Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Property-tax roads lead to Broadway

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What a lovely, taxing mess we Winnipeggers are in. The top challenger for Mayor Sam's job has promised to raise taxes if elected -- talk about honest to a fault -- leaving Katz a lush electoral field to mow all the way back to city hall on Oct. 27.

I appreciate the fact that Judy Wasylycia-Leis acknowledges, as others have, that a decade of freezing the property tax rate -- which is not the same as freezing taxes, we all know -- naturally has its consequences. The city's plaintive cry of poverty was predictable.

But getting out of this rut is more complicated than lifting a freeze. If JW-L or Katz proceed on such a plan, Winnipeggers would simply see successive hikes compounding the tax headache of property owners.

The headache starts with the fact that school boards also levy tax on property. They have taken advantage of the fact the city vacated the property tax field more than a decade ago. Boards have consistently hiked their rates, all the while property values rose dramatically, compounding the returns to the boards.

And they've seen no cause for restraint, even amid the chest thumping of provincial education ministers who have warned the boards time and again to keep their taxes down.

School boards take about half of their budgets directly from residents, explaining that insufficient operating grants from the provincial governments force them to increase property taxes.

In some respects, Winnipeggers have only themselves to blame, right? We not only elect board trustees, but we decide more than half of provincial ridings -- and it's the provincial government that grants school boards their taxing authority. City voters who complain loud and hard about the double-dip on property have never mustered that indignation on voting day.

And absent leadership on this issue at the city level, we now have a choice between a mayoral candidate who would fold the city's cards with nary an opening salvo across the provincial tax-authority table, and an incumbent who says he doesn't know if he'll raise taxes; he's waiting for advice from a revenue fact-finding commission.

What Winnipeg needs is a leader who lays out the facts: almost half the tax on property bills goes to education, which is a provincial responsibility. As those taxes inexorably rise, there is less room for any kind of increase on the municipal side of the bill.

It's high time to get education taxes off property; at the very least, halt the hikes.

Two per cent increase to property taxes annually, Judy? Petty cash, as compared to municipal needs.

Sam Katz said he plans to rally Winnipeggers to the steps of Broadway -- after the election. He figures that gives him a year before the next provincial election to hammer home the fact the city needs to be able to raise more revenue. But his goal is to go for a share of the provincial sales tax, which has merit, but it is at least as complex as taking the school boards' hands out of the property taxpayers' pockets.

Further, it does nothing to halt the school boards' encroachment upon property.

Sam has a history of working the back doors. That's bought him a lot of police officers, courtesy of the provincial coffers, which is patently absurd. But it hasn't found new revenue streams to help fund municipal services.

It is just so seductive to stick to that form when a premier, backed by provincial treasury, plays the "name your pet project" game. Tit for tat, the interests of politicians always lie in back-scratching compromise. Sam's preference to play the game is unsurprising, and also uninspiring.

I credit Wasylycia-Leis for addressing head-on the problem of a tax-freeze and the effect at the neighbourhood level -- crumbling community centres. But her proposal to raise municipal taxes two per cent in each year of the next term guts the negotiating heft of a city with 60 per cent of provincial voters.

It plays right into the hands of an NDP administration that is only too happy to keep the city begging like a lap dog for shared funding on projects that help the NDP's chances at the polls.

Why am I not surprised at that, either?

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 2, 2010 A20

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