Finding a template that works
You can spend your money more efficiently than any government can and you can do it without any administrative costs, red tape or political interference. City council needs to keep this reality in mind as it ponders ways in which to rejuvenate Windsor's tired neighbourhoods.
Decreasing property values, store vacancies and a wave of plant closures are expected to cut the city's tax revenue by millions, which, coupled with rising labour and fuel costs, means the city will be forced to do more with less or mull further property tax hikes.
At the same time, homeowners are fleeing Windsor's traditional neighbourhoods for newer homes on the outskirts or in Essex County. This exodus is a reaction to Windsor's high taxes and limited services that compounds the problem by further eroding the tax base.
As well, retail outlets — the lifeblood of any thriving neighbourhood — are struggling to keep their doors open because of declining foot traffic. The city has a commercial vacancy rate of 12 per cent compared to just five to seven per cent in similarly-sized cities.
In an effort to reverse this trend, council is considering offering financial help that would encourage homeowners in neighbourhoods like Walkerville and Riverside to spruce up their homes instead of abandoning them for the suburbs. This would increase the value of existing properties in historically key locations, the theory goes, while making these areas more livable, which would attract new development along with savvy buyers. Everybody wins, including residents of unsubsidized areas, because of an enhanced tax base.
Councillor Ken Lewenza Jr., who recently built a home in Ward 4, said it was unfair he had to pay the same development charges as a builder in a new subdivision when amenities like parks and libraries were already established in his ward.
While reducing fees for new construction in established neighbourhoods makes considerable sense, the scheme carries risks in that it diverts money from the municipality. An incentive program for homeowners carries similar risks but could additionally promote the creation of a costly new layer of bureaucracy.
Whereas lowering taxes benefits homeowners directly — putting more disposable income in their pockets — setting up a neighbourhood enhancement fund necessitates the creation of a "middle man" that eats up some of that money. The fund would be finite, of course, which sets the stage for an unwieldy and likely controversial applications and approvals process.
Another way of encouraging homeowners to renovate their properties is to streamline the permit process and even eliminate the requirement entirely for some common projects. Another is providing homeowners tax breaks for the work they've done improving their properties. Again, though tax breaks are better than handouts, the proposal could still lead to bigger but not better government.
This city can also promote its historic neighbourhoods as attractive and livable communities for the future by placing an emphasis on beautifying parks and sidewalks. The murals dotting historic Sandwich and Riverside have done much to improve those areas and more can be done to make public spaces in these communities more inviting. If the city can spare $1 million to beautify "gateway roads" like Dougall and Howard Avenues, it can certainly promote similar initiatives in Windsor's residential heartlands.
The city has long placed too much emphasis on improving the downtown when other areas — like Erie and Ottawa Streets and the Pillette and Riverside areas — have struggled in the face of political neglect and fallen far short of maximizing their potential.
With the price of gas expected to remain high, these neighbourhoods have an inherent advantage over those in the suburbs. The city can best exploit that natural and significant edge by offering competitive taxes and quality services.