Two months ago, the Milton Town Council decided to join a vast majority of municipalities by eliminating urban surcharge for local services. The result is a uniform tax rate in urban and rural Milton for local services. As expected, this created a lot of discussion (and anger and debate). I’ve read every single comment that was sent to me or the council on this subject. I also met a dozen+ rural residents who wanted to meet. I continue to get feedback and am doing my best to learn as much as I can.
This post is not a defense or justification of the decision. I am chairing the budget committee meeting on Feb 8th where we will hear feedback from citizens. I will keep an open mind, as I have over past few weeks, so I can understand issues raised without bias.
However, there is a set of recurring misinformation that keeps getting repeated. Each of the questions below are almost direct quotes from some of the e-mails I received :-
This will cost rural residents over million / cost industries a lot of money / cost each home thousands
No. Of the $2,549,208 that is moving onto the general levy in 2016 (pending budget), $2,245,537 will continue to be paid by urban taxpayers, and $303,670 will be billed to rural properties.
Out of that only $6,333.93 will come from all rural industries combined, $7,738 from all farmland combined and $251,720.97 from rural residential homes.
In other words, an average rural home assessed at $653,163 will see their property tax go up by $8.59 / month (or $103 / yr) in 2016.
The Council broke its rules and did something inappropriate in December
Short answer: We did not. We followed our procedural bylaw properly.
Long answer: Traditionally councillors brought verbal motions and voted on them, which is also perfectly legal. That is how the hospital tax levee was introduced. Even written motions were voted on in the same night by default. In 2015 we stopped the process of voting for councillor-driven motions on the same night by default, and instead starting requiring a vote in order to debate the issue on the same night. The intention of that vote had to be published in the agenda in writing and in advance.
In fact, this motion followed a stricter process than every other motion had up until 2015. There has been only a handful of motions that followed an even stricter process of waiting for the next meeting.
HOWEVER, in hindsight I now realize that though we followed the letter of the law, in many residents’ eyes we broke the spirit of the law. I assure you no one had the intention to rush things through, which is why even Councillor Best voted for debate on the same night. I am trying my best to remedy that now.
UPDATE: In order to fix the perception, we voted to re-open the debate, heard from a lot of citizens and re-voted in presence of ~150 rural residents.
Residents have no opportunity to address the council / there was no debate
There was a lot of debate, 1-on-1 before the meeting and during the meeting.
Residents had the same opportunity that every other agenda item has. In addition, I am doing everything I can to talk to whoever wants to talk. As a chair of the budget committee, I am making sure that residents can speak on this issue at the budget meeting (Feb 8th) to address the council. We are all also receiving a lot of e-mails and phone calls, that are all opportunity to raise concerns.
The accurate statement is that residents did not have as much time as other councillor-driven motions have had in past 12 months (staff reports receive the same notice that this motion did) before the vote. That is true. But we are listening and will hear from a lot of taxpayers on Feb 8th as well.
Milton’s move is unique
On the contrary, maintaining two tax rates at the local level was unique as very few municipalities do this. Halton Hills, Oakville, Erin, Puslinch etc. all have rural and urban population and they all use a uniform tax rate at the local level. In Halton, Burlington is the only municipality with two tax rates at the local level. However, rural residents in Burlington pay significantly more than rural residents in Milton will even after this change.
Cost of living / heating / internet is high in rural areas.
That is a fact, but not relevant to this discussion. Also a fact, but not applicable, is that rural residents have much higher income and assessment than urban residents (an average rural home is worth 53% higher than an average urban home [$653,163 vs $427,279]). Neither of these are directly relevant to this topic.
This will impact farmers
Total impact on all farmland combined is $7,738.00. Total.
Rural residents receive subpar internet and cable.
Also not relevant as these are not municipal services.
Rural residents will have to pay for water, yard waste, etc.
No. Regional services that they cannot ever receive is excluded from the regional portion of rural taxes. That is because it would be highly unfair to make people pay for services they cannot benefit from even if they wanted to. The last part is the key statement here.
