Thu, Feb
20
2003

Our Municipal Fall Guys

Thu, Feb 20, 2003

Andrew Spicer has a good rundown on the comments raised by others on the most recent federal budget. In his assessment of my comments, he says "James Bow is angry too, but offers a slightly different point of view. Perhaps we should be mad at both Ottawa and Queen's Park."

To which I say, "oh, hell, yeah!"

Consider the state Canada and the province of Ontario were in back in 1993. In Ottawa, the newly elected Liberal government faced a whopping deficit of $45 billion and an economy that was in freefall. Since then, the Federal Government has eliminated the deficit, paid at least $50 billion off our debt and reduced taxes. They did so by cutting transfer payments and reducing the federal share of health care spending to a measly 14%, shifting the overwhelming majority of the burden of our healthcare system onto our provinces.

In Ontario, our economy was in freefall with the rest of the country and the government struggled with a $10 billion deficit. Since then, Queen's Park has slashed provincial income taxes by 30%, slashed corporate taxes by a large amount, and balanced its budget. It did so by cutting social welfare, reducing healthcare and education, and dumping what was left of housing, infrastructure and public transportation solely on Ontario's cities.

Since 1993, Toronto has cut services beyond the bone, raised property taxes by at least 15%, and it still faces a budget shortfall of $50 million this year. Mississauga has run out of developable land and, without the subsidy of development charges, is facing the prospect of its first tax increase in ten years. Outside of Ontario, Calgary and Edmonton residents pay property tax rates that are at least 12% higher than in 1993. In British Columbia, the residents who gained a 25% cut in income taxes have seen it frittered away with user fees, property tax increases and an increased gasoline tax. Downloading is not just an Ontario problem.

So, who solved the fiscal problems of Ottawa and the provinces? The homeless people of Toronto, that's who. And the working parents of Calgary and Edmonton. Then there's the riders on the TTC, and the people who wait longer in our hospitals and who make do with less in our schools. The people who bought new houses in our sprawling suburbs also paid to fix the deficit problems of our provincial and federal governments, straight out of their home's sticker price.

The federal government and the provincial government have the power to download their costs onto the lower level of government. For the cities, there are no lower levels of government. They're the ones who are stuck with the duties of cleaning the garbage off of our streets, ensuring the mobility of our neighbourhoods and making the taps turn out clean water. And they are the ones burdened with restrictions on who gets taxed how. A Toronto proposal to impose a hotel tax, getting tourists to pay for improved TTC service, was vetoed by Queen's Park. Demands for shares in federal and provincial gasoline taxes go unheeded -- we don't even bother to ask for portions of our federal and provincial income taxes.

Our federal and provincial governments are sitting on great piles of cash, which they use to pay down debts and reduce taxes. These piles amount to billions of dollars which have been taken from city dwellers by way of cities paying for vital services the provincial and federal governments refuse to help out with. And as the city dwellers cope with the high costs of replacing infrastructure and investing in our cities' growth, the provinces and the feds both ignore us, and refuse to use our own money to help reduce this burden that they have imposed.

Any way you look at it, its frustrating. It highlights the power vacuum that exists at the municipal level; constitutionally, our cities don't exist. The power to deal with urban issues rests with governments that are removed from our cities. There is no political or constitutional incentive for the two upper levels of government *to* care... until the city voter comes to realize just who it was who screwed them.


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