On Tuesday, July 30th, City Council made a decision on the $52 Million that has been lingering for quite a while. This money is the room that the Province vacated from their tax collection back in the spring, and has been the subject of a lot of debate over the past several months. So, let me take you through the steps that got us to the decision last Tuesday and where I stand along the journey.
Council made a decision last year, on a motion brought forward by the Mayor, to step into any tax room that the Province vacates. This has happened a few times in the past, where the Province does not take as much property tax as expected, creating an opportunity for the City to take the room yet stay within the budgeted property tax increase for Calgarians. Each time City Council has done this it has been for a specified purpose; recently for large cultural projects such as the new Public Library and to support community associations.
The policy that Council adopted last year stated that City Council will, by policy, take the vacated provincial property tax. I voted against that policy as I don't believe we should take the room unless we have a specific plan for the money. If we don't have a plan, and one that benefits the entire city, then I believe we should return the property tax to the property owners. However, the new policy was adopted as there were only three of us who voted against the motion.
This year in the spring, the provincial government said they were going to take $52Million less in property tax than planned, creating the tax room that City Council, by policy, steps into. At that time, because we didn't have a plan, five options for the $52M were proposed for public input. They were: 1) More Transit, 2) Community Infrastructure, 3) Reduce Debt, 4) Reduce Business Tax and 5) Return the money.
Initially, when we began talking to Calgarians, I favoured the transit option. I was looking for an option that would benefit all Calgarians, no matter where they lived or how much property tax they paid. No matter where you live in Calgary, you benefit from transit. Even if you never use public transit you benefit from reduced traffic and congestion. Of the five choices before us, this was the only one that I felt had a truly universal city-wide benefit.
As I listened to the discussion over the next several weeks and talked about it with Calgarians, it became apparent that the majority favoured the return of the money. I could get into a long discussion here on the amount of time and consideration that you must invest to ensure we have good public consultation around these types of issues but the public engagement took the form it did and through it Calgarians largely said they wanted the money back.
And in the end I agreed. The argument that swayed me the most was actually from the people who agreed with me about transit! They agreed, we need more transit but, they said, if indeed it is the priority we know it is, then we should budget for it appropriately and not rely on "windfalls" to fund increased transit. In other words, they were saying, be honest about it and put the $50Million in the annual budget from the get-go. And so I decided that I would vote to return the money when it came to City Council for a decision.
Then came the flood.
I spent the two weeks during the State of Local Emergency touring the city each day; visiting the Emergency Operations Centre, going to evacuation centres around the city, and walking the streets of devastated communities in Ward 11. I saw the destruction that had occurred across the city and saw how long it is going to take to rebuild. And I saw how much money it is going to require to do that.
When the $52M came before Council and we heard that it would be exceedingly difficult to return the money for 2013, I voted in support of the Mayor's (amended) motion to allocate this year's money to flood recovery. However I still can't, and didn't, support the ongoing use of the $52M tax room even for flood recovery.
This isn't because of a lack of need. Our current estimate of the cost of rebuilding city infrastructure; roads, pathways, bridges, buildings, and parks, is over $500 Million. And, as more and more is revealed during flood recovery, that number is rising and may, we are told, get close to $1Billion. This number reflects the cost of the damage, it doesn't include the cost of improving infrastructure to make it more flood resistant nor the cost for work we will need to do to prevent this kind of damage should a future flood of this magnitude occur.
Truthfully we just don't know yet the full extent of the recovery, or a final cost estimate; and, like last year when Council enacted the tax room policy, I found myself being asked to make a decision without a plan. For this reason I supported the motion to refer considerations for what to do with the $52M tax room for 2014 and onward until November's budget discussions. By November we will have had a chance through our data collection now, as well as conversations with both the Provincial and Federal governments, to see a comprehensive report on just what it will take for the City to recover from the June 2013 flood.
In the end, I believe we must have a plan before we spend taxpayer money. In the case of the $52 Million we haven't had a plan. Though I supported the allocation of this year's tax room to flood recovery, where it is desperately needed, we still don't have a plan. In the fall, I will be looking for a plan. I will be looking for exactly what we are going to do with the money.
If we don't have a plan, we shouldn't take the money.
This content represents the personal views and opinions of the Ward Councillor and should not be taken as a statement of policy of The City of Calgary. The inclusion of any external content does not imply endorsement by The City of Calgary.