Friday, August 1, 2014

Don't let those pesky facts confuse you....



Have you ever felt out of place?  I mean really out of place?  (Think: “a-cockroach-in-a-cupboard-full-of-Raid-cans” out of place.)   Really, really awkward. 

That’s kind of how I felt when I attended the second “Cowichan TaxBusters” meeting on Thursday night at the Glen Harper Curling Center.  

I knew it wasn’t going to go well when Peggy Bran opened the meeting with the following statement:  

“We’re here talk to you tonight about the November election in North Cowichan.  And we’re here to tell you – ‘re-elect no one’.  If you're tired of the way the politicians in North Cowichan have been stealing money out of your back pocket, do not re-elect them. We're not telling you who to vote for, but putting any of the present Councillors back in will just guarantee more of the same."  

So, apparently, they’re not going to tell you who to vote for.  Just as long as you’re clear who you’re not supposed to vote for.  

What followed was the by-now-familiar litany of charts and complaints about North Cowichan tax rates; complaints with which I have consistently expressed considerable agreement.  The group’s central premise is that the rate at which taxes have been increasing in this municipality over the past ten years is simply not sustainable.  And I agree.  No matter how you twist the numbers, the fact is that residential taxes in North Cowichan have pretty much doubled in the past decade.   I have brought this up every year for four years running at budget time, and I have voted against the last four consecutive budgets for this exact reason.

The TaxBusters also complain that the municipality lacks a true set of “priorities”.  Again, I don’t disagree.  In my first term on Council, I tried to initiate a “core services review” to measure how much value taxpayers were getting for their dollars.  The idea never got any traction.   In 2011, I tried to lobby my fellow councillors to do a true “priority-setting exercise”.  I thought we should collectively figure out what was important to us by differentiating between the “essential” things we pay for and the things that are “nice to have”, but which might be up for discussion in terms of costs savings at budget time.  Again, there was no collective appetite to initiate this process.

But I’m pretty sure that, beyond a general philosophical agreement on the need to improve our priority-setting and find a way to cut the rate of property tax hikes, the TaxBusters and I will not be seeing eye to eye if I decide to seek re-election in November.  

First of all, I’m apparently one of the evil people who’ve been “stealing money out of your back pocket”, and re-electing me would just “guarantee more of the same.”

But our disagreement runs much deeper than that.  There’s a place for hyperbole in politics.  I understand that.  But I can’t countenance or support any group which willfully spreads lies and misrepresents facts.  Which is what the TaxBusters are doing, in a deliberate attempt to whip the voters into some kind of tax revolt frenzy.  

Remember last week’s blog post?  The one where I tried to gently and respectfully correct the group’s misguided notion that the CVRD, through the Island Savings Centre, is taxing North Cowichan residents in furtherance of a dream to “build a second theatre”?  I spent considerable time and energy setting the record straight on that issue, which was brought up at their first meeting in Crofton on July 24th.  

But the second meeting provided clear evidence that these people aren’t interested in facts or reasoned discussion.  I know they read last week’s blog post – some of their leadership even commented on it – but at their second meeting, they took the opportunity to repeat this outright and demonstrable lie.  

A quote from chief TaxBuster Don Swiatlowski – from the second meeting:  

 You are being taxed to build a second theatre.

It was at this point that I quietly left.  The “cockroach in a cupboard full of Raid” thing had kicked in big time, and I’d had enough. 

But a number of other “less than honest” questions and inferences had been brought up before my departure.

Among them, this question:  “How many millions of dollars did the taxpayers of North Cowichan fork over to buy this curling club?”  Here’s the answer.  The purchase of the Glen Harper Curling Centre was done because the Curling Club was in financial difficulty.  They offered us the entire property for just over $770-thousand dollars; they needed the money to finance their continued operations.  We agreed to pay them $40-thousand dollars a year, financed partly through our reverted property fund (no tax implications), and partly through a mortgage, most of which is envisioned to be paid off within a few years when we subdivide and sell off part of the property under the same model as the hugely successful development on nearby Gilana Place in 2010.  (The sale of that property, incidentally, netted us a profit of more than a million dollars, which also went into the reverted property fund which, in turn, helped to finance the purchase of the Curling Centre.)  

