HST critics ‘making political hay out of scaring misinformed people’

This is a guest post from former New Westminster Voice council candidate and current Arts Council President Susan Wandell, written in response to a media release by the local organizing committee for the Initiative To End the Harmonized Sales Tax that was previously published here.

The HST has been getting a lot of press lately, mostly by those who are making political hay out of scaring misinformed people.  Regardless of who said what when, the reality is the federal government will provide B.C. with transitional funding of $1.6 billion that is slated to protect vital health and education services.

In order for individuals to transition to this system, the provincial government has increased the basic personal income tax credit increase to $11,000 from $9,373, an increase of 17% which is effective January 1, 2010.

For low income families and individuals, a refundable B.C. HST Credit will be paid quarterly to offset the initial impact of the change.  The amount of the credit would be $230 per family member for individuals with income up to $20,000 and families with incomes up to $25,000.  The credit will benefit over 1.1 million British Columbians, and when combined with the existing low income Climate Action credit, a single individual earning $20,000 will be eligible for up to $335 in credits.

For new homebuyers, a partial rebate will ensure that new homes up to $525,000 will bear no more tax than under the current PST system, while homes above $525,000 will receive a flat rebate of about $26,250. There is no HST on previously-owned homes being re-sold.

Currently, we pay 5% GST and 7% PST.  The HST combines the two taxes for one 12% tax.  The HST would apply to the same goods and services as the GST with some important exceptions such as gasoline, home energy/heating, books, children’s-sized clothing and footwear, children’s car seats and car booster seats, diapers and feminine hygiene products.

All existing GST exemptions will continue to apply (i.e.; basic groceries).

Another component is that the Social Services Tax will be eliminated reducing tax from 15% to 12% on liquor served on site at restaurants and pubs.

The fact is, no one likes taxes and change is always subject to criticism, but taxes are a reality, and being well informed about what the changes are and how they affect the individual citizen is important. For example, this tax has been criticized as benefiting business at the expense of the citizenry.  Indeed, this tax will benefit business, but certainly not in the lop-sided manner that critics purport that it will.

Further, when business prospers, the immediate trickle-down effect is a thriving economy and healthier communities. Stronger business communities not only stabilize local and national job markets but also expands employment and salary opportunities.  Additionally, as good corporate neighbours, stable community businesses will again resume local sponsorship programs and donations to non-profits, but more importantly, the consequent increase in local corporate tax-base contributions will benefit and rejuvenate community-based services, including health and education services.

I urge every citizen to do their homework to learn about the effect of the new HST in comparison to the affect of maintaining the status-quo before making any rash determinations about the pending changes.

Anti-HST petition comes to New Westminster April 17

The following is a  media release from the New Westminster HST Initiative Campaign. For more information on the B.C. campaign, visit fighthst.com or connect with local organizers on Facebook.

Residents of New Westminster who want to learn more about the Initiative to End the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST), get involved, or just sign the petition will get their chance on Saturday April 17, between 10:00 AM and 12:00 noon at Canadian Autoworkers Union Hall at 326 12th Street.

The official initiative petition will be available for New Westminster residents to sign anytime between 10:00 AM and noon. Beginning at 10 o’clock, local organizers for the campaign will provide an overview of the initiative and train people who want to volunteer to collect signatures for the campaign. After the training, canvassers will head out into their neighbourhoods to collect signatures door-to-door.

“We know people in New Westminster are anxious to have their say on the HST,” said local campaign spokesperson Tania Jarzebiak. “But there are some very strict rules governing the initiative and we wanted to take the time to make sure we do it right.”

“We need to collect at least 4300 signatures from folks who are on the voters list in New Westminster by July 5 – and we hope to make a good start on Saturday,” she added.

The HST will shift $1.9 billion in taxes from corporations onto consumers, will hurt working families and small businesses, and lead to thousands of layoffs in key industries. Opposition to the HST continues to grow, and petition launches in communities across BC have been a huge success. In Fort St John, for example, canvassers collected 1,800 signatures in one day.

