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Genuine consultation needed on new city taxes in Edmonton

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

This op-ed was published in the December 2016 issue of Business in Edmonton magazine. 

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

After stakeholder sessions and two public consultation sessions in Edmonton, 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 Edmontonians. Steadily increasing property taxes including this year’s 4.2 per cent residential and 2.1 per cent non-residential property tax hike should give the province enough of a reason to require a referendum.

A city sales tax or gas tax – two possibilities with a city charter – would have substantial impacts on businesses and residents alike.

However, instead of giving Edmontonians a real, binding say in the matter, the province and city have 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 ‘information sessions’ for the public. The problem is, many people left the sessions with no more information than before.

Attendees were given a 25-page document to review. The document included 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.

At the public sessions, sticky notes with concerns about new city tax powers were posted for all to see. But the sessions offered no information about new city taxes. 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 Edmontonians to review and understand the city 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 Vancouver residents voted on a municipal sales tax increase in a referendum last year – which they overwhelmingly rejected –Mayor Iveson was quick to say that it was silly to hold the vote in the first place.

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 Edmontonians to understand the city charter and offer their feedback.

For now, the ‘consultation’ has been anything but meaningful, and city businesses and residents are still in the dark. 

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