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Market Squared: Only villains raise taxes (I guess)

Paying taxes does not make you special, and rising taxes does not make politicians evil.

I hate the word, “taxpayer.”

When it’s used by the media, or by politicians, it’s always used in a way that denotes class. As in there’s a certain class of people that pay taxes, and thus have more of a right to say about how much tax they pay and what it pays for versus all the “freeloaders” out there. 

But guess what? Did you buy a coffee today? Then you’re a taxpayer. 

Pay your rent this month? That goes to cover your landlord’s property taxes on your house. You’re a taxpayer. 

Everyone’s a taxpayer. It’s like how everyone who lives in Guelph is a citizen of Guelph, but using the word “citizen” doesn’t send the right message. It’s too inclusive. 

It’s that time of year when taxpayers get especially direct lip-service because it’s budget season. City councillors will want to let “taxpayers” know that they’re front of mind and in their thoughts to deliver a manageable increase for maximum service delivery. Not that anyone who calls themselves a “taxpayer” buys that. 

To the “taxpayer” there’s an assumption that there’s a war in Guelph between spend thrifts at city hall, and a burdened tax base. Next year, there will inevitably be a slate of candidates who will look at the current council and see giant cartoon pigeons with a handful of shopping bags and a platinum credit card with the name “Taxpayer” on it. Yes, even the fiscally conservative councillors. 

The “Gang of 7”, or the “Gang of 8” depending on the time and day, will be cast as especially high on throwing perfectly good $100 bills in a giant dumpster fire for no reason. After all, anyone that votes for a tax increase obviously doesn't pay taxes themselves. Get rid of them and we can finally get off this endless merry-go-round of tax increases, and investments in escalators to nowhere, and Popsicle stick skyscrapers…  

And once those folks are gone, we can go after the real villains in this tragic affair: city staff. If we had a city council with the balls to just cut and fire, we’d be more than half way there to clearing the fat that sits on the Sunshine List, right? 

The “Sunshine List”. One of the biggest straw men of modern Ontario politics. Hey, I like transparency, and I think the intent of the list’s creation was in the right place, but people don’t see it as a tool of public transparency so much as a “hit list” of the fattest of the fat cats. 

In considering this week’s column I looked at some online comments about the budget for some conventional wisdom. Big mistake. 

Among the targets on the Guelph sub-Reddit was the city’s fire department. “Way too many firefighters on the payroll and their pay is astronomical,” wrote user Boothash. “It’s like a legalized mob.”

“How many fires (not emergencies, fire) do we have in Guelph, that these folks could be on pagers, and doing something else, like cleaning up parks, or supervising playgrounds?” added someone named 226Guelph. 

It’s interesting to always hear people call police officers, firefighters, and teachers unsung heroes, but when their names appear on a list of people making six figures, then they automatically become vampires feeding on the desiccating husk of society. 

I don’t suppose it occurred to our Redditor friends that “fire prevention” is part of the fire department’s job. Just like your doctor isn’t there to give you pills or cut you open when your health fails. 

So are we arguing that Guelph’s arson industry isn’t make enough work to justify the fire department, or are we saying that firefighters, who are highly trained mentally and physically to deal with a fire emergency, are roughly the same in terms of ability as a random guy with a fire extinguisher?

I will complement these guys though for putting a new spin on an old classic: why is the city paying for stuff we can do for ourselves? 

The usual subject of these observations is snow removal. Why spend money ploughing residential sidewalks across the city when we can put the onus on homeowners and their shovel? 

Hey, I actually agree with this one. That’s the way it used to work, right? And I made good pocket (read: comic book) money shovelling people’s driveways and sidewalks as a kid. It was a great way to monetize a snow day! (See I’m not a complete Commie lunatic.) 

So now picture a world that’s so litigious that you can spill your own coffee on yourself and sue the restaurant for having the gall to give you the hot coffee that you asked for. Picture someone shovelling the sidewalk in front of their home, perhaps in a rush, and giving it a lick and a promise before jetting to work. Now picture someone who slips, and watches a lot of TV featuring ads for lawyers saying slippery sidewalks is good for a quick buck? 

Still want volunteer firefighters with beepers, or part-time firefighters chasing litterbugs in the park? 

Finally, someone on Reddit noted that these are “good times” in the Royal City and that the City of Guelph should be “running a surplus.” What’s interesting is that in 2016, the City of Guelph did run a surplus, over a million dollars worth of surplus that was reinvested into reserve accounts. 

Leaving that aside, it presumes that the City of Guelph runs like every other level of government. First of all, Ontario municipalities are outlawed from running an operational deficit, in good times and in bad, which is in stark contrast to both the federal and provincial governments. 

Second, those same levels spent years download services onto municipalities (trickle down economics?) so that they could balance their own books. It adds a certain level of irony to that aforementioned law that bares cities from running deficits. 

Finally though, there are only so many ways for a municipality to raise funds, and those are property taxes and user fees. I suppose the limited options encourages cities to spend within their means, but when the infrastructure backlog is up to half-a-billion dollars, we might need to to look at how our cities are funded, and that should be a holistic approach. What services do cities offer, what services should they offer, and whose responsibility is it to pay for them? 

As for “good times” let’s be honest, it’s never good times for everyone, especially these days. 

There’s a lot of crowing about Guelph’s low unemployment rate, but not a lot of analysis about the type of work, what it pays, and how many people have multiple jobs. Those people are too busy being nickel and dimed to worry about the nickels and dimes.

Those people are “taxpayers” too, and while it’s nice that there are many people in this town that can argue they’re well-off enough to handle their own business, others like and need the help from city services staffed with trained professionals. 

While anyone can be a taxpayer, there are a lot of things in life that require more specialized skill, and it’s not necessarily a crime to pay for it.