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COLUMN: Why even good mayors can’t do their jobs

Senior governments tax "billions of dollars out of communities and very little comes back to help run cities."

This is the first in a series of columns by former Nelson city councillor Donna Macdonald. She will not be commenting specifically on current city council issues, but on big-picture matters related to local government. Surviving City Hall, Macdonald's memoir of her 19 years on council, was published in 2016.

“To tax is to govern.”

Now there’s a provocative statement. And also a very timely one as local governments around the province put the final touches on their annual financial plans (a.k.a budgets), trying to get those bottom lines to balance.

The above quote is from Alan Broadbent, author of The Urban Nation. He goes on to say that without the ability to raise the money to pay for things a city (or village or rural area) needs and wants, a government can never meet citizens’ expectations.

Revenue from taxes is a big part of the budget equation. Taxes enable the work of governing: paving streets, planning land development, supporting recreation and culture, ensuring emergency protection. And so much more.

I’ve been thinking about taxes while reading a book called Mayors Gone Bad by Philip Slayton (available at your wonderful local library). Such a great title made me anticipate an entertaining romp through the foibles and failures of certain Canadian mayors.

In fact, it was disheartening. Our cities’ leaders have been involved in criminal activity, blatant conflicts of interest, sex scandals, judicial inquiries and police investigations. Fraud, breach of trust, corruption and conspiracy. Not to forget crack-smoking.

It’s a ghastly picture until Slayton gets to what’s been called the “western triangle of mayoral goodness” the mayors of Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver. A few small scandals there, but nothing criminal. We should be pleased.

And I should be clear that Slayton’s book is about big city mayors. I expect some of that ‘going bad’ happens in small towns and villages too, but the temptations and possible rewards are much grander, and the cultures quite different, in large cities.

So, what does all this bad behaviour have to do with taxes?

Slayton argues (and I agree) that even mayors with the greatest integrity, most brilliant vision and strongest moral compass cannot do their jobs. They are hobbled by inadequate resources and autonomy.

You may know that local governments are not really a level of government in Canada. The Constitution only grants powers to the federal and provincial governments.

One of the province’s powers is the authority to create local government structures. In my book Surviving City Hall, I use the conceit of Papa Bear (the feds), Mama Bear (the provinces) and Baby Bears (local governments) to describe the situation.

Papa and Mama do the usual things: make rules, provide oversight, and hand out a small allowance (if they feel like it).

One of their significant rules specifies what the Babies can do to raise revenue. Property taxes, a regressive and inequitable system. Fees for service. Grants and transfers (a.k.a allowances from Papa and Mama). That’s it. And it’s grossly inadequate.

Even with transfers from Nelson Hydro, Nelson struggles to make ends meet and accomplish the needs of our community. Just imagine being the mayor of Toronto or Calgary trying to do the same. In the current system, property taxpayers carry a heavy load. And huge increases in property tax are, well, career-limiting for politicians.

For many years, the Babies, supported by research and actual experience, have been asking nicely for more revenue sources.

There might also have been an occasional tantrum. But Mama and Papa are just not interested. They like their position of power.

At the same time as they limit Babies’ revenue sources, Mama and Papa take billions of dollars out of communities through various taxes, and very little comes back to help run cities, to update infrastructure, or to deal with the housing crisis.

Mama also limits the political autonomy of cities, their ability to act. In one example, Slayton tells how former Winnipeg mayor Sam Katz wanted to reduce speed limits around city schools.

But he couldn’t do that without Mama’s approval. Just consider the ramifications of a mayor unable to do something so simple while governing the city where 70 per cent of Manitobans live.

Mama makes the rules, and she’s a tough Mama, over-protective and untrusting of her Babies who are forced to wander around with begging bowls instead of growing into at least adolescence.

Slayton used an interesting phrase that arose during discussions in the UK about Scotland’s future. As an alternative to independence, ‘devo-max’ was proposed.

That means the central government transfers (devolves) the maximum amount of authority to a junior government, while still retaining sovereignty over it.

In Canada’s case, Mama and Papa need to loosen the reins, and let the Babies go, happily proclaiming Devo-Max!

If that doesn’t happen, our cities will continue to stumble from budget to budget, crisis to crisis, and mayors (even the outstanding ones) will fail. They simply don’t have the tools they need to do their jobs.