Another question:  “How much are the taxpayers of North Cowichan spending on the new artificial turf soccer field?”  The answer?  “Not a dime.”   The turf is being financed by Gas Tax Revenues, our reverted property fund, and the Soccer Association.  Not a penny of this is coming from property taxes.  (I had made it clear from the very beginning that this was the only condition under which I would support this project – no direct impact on property taxpayers.  And in the end, that’s exactly what we got.)  Further, the maintenance bills for the artificial turf should be less than real grass, and payment for the eventual replacement of the turf is already envisioned by designating the rental income from there to a fund for that purpose.  And I had this discussion with one of the TaxBuster principals a few weeks ago.  These people really do know better; it appears they just want to be deliberately disingenuous.  

And there was one more quote/rhetorical question:  “Did you know the taxpayers of North Cowichan are subsidizing the logging of our Municipal Forest?”   Actually, they’re not.  The Forestry Department is a completely stand-alone entity, and has been since former mayor Graham Bruce had the foresight to set it up that way back in the early ‘80’s.  In bad years, losses are covered by a reserve fund that is built up out of timber sales.  In good years, part of the surplus is returned to the Municipality’s General Revenues as a way to try to keep taxes down.  The Municipality’s 2013 Annual Report shows operating expenses in the Forestry Department totaled $1.4 million dollars.  And the Department converted that to $1.9 million dollars in revenue.  That’s a profit of close to half a million dollars.  About $130-thousand of that was transferred back into General Revenues.  The rest went into reserves, including our “Forest Legacy Fund”, which pays for things such as scholarships for young people who want to make a career out of Forestry.  And all of this was done within a paradigm of “sustainable forestry” which an independent audit by three Registered Professional Foresters (with a collective 75 years of experience working for some of the biggest private sector forestry operators on this Island) has deemed to be an “exemplary operation.” 

Look.  As a reader of this blog, you’re smart enough to know you can’t believe everything most politicians tell you.  Especially at election time.  But I would urge you to also be smart enough not to believe everything the so-called “populist citizens groups” tell you.   The TaxBuster’s dislike for the Municipality - its staff and its political leadership - borders on the visceral, and their actions prove they’re simply not going to let the facts get in the way of their “story”.  

As Councillor Jen Woike put it in a FaceBook comment after the meeting (on the “wall” of someone else who was there):  

“Anyone with half a brain can see right through this bullshit - and 
that’s exactly what this group is spreading.   
Untruths and half truths. I give certain individuals 
as much credit as a disgruntled employee.”   

Couldn’t have said it better myself. 

It’s a shame that – while the election campaign isn’t even really underway yet – it’s already come to this.  The TaxBuster’s central theme is one that is worthy of consideration.  I’ve been banging the drum on the issue of unsustainably rising tax rates for most of my 6 years on Council.  But these people are choosing to spread their message with a toxic mix of blatant misinformation, rampant cynicism, and general wing-nuttery.  In the process, they are squandering any credibility they may have hoped to develop in their advocacy for lower taxes.

3 comments:

  1. Well.... this post has certainly stirred up quite a hornet's nest.
    But I think we're getting somewhere.
    See the discussion at http://www.cowichantaxbusters.ca/featured/some-clarity-and-cool-heads-needed-on-the-2nd-theatre

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  2. I think that the 'Cowichan Taxbusters' are demonstrating the depth of the shallowness. Clearly those left wingers on Council - Siebring, Koury and Woike bear scrutiny ;-) LOL
    Just send them over to 'Cowichan Conversations' Al and I will help them get their minds right.

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    1. LOL Richard. I thought their minds were already "right".

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