10/8/14

Clarifying Municipal Taxes


CartoonSome candidates seem confused about municipal taxes this election. I thought I’d clear up a few facts about property taxes for your (and their) benefit.

Property taxes are made up of three components: the municipal portion (roughly 60%), the county portion (24%) and the education portion (16%). The rate (also called the mill rate) for each portion is set independently by its own body (the province sets the education levy).

The total rate is called the blended rate. The town’s portion is the town-own rate. Usually the blended rate is used because that reflects best what homeowners see. The rate depends on the type of property you own: residential, commercial, industrial all have different rates. Single-family and multi-residential are also different.

Let’s look at how taxes were calculated in 2014 for a single-family house valued at $200,000:

Total taxes payable will be $2,526.31, broken down as follows:

  • Education levy $406.00
  • County levy $608.00
  • Town levy $1,512.32

The value of your home – of every home in Ontario – is set by MPAC, the Municipal Property Assessment Corp. This is an independent provincial agency headquartered in Pickering. It sets the value of your home through a computer model that looks at the value of properties around you and at real estate sales in your neighbourhood.

This model means your home value can increase whether you do anything to it or not.

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10/7/14

The Myth of Block Voting


I was amused by a recent comment I had voted “95%” the same as others on council. This was followed by the inevitable accusation of “block voting.” The complainer apparently wants everyone to vote in some helter-skelter manner. God forbid we should all agree on anything.

It’s a tired old campaign tactic: to accuse your opponents of being a “voting bloc” simply because they can agree on things. Oooh, scary: people voting alike. Don’t vote for those people: they agree instead of fighting and arguing. Damning politicians for getting along.

The vast majority of things that arise for votes at a municipal council table are procedural, administrative or bureaucratic. We vote to approve staff recommendations and reports, to receive items for information, to accept tenders for previously-approved budget items, to accept committee minutes, to approve agendas and minutes. We even vote to adjourn. Scary!

There’s seldom more than a sliver of a reason to vote against these issues. When big or contentious issues arise – and they are seldom – at the table, we vote as our conscience dictates. Our municipal council is not a partisan body. Party politics do not play an overt role (despite the efforts of some former politicians to force them upon us).

Think about it: there are only TWO ways to vote: yes or no. For or against. Not nine: not a different way for every council member. Just two. There will ALWAYS be at least five people voting the same way on EVERY issue. Is that a block? If you think so, you really don’t have a clue about politics.

Many of us at the table campaigned on common issues: finance, budget, taxes, growth, the harbour, openness, and so on. Of course we will vote similarly when these issues arise because that’s what we stood for on the hustings. It would be hypocritical to vote against something you advocated for or campaigned in favour of.

Who wouldn’t vote yes to control municipal spending, reduce the debt, lower taxes, or improve our accountability? Does that make it a voting bloc? Of course not. It simply makes it common sense.

Maybe what the records show is that councillors often voted the same way because we generally agreed with one another. That we share a common vision for the greater good. That our strategic planning sessions helped outline our common priorities and we pursued them. That the votes reflect this council’s cooperation, effectiveness, and team spirit.

Now is that a bad thing? Of course not.

Voting blocs? Piffle. Just the opposition trying to deflect your attention from what matters this election.

So what kind of council do you want next term? A positive, cooperative and effective one – or an ineffective group, beset by the bitterness, bickering and divisions that fragmented the previous council? It’s easy to see which candidates to vote for if you choose the positive.

10/7/14

Their Shoddy Potemkin Villages


Dirty PoliticsIn 1787, the Empress Catherine II took a long trip to the Crimea along the Dnieper River. She wanted to see how her subjects lived. Not wanting her to see the actual poverty and hardships of the peasants, her lover – and the region’s governor – Grigory Potemkin, had pretty, fake villages of canvas and clapboard built along the way, with his own people acting and dancing the roles of happy peasants. After she visited one, the village was disassembled and rushed down river by barge to be rebuilt further away.

These have become known as Potemkin villages. According to Wikipedia, the term is used today,

…in politics and economics, to describe any construction (literal or figurative) built solely to deceive others into thinking that some situation is better than it really is.

But there’s also the opposite: when it refers to an imaginary construct that is negative: when such constructs are used to divert attention from an embarrassing situation or condition. Or, in some cases, an inconvenient truth.

Politicians have been accused of creating Potemkin villages to embellish situations and put a Pollyanna face on social or political ills. But their opponents – especially during election campaigns – also create their own facades to make the reality look worse. They create shabby Potemkin villages; cardboard slums, ugly-looking facades simply to make themselves look good by making the incumbents look bad.

Collingwood’s municipal election has its own shoddy Potemkin villages. Opponents have created a shabby, fake facade on the economic situation, on the recreational facilities, on economic development and on this council’s many achievements. They would have their followers believe that little if any good has been accomplished this term. They’ve erected not a few of these faux derelicts on social media.

As the Vermont Political Observer blog notes

See,that’s the problem with Facebook: it only takes one person to erect a plausible a Potemkin village.

Here are some of the campaign’s rickety Potemkin villages we’ve all heard during Collingwood’s municipal election, and the more solid truths they attempt to hide:

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10/5/14

The Perfect Cuppa


teaI was incited to blog about the “perfect” cuppa by an article in The Guardian titled, “How to make tea correctly (according to science): milk first.”

As a user of many tea bags – a single bag per cup – I must protest. You cannot possibly get a decent cup of tea that way. The milk cools the water too much for the tea to steep properly. It comes out like that stuff they serve in fast food places: greyish, diluted warm milk with a dreary tea bag floating in it like a dead fish.

Sorry, but there’s gotta be a better cuppa.

