The council meeting this week featured a bit of a bombshell - the revelation that one councillor actually owes the city more than $176,000 in back taxes for his business, and council voted to then take back the property.
It should make every tax paying resident of this city angry. In effect, the councillor, elected to represent residents, seems to expect that the other tax payers will subsidize his business, because for several years (not the two years that the city financial manager implied was the situation in a newspaper interview) the business has continued to receive city services without paying the legally mandated amount of taxes. This is, in essence, breaking a city bylaw.
That the individual is now on council is an added insult. I don't know about you, but I expect that the people who want to represent citizens on council will set a good example, and that means following the rules. Trying to rationalize such behaviour by claiming that employees pay taxes so that makes up for it is ridiculous - every other business in town that has employees could use the same pathetic excuse, and we'd be in worse financial shape than we are now. And for someone who claims that revitalizing the downtown is paramount, the fact that the Business Improvement District is funded directly through the taxes paid by the businesses involved is an important note and a further insult. No taxes paid means that the BID was shorted too.
One would think that someone with integrity would have come clean about this before the election, if only to demonstrate openness and transparency - you know, those things that council keeps talking about as if they were important guiding principles. It wasn't a secret to those of us on council - those who owe back taxes are listed every year. However, it's brought forward as an in camera item, and thus members of council are bound by our oath of office, as matters discussed in camera are not to be made public. That's not to say that an enterprising news outlet, say, couldn't have done a Freedom of Information request before the election, but they were perhaps too busy digging up dirt on other candidates to make the effort. Or perhaps other factors came into play.
As usual, things like this bring up more questions. Are there other large tax bills outstanding? What is the city's practice in dealing with deadbeats like this? Is it standard, as it should be, or do we make allowances for some businesses or individuals and not for others? Are we tougher on residents than we are on businesses? Our dealings with everyone, resident or business, should be the same. And why are these matters kept confidential through in camera meetings? I suppose that once legal action has commenced, it does fall under allowable reasons for in camera, but a published listing of those who owe taxes would probably embarrass some into paying before legal action was necessary.
I feel very strongly that not following city rules should make individuals ineligible for public office. After all, these are the people making the rules, and it's a legitimate question to wonder how, for example, they should be allowed to set tax rates if they have no plans for payment.
And I feel badly for those individuals who voted for this person. If I were one of those, I would feel betrayed - by the lack of openness, by the lack of respect, by the lack of leadership and integrity. I can only hope that the city starts to work at improving the tax collection processes to prevent situations getting to this level. After all, those people who don't pay their taxes mean that those of us who do, pay more to make up the difference. And that should make everybody sit up, take notice, and demand change.
"You can either be a good example or a horrible warning." - Catherine Aird