Local taxpayers align to fight ‘unsustainable’ property tax increases

Published in Cambridge Today Dec 27, 2023

A group of local taxpayers frustrated with recent property tax hikes is banking on strength in numbers as they prepare to bring a case for municipal tax reform to a provincial committee looking into the region’s two-tier system.

“We are advocating for the efficient and effective use of our members’ hard earned property tax dollars,” says chairman and CEO John B. Waylett who launched the Property Taxpayers Alliance last June after the concept gained momentum during discussions with his neighbours. 

Kitchener resident Harald A. Drewitz was already a regular delegate at city hall and the Region of Waterloo where he has demanded more prudent municipal budgets on behalf of his Kitchener Tax Watch Group for more than a decade. 

Now Drewitz and Waylett have joined forces, along with support from members like Rande Keffer, a long-time critic of how Cambridge tax dollars are spent at the region.

Last month, they were at regional headquarters during budget talks that ended with a 6.94 per cent tax hike fuelled largely by a $14.4 million increase to the police budget.

They’ll delegate at Cambridge city hall in February with hopes of reducing the city’s proposed 5.76 per cent tax increase. 

And the alliance hopes to add members from the city of Waterloo, before councillors there vote on a proposed tax increase of 23 per cent over three years.

“They cannot keep putting aggregate property taxes above inflation,” Waylett says of local municipal decisions. “It’s not sustainable.”

Much of the group’s concern centres around the difference between private and public sector salaries and the growing number of municipal employees.

In Waterloo region the number of staff is 25 per cent higher than in Peel, York and Halton regions, Waylett says.

“La la land” public sector salaries are 15 to 20 per cent higher than similar positions in the private sector, he adds, a fact detailed in the so-called “sunshine list” of public sector employees earning north of $100,000.

Waylett calls the wage growth and benefits enjoyed by municipal employees unrealistic when compared to their private sector counterparts most of whom are lucky to see annual increases, and rarely get top-tier benefits or the defined benefit pension plans municipal employees enjoy.

Many municipal employees, through the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System (OMERS), can expect to collect 60 per cent of their top earning wage indexed to inflation at retirement, he says. That’s before collecting Canada Pension Plan and Old Age Security benefits.

All of those wage increases and benefits put pressure on local taxpayers who have experienced an aggregate 52 per cent increase in their property tax bills over the last four years, Drewitz says.

Part of the problem is the Municipal Price Index; a metric used to determine the impact of inflation measured in labour, construction and contracts on city operations. In contrast, most residents’ ability to pay these tax hikes is determined by a Consumer Price Index, which is based on a fixed basket of commonly purchased goods and services.

Drewitz says it’s time to get rid of the MPI and “live like the rest of us do.”

Keffer says she’d like to see more thought put into how these tax hikes are affecting the city’s aging population.

With more seniors on fixed incomes, tax hikes like the ones we’ve seen in recent years simply don’t make sense, she says, fearing more people will be forced to put off retirement or sell their homes just to get by.

“You’re taking away my ability to retire,” she says.

Waylett says the problem is exacerbated when public sector employees get elected to council.

They don’t understand how the private sector works and how job security isn’t something that’s enjoyed by everyone. That mentality informs decisions to allow these “unsustainable” tax increases, Waylett says. 

“There isn’t a common sense approach and no accountability. They have no clue about the struggles, the trials and tribulations of people in the private sector.”

“It’s very frustrating. It’s almost like we’re becoming a two-tiered society. We need to change the culture.”

If staff at municipalities were held accountable like employees in a private sector corporation, Drewitz says, overrages like what Cambridge experienced recently with the inflated Preston Memorial Auditorium expansion project would happen far less frequently. 

Cambridge council recently approved the $33 million project, which came in $5.7 million over budget due to higher than expected contractor quotes and other costs not considered in 2022.

Drewitz questions how staff could be so far off the mark in estimating the cost of the project, even with the post pandemic unpredictability of labour shortages and supply chain issues.

“If it’s over budget, I’m sorry, but some heads have to roll,” he says. “Make the tough decisions.”

“Our role is to stay out of politics and just look at facts,” Waylett says.

Facts, he says, like the $7.5 million Cambridge taxpayers hand over to the region each year to pay for a light rail transit system that serves Kitchener and Waterloo.

Over the years, he says that money has accumulated to over $50 million on the promise the ION will eventually make its way down Shantz Hill Road in 10 to 12 years.

With an estimated $4.5 billion price tag and public proclamations from Mayor Jan Liggett stating she doesn’t believe it will ever come to Cambridge, however, Waylett says it’s time the region considers paying that money back or investing in a rapid bus system that better serves local taxpayers.

In addition to demanding annual tax increases be held to inflation, the alliance wants to see plebiscites for any project that adds to tax increases, and any major decision that transcends the current term of council.

That kind of policy would have helped the city reach a decision on a project like the sports complex without the type of delay that led to its current $108 million price tag; and all for a facility Waylett believes will only really serve the south end of the city. 

As Cambridge gets set to approve its 2024 budget in February, members of the alliance will attend a meeting Jan. 18 with representatives from the province’s Standing Committee on Heritage, Infrastructure and Cultural Policy to consider options for regional reform.

Then on Feb. 6, the alliance will appear before city councillors for the public input session of the city’s budget talks.

For more information on the Property Taxpayers Alliance, visit the group’s website at www.propertytaxpayer.ca.






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