City council should make the tough decisions
Only in Calgary can a council congratulate themselves after unanimously delivering hundreds of dollars of increased property taxes and fees to thousands of people newly out of work.
In a departure from past practice, this year, council decided to abandon the normal line-by-line review of the budget and refused to take any submissions from the public.
They took the easy way out.
Some councillors even went so far as to say that they “didn’t have a choice” but to fast-track the administration’s plan for tax hikes. Others tried to spin this year’s tax increase as “holding the line,” or perplexingly, “an increase that’s actually a cut.”
That this type of thinking has become the norm at council and should concern us all.
For many of us outside of the city hall bubble, “not having a choice” has meant accepting either deep pay cuts or outright layoffs. And “holding the line,” means making tough decisions and keeping our jobs — but unlike most Calgarians, job security is something that council doesn’t seem to be worried about.
It’s council’s job to review and scrutinize the ever-growing $4-billion city budget to ensure that Calgarians are receiving the best quality services at the lowest possible cost. Sadly, they’ve been asleep at the switch for some time now.
In just seven years, council has pushed through compounded residential tax rate increases of 55 per cent, and business tax rate increases of an astounding 180 per cent. Yet somehow they’re trying to pitch this year’s tax increase as “holding the line” when times are tough.
To add insult to injury, it doesn’t stop with the budget.
Council talks the talk on transparency and accountability, but doesn’t walk the walk. Spectacularly, secrecy at city hall has become something of an art.
Just last week, council was looking for ways to discourage freedom of information requests or make them more costly for the public to submit. One councillor was quoted as saying, “We’ve found about 50,000 ways to say no, rather than finding ways to say yes.”
Phoney consultations, where the outcome has been pre-determined well in advance, are at an all-time high. The “hold the line” budget includes a 57 per cent increase in “communications and engagement” staff by next year to run the city’s consultations as “citizens’ desire for involvement grows.”
Try to square that with Calgary’s dubious honour of spending the most time in secret of any major Canadian city — 30 per cent of their time is spent behind closed doors, triple what it was seven years ago. Some months, they actually spend more time in secret than they do in public. There’s a stat you probably won’t hear the new communications staff brag about.
It’s not just a question of doing things right, but also doing the right things. Council hasn’t delivered on either.
Council claims to champion housing affordability, yet works to restrict development and add both unnecessary costs and red tape. It is ordinary Calgarians, rather than big developers, who are losing out. For example, council continues to waste up to 50 per cent of their meeting time on secondary suite hearings where they pit neighbours against one another, and parade out families to share intimate personal and financial details in order to beg for the use of their own property.
They also claim to embrace local art, yet go on to import a half-million-dollar giant blue ring from an obscure German “art collective.” Last week, they spent more than quarter of a million dollars to light up a sewage station with Christmas lights. Even the toughest critics have to grudgingly respect the honesty in council this time literally flushing Calgarians’ money down the toilet. Is it too much to ask that our tax dollars be spent taking our garbage away, rather than coming up with ways to install it in front of our homes?
The examples could go on forever, but our bank balances can’t. We elected council to hold the bureaucracy in check, provide direction where needed, and make tough decisions on our behalf. Now is when we need their leadership and courage the most.
Council had a choice. They chose to do nothing.
Jeromy Farkas is a research fellow at the Manning Centre and creator of www.CouncilTracker.ca
This column was published by the Calgary Herald on October 9, 2015