“The HST has struck a nerve with people in New Westminster. We’re outraged at the BC Liberal government’s deception and lack of consultation,” Jarzebiak noted, “Judging from the amount of calls and e-mails received so far, we’re going to have an active and successful petition campaign in New Westminster.”

Area businesses have expressed interest in hosting the petition, and organizers are developing a schedule for volunteer canvassers to be in place to collect signatures. More information about locations and times will be made available once the schedule is confirmed.

Tell the City Where to Stick its Taxes

New Westminster infrastructure, social services and public amenities all need attention. The question is how to fund it. Photo: Dennis Sylvester Hurd
New Westminster infrastructure, social services and public amenities all need attention. The question is how to fund it. Photo: Dennis Sylvester Hurd

Raise taxes or cut services? Fund policing or parks? Transportation or recreation? There are some pretty tough decisions to be made in the next city budget, and no matter what council decides I’m sure it will be controversial. When council decides how to balance the 2010 budget, their decision will be influenced in part by feedback received via the citizen survey that is now available to complete online.

The City of New Westminster has created a PDF overview explaining what the budget covers and what the big issues are, and within the PDF is a link to the survey where you can rank the city services that are most important to you. Some of the questions I found difficult to answer, which is (I think) the point. In an ideal world, we’d see lower taxes and more services, and no need for user-pay schemes. Realistically, given the economic and demographic pressures New Westminster is facing, we’ll likely have to either agree to take on more debt, raise taxes and/or increase user-pay fees in order to maintain (let alone improve) city services.

Here are some of the issues I found particularly thorny, and where I ended up upon some reflection:

Raise taxes or cut services

I have been pretty happy with the services we get from the city, and while property tax time was no walk in the park, I can’t support cutting services in order to save an extra $50 or $100 a year on my bill. We’d just end up spending the extra money on cheap red wine, read-it-once paperback novels and yet more toys for the kids. I don’t love the idea of paying more tax, but once again, I have to admit that the social good that could be accomplished with a small increase is likely worth it.

User fees to defray costs

On the face of it, there is some appeal to the idea. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this could make certain city services, like parks & rec programs, unaffordable for the residents who most need it. For someone at our income level, the choice may be to work out at Canada Games Pool’s fitness facility or to join a private gym. For many other New West residents, it may be a stretch to cover even the subsidized user fees.

Casino revenue to fund ongoing services, or only for capital improvements

Currently, casino revenue is treated like a windfall. It is unpredictable, and therefore city policy has been to use it for one-time purchases or upgrades, rather than to fund services. While it was tempting to lean on this revenue to ‘solve’ the problem of funding, in the end I decided that the city’s current policy is wise. I’m not comfortable with the risk of depending on gambling money to cover delivery of core services.

Debt to fund necessary infrastructure upgrades

We live in an older city, and many of our parks, playgrounds, roads, etc. are due to be upgraded or replaced. I actually answered no to this, because the debt servicing costs add so much to the price of these improvements, but I think if I could go back and modify my response I would. I still wouldn’t be enthusiastic about the idea, but I think there are some improvements that would merit borrowing money to fund. I would support it for urgently needed upgrades, and for improvements that could support economic development in the city that would potentially fund more projects in future years.

Parking fees

I’m a pedestrian and transit user by first choice, and generally opposed to anything that encourages people to drive more often than necessary, so my initial reaction was that this was a good idea to raise funds. But I’m also a small business booster, and sad as it is, paying $1 for parking is enough to turn some customers off shopping at a Columbia St. boutique when they can go park at Metrotown and shop the big-box stores for free. I still think this is worth looking at, but I think the city has to be careful about how much to charge and carefully consider how it might impact our many small businesses. There was also a question about adding parking fees at civic facilities. I came out opposed to this, however in reality I think it depends which buildings and how much is charged. My concern is for the lowest income residents, and the potential detriment to the community if people start avoiding civic facilities such as libraries, rec centres and parks out of pique at the new fees.

These are just some of the dilemmas posed in the survey and accompanying PDF on city spending. The survey takes only 15 minutes or so to fill out, but it sure does get you thinking about some of the big issues facing our town.