COUN­CIL NEEDS TO START LIV­ING IN REAL WORLD

Mem­bers at­tack Farkas for tax freeze idea, but coun­cil­lor calls 7.5% hike ‘reck­less’

Calgary Herald - - CITY+REGION - LICIA CORBELLA Licia Corbella is a Postmedia colum­nist in Cal­gary. lcor­bella@postmedia.com

There’s a se­ri­ous dis­con­nect with Cal­gary city coun­cil from the re­al­ity of Cal­gar­i­ans.

Af­ter five years of re­ces­sion in Al­berta fol­lowed by plum­met­ing oil prices, mas­sive lay­offs and then the COVID-19 lock­down — which led to even more lay­offs and fur­ther plunges in oil prices — Cal­gar­i­ans have been hit with a 7.5 per cent prop­erty tax rate in­crease.

For my fam­ily, our prop­erty tax in­crease is 18.3 per cent — from $383 per month to $453.

Our fam­ily’s tax in­crease of $70 per month — or $840 per year — is hap­pen­ing even though the as­sessed value of our home dropped this past year by $15,500. Go fig­ure.

Like many other Cal­gar­i­ans, I have taken a salary de­crease dur­ing th­ese crazy COVID times. Many peo­ple have lost their jobs out­right and are fac­ing a very un­cer­tain fu­ture and there­fore have en­acted tough fis­cal de­ci­sions along with se­ri­ous belt-tight­en­ing.

Th­ese realities are seem­ingly ig­nored by coun­cil and when ad­dressed, the coun­cil­lors who try to fix the sit­u­a­tion are de­rided and called names.

What’s more, the April 27 let­ter Mayor Na­heed Nen­shi sent along with our tax bills is ques­tion­able.

“Your City Coun­cil has kept your taxes to be­low in­fla­tion and pop­u­la­tion growth since the be­gin­ning of this lat­est down­turn in 2014, and has iden­ti­fied over $740 mil­lion in cuts and sav­ings to our bud­get, sav­ings we have passed on to the tax­payer,” wrote Nen­shi.

“That is false,” says Franco Ter­raz­zano, Al­berta direc­tor of the Cana­dian Tax­pay­ers Fed­er­a­tion.

“Firstly, res­i­den­tial prop­erty taxes have in­creased by 22 per cent while in­fla­tion and pop­u­la­tion growth has in­creased by 16 per cent since 2014,” says Ter­raz­zano.

“Tax­pay­ers would have saved $216 mil­lion dur­ing that time had res­i­den­tial prop­erty taxes only in­creased with in­fla­tion plus pop­u­la­tion growth,” said Ter­raz­zano.

“Ev­ery sin­gle year since 2014, the city’s bud­get has grown, so claim­ing cuts of $740 mil­lion is false,” adds Ter­raz­zano.

Mayor Nen­shi was not avail­able to re­spond to th­ese spe­cific ques­tions about his let­ter to Cal­gar­i­ans.

Ward 11 Coun. Jeromy Farkas calls the mayor’s let­ter a “pipe dream.”

“It’s kind of like plan­ning for a large in­crease then adopt­ing a more mod­est one and call­ing the dif­fer­ence a cut,” says Farkas.

“It’s like a fam­ily say­ing that they’re go­ing to buy a Lam­borgh­ini but in­stead buy a Corvette and then say­ing that they saved money by mak­ing the pur­chase. That kind of logic only works at city hall. That’s not a cut in the real world.”

Ex­actly. It’s a change in plans from spend­ing a lot to spend­ing less.

Back on April 6, Farkas put for­ward an amend­ment that would have frozen taxes.

Af­ter point­ing out how much Cal­gar­i­ans are suf­fer­ing, Farkas said: “We do have the abil­ity to lessen the blow. There is an al­ter­na­tive to this in­crease. We have some money to work with from ar­eas that Cal­gar­i­ans have told us should not be a pri­or­ity at this time.

“Firstly, the rainy day fund, the public art ac­count and the cor­po­rate wel­fare slush fund. We can ap­ply the money now and re­ally get to sharp­en­ing our pen­cils for the up­com­ing bud­get cy­cle,” rec­om­mended Farkas.

“This in­crease was reck­less and ir­re­spon­si­ble be­fore the COVID sit­u­a­tion and be­fore the crash in oil prices. If coun­cil passes this 7.5 per cent in­crease in the worst eco­nomic cri­sis Cal­gary has faced in 100 years, I be­lieve it will be the epit­ome of in­com­pe­tence and dere­lic­tion of duty … if we ram through a back-break­ing tax in­crease, at the same time that many of our cit­i­zens are fighting for their liveli­hoods and their lives,” he said.

Strong words, to be sure.

Sean Chu was the only other city coun­cil­lor to back Farkas’ amend­ment.

Oth­ers just at­tacked Farkas. Nen­shi said Farkas’ words were “dis­gust­ing.” You can watch the en­tire ex­change on the city’s web­site.

“To at­tempt to use the emer­gency as a plat­form … to use in­flam­ma­tory lan­guage to talk about what Cal­gar­i­ans have told us, and Cal­gar­i­ans have said no such thing,” said Nen­shi. Clearly he’s be­ing shel­tered.

“This is the epit­ome of bad be­hav­iour … of what politi­cians should not be do­ing in an emer­gency like this, to say we’re ram­ming some­thing through that we had a week and a half of de­bate on in Novem­ber, and it passed,” said Nen­shi. He then asked an ad­min­is­tra­tive staffer how much the 7.5 per cent in­crease would cost the av­er­age home­owner.

“Twenty dol­lars more per month. Which is back-break­ing, which is go­ing to kill peo­ple who are al­ready in poverty. That is dis­gust­ing. What we need to do is help peo­ple who are in poverty,” said Nen­shi.

Coun. Evan Wool­ley said Farkas was en­gaged in “po­lit­i­cal prof­i­teer­ing” and it is “un­be­liev­ably shame­ful.”

Ward Suther­land said Farkas had a “lim­ited skill set.” Coun. Jy­oti Gon­dek chas­tised Farkas, while Coun. Jeff Dav­i­son said Farkas’ amend­ment was “fool­ish” and “shame­ful.”

It was an old fash­ioned, al­beit a vir­tual, pil­ing on.

What’s re­ally fool­ish, shame­ful, dis­gust­ing and ev­i­dence of a lim­ited skill set is that Cal­gary city coun­cil passed a 7.5 per cent tax in­crease dur­ing an un­prece­dented eco­nomic cri­sis in which thou­sands of cit­i­zens are los­ing their jobs.

The ex­tra $840 my hus­band and I will pay this year in prop­erty taxes to the city will not break our backs. We are grate­ful for that. But for se­niors liv­ing on a fixed in­come or young fam­i­lies where one or both par­ents have lost their jobs, it very well might. It cer­tainly won’t help.

Real cut­ting is hard. It takes cre­ativ­ity and can be wrench­ing, but most Cal­gar­i­ans are do­ing just that.

Just once, it would be re­fresh­ing to see this coun­cil hav­ing to live in the real world where their con­stituents live.

DAR­REN MAKOWICHUK/FILES

Mayor Na­heed Nen­shi says he and coun­cil have kept prop­erty tax hikes be­low in­fla­tion and pop­u­la­tion growth since 2014, but crit­ics aren’t buy­ing it.

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