Most, if not all, of the candidates for the up-coming municipal election have identified high property taxes as an issue that they intend on addressing once they’re elected. Some have even committed to lowering taxes. What we’re not hearing a lot about is how they hope to fulfill these lofty promises. If, at the end of the day, they don’t have workable solutions, then the promises don’t amount to much, and the taxpayers’ distrust of politicians is once again reinforced.
First off, we need to remember that taxes are usually not an issue per se. They are what we collectively agree to pay for services and amenities that we deem to be necessary and desirable. What does become an issue is whether or not we are paying a fair price, and in particular, if that price keeps going up, whether or not we are getting more or improved services that we actually want.
At this stage of the game, I think many of us believe that we are not paying a fair price. In most of the municipalities in the region, property taxes pay for a range of services, including sewers, water and garbage pick-up. We in Sooke pay for those items as an additional cost. So the total amount paid for the complete package of services is far higher here than elsewhere. But I have no idea how to correct that imbalance at this point. Given the long term financial commitments made by previous and the current councils (eg. the sewer operating agreement, on-going subsidies to the new hotel, the long-term contract for legal services), and the bare-bones core services being provided by the district, it seems to me that it is probably not possible to reduce property taxes. If any of the budding politicians has some good ideas, I’d certainly like to hear them. As I pointed out in a previous letter, most of the incumbents have had three years to try to deal with this problem, and have only made it worse.
As for unreasonable tax increases, there is a strong perception that theses increases have not resulted in improved or increased services that are needed or wanted for the benefit of all residents. A few developers, hotel owners and the sewer plant operator have benefitted hugely, but not the rest of us. Some politicians have translated this viewpoint into a position that there should be no tax increases. What nonsense. If taxpayers are convinced that increasing taxes will improve their lives (and that the increase represents fair value for that improvement), then we will support the increase. This was proven when the original referendum for a sewer system in Sooke was approved by residents, even though they were well aware that it would result in a huge tax increase.
All of which suggests a reasonable solution to the issue of increasing taxes. Before committing to improved or increased services, council should engage in meaningful discussions with residents about the need for and priority of the improvements. Then after there has been some form of consensus reached, council needs to work hard at ensuring, in an open and transparent way, that the amount paid for the improvements represents the best deal available. It’s important to include the full financial impact on the community in evaluating the cost (for instance, a proposal that creates good-paying, permanent jobs for local residents should be given precedent over one that sends our tax dollars to Kelowna or Edmonton).
Any candidate for election that supports this approach to managing the districts finances will certainly have my vote.