City Taxes; The Onerous Job Ahead

Commentary, Municipal Government, Frontier Centre

As city officials discuss whether job cuts are required to hold the line on a tax increase residents in these lean times can ill afford, two new reports have painted Windsor as an area with higher taxes and costs than competing jurisdictions.

A study released by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy found Windsor’s taxes were 46 per cent higher than the average of the cities studied in 2006. Windsor Mayor Eddie Francis dismissed the report because it compared cities, like Windsor, that are responsible for a portion of social services, to cities out west that aren’t. He added the city’s bond rating had just been upgraded because of improved finances, including a debt that has been slashed from $230 million to $154 million over five years.

But Coun. Alan Halberstadt countered the report’s findings might not be that off the mark because of a “structural problem” at City Hall that has seen costs increase annually because of collective agreements. Holding the line on taxes becomes difficult when contracts spell out wage increases every year.

The city eliminated about 28 jobs last year to keep taxes down but, as the city struggles to hold the line on taxes again this year, the job cuts on the table “are more substantial,” said Francis.

“They are of significant consequence in terms of service delivery,” he said. “It’s going to depend on what level of service delivery council is prepared to accept.”

The city’s police department is confronted with the same problem in that the bulk of its budget is made up of labour costs. That means senior administrators have some serious and daunting work to do as they prepare a budget for the approval of city councillors, who are acutely aware that residents and businesses do not want, and might not be able to afford, a tax hike.

A Statistics Canada report concluded Windsor is second only to Toronto in terms of the per capita cost of policing. Based on 2006 figures, Windsor has one police officer for every 469 residents, costing $284 per citizen. The cost per capita is $220 in Hamilton, $200 in London and $190 in Waterloo.

Police Chief Glenn Stannard said it was unfair to compare Windsor with other jurisdictions because of border issues, the casino and drunk American teenagers in the downtown core. Coun. Fulvio Valentinis added the costs here were higher because Windsor police officers only patrol urban areas.

While that may be true, the force, which has a budget approaching $60 million, needs to zealously look for savings and, like everyone else in this community, learn to do more with less. It won’t be easy but this exercise isn’t easy for any city department.

Windsor defence lawyer Patrick Ducharme said the force could probably trim costs related to attendance in courtrooms, where Ducharme said he sees “a lot of wasted money.” He said some officers attend to give evidence when they could instead file evidentiary documents with the court. As well, Ducharme said there could be greater co-ordination between police and prosecutors on the timing of testimony.

These court costs can be significant because an officer called to court to testify on their day off, for example, is paid overtime for a minimum of three hours. Hopefully, police administrators can find significant savings on this front and others so that they don’t have to consider the job cuts that might visit other city departments.

This community needs every job it can get but might not be able to afford every job it wants. The police services board needs to justify the need for every officer and every penny in the budget it presents for council’s approval.