Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Despite unfortunate robo-call, Katz hasn't betrayed city on property taxes

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As Sheila Copps taught Canadians in the '90s, you can't trust politicians to say what they mean during election campaigns.

Almost 20 years ago, when the federal Liberals were on the cusp of retaking control of Parliament from the Progressive Conservatives, Copps famously promised to resign if the Jean Chrétien government did not abolish the goods and services tax instituted under Brian Mulroney.

Once elected, of course, the Liberals were reluctant to eliminate the GST, a very lucrative source of revenue. Copps, however, spent three years refusing to resign until the Reform party shamed her into stepping down.

As anyone old enough to recall the Chrétien years will recall, Copps reclaimed her Hamilton East seat in a byelection called only after polling data suggested she wouldn't be able to lose it.

Her reputation never quite recovered from the episode. And a similar fate may very well befall Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz for a campaign tactic he employed 16 months ago.

In the 2010 mayoral race, during the brief window when it appeared challenger Judy Wasylycia-Leis was gaining ground on Katz, his campaign rolled out an extremely effective robocall that tied Wasylycia-Leis' promise to raise property taxes to the prospect of impoverished Winnipeggers losing their homes.

At the time, Katz was already on the record warning Winnipeggers the city's then-13-year-old property-tax freeze was bound to come to an end. As early as 2007, in fact, Katz said this city would have no choice but to raise property taxes if it did not gain access to a greater share of growth revenues, such as one point of the provincial sales tax.

But since elections are about winning and not engaging the public in a reasoned debate about fiscal policy, the Katz robocall went ahead, insisting the current mayor would seek avenues other than raising property taxes to balance the city's operating budget.

The following spring, Katz kept the letter of his word by using a frontage-levy hike to help balance the 2011 operating budget. That is certainly another avenue -- and one the city had not employed for an entire decade beforehand.

The inevitable property-tax hike didn't arrive until this week, when Katz correctly noted he has been unable to convince the Selinger government to give the city access to growth revenues -- just like former mayor Glen Murray was unable to convince the Doer government to do the same.

At no point did Sam Katz ever promise to maintain Winnipeg's property-tax freeze indefinitely. Over the years, all this mayor ever promised was to delay a hike as long as possible.

And he kept that vow in recent years, even when that meant signing off on dubious if not outright foolish budget measures.

In the name of avoiding a tax increase, Katz gambled and partly failed in a bid to settle a tax-collection dispute with Manitoba Hydro. He gouged water-and-sewer ratepayers by transferring a dividend over to the operating budget. And he hamstrung the upper echelons of the public service by eliminating almost a third of the city's middle-management positions. The latter move was the most ironic, given this mayor's penchant for criticizing the consultants the city is now increasingly forced to use.

Katz really did do everything in his power to avoid a property-tax hike. Heck, he even held onto the freeze when it made little financial sense. Winnipeggers may not realize it, but this city can actually raise property taxes at the rate of inflation in perpetuity and still boast the lowest municipal tax burden among any major Canadian city, save perhaps Surrey, B.C.

But most voters do not care. Many see the 3.5 per cent property-tax hike announced this week as some form of betrayal. Rightly or wrongly, they believe Katz led them to believe property taxes would never rise.

Again, Katz did no such thing. But he did commit an entirely different political sin: He told voters what they wanted to hear and utterly failed to engage them in a reasoned debate about fiscal policy. As the cliché dictates, he must now lie in the rhetorical bed he made in 2010.

To be fair, the Wasylycia-Leis's promise to raise taxes was equally vapid, as her increase could have only maintained services, not improved them. Real improvements to services require more than inflationary revenue hikes. Katz is correct when he states Winnipeg's revenue and infrastructure problems are much more immense.

But now that the tax-hike bogeyman is out of the way, our mayor can do what he wishes with fiscal policy. In what amounts to an excellent political opportunity, Sam Katz may use his final two years in office to choose whatever direction he likes, without any fear of being boxed in by previous commitments.

If he succeeds, he has a chance of being remembered as the three-term mayor who finally figured it all out by the end. If he fails, he can take solace in the fact Sheila Copps went on to enjoy a career outside of politics.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 4, 2012 A1

History

Updated on Monday, March 5, 2012 at 10:54 AM CST: adds audio of robocall, adds fact box

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott.

Bartley appears every second Wednesday on CityTV’s Breakfast Television. His work has also appeared on CBC Radio and in publications such as National Geographic Traveler, explore magazine and Western Living.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives
Email: bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

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