10/25/13

How to Break Your Election Promises



Taxman: I was thinking of this Beatles’ song, recently, after council received the pre-budget report from the treasurer at last Monday’s council meeting. It’s dated, the song that is, but still eerily appropriate (I will have to learn to play it on my ukulele).

Last election, all of us who got elected ran on a platform of keeping costs and taxes low. Okay, that’s a fairly blithe promise; few candidates run on a platform of raising taxes and expenses, and fewer actually ever win a seat in any level of government.

It doesn’t matter if everyone knows taxes will go up after the election, or if there are seriously pressing needs to raise taxes. You don’t run on that platform.  Unless, of course, it’s to tax the rich – that seems a rather popular theme these days. Except, of course, among the rich. The 99% of us kind of like the idea… but I digress

This council has consistently attempted to cut costs, rein in spending and keep taxes low. That’s never easy, and often it’s very challenging, but we’ve managed to do so fairly well. In fact, the most recent auditor’s report (an independent audit) showed we have done it very well, in the past three budgets. The deputy mayor has cracked the whip and staff have pulled the oars. So far, the local ship of state has rowed in unison, avoiding the shoals of debt and taxation.

But it’s difficult to maintain a flat tax line. The world doesn’t work that way. Economies are always on the move.

Prices go up, costs go up, fee go up, old things need maintenance or replacement, new things need to be bought, collective agreements have built-in increases. Keeping a zero-percent increase is like the Red Queen’s race in Alice in Wonderland: you run as fast as you can just to stay in the same place:

Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”
“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

We don’t have the money or the tax base to run twice as fast. But at some point, we have to have some increases if nothing more than to play catch-up with out expenses.

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12/18/12

Gambling and the local economy part 2


MoneySeventy three dollars. It’s not a large amount if you’re middle class, certainly not if you’re Conrad Black. But for others it can be significant. If you’re on minimum wage, it’s a full day’s wage, before taxes. If you’re a senior on a fixed income, it’s a week’s groceries.

It’s also the average amount a typical gambler spends at one time in a gaming facility in Ontario, according to the answers I got from my questions sent months ago to the OLG. The clerk gave me their answers last night, only after the discussion about extending the OLG deadline.

Seventy three dollars. It will get spent in 1.75 hours; the average length of a visit to a casino. That’s about $41 an hour.

When multiplied by 12.8, it totals $934.40. Twelve-point-eight is the average number of times a typical gambler visits a gaming facility in a year. The average gambler will spend almost $1,000 every year in a gaming facility.

Again, it’s not a stunning amount. If you have some discretionary income, it’s equivalent to a mid-level laptop computer, an iPad maxed out with all the accessories, a good, flat-screen TV, a good custom-made ukulele, a case of premium scotch or tequila. An air flight to Mexico or Cuba. Or for others, it’s a month’s rent. Three months’ car payments. Groceries for a family for two months, maybe longer. 

Problem gamblingConsider the potential problem gamblers here in Collingwood. I estimated them to be about 700 people in my last blog post on gambling, based on the percentages OLG provides.

Multiply 700 by $934.40 and you get more than $654,000.

Assuming these 700 people attend a local gaming facility (a windowless warehouse with up to 300 slot machines – the OLG gets prickly if you refer to them as “slot barns”), and spend the same amount as average gamblers, Collingwood’s problem gamblers could spend $654,080 a year in a gaming facility. But of course, they will probably spend more, because they’re problem gamblers. I’ll come back to that.

And what about those others who are  not problem gamblers yet, but are “at risk” from becoming problem gamblers? That’s about 1,200 more local people. If they are also “average” gamblers, they will spend about $1.2 million annually in the facility.

Add these two groups together – the smallest percentage of gamblers but the most problematic – and they will collectively spend almost $2 million a year in a local gaming facility. That’s money not going into the local economy.