Municipal services cost same
Not so. Take snow clearing. Urban part of ward 8 is a 4km2 area with 6,500 homes. A similar area north of 401 has only a handful of homes paying for services. If we force each area to pay for services that area receives then taxes for snow clearing portion north of ward 8 would go up significantly.
In fact, there are 3 times as many households in the green area (4.02 km2) than there are in the red area (321 km2). In other words, urban ward 8 has 1,625 homes per sq. km. Rural Milton has 7.
The rural area north of 401 that urban residents never venture into is 153 km2 with 100+ km of lane roads to maintain that are used by a very small number of rural residents.
Why should rural residents pay for “urban” services like sidewalks, traffic lights, transit?
[I do not
want to defend or justify anything, as I am in the listening mode. However, I do want to point out that there isn’t any sinister incentive an play, the ‘other side’ also has some valid arguments].
The difference is services one cannot get even if they wanted to vs. services that are not distributed evenly due to difference in demand and usage.
No two taxpayers receive same set of services. It is difficult to allow one set of residents to opt out of services not available in their area and not extend the same courtesy to others. This is precisely the reason why very few municipalities maintain a two-tier rate at the local level.
Consider “rural area”. Residents in Omagh have to put up with us urbanite clogging up streets in front of their homes. They also have relatively easy access to so-called ‘urban services’, in some cases better access than urban areas in the west end. In fact, we plan to re-route Britannia Road so it bypasses their homes, similar to what the Region did with Tremaine Road. This area is significantly different in needs, uses and character than Campbellville. That is yet again different from the 150+ sq. km area (that is bigger than Oakville) with very low population north of 401.
A number of urban neighbourhoods have no transit services because there is not enough usage to justify the service. Town of Milton removed the bus route from Councillor Malbeauf’s street a few years ago because our minimum usage requirements were not met. Yet he and his neighbours continue to pay for the transit system because overall it benefits the community.
“Why should I pay for something I can’t use” can quickly turn into “why should ward 8 pay for a much higher cost of maintaining and clearing rural roads north of 401 that its residents will never see”. That is an unproductive and divisive line of thinking.
That is how the system works. The reason opting out gets tricky is because each taxpayer is unique. Omagh and Moffat have very different needs and costs of services. There are rural residents who shop or entertain in town, where they benefit from parking, clear sidewalks and of course, street lights. Everyone has access to these services, even though the access is not distributed evenly and might not be available in front of someone’s home. That is precisely the reason why childless households still pay for schools.
We built the Nassagewaya Tennis Club for 200 tennis players in the rural area at a million+ cost to the property tax base. Cambpellville Park redevelopment cost $600,000+ even though the use base is tiny compared to urban parks. It would be highly unfair to ask rural residents to pay more for community services or snow clearing on exclusively rural roads in Moffat and Rockwood (and other areas north of 401).
Ultimately every taxpayer pays for things they do not receive and every taxpayer benefits from this system in some way, but the benefit obviously differs depending on the taxpayer.
You are not listening to us
On the contrary, I have read everything that was sent to me or the council, and have met a dozen+ residents who wanted to speak. I see your arguments and openly accept that they are valid. I also see valid arguments on the other side.
I assure you that I am reading everything that comes my way and meeting every taxpayer who has expressed interest in discussing this issue. I do not have a problem admitting that the council has made decisions in the past that I consider incorrect, and I have no problem voting to correct those. Whether this is one of those decisions or not remains to be seen.
I appreciate the time residents are taking to send their feedback and would like to let them know that it’s not falling on deaf ears (even if we end up disagreeing at the end). You also have the opportunity to have your opinion heard by the Budget Committee on Feb 8th. I look forward to hearing from you.
UPDATE: We re-opened the issue, listened to a lot of citizens who presented their case to the council and re-voted all over again. Here is the updated post: http://votezee.ca/update-rural-and-urban-taxes/