By Scott Schmidt on October 9, 2021.
As Albertans continue to grapple with a deadly fourth wave of the COVID-19 Delta variant, off in the background is a series of municipal elections that will largely shape the direction of this province for the next four years and beyond.
Our focus is often monopolized by provincial and federal policy, but it’s the decisions at the municipal level which tend to have the most direct effect.
Here in Medicine Hat, in an election with five mayoral candidates and a near-record number of council candidates (31), there is no shortage of hopefuls who suggest a change is needed. Whether voters agree with that remains to be seen, but at this point in the campaign, there seems to be a high number of candidates – new and incumbent – who promise change by selling us the same things we always hear.
The list is long, but let’s focus on a couple promises that show up, without fail, every single election.
The first is growth. Voters in Medicine Hat have shown a tendency in past elections to be attracted to candidates who promise to “attract investment” and “grow the tax base,” and once again we have a number of hopefuls suggesting those as their main focuses.
The problem is, like councillors who were elected under the same guise in past years learned, no amount of effort at the council level will make much of a difference on either. At best, as we’ve seen in the past, one simply gets sacrificed for the other.
We might “attract investment” but we do it through all kinds of subsidization avenues (off-site levies, property tax breaks, etc.), which Hatters end up paying for, and until those are (hopefully) made back over however many years it might take, the only thing we’ve actually grown is our operating costs. Every time a new building or a new home goes up, the cost of servicing those builds comes with it, so even if we do collect taxation or charge full levy fees from day one, that revenue goes toward those new costs, not growing the so-called tax base.
This isn’t to say there isn’t a time and place for competing with other jurisdictions for corporate investment, but it’s essential Hatters remember that winning by simply offering the cheapest place to be isn’t exactly the victory we’re told it is.
Growth is expensive and, therefore, overrated. If Medicine Hat is facing the kind of multi-million-dollar budget issues we’ve been hearing about in recent years, we aren’t going to make that problem smaller by making the city bigger.
We also aren’t going to solve the issue by constantly yearning to “bring back the Medicine Hat Advantage,” which is often the slogan for candidates, let alone a campaign promise. For those outside the area, the answer is “yes,” the Medicine Hat Advantage is exactly the same as the “Alberta Advantage.”
Medicine Hat, like the province, has for a long time subsidized expenses with energy revenues – revenues that plummeted in recent years. Unlike the province however, the city’s borrowing rights don’t allow it to accumulate debt for operating costs, so unless it brings in other revenues, it must balance its budget with property taxes.
Thanks to a bank account with limited reserves, as well as some expenditure cuts, the city has managed the first couple years of what began as a reported $24-million annual shortfall. Nonetheless however, its newest council must reportedly find another $8 million in the first year alone, and do so following a year where we flattened taxation as a form of COVID relief, avoiding even a slight increase year over year.
Barring any as of yet unforeseen revenues, finding another $8 million means cutting spending, or raising taxes. If our focus is simply on keeping a pseudo “Advantage” over other cities, cuts will be chosen at every turn.
Ultra-low taxes might seem a great idea to property owners, since taxation is often a reluctant expense, but a continuous effort to keep those levels down doesn’t do much more than defer costs to a later date. Obviously we can’t make up $8-$24 million overnight with a single tax increase, as that would create shock, but we also can’t pretend energy revenues and bank accounts are bottomless.
Even if they were, tax relief at the expense of other revenues is nothing more than a break for some at the expense of all. And the ones who get the most break (ie – those who own the most) generally need it the least.
Candidates who understand this but still promise the “Advantage” are telling voters their plan is to do what’s best for property owners (especially those with several) even at the detriment of services for everyone else. Clearly a number of voters will not only see nothing wrong with that but actually find it a good thing, but everyone who votes on Oct. 18 should at least be aware of who the “Advantage” is for, because it won’t be everyone.
Being on council isn’t going to be a ton of fun over the next four years. We have a pandemic that isn’t going away, we have a provincial government downloading costs onto municipalities, we have surging poverty issues, overdose problems, suicide crises and more.
I’ve often said we have too many leaders, at every level, whose only reaction to realities are to wish them away. Medicine Hat’s next city council will have several harsh ones to face, and we need members who approach them with creativity, with nuance and with all city residents’ best interests in mind.
You don’t need to tell us everything will be wonderful when it most definitely won’t, but if we adapt to a changing future through tired promises of the past, we won’t just be ignoring our harsh realities, we’ll be creating more of them.
Scott Schmidt is the layout editor for the Medicine Hat News. He can be reached at email@example.com