Last year, our two-person household spent $45 per week on phones and Internet. We also spent about $45 per week on municipal taxes and fees. Paying for telecommunications bought us two cell phones, a land line, and a bunch of cat videos. The $45 to the City of Nelson got us:
• Maintained roads
• Safe drinking water
• Clean streets
• Maintained water/sewer system
• Community and cultural events
• Garbage and recycling pick up
• Parks and paths
• Sports facilities
• Firefighters keeping us un-singed
• Police keeping our community safe
• Bylaw officers
• A regional library
• A youth centre
I could go on …
Taxes are pooled money to get stuff — stuff that none of us could afford individually. I don’t fret over paying $45 a week for phones and Internet, and remembering this at tax time makes me feel better about spending a similar amount for a long list of services and benefits that help make this town worth living and doing business in.
I recently chatted with Christina Benty, the former mayor of Golden, a consultant and strong proponent of cities taking seriously their responsibility to maintain infrastructure. Her tagline is, “If you take care of important things, the urgent things don’t show up as often. The opposite is never true.”
I asked her why cities across the country are mired in crumbling infrastructure. The answer was complex. While it’s true the federal government used to contribute more to capital projects than in recent decades, it’s also true that cities have more infrastructure now than they used to. She noted that historically, cities acquired assets and built infrastructure without really taking depletion, depreciation and amortization into account.
“It doesn’t help,” she added, “that we elect people for four-year terms to maintain 100-year-old infrastructure.”The cost of asset maintenance is so high, and so much of the workings of a city are so low-profile, that politicians, wanting to be re-elected, don’t want to pour money unglamorously into the ground. They certainlydon’t want to raise taxes to do it.
Our previous mayor and council recognized Nelson’s serious infrastructure deficit and to their credit created a bold plan to rectify matters. (You may remember our water and sewer rates jumped considerably.) Today we’re literally miles ahead of other municipalities in our pipe repair, and as a result of finding and fixing leaks, we now use about 20 per cent less water than we did ten years ago, which is good for the environment, and our pocketbook — that was water we were paying to filter and purify, folks!
Our sidewalks, roads and city-owned buildings are another story, and this deficit is something we’re working to understand. I suspect there won’t be many easy or cheap solutions.
Municipalities currently receive about eight cents for every tax dollar the public pays. The rest goes to the provincial and federal governments. While they receive the lion’s share of tax revenue, the services, grants and programs from these levels of government have been steadily cut, especially in certain departments. This puts more pressure on cities to use municipal tax dollars, which, unlike income tax, were never intended to level the economic, cultural and social playing field, to increasingly operate in areas outside the municipality’s control, like health and social services.
Solutions to tax distribution and downloading of services need to come from other levels of government. We asa local government can advocate, and we as citizens can make our needs and preferences known in our upcoming provincial election.
Yes, it’s budget season at city hall. We’re pouring over sheets crammed with numbers, trying to squeeze value out of each penny. One reason you elected us is to look after our common capital assets. If we fail to even cover inflationary cost increases, we’ll be failing to meet the stewardship obligation that municipal leadership is about.Something to mull over …
If you’d like to know more, why not come to our budget open house on Feb. 18? City staff and council will be there to answer questions and listen to your ideas. Check nelson.ca for time and place.
Nelson city councillor Anna Purcell shares this space weekly with her council colleagues.