Heather Mallick: I love taxes. They give us bright shining cities
Toronto’s current mayor, John Tory, is campaigning on keeping property tax increases at or below the inflation rate. The man who refused to tear down the crumbling Gardiner and build a boulevard proposes instead to spend $3.6 billion repairing the lumbering thing.
He approves of spending at least $3.35 billion on a one-stop subway in Scarborough rather than light-rail transit that would have reached many more people.
Why then does he not approve of raising property taxes?
Jennifer Keesmaat is a visionary running fiercely against Tory, as well as his weak response to Premier Doug Ford’s attack on the democracy of Canada’s largest city. She wants bold ideas for Toronto as the climate changes, cyclists grow in number, more people move into downtown condos without city parks, and the money from land transfer taxes looks fragile as home sales fluctuate. We need everything. We need more than that.
Torontonians need to pay more tax, maybe even a city sales tax, and we know that. But neither Keesmaat nor Tory say this out loud because Canadians have been trained to demonize tax in all its forms. This month, I paid $572 in property tax. I don’t mind paying more and here’s why.
Taxation gets things done. Thanks to taxes, I don’t have to dig my own well, or get out of my car and wave little cloth flags I’ve sewn at home to get through intersections.
The greatest thing about taxes is the most basic. They deal with death. In Toronto, we do not dump family corpses in the ditch (do cities still have ditches?) or even leave them out on garbage day. The unexpectedly dead are collected by ambulance. I’m not boasting about my city here, I’m just stating a fact.
If you wish to see a failure of taxation, look at the camps of homeless people living in the woods in Hamilton. Some are clearly mentally unwell, their campsites looking like a hoarder’s home, minus the home.
Will anyone notice them? If a woman dies alone in the woods, does anyone hear her? Yes, the city stepped in but when citizens begin to see medieval living conditions in a city without enough affordable housing, something has gone very wrong. Americans do that. We do not.
Taxes cover the things needed collectively and the things we’re unable or unwilling to do ourselves. Taxes cover road repairs, maintaining hydrants and checking water leaks, collecting dead raccoons, pruning the city tree in the front garden, snowplowing and sanding roads.
They also clean roads with huge machines and when I hear them coming, I run to the window like a 4-year-old. My street sparkles, I sigh happily. I don’t know what children see in big red fire engines.
Tax pays for fire engines so that you return to your own home, not a carbonized smoking wreck that makes you put the kids in a horse-drawn wagon and head out West.
Tax pays for garbage collection, recycling bins and those green things that raccoons tear into with perfect ease, the handy waste wizard, and a city website that lectures you for the cigarette butts and chewing gum pasted to our sidewalks. You deserved that.
Taxes pay for organized parking, building permits, safety inspection, sign permits, noise complaints, applications for building variances and permissions, park and playground construction and maintenance, elections (previously unmenaced by a provincial premier), restaurant inspectors hunting for rats, bugs and sufficient hand washing facilities, city planning, those letters you get about your neighbour’s reno, employment stats, poverty alleviation, a human rights office, accessibility for the disabled, regulation of dangerous animals, apartment building standards, film permits, taxi regulation and marriage licences.
Roads. Street lights. Sewers. Museums. Beaches. Pools. Public safety alerts. Police. Paramedics.
I could go on. Taxes pay for an organized, rules-based pleasant city for nearly three million people. It works. And if it doesn’t work, you have someone to complain to.
If you want nicer things, for instance a downtown relief line or greater population density and homes people can afford, taxes will have to rise.
Jennifer Keesmaat wants nicer things. I’m not sure if John Tory does. But can they both finally talk about taxes with candour and realism?
Heather Mallick is a columnist based in Toronto covering current affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @HeatherMallick