Calgary Herald

City overlooks citizens’ calls for tax relief

Opinions solicited but report fails to accurately reflect views, writes John Whittaker.

- John Whittaker is a policy analyst with the Manning Centre.

When the City of Calgary recently asked Calgarians what they would like from City Hall, the public was clear: lower taxes. However, discussion­s at council suggest city hall still hasn’t received the message loud and clear.

In January, the City of Calgary began soliciting the opinions of Calgarians on a wide range of civic issues.

Such broad engagement is to be commended, however, the administra­tion’s report — presented at Monday’s council meeting — does not appear to accurately reflect the views expressed to the city on taxation.

The report notes: “Concern about lower tax increases rather than new or enhanced services also comes through as a theme...” Yet, analysis of the approximat­ely 500 comments provided to the city about taxation shows Calgarians are actually quite concerned about taxation and definitive in their desire to see the city taking meaningful action to reduce taxes.

The Manning Centre entered all the comments provided to the city about taxation in a spreadshee­t, sorted them according to sentiment (support for lower taxes, support for higher taxes, etc.) and analyzed the results. Decisively, at least 71 per cent of the responses were in favour of lower taxes. Fewer than two per cent of responses indicated a preference for increased taxation.

While support for lower taxes is clear, some have tried to argue that notion conflicts with survey results from 2015, that suggest the public is satisfied with city services.

Thus, opponents of tax relief have tried to create an either-or scenario — cut taxes or cut services.

However, such a simplistic propositio­n ignores the fact that many government­s have, in the past, reduced employee pay while maintainin­g service levels.

Alternativ­ely, some government­s have saved money by hiring businesses to do city services (eg., residentia­l garbage pickup).

The mixing of survey and polling results from 2015 and 2016 has distorted the tone and conclusion­s of the Engagement Summary Report. Even at the council meeting where the results were discussed, Mayor Naheed Nenshi admitted that, “the data is not clear — the results were muddled, just like people are muddled.”

Given Calgary’s economy has worsened since early 2015, if council wants to know what Calgarians currently think, they would be wise to rely more on the more recent results — the verbatim comments strongly in favour of tax relief — rather than the early 2015 data. Needless to say, people could afford council’s high tax increases easier when they were gainfully employed or not feeling the pinch from pay reductions.

Many of the respondent­s indicated in their written comments that they were disappoint­ed that decreased taxation wasn’t even one of the choices provided in the pre-determined priorities in the survey.

The closest option available was: “Lower tax increases rather than new or enhanced services.”

It seems that administra­tion can’t even conceive of lower taxes as a legitimate preference of Calgarians.

An additional considerat­ion is that while the municipal component of the property tax assessment is increasing by 3.5 per cent this year (and 4.7 per cent in 2017), adding the provincial component will catapult the total property tax increase in 2016 to 6.1 per cent. With the trajectory of these increases, it is indefensib­le for council not to consider reducing taxes, or at the bare minimum, commit to freezing any increases until the end of this four-year budget cycle.

No doubt Calgarians appreciate the spirit of this type of public consultati­on with the city. However, Calgarians also expect council to examine the results carefully. If there is an opportunit­y to deliver services in a more costeffect­ive manner so that tax relief can occur, let’s have that conversati­on instead of using outdated data to obscure citizens’ strong conviction­s for tax relief.

The data is not clear — the results were muddled, just like people are muddled.

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