Tell the City Where to Stick its Taxes

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.

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.

Briana Tomkinson

Briana Tomkinson is a Montreal-based writer and original founder of Tenth to the Fraser. She really likes to write letters by hand.

Briana Tomkinson is a really valued member of the Tenth to the Fraser community. Interested in joining our pool of writers? Please see these submission guidelines.

7 comments

  1. Hey David, thanks for commenting. I'd love to start an online debate! That's what I was hoping for with this post. Honestly, I don't know a lot about civic tax collection and how the city allocates its dollars. I think that's probably the case for a lot of our citizens. It'd be a great thing to raise awareness of how other jurisdictions handle taxation and balancing infrastructure requirements with other priorities. For example, I had no idea that New West generates more revenue than any other city in B.C. – that does indeed raise some questions about where the money goes.

    You're welcome to share your POV in the comments or write a guest post for us if you'd like to go in more detail about how you think the city ought to spend our tax money.

  2. I think the city-owned Hydro utility is an interesting question. On the one hand, it does appear at first glance to be redundant to BC Hydro's service. But I kind of appreciate the quirk of it as yet one more way that New West expresses its unique identity as a distinct place from Vancouver and the surrounding communities. And I do notice that when there are widespread power outages in surrounding communities, New West seems to keep the lights on more often.

    I think New West is also challenged by being an older city (which means there are lots of infrastructure replacement & maintenance costs that newer municipalities aren't faced with) and also a city that shoulders a disproportionate burden of the responsibility for the poor and marginalized. At least some of our city's funds are going towards programs that benefit poor folk from surrounding areas.

  3. I would be more excited about a quirky service if I knew it wasn't adding $200 per year onto my property taxes. I am not sure what the property-tax burden is – I am reading the budget now to try to find out.

    I am not sure a separate billing and phone service helps keeps the lights on, and how often they go out is more dependent on geography, trees, and weather. A better measure would be, if they go out, how fast they come back on, relative to other municipalities.

    According to the 2009 budget, the city claims that while the residential tax rate is the second highest in Greater Vancouver, the average assessed value is one of the lowest because of the number of multi-family dwellings. In other words, if our residential tax rate is high, then it's ok because we have more than average low-value property units and the city doesn't collect much from them. So people with homes pay lots, but that's ok – there are lots of condos with low assessed values that don't pay much to the city.

    West Vancouver, North Vancouver, Kits, etc, have become so expensive that the police and firefighters that work in those areas live far away (Maple Ridge, Pitt Meadows, etc), and as a result, if there is a region wide catastrophe, those areas may be without police and fire personnel. Keeping costs low means we have our share of people with desirable skills.

    We may be disadvantages with respect to our infrastructure. We do seem to have a higher proportion of lower-income individuals, but the financial burden tends to be on provincial shoulders.

    David

  4. I took the survey a few days back, and found that it did make me evaluate my views on the city.

    I think the city collects too much money via property taxes. I’d rather have more cheap red wine (or maybe my wife and I can bump up to the $12 bottles).

    The city generates more revenue than any other city in BC other than West Vancouver, and they have their own transit system.

    New Westminster has the highest percentage of rentals (and rentals are typically mult-family), so for all the money the city collects, it’s not collecting money for garbage and recycling from many households.

    I don’t want to start an online debate, but I am unhappy with how the city handled the repair issue @ Moody Park pool a few years back, the school closure and hiring/firing of the janitors (school board related, but still civic), the low fees applied to new developments (until the economy stopped most local development, and then the fees were increased), and so forth.

    We do seem to have city governance that wilts at the first sign of vocal opposition.

    What is going to happen with Canada Games needs replacing soon? I can’t even begin to imagine how much back and forth that is going to cause.

  5. Online debate seems to frequently descend into name-calling. There is Godwin’s Analogy, coined in 1990 (prior to blogs, etc) that states, “As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.”

    Anyway….

    I made a mistake in the information I provided above. New West does NOT have the second highest revenue per capita of any city in BC – it has the third highest spending of cities over 25,000 people (behind West Van and Penticton). To re-iterate, the city doesn’t have to spend money on collecting garbage and recycling from apartment and townhouse complexes, so where is the money being spent? I need to read the city budget, I suppose.

    The original report is here:

    http://www.cfib.ca/research/reports/rr3061.pdf

    This report is written by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, and while I don’t doubtthe numbers, it is most likely biased against anything relating to businesses being taxed.

    Does anyone have a comment to make about the city duplicating the services of BC Hydro in regards to providing an electrical service that doesn’t seem to be any better or worse? There is a large staff at City Hall involved in the reselling of energy purchased by BC Hydro.

  6. David: if you’re willing, I really would love you to write in more detail about the value-for-money & comparison to other municipalities when you are done reading the budget documents. I haven’t done a lot of digging into this stuff beyond reading the PDF provided by the city – and I certainly haven’t done any comparisons to other municipalities. I think it’s an important discussion to have: how does New West compare to other jurisdictions, and as taxpayers, which ‘extras’ are we willing to pay for?

  7. An area of debate that seems to be missing is the cost of city staff. Not that they don't deserve the pay but why do they require so many consultants to advise them on what to do and the cost of legal services continues to rise. If your being paid for your expertise then we should have confidence in our employees in particular our managers. With all the consultations and meetings I would hope that the residents and employees can provide enough confidence and ideas to move ahead at least to council. This way council would decide if they need outside consultants/advice to tell us what they think we need.

    Just a comment to add to your debate.

    Cheers.

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