“Let’s broaden the discussion”

By DJ Kelly July 16, 2009

After all the hoopla these past few weeks at Calgary City Council, it has been easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. And I think this is what a lot of Calgarians have been critizing their council of. To be honest I just think the shear amount of business being conducted has split everyone’s focus and created a frenzy of hard to follow activity. Thus we’re all frustrated, and there many things confusing someone.

Today I came across this letter from the Calgary Chamber of Voluntary Organizations. I believe it was published in the Calgary Herald, but below is the full unedited version of what they had to say. I appreciate its tone and how it helps put somethings that have happened these past few weeks in perspective so I wanted to share it.

Appraising City Council – Let’s Broaden the Discussion

By Katherine van Kooy
President and CEO, CCVO

Recently the Calgary Herald has offered extensive coverage of Aldermanic doings. Last month the Coalition for Property Tax Fairness released their evaluation of City Council members. According to headlines, half of the aldermen received failing grades. An excellent publicity grabber, but is this the way we want to build the discussion of our city and what is important to us?

Last week, readers were presented with a series of articles on the detailed office budget expenditures of the Calgary’s aldermen, mayor and top staff. Is this really front page news? Is this really what we want to focus on?

Perhaps we should be keeping our eye on the prize. It’s a simple concept – one that many Calgarians put into practice last week on the Stampede grounds. Keep focused on the goal – don’t get side?tracked by distractions. Otherwise you’ll miss your target.

In grading City Council, the Coalition, comprised of seven business groups plus the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, provides an outline of their scoring method. Eighty per cent of the evaluation was based on perception of the “tax?payer friendliness” of aldermanic motions and voting records. Who defines taxpayer friendliness? There seems to be an assumption that taxpayer friendliness means tax cuts, low taxes and low expenditures – assumed to the point that this goes without saying. Is it possible that taxpayers have concerns beyond tax cuts, low taxes and low expenditures?

Let’s suppose for a moment that these tax and expenditure issues are the sole or primary focus of taxpayer’s concerns. As such, Calgarians would be interested to know that our residential taxes are the lowest of any major city in Canada. And, while it has been suggested that Calgary’s business taxes are unfair and should be reduced, they are in the lowest quartile nationally. In terms of expenditures, the business community has called for Council to both trim spending and provide value?for?money. As we all know from our own consumer experience, the lowest price is attractive but does not always equal the best value.

Speaking of value?for?money, a recent report announced that “for the vast majority of Canada’s population, public services are, to put it bluntly, the best deal they are ever going to get.” Canada’s Quiet Bargain, released by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives shows public services funded by taxes make a substantial contribution to most Canadians’ standard of living – middle?income families utilize public services worth about $41,000 annually (or 63% of their income). It would be interesting to see a similar study indicating the value of public services that benefit Canadian businesses, such as business grants, economic development programs, government funded business development services and tax incentives.

In a public debate about how we view our city, taxes and expenditures should be part of the discussion. But what else might be of concern to taxpayers? Safe streets, a clean city, recreation, affordable and available housing, fire and police services, arts and culture, homelessness, environmental issues, roads and traffic – these are just a few of the other priorities and concerns raised by Calgarians, and discussed in the City report Calgary and Region Social Outlook 2008?2013. Do we want a city where we feel safe only in our homes? Or do we want a city that in layout, design, planning and policy nurtures vibrant, safe and community?focused public spaces? Do we want a city that is dominated by individual private interests at the expense of the quality of public and community life? What makes a liveable city?

We need to take care in how we talk about the questions that shape our city. Healthy public debate requires that we define our terms, provide details, explain our reasoning, and be transparent about the values that are informing our positions. And we need to understand that all evaluation of public policy and public decisions is subjective. While a report card with scoring methods may sound objective, it is a value judgment – and what has value depends on one’s perspective.

These questions and issues are not about pitting the business community against other citizens of Calgary. We all have a vested interest in these broader questions. All Calgarians, including business owners are affected by social and economic negatives – homelessness, poverty, crime, violence. Likewise, there are many positive urban elements – parks, attractive urban design, arts and culture, good public transit, sports and recreation – that create an economic and social environment that makes cities attractive, benefitting both residents and the business community. Experience has taught us that if we don’t engage now in long term planning and discussions of the future of our city, that we will pay later – how Council responds to these issues today will either worsen or improve the problems and the opportunities.

Tax collection and expenditure is how we pay for amenities and services in our community. Many of us are taxpayers, but we are also employees and employers, business owners and customers, patients and parents, residents and citizens. From these different perspectives, let’s talk about what we want in our city, what the municipal government’s role is in delivering that, what we are prepared to pay for it and how those costs should be shared across the community.

We should evaluate our politicians, and we should have high expectations from them. As we move towards the 2010 municipal election let’s focus on all of the issues and let’s make sure that the discussion is robust and encompasses many points of view. Let’s keep our eye on the prize.

Couldn’t have said it better myself. Hopefully we ALL take this advice to heart.