Well, okay, five percent of it will come back to us: the town will get about $93,000 from our problem gamblers. For every ‘average” person who attends a potential gaming facility, the town will get $49. Win or lose, we tax you for playing.

Let’s say our problem gamblers spend the same amount per hour ($41), but stay three hours per visit, instead of the average 1.75. That means they could spend about $125 per visit, or $1,600 a year – about $1.12 million a year for those 700 people. And then there are those “potential problem gamblers…” If they spend 3 hours per stay, we get more than $3.1 million spent by 2,000 Collingwood residents.

You can endlessly speculate on these figures, guessing how much people will spend versus how much intervention a gaming facility will use to keep them out. There’s no concrete number we can use, no absolute figures. Just realize that the potential exists for local residents to spend a lot of money gambling.

Personally, I would rather see that money spent at local stores, eating at local restaurants, buying food, furniture, books, musical instruments, cameras, clothing, pet supplies… but with the OLG launching online gambling n 2013, the money may be spent outside local businesses even without a slot warehouse in town.

You can use these numbers to work out a few possible numbers about attendance. If, as the OLG suggests, the town might get $1 to $2 million a year, a gaming facility would need to bring in between $19 and $38 million a year for us to get our rake-off.*

To get $19 million, at the average $934 a year, you need more than 20,000 people gambling there every year. You need more than 40,000 to get $38 million. To get the unsupported-by-OLG-but-often-quoted-locally figure of $3 million per year to the town, you need to have 60,000 “average” gamblers annually.

That’s a lot of wear and tear on our infrastructure. Twenty thousand more cars a year on the highway and on local roads. Or forty, even sixty thousand. And more…

Twenty thousand people at a year-round slot barn averages to 55 people a day. Not very many, especially for 300 slot machines. Forty thousand means 110 gamblers a day. But of course the visits will not be homogenized, but bunched at holidays and weekends (yes, these facilities are open Christmas and Easter…).

And of course averages are just snapshots of the middle ground. there will be people who spend less, other who will spend more. Some will come for a couple of hours of entertainment and spend $25. Others will spend a full day in front of a machine pumping quarters into its ever-hungry mouth.

A municipality needs to plan for the days when the slot warehouse will be full, with people coming and going 24 hours a day. We’ll need every penny of that revenue to upgrade and widen roads, install traffic lights, hire more police and bylaw officers to control parking and speeding…

I have yet to be convinced by any argument that a “gaming facility” offers any significant benefits to the town aside from a handful of hospitality-sector jobs.

