Most people have hobbies, but a Windsor man's pet project offers a relatively easy way for taxpayers in Ontario cities to compare their local government's tax and spend policies with every other municipality in the province.
John Haldeman, a software developer and information security expert, said his website, ONCityBooks.ca, allows users to compare local governments based on a per capita, per household, percentage or total value. That makes it easier to do apples-to-apples comparisons by accounting for differences in real estate costs and other variables between cities.
“What ONCityBooks.ca provides is the total property taxes paid divided by the number of residents or the number of households,” Haldeman said in an emailed response to several questions about his site.
“That said, one thing to keep in mind when looking at the property tax values in the 'revenue' area is that the property taxes represented there are paid by both residents and businesses in the municipality — including any taxes paid on industrial and commercial properties. That distorts things for comparisons.”
That's because cities with bigger commercial and industrial bases (usually in southern Ontario) don't have to rely as heavily on residential property taxes to fund their budgets.
The data is mined from official reports for all 444 municipalities from 2017, provided by the Ontario Municipal Financial Information Return, which is collected by the Ontario government.
Haldeman said his website makes it much easier for taxpayers to make sense of what otherwise is a mountain of raw data.
“I build these projects primarily for fun as a hobby (and it) also helps me explore new technologies I can use professionally,” he said. “This project was of interest to me because I personally find it very valuable to put numbers I read about into context.
“What I hope for the website is that if people are trying to understand a municipal issue, they can use it as a tool to understand the financial aspects of the issue better and have more informed discussions and questions as a result.”
Each sub category has its own uses for comparing cities with each other. For example, the 'per household' option is good for comparing things like garbage collection costs, while the 'per capita' option is suited for budget items aimed at individuals, such as how much a city spends on the arts or recreation.
“Percentages are useful to understand comparisons in the makeup of a measure between municipalities,” Haldeman said. “For example, trends in the percentage of total revenue received in property taxes compared to user fees might be interesting.”
The raw numbers can offer a different sort of context, he said. For example, the $7.3-million budget shortfall in Greater Sudbury so far in 2019 is largely due to higher than expected snow removal costs.
“Put yet another way, Sudbury's shortfall is the entire 2017 snow removal expense for Windsor,” Haldeman said. “Those numbers feel more concrete to me than a big number like $7.3 million.”
While he's planning to further update the site to account for the differences in industrial, commercial and residential property taxes, Haldeman offered a link he warns is less user friendly, but gives a pretty good city-to-city comparison of how much households in each municipality pays in property taxes.
“This shows the total residential taxes divided by household, which seems to me a good estimate of the property taxes paid by the average household in the city,” Haldeman said.
The table separates the school board and municipal portions of property tax bills. Among Ontario's single-tier municipalities, the highest average per household tax bill in 2017 was in Assiginack Township on Manitoulin Island at $6,053, excluding education taxes. The lowest was Cobalt Township – $619.
Greater Sudbury came in at $3,340, higher than Sault Ste. Marie ($3,177), but lower than North Bay ($3,571), Thunder Bay ($3,5150 and Barrie ($4,114).
“Averages have their own issues, but after sorting if you look, Sudbury is near the middle ... and Toronto ($3,409) is nearby,” Haldeman said.
You can follow Haldeman on Twitter, @JLHaldeman.