Calgary Citizen Mark Zaugg says he wants provincial tax break pondered

Rick Bell has another good column out, but I have some questions.  And since I guess I’m lumped with the “Nenshi faithful”, I can’t just sit silently.  Go read Rick’s column first.

“She wants her money.  We’re on the same side on this one.”

It’s not simply her money.  I suspect Rick and I are also on the same side on this.

Not so many years ago, we had a mega problem with mega growth in this province.  Some places were getting absolutely killed by a boom that crushed their ability to absorb that growth.  They pleaded for relief from the province, and that relief came in the form of a break the province gave to those towns absorbing the worst of the growth.  The rest of us took up the slack and paid more.

Now the program is over and there is $52 million coming back to the city of Calgary.

Right here is where I split off.

First, I want to ask why that money is getting refunded to the city.  My expectations is if the program is shut down, the last of the money would be used for it’s intended purpose.  Honestly, I don’t know.  I feel that I should probably be aware of it, but sorry, there is no insight here today.  It does raise a few questions for me, though.

  • Why did Calgary end up with a $52 million surplus anyways?  Did the program suddenly come to an end while collections were still happening?
  • How much was actually collected and used in this program anyhow?

The massive growth seems to have come to an end a few years back, I don’t understand why this program is coming to a close today.  Is there a year long lag between programs and collections?  Does it really take this long to process where we are at fiscally?

Second, I would like some context around the program as a whole.  How much did we pump through this program?  If we have a $52 million surplus, just what was the total amount here?  Are we fighting over $52MM in crumbs here, distracted from the loaf that was just taken from us?

The strange thing is I have no problem with the program.  I recognize the crisis some of those towns were enduring and the idea of transfer payments is well established in Canada.  I doubt they’re universally loved by Albertans, but I think they’re generally accepted here.  Much to my chagrin, Alberta is a still a boom and bust economy, and it won’t change any time soon.  They best we can do is try to absorb the bumps and prepare while times are good.  Transfer payments even amongst towns can be a huge benefit.

A certain degree of vigilance has to be maintained, though.  We can’t suddenly say, “Hey, things got better two years ago, let’s stop cutting these towns a break now.“  That’s where some of our greatest governmental waste has historically be slid under the rug.

I want faith that programs like this are needed, that they’re doing good, and that they are accountable to us all.  Refunding money already collected erodes that faith.

The problem lies in how the provincial government handled shutting down a program, then shuffled the surplus back to the city.  A surplus I think should have never happened in the first place. 

At least the city is presenting options to us.  If you haven’t gone yet, it’s far from referendum by website where you have a bunch of radio buttons giving you either / or choices.  I’m directly referencing the now-removed province’s budget page here.  Go now, look, and express what you like and what you dislike.  And hey, tax breaks are one of the options listed!

For the record, I live in a part of Calgary that’s 100 years old and desperately needs revitalized.  Hey, we never had proper alleys in the first place, we need “vitalized!“  In my heart I feel it’s closest to the purpose of why the money was collected in the first place.  Although I think all the options have merit and are worth discussing.

We are not going to have perfect foresight into the future.  We’re not going to escape the boom and bust cycle without a lot of work at diversification.  And sometimes we’re going to have to do the best we can with the scraps that are left us.

The city is doing the right thing by at least presenting us options.  It’s an attempt at transparency that was lost with the original origins of the money.  Go disagree with me and have your own say.