October 26, 2010

Tax Cuts Don't Come Cheap

I have had a lot of comments, by mail, in person and via friends and family, about my recent op-ed piece in the Record about municipal services being a bargain. A new report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives picks up on that theme. Where I looked at all that our property taxes buy for us, and the bargain that is, The Power of Taxes paints the bigger picture.

The Power of Taxes asks us to be more informed civic shoppers.
Tax phobia has encouraged many Canadian voters to jump at any political promise of tax cuts without asking whether it’s a good deal or a swindle.
What I find really helpful is that the study adds up the value in public services that we consume each year. "The average Canadian enjoys $16,952 worth of public benefits annually — what someone employed at minimum wage would earn in an entire year."

The report also points out that the cuts to personal and corporate incomes taxes and to the GST have delivered most benefits to people in the highest incomes brackets, but offered little for the majority of citizens.

One of the e-mails I received asked
I wonder what kind of reaction a candidate would get if she/he said we should raise taxes & fees (in the least regressive way possible) so that we can create jobs and improve our communities. They all seem to be afraid to say anything that goes against the "no more taxes" mantra.
The Power of Taxes challenges us to hold our politicians to a higher standard. It challenges us to ask our politicians to create a more fair tax system and to be honest about the need to raise revenue to pay for the public services that make our society stronger. Is it that outlandish for us to do that?

It’s not an impossible dream. In fact, a number of high profile business leaders — from American billionaire Warren Buffett to Edmund Clark, the CEO of the Toronto-Dominion Bank — declare they would pay higher taxes in order to improve the society around them.
Take a look at The Power of Taxes. It's a helpful reminder that tax cuts don't come cheap.

October 25, 2010

Persistent Poverty -- ISARC Religious Leaders Forum

The Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition's (ISARC) fall religious leaders forum will be on Wednesday, November 18 at Queen's Park.

Persistent Poverty -- Elephant's in the Room is the title.

For more information about the forum and to register, visit

October 21, 2010

Ontario Sales Tax Credit -- Making Tax Time Pay

When the Ontario Government introduced the Harmonized Sales Tax it also made some changes to tax credits. It split up the Sales and Property Tax Credit into a new Ontario Sales Tax Credit and the Ontario Energy and Property Tax Credit. These new credits will be paid quarterly rather than in a lump sum at tax time. And they are refundable. That is important for low income households because it means that you can receive rebate cheques throughout the year. And because those payments will be paid in different months than the GST credit, it means that you can get a refund cheque each month of the year.

The catch is that you have to file your income tax return to get those rebates. For some people with low incomes, that can be a challenge -- due to lost ID or being homeless, for example. And for many others the only source of tax filing help is a for-profit tax business. But the fees charged to file a tax return eat into the value of the tax rebate you can expect.

There are many volunteers working through community agencies that hold free tax clinics to help people file their tax returns so that they can get their rebates. The Canada Revenue Agency provides some training for volunteers and lists some of the free community tax clinics on their website.

But what I have heard from people working on the ground, is that these volunteer tax clinics are far from being able to make sure everyone gets the credits they are eligible for. A higher proportion of families with children are getting their tax returns filed -- partly because child benefits are high enough that there is strong incentive to file a tax return. Social assistance offices in Ontario emphasize that families file their tax returns so they can receive child benefits. Tax clinics seem to reach more seniors as well. The groups that are being missed are low incomes single adults and newcomers.

One model for making sure people get the benefits for which they are eligible comes from Edmonton, Alberta. Vibrant Communities Edmonton launched a project called Making Tax Time Pay to coordinate community efforts at both helping people file their tax returns and getting them signed up for other benefits and programs.

What is needed in Ontario is a coordinated community outreach strategy like that to make sure there are enough free tax clinics that reach the people who are being missed. And this really requires resources from both the Provincial Government and the Federal Government. As a starter, the Provincial and Federal Governments could fund pilot projects in several communities to help coordinate and expand community tax clinics. Otherwise the move to a Harmonized Sales Tax in Ontario will really fall harder on people with low incomes because they won't get the refunds meant to offset the HST.

October 20, 2010

Municipal Services a Bargain

The other day a candidate for muncipal council came to my door. I live in Kitchener. The candidate started explaining his priorities. Fiscal transparency was top of the list. He pointed out how water rates in Kitchener had leapt by 54% in the past three years.

I am all in favour of fiscal tranparency. But I had to stop and ask him how much his water bill is. He was not sure. Mine is only $450 a year -- and that is after the increase. And the increase was due to upgrades in the system to assure that the water remains safe and an accident like that which happened in Walkerton, Ontario does not happen in my city. Why would I oppose raising water rates to make that kind of investment?

