In the wake of the City of Brandon’s budget and taxation debacle last winter, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation has offered assistance to set up a local group to serve as a watchdog on municipal taxation matters.
During a luncheon sponsored by the Brandon Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, CTF Prairie director Colin Craig called on interested Brandon taxpayers to meet at the Royal Oak Inn on Oct. 2 at 7 p.m.
“What we have seen over the years is taxpayers can win a lot of great victories if we get people organized and speaking out,” Craig said. “Politicians get worried if they hear enough people commenting on an issue that could lose them votes.”
In February, council scaled back a large increase to the city’s operating budget for 2012-13 to an average of 4.9 per cent, following an outcry from taxpayers over a proposed 15.6 per cent increase in a year in which private sector wage increases amounted to one per cent.
Council’s emergency budget deliberations resulted in $1,809,329 in deferred spending, $724,218 in service cuts, $657,369 in cuts to salary lines and $483,465 in cuts that affect internal operations at city hall. This included cuts to, among other things, the snow clearing budget, the Brandon Police Service’s budget and a reduction of salary increases for councillors to two per cent instead of the 3.1 per cent allowed under the bylaw that mandates cost-of-living increases.
In the midst of the public debate over the city budget, then Brandon Chamber of Commerce president Cam Clark was an engaged voice who noted that the work to reduce the tax increase to city residents was “the right thing to do.”
“It’s still a salary-based increase that every taxpayer will have to face, and that’s certainly something that needed to be addressed,” Clark told the Sun following the budget revisal. “(The revised budget) is the one that should have been presented in December and that would have given them plenty of time to go out and discuss with people.”
And as the new president, Nate Andrews, said this week, the Brandon Chamber has always been known as a tax watchdog, a role it has tried to expand upon with new and proactive member engagement, such as networking among those in the business community.
There is certainly room enough for other such voices in this city — a taxpayer watchdog speaking out on behalf of ordinary taxpayers could complement the role already played by the Brandon Chamber.
However, there is danger in allowing the right-leaning CTF to frame the debate to the exclusion of more moderate interests. Any group set up under this organization’s auspices would be as strident, and would unwisely tip the public conversation about taxation in this city to its most narrow and conservative level — cut taxes, decrease spending, at all costs and at the expense of public debate.
And in attempting to build what would amount to a satellite organization in Brandon, it’s difficult not to question the CTF’s motives. As a non-profit organization with offices in Vancouver, Edmonton, Regina, Winnipeg, Toronto, Halifax and a head office in Ottawa, the organization’s clout exists on the backs of some 70,000 or so supporters that in 2011 donated approximately $3.4 million to the organization.
On the careers section of its website, it has several positions available relating to donation solicitation. The job description for the director of development and events position, for example, includes responsibilities for “identification, cultivation and solicitation of major gift donors and organizing events primarily — but not exclusively — related to donors.”
As well, openings are available in “various” locations across the country for independent commissioned sales representatives to solicit supporters and contributions on behalf of the CTF and its mandate.
Simply put, the CTF sees an opportunity in Brandon to make some cash. A Brandon watchdog group would effectively become a new, albeit small, financial beachhead.
That’s not to say that everything the CTF stands for is incorrect, or for that matter exclusively conservative in nature — reducing wasteful government spending and improved government accountability are laudable goals that we wholly support. But not every government expenditure is an evil, or even a necessary evil — a nuanced view that is often run roughshod by those looking to pander to “the taxpayer vote.”
In our view, a more engaged and outspoken electorate would act as a better safeguard for the public good than any single-note organization, whether politically motivated or not.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition September 14, 2012