All I Want for Christmas is Respect for the Social and Economic Benefits of my Profession

Hello, Internet, it’s Wednesday, December 23rd – Happy Tibb’s Eve!

Here in St. John’s, we’ve got a fight on our hands.

Monday of last week, City Council passed a budget that pleased… about 0% of the population. Highlights include:

-raising residential property taxes by an average of 12.7%

-raising commercial property taxes by 14.3%

-eliminating the tax discount for properties not connected to water & sewer

-investing more than $2.6M over 3 years into operation of a new community centre in a well-to-do part of town

-turning over operations of two community centres in the parts of the city that most need community programming “back to the community” (read: cutting funding and reducing the city’s financial responsibility over these properties)

-reducing arts, tourism and sports grant programs by 50% (this is noted under the heading “Fiscally Responsible,” which I find acutely offensive, for reasons I will talk about below)

-suspending the art procurement program (but confirming a commitment to purchase $300,000 worth of local art for the new convention centre)

A closer look at the budget lines also reveals a 44% cut to visitor’s services and a 39% cut to tourism development, which makes for a total decrease in tourism & economic development of 18%.

And a 3.7% cut to the snowclearing budget.

Sounds unpopular, doesn’t it?

Part of the reason for the “taxes up, services down” trend here is a huge deal with city workers. A new collective agreement signed this year will cost the City $23.2M extra over the next three years. In all honesty, I don’t know the ins and outs of this agreement and it rubs me the wrong way to argue against workers being paid to work, but one councillor who voted against the budget had some choice words about the extra cost.

I would also like to point out that the 2016 budget includes a 3.3% pay increase for City Councillors. Yeah, that’s all… I just thought I’d mention that.

And the subsidy to the new Convention Centre will go up by $670k in 2016.

Problem 1: Austerity doesn’t work.

This is an austerity budget. It’s a budget that says “holy crap! things are really bad! tighten the belt! further! poke new holes in the leather to make it even tighter! who cares if this stagnates the economy… we have to balance the budget NOW!!”

The victims of belt-tightening are almost always those who have very little to begin with. Bumping residential property taxes isn’t going to be popular with the folks who own $3M homes on Circular Road, but it isn’t going to hurt them, either. It’s going to hurt people scraping by on their $50k/year household income whose property value has gone up 15% since they bought their house. Bumping commercial property taxes isn’t going to hurt Walmart, Dominion and Dollorama. It’s going to hurt small, locally owned businesses, which are what make the downtown core of this city so great.

While I am actually for taxation (left wing, after all), what this sudden and enormous rise in property taxes will do is make first-time home-buyers wait longer to get into the market. It will force small businesses to close, and discourage entrepreneurs from starting up. This is bad for the economy.

Problem 2: Steal from the poor and give to the rich.

So, wait now, your plan is to offload community centres in Shea Heights and Buckmaster’s Circle – where there is a long-standing and desperate need for community programming – while simultaneously pouring millions into a centre in a part of town where (generally) people can afford to pay for programs? Right. That’s great. Thanks, guys.

Problem 3: FISCALLY RESPONSIBLE??!?

K, I’m pretty angry about this.

You cannot cut the arts and claim that it was a prudent and fiscally responsible choice. As we have been shouting about for as long as I have been a professional artist (and longer, I’m sure), the arts industry is a viable one, with indirect economic benefits of $7 made for each $1 spent.

You cannot cut tourism and claim that it is a fiscally responsible choice. St. John’s survives on tourist dollars. We need them. Reducing investment will reduce returns.

“But!” they say, pointing to the investment in the Convention Centre. “But but LOOK! This will bring people here!”

NO.

It will be good to have a convention centre. That way we can better host conventions. But the people planning those conventions are not going to choose St. John’s because it has a pretty new convention centre. They are going to choose St. John’s because it has an off-the-hook arts scene and a downtown core full of thriving independent businesses.

So, the arts community put up a truly excellent stink, and now the chair of the finance committee says that he will ask the council to reinstate the budget for arts grants. But there’s a catch: he says he can reallocate the money from the Community Grants program, or from the $300k in arts procurement for the convention centre.

UM. SIR?

You can’t fund the arts by cutting money from the arts. That’s not how it works.

And as for the community grants…

Problem 4: Don’t make it us or them.

Listen. This isn’t about arts vs. sports. This isn’t about arts vs. reading groups, or knitting programs, or food banks.

This is about arts AND community projects AND community sports teams fighting for respect. That’s what makes the city great. Not just economically (and we do pull our weight), but socially. That’s what makes people choose this city. That’s what makes them willing to pay higher property taxes. It’s our work that makes this city worth living in.

 

So, here is my challenge to City Council:

Find a way to fund the things that make this place great.

I know the province requires you to pass a balanced budget. Find a way.

I know you’ve signed a deal for city employees that none of us understand that is costing record amounts of money. Find a way.

Find a way to make the residential property taxes worth paying.

And do it without dismissing your major economic drivers as a frivolity.