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Genuine consultation needed on new city taxes in Calgary

December 06, 2016
Genuine consultation needed on new city taxes in Calgary

This op-ed was published in the December issue of Business in Calgary Magazine. 

Will a city charter mean new, higher taxes for Calgary residents?

After a series of ‘information sessions’ in Calgary, we still don’t have an answer.

City charters are special agreements between the big cities and the province that could give new tax powers.

Whether city council gets new tax powers should be decided by Calgarians. The provincial government could easily require a citywide referendum, and the rapid pace at which property taxes have risen over the past decade gives the province more than enough reason to demand this.

In May of last year, Calgary’s transportation committee came out with a list of new ways the city could generate funds for transit. A Calgary sales tax, a gas tax, a $144 per year vehicle registration tax, and toll roads were all on the table.

All those taxes would have substantial impacts on businesses and residents alike. 
However, instead of giving Calgarians a real, binding say in the matter, the provincial government has embarked upon ‘information sessions’ to hear from the public and stakeholders, while the city charter is being drafted.

So far, there’ve been two kinds of sessions: consultations with stakeholders and public ‘information sessions.’ The problem is, many people left the sessions with no more information than before. 

Attendees were given a 25-page document to review, including a long list of incredibly vague ‘enabling proposals’ that could end up in the charter. Of course, it’s impossible for anyone to give meaningful feedback on a series of proposals if they have no real idea what those proposals actually mean.

Attendees were told to write concerns and questions onto brightly coloured sticky notes, and stick them on boards set up in the room.

Though sticky notes raised many concerns over new taxes, the sessions offered no information on the topic. 

Government representatives have said that the ‘fiscal stage’ of the city charter process will come later. But the timeline is incredibly rushed.

The city and province told stakeholders that they hope to have that fiscal stage posted online in 2017. The plan is that draft city charters will be posted in the spring, then 60 days later, they’ll approve it.

That means there will only be 60 days for Calgarians to review and understand the charter and communicate their feedback to the government, then for government to review and understand all that feedback and incorporate any changes.

Why the rush? 

No matter what the ‘fiscal framework’ looks like, residents should be genuinely consulted before it is imposed. That takes more than 60 days.

When asked why he wouldn’t commit to a referendum before any new city taxes were imposed, Mayor Nenshi said, “It’s pretty silly in my mind to commit to anything unless you know what if anything is on the table.”

Surely the mayor understands how stakeholders and residents felt at the not-so-informative “information sessions.”

If the city and province are going to maintain that a referendum is unnecessary, then it is absolutely necessary that they provide an adequate amount of time for Calgarians to understand the city charter and offer feedback. 

For now, city businesses and residents are still in the dark. 

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