The local paper, The Waterloo Region Record, has led the way in suggesting that municipal spending is spiralling out of control, not only water rates but also municipal wage costs. It led me to look into how big a bite property taxes take out of my family's income. I was surprised to learn how little the impact is. My property tax bill amounts to only 3% of our househould income. And the water bill only 0.57%.

I sent the following letter/article to the Record.


Municipal services a bargain

Have water bills gone through the roof? And are property taxes spiralling out of control?

Jeff Outhit’s (Sept 20) article on rising water bills and the Waterloo Region Record’s (Sept 28) editorial on soaring municipal wage costs gave me reason to examine how these changes have impacted me and my family. The Record reports that water rates have soared 54% between 2007 and 2010 and that the municipal wage bill has risen 19% between 2006 and 2010.

I do not know my final income for 2010 nor do I have all my water bills come in yet this year, but I was able to compare the 2007 and 2009 figures for our household. Sure enough, the water bill had “soared” 48% in those two years. That amounted to a whopping $150 increase for our household. The cost of clean municipal water ate up 0.57% of our household income in 2009; that is, just a bit more than half a percent. That’s not too alarming.

Outhit’s article explained four reason’s for the steep rise in water rates: “The Walkerton water tragedy, environmental needs, aging systems and water conservation.” Those strike me as compelling reasons for the rise in water rates. Frankly I think it would have been highly irresponsible of municipalities to not make the investments needed to make sure we have a safe and adequate supply of water.

The Record’s editorial suggests that Municipal wages are “spiralling out of control”. Presumably, I fall into the category of the “overtaxed citizen” that the editorial defends. After all, I earn less than the average municipal employee wage. So, I decided to look at the damage my property tax bill has inflicted. Once again, the Record’s calculations have some resonance. My property tax bill rose 6.6% between 2007 and 2009. That meant that my property tax bill ate up 3% of our household income in 2009 compared to 2.5% in 2007. Those numbers do not really ring alarm bells either.

The local Community Foundations recently released their latest Vital Signs report for Waterloo Region. In it they list some of the services the Regional Government delivers: “road systems, transit, community housing, garbage collection, police services, social services, child care services, public health, Regional airport, cultural services, ambulance services, long-term care facilities, and grant to agencies and organizations.” The list is long. It does not include the services delivered by our city and township governments, things like parks, libraries and community centres. Nor does that list include public schools. Property taxes fund all of those services. And it all costs my household 3% of our annual income. That strikes me as an incredible bargain.

When I consider that the GST was cut by 2% and that I have enjoyed income tax cuts by successive federal and provincial governments over the past ten years, I really cannot complain about being overtaxed.

I want to know that the Region, cities, townships and school boards are making stewardly use of public resources. But I am less interested in joining an anti-tax crusade than I am in seeing that the people we elect implement the policies and programs that help make Waterloo Region a safe, prosperous and inclusive community.


What is your own experience? Do you know how much you pay each year in property tax and for water? How does that compare with your annual income?

October 18, 2010

Equality or Barbarism?

Ed Broadbent, former leader of the federal New Democratic Party and sponsor of the unanimous 1989 parliamentary resolution to eliminate child poverty in Canada by 2000, gave the Charles Bronfman Lecture in Canadian Studies at the University of Ottawa on October 14. The Star published his speech entitled Equality or Barbarism?

In the speech, Broadbent reflects on the radical shift in political perspectives and public policy between the post-World War II era and current days.
"Writing in The New Yorker magazine two years ago," Broadbent explains, "David Frum, the Canadian born speech-writer for George Bush, asserted that the conservative revolution launched by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s had as its specific purpose the rolling back of “social democracy” in the Anglo-American world."
Broadbent traces the roots of the "social democratic" perspectives that shaped Canadian politics during the 1950s, '60s, and '70s and the gradual unraveling wrought by recent governments of the social and economic fabric created during those earlier decades.

Persistent poverty and growing inequality are some of the fruits of the recent changes in Canada's public policies. Broadbent points to recent research on the ill-effects of growing inequality.

Broadbent then asks whether we will choose business as usual for as we emerge from the recent recession or whether we will seek to fashion policies that begin to close the gap in incomes and opportunities.

It is worth the time to read and reflect on what Mr. Broadbent has to say.

October 6, 2010

Post PFIB Challenge Reality Checks

I completed the PFIB challenge last Friday, just as challenge participants in other parts of Ontario started theirs. (For the latest news, see the Put Food in the Budget website).

Thanks for everyone who has followed my blog the past week -- for your questions, comments and encouragement.

