Has the time come to form a taxpayer’s union to protect our interests?

Posted December 18,2013

There is growing evidence that public sector unions are taking greater pieces of the public pie to enhance their salaries, wages and benefits plus bountiful pensions. In Guelph it is no different where 80 per cent of our civic staff is unionized. Staff compensation costs now consume 84 per cent of the total city tax levy.

When you consider that the municipal property taxpayer pays 94 per cent of all city revenues, it is apparent that the taxpayers are on the hook to maintain this exponential growth of employee costs.

Isn’t it time for taxpayers to get a slice of the pie?

History shows that that pie has been consumed by not only staff costs but capital projects that have questionable direct benefit to the taxpayers. Frequently, these projects inconvenience or isolate segments of the population.

That explains to some extent why seven years of the Farbridge administration has increased property taxes by an estimated 28 per cent. During that same period, the population has grown by only 5.8 per cent. In addition, the administration has failed to increase the 16 per cent commercial/industrial portion of total city property assessment to lighten the 94 per cent load carried by residential taxpayers.

When you toss in the appalling sweetheart deal made by the Provincial Government in 1987 to restrict post secondary property taxes to $75 per student, in lieu of property taxes, it exacerbates the growing crush on the property taxpayer.

The City of Guelph is unique in this egregious sucking of property tax potential at a level that has not changed in 26 years. Is the $75 paid in 1987 the same dollar in 2013?  If only the province had factored in the rate of inflation in that 26 years the per- student cost today would be $1.32 paid to the city in lieu of property taxes.

Now picture in your mind the growth of the University of Guelph in those 26 years. By growth we mean hard assets such as buildings and facilities, plus staff, faculty and support services and the development of the Stone Road corridor. Add in the city’s increasing responsibilities in terms of emergency services, infrastructure and transit costs. The $1,650,000 paid by the University in 2013 in lieu of property taxes wouldn’t pay for one third of the cost of $5,067,000 city overtime costs this year.

It’s another reason for a taxpayer’s union to protect the interests of those who pay the bills.

Far fetched, you say?  Let’s swing over to the private sector. In unionized, comparable sized companies with the equivalent number of employees; (2,065 civic staff in Guelph in 2012), the board of directors and senior management are responsible for maintaining fair wages and benefits.  They also must answer to the shareholders who seek a return on their investment. It’s a system that works because there are checks and balances installed to make it work. The formula is not rocket science: Maintain a competent and content workforce, a happy customer base and a reasonable return to the shareholders.

In Guelph, we have a small group of senior managers who have taken over control the operations of the city. The board of directors, i.e. the elected City Council, has subverted many of its responsibilities to the “executive team”.

The shareholders, the taxpayers, have little or no say in major policy and operational decisions. Indeed, the Byzantium systems employed in the day-by-day city operations only obfuscates and confuses the electorate to whom they are responsible. The volume of reports and documents sent to members of council is staggering.  The system is sick and is in need of reform.

Council debates are rare because the combination of staff recommendations and supporting paper work is vetted by small committees of councillors who move the process to the council chamber for ratification. Trouble is, the public is denied input at the committee level simply because the meeting agendas are not made fully public and are conducted at inconvenient times.

Coupled with this is the accusation that much council business is conducted behind closed doors or even off premises. The Ontario Municipal Act is specific in how an elected council may conduct its business and it is illegal to do so without the public, who they represent, being present.

A recent article in the Toronto Star quoted the Provincial Ombudsman, Andre Marin, as stating that municipal council’s are addicted to secrecy and going to great lengths to keep their residents in the dark. Does that sound familiar?

Back to the proposed taxpayer’s union. Why can’t the taxpayers, aka stakeholders, customers or suppliers, share some of the same benefits enjoyed by their employees?

Perhaps a percentage of their property tax contribution could be invested in an individual Registered Retirement Benefit Plan (RRSP) to enhance their retirement. Management of the plan would be by a qualified third party, i.e. a bank or trust company, with the city collecting the funding on a quarterly basis.

If the taxpayer moves out of town, he or she may take their portable RRSP with them but no longer can receive the taxpayer contribution.

The potential effect of this plan would stimulate economic development that has been stymied in Guelph in the past seven years by policies of the present administration.

Like the lyric from Dr. Doolittle: “A little bit of sugar makes the medicine go down.”

Interested in this suggestion? It is one of a number of innovative recommendations to be made by GrassRoots Guelph in the coming months. Non-partisan, non-profit GRG is composed of citizens and open to anyone to participate in bringing change to Guelph City Hall. Contact grassrootsguelph2014@gmail.com.




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