DAUPHIN — Cutting property taxes by five per cent for three straight years conjures images of a slash-and-burn government in Dauphin.
So it’s a little curious that the mayor behind the cuts hails from that so-called tax-and-spend entity, the New Democratic Party.
Council, led by Mayor Eric Irwin, who previously ran both federally and provincially for the NDP, losing each time, has cut taxes by increasing efficiencies, he said in an interview. Some managers were also replaced. And when council found itself with extra money, it did a rare and elevated act: it didn’t spend it. It returned it to voters instead.
“We didn’t cut taxes because of ideology. We needed less money to operate because of efficiencies, so we returned it to the public,” Irwin said.
The city’s budget stood at $6.5 million when the current council came to power. It’s now $5.8 million. That’s $700,000 more back in the hands of homeowners every year.
There was another factor. Irwin concedes Dauphin was “a bit of an outlier” in terms of high property taxes versus other communities its size. It had to become more competitive.
Now it is. The council inherited a mill rate of 33. The mill rate in Dauphin is now down to just a shade more than 21.
“That’s marginally lower than Selkirk’s, about five mills lower than Swan River, and three mills lower than Portage la Prairie and Neepawa,” said Irwin.
Neither did council cut services. It has actually increased spending on streets and sidewalks, which took a battering here this past winter like everywhere else. The new street repair budget is more than $1 million, versus $650,000 in 2010, a 60 per cent increase. About $150,000 of the extra funding comes from a provincial streets program.
Irwin, a longtime lawyer in the area, eked out a victory former Conservative MP Inky Mark in the 2010 municipal election to become Dauphin mayor.
Dauphin is a rare NDP stronghold in rural Manitoba. The provincial riding, currently held by Stan Struthers, has gone NDP in every election but one since 1969, the year of Ed Schreyer led the NDP to its shocking first victory in Manitoba. The riding of Dauphin even voted NDP the year the Howard Pawley government was reduced to 12 seats — the same Armageddon that polls suggest could await the Selinger government.
Dauphin’s high property taxes were partly due to debt payments on the $7-million Credit Union Place arena, built in 2006. Dauphin paid most of the arena cost itself. It’s a gorgeous building, and well worth a visit to see the Dauphin Kings play. That debt is now off the books.
But council also introduced efficiencies like automated garbage pickup, and a user-pay system with its landfill. As well, Irwin’s legal background came in handy with the city’s recycling contract. Irwin took the contract home one night and noticed the city was being charged $150,000 for commercial recyclables. But recyclables was defined as anything that received a rebate from the province, and the city didn’t receive a rebate. The city and recycler wrangled for six months before the charge was finally dropped.
Dauphin’s population was at 8,400 in the 2011 Census, a four per cent climb from five years earlier. There have been 233 new housing units built since the last election. That’s been helped by the city’s “$1,000 per door” program that pays developers $1,000 for every new housing unit.
New capital projects have been frozen but Irwin, in his recent State of the City address, promised that will change. The city’s hospital is also undergoing a $25-million upgrade, including the region’s first MRI.
» Winnipeg Free Press