This week, I have had a few post-PFIB challenge reality checks. One was yesterday. I did street outreach with Doug Johnson-Hatlem again. Yesterday, we did grocery shopping for a friend of Doug's who is wheelchair bound and lives on ODSP. He lives in subsidized housing -- Toronto Community Housing -- so he actually has some money in his monthly budget for groceries, etc. -- but his housing is ain't the Ritz believe me. He said I could keep the grocery receipt and share what we bought. This was for two weeks worth of food with $50 to spend. This is what we bought:
 -- 18 eggs
-- 3 packages of instant noodles
-- 5 packets of orange kool-aid
-- 1 bag (4 litres) of milk
-- 12 rolls of toilet paper
-- 2 cans of baked beans
--  jar of jam
-- 2 packages of mini, frozen pizzas
-- a small jar of peanut butter
-- no-name honey-nuts O's cereal
-- sugar
-- a can of chili
-- a loaf of wonder bread
-- a box of chicken burgers
-- a bag of grapes

There was more protein in that shopping cart than what I purchased last week. But as you can see, the fruits and veggies were far less than what's recommended by the Canada Food Guide.

The second reality check this week comes from the same friend who helped me with the housing cost reality check. His quick e-mail today:
"Glad to hear you made it through the week I spent over 650 weeks living that way and the pain of those days stills lingers in my mind and heart."
Give your MPP a call today and urge them to Put Food in the Budget.



October 4, 2010

Preventive Dental Care for Kids

Friday morning (October 1) John Milloy, MPP for Kitchener Centre, was at the Kitchener Downtown Community Health Centre to announce provincial funding for preventive dental care for kids. I went to hear the announcement.

He began by reiterating the Ontario Government's commitment to poverty reduction, particularly its focus on eradicating child poverty. He named several initiatives the Government has taken: the Ontario Child Benefit, social assistance rate adjustments, increases to the minimum wage, money for student nutrition programs, child care and affordable housing, and refundable tax credits for low-income Ontarians.

Next, he talked about the Healthy Smiles Ontario program. This program aims to provide free preventive dental care to children 17 and under in families whose net income is less than $20,000 a year and who do not have access to aform of dental coverage. The program is expected to reach 130,000 Ontario children. The Government is investing $45 million a year over three years to fund the program. The program will be delivered in partnership with Ontario's 36 public health units and by community health centres and other partners.

What does this mean?
The Healthy Smiles Program is another step forward for Ontario's Poverty Reduction Strategy. Preventive dental care for children in low-income families has been a long time coming. It was first announced in Budget 2008. The new program falls short of the Government's Budget 2008 commitment to provide preventive dental care to all low-income Ontarians who don't already have dental coverage -- adults as well as children. Nonetheless, the Healthy Smiles Program is a step in the right direction. The Government had already extended the Children in Need of Treatment (CINOT) program to cover children up to the age of 18. CINOT provides emergency dental care. Now, preventive dental services are available to these children. The next step is to build on these positive iniatives and provide preventive dental care to adults in need also.

October 1, 2010

Looking for a way to help Put Food in the Budget? Call your MPP

The purpose of the Put Food in the Budget is to highlight the need to immediately increase incomes for adults on social assistance by $100 a month.

Throughout this week of the Put Food in the Budget Challenge, many people have offered me food. Sometimes I have accepted. Sometimes I have declined. Other challenge team members have had the same experience.

Those offers of help are a natural, compassionate response. But you cannot seek out everyone who is struggling to keep body and soul together on a poverty budget with a personal offer of free food.

What you can do is call your Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) and tell them it is time to raise the incomes of people relying on social assistance, tell them its time to Put Food in the Budget.

Here are some key contact numbers and e-mail addresses (thanks to fellow Challenge members Peter Thurley and Bill Bean for pulling these together).

The Party Leaders:

Dalton McGuinty, Liberal Leader and Premier:

Tim Hudak, Conservative Leader:

Andrea Horwath, New Democratic Leader:

The local Waterloo Region MPPs:

John Milloy, Kitchener Centre and Minister of Colleges and Training: or call 519-579-5460

Leeanna Pendergast, Kitchener-Conestoga: or 519-571-3276

Elizabeth Witmer, Waterloo North: or call 519-725-3477

Gerry Martiniuk, Cambridge: or call 519-623-5852

If you are not from Waterloo Region, but still want to contact you MPP, here is how.

1) Don't know who your MPP is? Just click here, plug in your postal code, and it will tell you what riding/electoral district you live in.
2) Visit the Ontario Legislative Assembly page, find your riding and click on your MPP's name. Their contact informaiton will pop up.

Thank you for supporting the call to Put Food in the Budget!