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MacDonald: City budget was a shock — but maybe not for the reasons you think

Council is taking a lot of heat for this year's tax increase, but they deserve some credit for making a tough decision that local politicians 10, 20 or even 30 years ago didn't have the fortitude to make
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Now that the shock has worn off a bit on the 4.8-per-cent property tax hike homeowners are facing this year, it's a good time to reflect on just what the hell happened at Tom Davies Square on Monday.

I have watched – as a reporter and an editor – many, many city budgets over the years. One constant has been bureaucrats warning local politicians they were not setting aside enough money to fix the roads, maintain the water and sewer system, and repair and replace assets like arenas. 

In good economic times and in bad, past councils have consistenly opted to either ignore the recommendations, or take much smaller steps, setting aside a little extra in one year, maybe a little more the next.

It was never nearly enough, and the infrastructure gap grew and grew and grew until it became the more than $1-billion elephant in the room it is today.

When you face re-election every three years, as used to be the case at the municipal level until 2006, long-term thinking often isn't a priority. Getting money for a ward arena repair to help ensure you're re-elected was more important short term than any problems future councillors might face. 

The city also went through some devastating economic times, and, as former mayor Jim Gordon will tell you, promising a tax freeze is never unpopular.

It would have taken some real foresight to approve the relatively small amount that was needed 30 years ago to maintain our infrastructure. But when you're more worried about tomorrow's headline, that can be difficult. And it pays to remember in those years before amalgamation, combined property tax increases were often around the five per cent mark.

Before amalgamation, we had two-tier government, with roads, policing and other services the responsibility of Region of Sudbury. Created in 1973, it included the communities that were later amalgamated into Greater Sudbury in 2001 — and was no more popular in some areas than amalgamation was 28 years later. The upper level of government, which took care of the expensive stuff, often raised taxes more than local governments, making it the whipping boy for local mayors and councillors.

Both levels of government, however, failed to set enough money aside to replace their facilities, roads or hard services. Part of the reason former Ontario Premier Mike Harris imposed amalgamation was to create a larger tax base (one that was supposed to be more streamlined) to fund that work.

After the fact, unhappiness among the amalgamated communities led, in part, to a surge in spending and the size of local government. Under former Mayor John Rodriguez, the city added 310 full-time staff between 2006 and 2010. Overall, the number of full-time city employees increased from 1,684 in 2001 to 2,011 thirteen years later – including 100 more emergency services personnel and 114 new jobs at Pioneer Manor.*

In those early years of the City of Greater Sudbury, the focus was on finding ways to make us a city — rather than a collection of towns brought together in a shotgun marriage — and keeping tax increases as low as possible.

Dealing with the infrastructure deficit was not the priority, and the gap kept on growing. As far back as 2011, a report by KPMG highlighted the nightmare that the deficit had become — the city was spending $35 million a year on repair and replacement of roads, when $75 million was needed. The deficit was $700 million in roads alone and a tax increase of three per cent a year for 10 years would be required.

On top of that, a 7.4-per-cent increase in water/sewer rates over 10 years was needed to make the system pay for itself, as the province requires cities to (eventually) achieve.

When Brian Bigger was elected in 2014, he was a first-time politician working with a large number of other first-time politicians. For the first time, they agreed to the 7.4-per-cent hike in water rates. They agreed to move forward with big projects, even knowing how difficult it was going to be. They ended the absurd practice of allowing councillors to approve spending in their wards.

This year, huge budget requirements from police, Public Health Sudbury and Districts and Conservation Sudbury were added to budget cuts from the province — and a more than $7-million operating deficit. It required a lot of smoke and mirrors to get the tax hike to 3.3 per cent, so, I thought, the 1.5-per-cent tax for road repair would, again, have to wait another year at least.

So when it was approved by a vote of 8-3, my eyes bulged at the media table. Not because of the size of the increase, but because here was a city council making a tough decision they knew wouldn't be popular. That doesn't happen often.

No doubt many of you are howling mad about the roughly $204 added to your tax burden in 2020. Some people believe that wasteful spending is rife at city hall and all that is really needed is to roll up the sleeves and go over the budget line-by-line. 

But that's one of those assumptions that relies on deep cynicism and has an evergreen appeal to a certain demographic. Read the comments under any local website in the country and you will hear the same sentiment. But isn't supported by facts — services cost a lot of money to deliver, particularly in the over-regulated environment that is Ontario.

Corporations can always be leaner, but there is a limit.

I get that no one wants to pay more taxes, and for some people, holding on to their homes just became a lot harder. But it is worth remembering that if city councils of 10, 20 or 30 years ago had made some tough decisions, we wouldn't be feeling the pain now. And making the decision next year or in 2025 or 2030 will be even more costly.

It reminds me of that saying about how the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, and the second best time is today.
 
*Note: Staffing levels in 2019 were 2,032 but will rise to 2,120 next year, in part  because of 49 employees inherited when the city took over Sudbury Housing from an arms-length board, and who don't represent new salary costs. Another 20 staff were added to the linear services (mostly roads and snow plow) department as a result of a new collective agreement. The contract will see a reduction in the use of contractors, in exchange for far more flexible working hours on the part of city staff.

Darren MacDonald covers city hall and political affairs for Sudbury.com.
 




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