Gambling cycle
~~~~~

* According to the OLG, it already takes approx. $6 million a year in Collingwood from net sales of lottery tickets at the 22 locations that sell them here. This would be on top of that.

 

03/28/12

Please preserve the CBC: no more cuts!


Huffington PostCanadians who care about media content, journalistic integrity and fair reporting are anxiously watching for tomorrow’s federal budget announcements. Big cuts to the CBC are expected, according to this Huffington Post story:

Cuts to CBC funding expected in the upcoming federal budget could have dramatic implications, touching everything from popular television programming to foreign news bureaus and eliminating hundreds of jobs, observers predict.

The CBC’s own story about the predicted cuts doesn’t mention the CBC, but it does say, “…many public servants in Ottawa are bracing for staffing cuts, which may not arrive through relatively painless attrition or early retirement packages”

The CBC has been the target of numerous Conservative governments since Brian Mulroney, and suffered successive budget cuts under the Conservatives ever since. The once-vaunted Radio Canada International was reduced from an internationally acclaimed, award-winning short-wave service that was the voice of Canada for millions of listeners worldwide, to little more than a repeater service for the CBC, thanks to budget cuts.

Cuts have crippled the CBC for almost three decades, ever since Mulroney (a humourless, mean-spirited prime minister if ever there was one; he rapidly sank to being one of the most unpopular politicians in Canadian history, in part because of his attack on the CBC).

Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, a media watchdog organization, took up the fight to save the CBC last year. A Globe and Mail story from last fall begins,

The CBC is stuck in a “stranglehold” as Conservative MPs attack the broadcaster and threaten to end or decrease its funding, a broadcast watchdog says.

On the Friends website, the latest story says, “New opinion research shows that 6 in 10 Canadians want the Harper Conservatives to keep their election promise to increase or maintain funding to the CBC.”

Majority opinions have never caused Harper to change his mind or his direction. He’s from the west where the CBC has been demonized as the “Communist Broadcasting Corporation” by the uber-right. One can hardly expect him to have any more sympathy for non-sycophant journalists than Rick Santorum showed for the New York Times recently.

For the right, especially for the American right, media is a tool of the party, not for journalistic truth or objectivity. Worse is that the CBC in the guise of comedic shows like This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Royal Canadian Air Farce and Rick Mercer Report have actually dared to tease and make fun of Steven Harper. Well, they have a long history of poking fun at all parties and all politicians, but some – like Harper – seem to take it very personally.

Instead of growing a thicker skin, he cuts their budget. Harper and Mulroney share some unfortunate personality traits in that.

As the Friends website notes, Harper’s cuts are not just cost savings, but rather a strategy to cause the public support for the CBC to dissipate because it won’t be able to provide what Canadians expect from a national broadcaster:

Further cuts would be to the bone and make it impossible for the CBC to effectively fulfill its mandate, leaving our national broadcaster open to increased criticism that it’s wasting taxpayer money, unfairly competing with private broadcasters for advertising dollars and calls for dismantling. There is no more room for efficiency; every dollar has to come out of programming – off the air, off the screen.

Budget cuts have been stripping Canadian content from the CBC for the last 30 years. It’s become more and more American in almost everything it does, while Canadian content and culture suffers from a shrinking venue for exposure of our own material. Harper and his allies seem to prefer American programming – the slavishly sycophant Fox and its ilk – to Canadian programming, but then they also seem to prefer American-style attack politics, so that’s no surprise. No wonder Sun media has a place in their hearts.

CBC is ESSENTIAL to continue to connect Canadians from coast to coast. We need to continue to support and increase funding for the CBC to create more Canadian content.

The HuffPost noted,

In addition to prime-time programming, sources familiar with the file told HuffPost the upcoming cuts may lead to the closing of some foreign bureaus and will necessitate employee layoffs.
Barry Kiefl, head of the independent Ottawa-based firm Canadian Media Research Inc. (CMRI), cautions against “taking it for granted that there’s going to be a 10 per cent cut,” before details of the budget are revealed on Thursday. But he maintains a trim of that magnitude could result in the elimination of 1,000 jobs.

Jobs will not only be lost in the BCB itself, but in Canada’s cultural industry: independent filmmakers, producers, directors, script writers and others will have no place in Canada to work:

In addition to stoking concern among CBC employees, (Mary) Darling says the possibility of significant belt-tightening is contributing to widespread uncertainty among the legions of independent producers, such as herself, who create the network’s English language dramatic programming.
“People are beyond tense. This is our livelihood. This is how we make our living and send our kids to school,” said Darling, who alongside husband Clark Donnelly runs Toronto-based Westwind Pictures, the company behind Little Mosque.
Currently in its final season, the sitcom won’t be affected by looming cuts. But if the rumours are true, Donnelly predicts the network won’t pick up similar programs in the future, putting several programs Westwind is currently developing in peril.
(Mary Darling is executive producer of the network’s hit TV show, Little Mosque of the Prairie.)

The CBC provides us with a stronger national identity. Without it, we would be little more than the 51st state of the USA. Without it, we would have no bulwark against American culture.

It will be a tragic day for Canadian journalism, Canadian culture, Canadian media, Canadian unity and Canadian values if the Harper Conservatives do any more economic damage to the CBC than they have already done over the past three decades. But I suspect they won’t rest until the CBC is gutted and dead.