About the Blog:

Guelph Politico is locally sourced and dedicated to covering the political and cultural scene in the City of Guelph. Est. 2008.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Question of the Day: Taxpayer or Citizen?

If Rob Ford has enjoyed any success, it's framing the idea that he represents "taxpayers," a nondescript group of people of work hard for their money and don't want their share of taxes paid going to the benefit of those who pay nothing into the system. In the U.S., this has been digested down to the phrase, "Makers and Takers," but Ford Nation and associated constituencies do it better by distilling it down to one word, "Taxpayer."
This vision narrows the complexities of governing on any level to utterly simplistic terms: taxes are fees for service, and we should pay the absolute minimum to get the services we want and just the services we want.  That means garbage collection, hydro and water services, police, emergency responders, and clean and easy to navigate roads. Public transit, the arts, cultural events, environmental initiatives, and sustainable planning are luxuries, investments desired by the leftie elites who want to use the blood, sweat and tears of the "Taxpayer" as seed money.
Here's the thing, we're all "Taxpayers." You may not own a house, but you probably pay to use public transit, and city facilities. You probably also pay into CPP, EI and income tax. So are we not all "Taxpayers?" To push the metaphor, are we not all investors in the business enterprise called the places where we live. And as with all businesses there are big investors and there are small investors. Some departments make more money, and other departments need more money. There's a give and take, but the critical difference is that in business, you're in business to make money for investors. The city you live in though is in the business of making everyone's life better. And emphasize that word everyone.

So long as we're redefining the word "Taxpayer" let's also redefine the word "taxes." Ford likes to brag about saving the City of Toronto $1 billion, a figure that's not only highly inflated, but counts a $24 million increase in user fees as "savings." If a tax is giving money to the government in exchange for government provided services, than why do user fees not count as a different tax? The healthcare premium charged in the Province of Ontario is a user fee for the healthcare system, but it's still called "the health tax." That's fine, I think the difference between "tax" and "user fee" is marginal, but you can't pat yourself on the back for increasing one to save on the other.
Let's look at this another way. One of candidate Ford's big promises in 2010 was the elimination of the Vehicle Registration Tax, a $60 surcharge on car owners that was wildly unpopular with the suburban vote that handed Ford his victory. By comparison, a Metropass was $121 in 2010, or twice as much as the VRT. Between 2009 and 2010, the price of a Metropass increased by $11, while the cost of an individual cash far went up by single quarter to an even $3. Of course that $60 for the VRT was on top of the $90 that Ontario makes you pay for your license plate sticker every year, but no one at city hall said that the extra money out of the pockets of TTC riders, some of who do meet the Ford Nation's limited definition of "Taxpayer," was just as unfair as the VRT, especially since they're paying more money for the exact same service.
If there's a perplexing bit of counter-intuitive policy to the "Taxpayer" first philosophy, it's in the realm of public transit. We see this in Toronto (and to an extent in Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge too) with the expansion of public transit through light rail. Mayor Ford cancelled the Scarborough LRT and replaced it with a subway plan despite the fact that a) the LRT plan under Transit City was paid for, b) Toronto incurred multimillion dollar penalties for cancelling Transit City at Ford's request, c) the subway plan is yet to be fully paid for, and d) he had to raise property taxes a full half per cent to secure the city's share of funding. How does one still crow about being a good fiscal manager in the face of that?
The way most people define "Taxpayer" implies a circular view of the process, from people paying money to the government, to the government providing services back to the people, but as usual, the diagram is much more complicated. You may not participate in something like Hillside, or the Guelph Jazz Festival, but city support to those programs brings visitors to Guelph who stay in our hotels, eat in our restaurants, and buy things in our stores, and that money goes back into the community through business owners and employees. In another example, you may not ride the bus, but a vibrant public transit system helps to ensure that the roads aren't congested, allowing more freedom of travel within the city.
The other problem with the investor paradigm is that your "investment" is all you care about. Pay your taxes and so long as you get your dividends - in the form of the services you want - then nothing else matters. Fine, but then why live in a city known for trying to create a place to live that's something more than where your bed and TV is. Mayoral candidate Cam Guthrie says that anyone who wants a backyard should be able to get one, but what about other things like culture and community? I'm not one to say "If you don't like it here, move," but there are places in the immediate vaccinate of Guelph that don't consider creating a vibrant and diverse community a priority; there's no transit, little support, and the few places to eat are all take-out. As for life here in the Royal City, Guelph's always stood for dynamic approaches to waste collection, creating engaging civic spaces, and protecting our cultural heritage. Seriously, you're expecting that to change without a fight?
To get back to the definition, or redefinition, of "Taxpayer," we have to consider that there are several different kinds of investment, if that is how we're going qualify what a tax is. There's the investment of time, people who volunteer with their church, a community group, the hospital, or one of the hundreds of volunteer dependent organizations in Guelph. There's the investment of ideas and passion, helping to shape the conversation about important issues facing your city. There's also the investment of people, creating communities within communities, reaching across ethnic, racial, religious and cultural lines and making this place we live a more harmoniouscity that's inclusive rather than exclusive, a society as opposed to a bunch of tribes living closely together.
Yes, we should demand that our government spends tax money wisely, and they should be accountable for every nickel and dime, but many of the people who throw around the word "Taxpayer" care about accountability only so far as it proves that they pay too much, and should be paying less. Fair enough, that's a valid point of view, and if you merely want to be considered for your financial contribution as a land owner in the City of Guelph, that's fine. But this is not medieval times, and the world is no longer run by those who own small parts of it. As a society we've agreed that everyone has a voice and a vote, which is why most people, even if they don't own property, pay into the system in whatever way they can. We are all taxpayers, but we are also all citizens, and in the grand universal scheme of things, the latter should be more important than the former, not because there's no cost of admission but because in society, a citizen is just more invested. Period.
If you're interested in further discussion on this topic, there's an event hosted by the Green Party of Ontario's Guelph branch at the Civic Museum on Wednesday called "Am I a Citizen or a Taxpayer?" The panel includes former CBC personality Ralph Benmergui, the Guelph Citizen's Andy Best, and some radio show host named Jan Andrea Hall. It starts at 7 pm in the Programming Room at the Museum on Norfolk Street.

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