Several options for a net-zero tax increase

As budget deliberations continue, it’s time to speak up about what our local governments should or should not have in their forecasts for fiscal 2014.

It is entirely possible that every municipal and regional district could start with a “net zero” tax increase each year. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Penticton did so, twice, under former mayor, now MLA Dan Ashton, and he was the first mayor to be re-elected in the Okanagan city in 15 years. It was a bold promise, and he kept it.

There is no reason why that couldn’t be the case here. It would be the job of the mayor and council to mandate staff to come up with net zero budgets. Otherwise, staff will predictably bring in increased residential taxes and suggest that there’s no way they could find their way to a net zero.

Regional districts have somehow slipped below the radar, because much of their territory is “outside” the city. Don’t forget to check your tax notice, and even those within the city will notice that they are paying taxes for the regional district.

The Regional District of Nanaimo, for example, is calling for a collective tax increase of a staggering 32 per cent over the next five years. One needs to keep a watchful eye on regional districts, as civic leaders who are reluctant to hit taxpayers at the front door for city taxes may be using the back door to ram projects through via regional district levies.

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation has come up with some suggestions in what they call “The Beggar’s Checklist.” Over the next weeks, this newspaper will dig into each of the 10 aspects of the plan, which are chock full of ideas and opportunities to keep civic taxes low: Bring salaries and benefits inline with the private sector. With union contracts, this will be a tough place to make headway, but in 2008, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business noted municipalities had an 11.2 per cent wage and salary advantage over private sector workers -35.9 per cent once benefits and pension plans are included.

Contract out services. What services does the city/regional district offer that compete with the private sector? Utilizing public private partnerships for capital projects. What 3-P projects have been, or could be, undertaken to ease the burden on taxpayers? Selling surplus land and assets. Why not? There could be some extra income from unused civic property that could help fund the next infrastructure project -instead of raising taxes.

Converting services to user fees. Instead of blanket tax hikes, let those who want to use a particular service pay directly.

Seeking volunteers for the delivery of city services. What are we paying staff to do that volunteers could do?

Refocus activities on core services. Cities/regional districts continue to creep away from what their core responsibilities should be. Is it time to re-focus? Sponsorship activities. Companies may be willing to pay premiums to have their names on public facilities to take advantage of the extra exposure.

Partnering with other governments for service delivery. Duplication of services is a real problem at the local/regional level.

Utilizing new technology to reduce costs. It may require some investment up front, but it could result in efficiencies and reduced costs over the long term.

Plenty of good ideas here, and any combination should make net zero tax increases realistic.