BY AGAR ADAMSON
In many Nova Scotia municipalities, May 31 was semi-annual tax day; the other shoe will drop in a few months’ time.
As you wrote your cheque, did you stop and wonder just what you were getting for your taxes? Like Sheila Fraser, the federal auditor general, did you think you were getting good value for your money? Perhaps, like far too many of our older citizens, you wondered how much longer you can afford to live in your current abode given the ever-increasing municipal tax load?
Please remember, unlike income taxes and sales taxes, based upon one’s ability to pay; municipal taxes bear very little - if any - resemblance to the taxpayer’s ability to pay the assessed rate.
The issue of municipal taxation raises many questions, including do we have too many municipal governments in Nova Scotia?
Municipalities are creatures of their province. They have no independent status under the Constitution Act of 1867. When a provincial government wishes to balance its budget, it may well “download” expenses to the municipalities. The provinces set the terms of office for municipal councillors and election dates. Municipalities’ powers of taxation are limited by provincial statute. In other words, municipalities are not “maitres chez nous.”
At the moment, municipalities and their elected politicians are not subject to the form of audit Auditor General Fraser would like to impose on Members of Parliament - but perhaps they should be. With rare exceptions, and unlike Great Britain and the United States, our political parties do not participate directly in municipal elections. Both Vancouver and Montreal have developed local party systems and the NDP did attempt, without a great deal of success, to run candidates in Toronto’s municipal elections.
John Savage as premier did attempt to bring about a certain amount of municipal reform, perhaps based on his own experience in Dartmouth municipal politics. It was Savage who had the Legislature adopt both the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) and the Cape Breton Regional Municipality (CBRM) reform legislation. The citizenry has grudgingly accepted these two amalgamations; indeed, in the case of the CBRM, many residents believe he should have included the entire island within the one community. Given the slow decline of the rural population, they may well have a good point.
The experience of the CBRM brings forth two issues: we in Nova Scotia are over-governed, and do we have too many municipalities for our population? Queens County grappled with this latter issue and decided to amalgamate into one municipality. The province has now reorganized school boards by region. At one time, school boards were the jealously guarded preserve of each municipality.
When one looks at Kings County, along with the towns of Berwick, Kentville and Wolfville and a number of village commissions, one wonders if this county should not follow the example of Queens County? For a population less than half that of the Greater Toronto Authority (GTA), are we not over governed? Yes, tradition and history are important, but they are only important if we respect them for what they are as mirrors on the past. They are not carved in concrete, but rather are insights into our past, examples of that which previously worked and that which did not.
There are attempts to promote regionalism in services, including land use regulations, public transportation and recycling and refuse collection. Is this enough? Globalization has, amongst other things, brought us the “big box.” How many towns have space for these large stores? What impact do they have on the smaller enterprises that dot the main streets of our towns and villages? We may complain about New Minas- its traffic congestion, its apparent lack of land use and transportation planning- but we know we have to visit one of those big box enterprises for one thing or another. The towns, with their artificial boundaries, cannot match the wide-open spaces of New Minas: New Minas grows at the expense of Kentville, Wolfville and Berwick.
For a town to survive today, it needs a sound tax base, which includes residential, commercial and, hopefully, industrial taxes. Many of our towns, each year, have to rely on the residential rate and what is left of commercial properties. How much longer can this exist without towns having to seriously cut back on services? Drive through many a town today - Wolfville or Mahone Bay - and note the condition of the streets. Why are these towns patching, when they should be rebuilding their streets? Lack of money.
Wolfville has recently completed a town centre beautification project, at some expense to the ratepayers, and a trace more headache for drivers and cyclists. Will this project encourage citizens to shop in Wolfville? Time will tell.
Why is it, when one totals up the elected politicians and the bureaucrats for all of the municipal governments in Kings County (for example), we find totals comparable to cities with larger populations? Do we need this expense? The regionalization of school boards lowered salary and maintenance costs, including heating, though transportation costs have increased. It used to be a school was an integral part of any community, but today this is no longer the case. Surely, if we can rationalize the school system, we can do the same for municipal government.
There are vested interests that will fight change tooth and nail, but what about the retired ratepayer or the young families who, today, are struggling to pay their municipal taxes? These people are often the backbone of any community, and we ignore them at the community’s peril. Our towns are losing residential and commercial assessment to the counties and the HRM at an alarming rate. Politicians are not good planers, but citizens can be!