First let’s get something straight: a cup of tea is something with actual tea in it. Calling herbal drinks without leaves of the camellia sinensis plant “tea” is an aberration. They are merely herbal infusions. Calling them a “tea” is like calling a cup of Bovril a “coffee.” Or calling a glass of Coke a “brandy.” Companies may combine herbs with real tea, and in which case they may be called a “tea” (albeit grudgingly in some cases). I will brook no exceptions. Ginger-sleepy-zinger-sunshine is not tea.

George Orwell took a stand on tea (the real stuff, not some New Age infusion), calling it one of the “main stays of civilization in this country.” With that statement, I would agree. But we part ways shortly after. The devil is in the details.

He wrote about tea in his 1946 essay, A Nice Cup of Tea. He turned the whole thing into a rather authoritarian manifesto with 11 stuffy rules, paraphrased below:

  1. Only use Indian or Ceylonese (Assam) tea.
  2. Make it in small quantities in a teapot.
  3. Warm the pot beforehand.
  4. Tea should be strong.
  5. Put the tea straight into the pot: don’t use strainers, muslin bags or other devices to “imprison” the tea.
  6. Take the teapot to the kettle and not the other way around
  7. Stir the tea after pouring the water, or better, give the pot a good shake.
  8. Drink out of a good mug not a shallow cup.
  9. Pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea.
  10. Pour tea into the cup first before the milk.
  11. Drink tea without sugar.

Let’s start by taking rule nine out of the mix. No one gets milk with cream on the top any more. I’m old enough to remember those glass milk bottles with the funny necks where the cream rose. But today it’s an anachronism. Technology has advanced.

The rest of the rules? Well after a few days searching online and through my books, I can find no consensus on exactly what process makes the perfect cuppa. There are many pages of rules and suggestions, some that contradict what others say. Times and temperatures differ. But let’s look at Orwell’s rules in more detail.
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10/3/14

Promising to do What’s Already Done


AccomplishmentIt’s good for councillors to know we’ve already accomplished so much that everyone wants to emulate us. Listening to the all-candidates’ speeches and reading the campaign literature is a real boost to the ego.

A lot of new people are promising to do what’s already been done. Incumbents can comfortably sit back and say, “been there, done that, accomplished that already.” We don’t seem to have left a lot for the newcomers to accomplish.

It’s been a very productive term – remarkably so given that we have so few meetings that last more than two hours. (For a list of just a few things we accomplished this term, see my ACM speech.) But still, some candidates seem to want to repeat our successes.

Take for example the promise to “diligently manage our finances and assets…” Check. Already done. We have an asset management plan in place and we started the long-term financial management strategic plan. But we’ve made our finances sustainable this term, so we don’t have to fret so much about them in future. Our practice of replenishing reserves through internal loans rather than just spending them is one example. (Read more about that practice here)

Same with the promise to “Stop the waste by developing a long-range financial plan and transparently evaluating all capital investments.” Aside from the mystery of how one evaluates “transparently” (does that mean invisibly?), we have an asset management plan in place and the strategic financial plan is in the works.

Staff do any evaluation, by the way – councillors only read and comment on their efforts. And any such evaluations would always be public.

As for waste – this council has trimmed the budget and cut spending for the past four years. We’re kept tax increases down to a blended average of only 0.45% per year – less than the cost of living. We saved taxpayers more than $400,000 a year by stopping the rail service (while keeping the line active for future transportation opportunities). And we topped up reserves from $19 to $30 million! No waste here!

Ditto for creating a “plan that looks at our long term financial health.” Initiated by this council, thank you, and will, I expect, be completed before this term is over. We made financial stability a priority at our first strategic planning session in 2011, reinforced that priority at our second strategic planning session in 2013, and we achieved it.

“Manage our high debt load…” Thanks for the advice, but we have paid down $7.5 million of the $45 million debt we inherited this term without raising taxes. We controlled spending and instituted a sustainable plan to finance projects from reserves through internal loans. And we topped up reserves, too. So cross that one off, too because we’re one step ahead of you.

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10/3/14

My Speech at the All-Candidates’ Meeting


Here’s the two-minute speech I gave Wednesday night at the Collingwood Legion, plus the wrap-up:

In two minutes, I can’t list everything this council and staff have accomplished on your behalf. But here are some highlights:

  • We answered your demand for more ice and water time. Parents no longer have to drive their kids to other towns for meets because we built two beautiful new recreation facilities right here.
  • And we paid for them without going into debt or raising your taxes.
  • In fact, we also paid down the debt by almost $7.5 million while adding $11 million to town reserves this term.
  • We completed an asset management plan.
  • We initiated a long-term financial management plan.
  • We put much-needed new docks in the harbour.
  • We’re upgrading the Eddie Bush arena.
  • We launched very successful bus services to Wasaga Beach and Blue Mountain.
  • We finished First Street and started the reconstruction of Hume Street.
  • We built a new fire hall and renovated the police station.
  • Yet we kept our average tax increase to under one-half a percent per year. That’s less than the cost of living.
  • We launched a small business centre with our community partners to develop and grow local business more efficiently.
  • We hired a marketing and economic development director to promote our town, to attract more industry, more visitors and, most important, more jobs.
  • We even appointed an integrity commissioner to make sure we behave in the most transparent and accountable manner.
  • Our operational and governance reviews are making the town more efficient and your council more effective.

And that’s not all. We’ve accomplished a lot this term. And we can do more next term, including:

We must continue to keep your taxes low. That’s number one.

We need more jobs, more industries, more business. We’re already working on that.

Our harbour has been neglected too long. It must be redeveloped. Together, we can make it the best harbour on Georgian Bay. Our waterfront master plan will guide us.

If you want decisive leadership with vision, and if you want continued financial stability next term, please vote for me, Ian Chadwick.

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