly to the budget of the Kemptville District Hospital. In a similar manner, I believe that, ultimately, over the next year (next budget), local taxpayers will be convinced to assume financial responsibility for some aspects of a new Affordable Housing Strategy, which will be part of the outcome of Council’s new Affordable Housing Task Force. Some discussion of just such a policy is taking place right now at the Council of our large neighbours to the north, and may become a subject of more widespread interest throughout the province in the coming year.
Of course, asking such questions can earn one a reputation for meanness, hard-heartedness, and so on. That would be unfair, as it is not true. Concern for fellow citizens and their service needs, their ability to pay, and a concern for fiscal efficiency, leads me to insist that the political instances with the greatest fiscal resources (Province, Federal Government) should live up to their responsibilities and provide adequate resources within the field of those responsibilities. Not to do so is an abuse of those who are forced to provide fiscal resources from a very narrow and inadequate base. Like the property tax, or local business tax.
I believe that those who have an interest in having a say over the management of local property taxation owe it to themselves to get active in terms of understanding what is happening in the political world around them. If you voted in the last election, thank you. But that was only a first step. Even if you didn’t vote, most of our citizens pay property tax and many pay business taxes. So, become aware. Not because I say so. But do so in your own interest. Make sure you know what’s going on, and make sure your local and County Council, as well as your School Board, hear from you. Not just now at budget time, but throughout the year.