Regrets? Eventually

I purposely sat out the provincial election period. Regular readers would have a sense of where I stand. It was interesting to watch it all unfold but I think the “record” voter turnout of 58% is still a disgrace.

We got a party and new government that deliberately failed to present a full and honest accounting of its platform and deliberately avoided press and public scrutiny. With people voting ‘against’ instead of ‘for’, they didn’t have to. Still weeks away from being sworn in, I wonder now how long it will be before regret sets in over this government. These are some of the things that might concern us sooner or later:  Continue reading

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Let’s Take Back Our Cities

The announcement that Toronto’s Air Canada Centre is going to be rebranded as the Scotiabank Arena generated about as much enthusiasm as the notice of another road closure. We seem to have reached a tipping point for public toleration of corporate intrusion into daily life. I think I reached the breaking point years ago when I arrived at Union Station and was appalled to see the floors and stair risers of the historic building covered with vinyl-graphics advertising in addition to the numerous posters and ads already covering the walls. Virtually every arts and sports venue in Toronto has been claimed by a corporate brand. I no longer know where many of them are because the current name is meaningless and some names have changed several times.

For years we have been told that wages and corporate taxes have to be kept low to compete globally. Yet the same corporations still have hundreds of millions to spend on discretionary branding exercises, and that’s after paying executives record-breaking, tax deductible, compensation. In 2016, Canadian CEO pay was 159 times greater than the average income (Huffington Post). We are expected to accept corporate names on buildings, arenas, and theatres; transit vehicles wrapped in advertising; bus shelters and litter bins plastered with ads. Every major fund-raising charity event is co-opted with corporate advertising. This is the corporate elite telling cities, “We own you.”  Continue reading

About that Budget (2017-18)

I haven’t been browsing through the Town’s website for a while so the new (to me) web format was a surprise. It is organized as a straight-forward directory to easily locate basic town departments or services such as recreation programs or business-related information.

Although visitors are invited to download the proposed budget document, I’m not sure many people would have. The proposed tax increases stem in part from an earlier (Draft) Long Range Financial Plan prepared by Hemson Consulting in February 2016. Council subsequently approved a Multi-Year Budgeting Policy in May 2016.

A discussion of the “draws, contributions and balances” of the Capital Reserves “shows that … in key periods, from 2019 to 2022 and 2026 to 2027, Capital Reserves will be insufficient to fund capital needs …” Continue reading

Guidance and Governance

My last two articles have dealt with the challenge of ‘guiding’ development with the few municipal tools we have to build and preserve the ‘essence’ of our communities. While Cookstown seeks to preserve its historic character, Alcona struggles to capture and cultivate the essence of small-town Ontario. Our built environment is a lasting expression of the way we wish to live. It’s too important to be warped by the forces of wealth, politics and greed.

Yet, if you read my last article, High Rent Blight, current policies look inadequate to encourage, much less achieve the results we want. It’s too easy and too common for greed and speculation to rip up a commercial district and entirely change the character of a neighbourhood. Or in Alcona’s case, distort it from the outset.

In Ontario (and other jurisdictions), tax policy encourages landlords to let commercial spaces sit empty. Absentee landlords have no particular interest in, knowledge of, or commitment to our community, certainly no vision, considering the state of Alcona’s or Cookstown’s commercial core. Idly dreaming of the day a property can be leased to a national chain at GTA rates is not an acceptable strategy.

So, let’s pick up where I left off. Here are solutions proposed and discussed in The New Yorker article I quoted previously:  Continue reading

Signs of High-Rent Blight

While Cookstown works within the framework of a Heritage Conservation District to preserve the essence of the community and Alcona struggles to create a new but traditional shopping district, both Innisfil neighbourhoods are plagued with under-utilized and undeveloped commercial spaces.

In my last article, I questioned the logic of giving property tax rebates on empty commercial spaces. It seems entirely counter-productive to the economic and social health of our community. However, in some circles, it’s seen as being ‘business-friendly’. I was told that the real problem is that Innisfil property taxes are too high. It was suggested to me that commercial rates should be lower to compete with neighbouring communities like Barrie. That seems too simplistic for a couple of reasons:

  • We already tried that approach on a national scale with lower corporate taxes and ended up with companies sitting on what the Bank of Canada described as a mountain of “dead” money. There can be little expectation that lower taxes for landlords would proportionally benefit their commercial tenants.
  • We shouldn’t necessarily be trying to energize our local economy by impoverishing a neighbor’s opportunities. Can’t we create incentives and opportunities to motivate entrepreneurship within our own growing community?

The factors involved are more complex and in trying to understand it, I came across a revealing article Continue reading

Better ‘Guidance’ Needed

The Cookstown HCD meeting (see my previous post) stressed the need to “guide” change to “preserve the essence of a community”, and underlined that people, not land, define the value of a place. I think a lot of the challenges Cookstown faces are also shared by Alcona. And I’ve come to the conclusion that we need more municipal tools to help create the kind of change we’d like to see.

Here in Alcona the Town invested millions of dollars to create the kind of attractive streetscape that would, according to planners, inspire commercial development in a designated shopping core. That work was substantially complete in 2012, and fully complete in 2013, yet 3 years later few desired results are evident. The air of frustration is evident among some Town staff as well as residents.

My own peeve is with some retail spaces that sit empty for prolonged periods, or transition briefly from one struggling business to another before falling empty again. I was startled to discover that the province requires municipalities to provide a 30% discount on property tax for most empty commercial space. This, to me, is an absurd subsidy that encourages speculators and unrealistic rents that are out of touch with market conditions. I’d say this Ontario tax policy is misguided and harmful to local economies.

Some news articles illustrate how ridiculous this tax provision is. The City of Toronto, for instance, paid out $367 million in property tax rebates between 2001 and 2013. That’s $30.5 million a year returned to landlords of idle Toronto commercial properties. Yet, this year, Toronto has a long list of “unfunded” budget priorities like $13.7 million for community housing repairs, $9.6 million for a poverty reduction program and $1.6 million to enlarge a school breakfast program in low-income areas. Does this make any sense? Shouldn’t tax policy act as an incentive to keep as many commercial spaces as possible occupied, instead of empty? Why should taxpayers subsidize the poor marketing decisions of landlords?

A speaker in Cookstown mentioned that potential developers pay close attention to the appearance of a neighbourhood, noting whether area properties look shabby, neglected, or run down. Several property owners along Alcona’s commercial core aren’t doing us any favours with their littered, overgrown frontages, and empty derelict buildings. Owners of other commercial buildings in Alcona are in no hurry, either, to find tenants.

Wasting the potential of these idle assets is stunting local grass-roots economic activity in Innisfil and all over Ontario. And, it can only be directly fixed by the Ontario government. Shouldn’t we use tax policy to discourage commercial space from sitting idle for a prolonged period? The legislature needs to remove this property tax rebate that rewards idle, wasted commercial assets. Towns all over Ontario need tax policy to guide change toward local, grassroots economic activity and revival.