The Minister of Finance Tom Marshall is once again consulting the public in preparation for the 2012 provincial budget. Much of the budget allocations are virtually cast in stone, thus
leaving little wiggle room. Nevertheless, better the meetings, than no meetings. And better some wiggle, than no wiggle.
It's too bad that the Grand Falls-Windsor Town Council didn't have a Marshall moment - hold a public meeting before crunching the final numbers for the town's 2012 budget. If such a meeting had been held, perhaps the council may have not raised taxes.
Why hold the line, stay the course?
We are now in the fourth calendar year of the mill's closure and still without even a sign of a major new industry to bolster our local economy. All the glory in housing starts and retail sales can vanish almost overnight once an economy turns sour. Many Americans are still living that reality; and with the economic mess in Europe and elsewhere, plus political tensions in the Middle East, budget expenditures should be tightly controlled.
No such prudence here. Our council with its proverbial head in the sand (vulgar analogy self censored) did it their way with a tax increase on residential and commercial properties. The increase from 8.5 to 9 mils means $100 more taxes for a home valued at $200,000 - roughly a 6 per cent increase. Not much you say! However, tell that to workers and retirees who will not receive a similar raise in their income or pension any time soon.
How could the council have cut the cloth to fit the times? It could have shown leadership, by first freezing its own salary, travel and other expenses and saved $37,000. But it didn't. The new salary for council; mayor, $30,684, deputy mayor, $20,951, and councilors, $17,574, is an almost 20 per cent jump since 2009 ($25,728, $17,541, $14,734 respectively). No small potatoes!
Meanwhile, the province is cooling expectations and the feds are expected to drop the axe. Thus, council should have whittled down the town's operations to avoid the $657,275.00 property tax increase. Then, again higher taxes means higher salaries for those elected. Where's the incentive to hold the line?
Even more terrible than the council being at the trough is the province not putting very much in the trough. The town's operating budget of $12.7 million comes from home owners taxed at $7.7 million (property and water rates) - 61 per cent of that budget. Meanwhile, the province's share of the $12.7 million is a measly $394,298 - 3 per cent. Pitiful! Talk about breaking our backs!
We will get a sweeter deal from the feds with $569,919 gas tax revenue for infrastructure work. Minister Marshall should be hounded by every mayor about the province's long standing stinginess, everywhere Marshall shows up for a meeting.
Along with internal savings and expecting substantial more from the province the obvious gaping hole in the town budget is the loss of the grant in lieu of taxes from the mill. That tidy sum of $800,000 would have prevented a tax increase for sure.
Nalcor should be paying that grant, or better still, pay the utility tax (2.5 per cent) which should generate over $1 million a year from the 75 megawatts. Why is the mayor and council so quiet on this issue? Where are Minister Sullivan and MHA Ray Hunter? Cabinet solidarity and party loyalty is leaving us out in the cold to fend for ourselves. Open your wallets, please!
The nonsense argument, "government does pay taxes" is ludicrous. The hydro plant is not like the hospital. It's a business making money and making money means paying taxes. The Williams government honoured severance as part of the business model. Likewise, Premier Dunderdale should honour the tax structure of that business and pay the $800,000 grant in lieu of taxes, at a minimum.
Sadly, our council and MHAs have been running away from the grant issue like a dog with its tail between its legs. Turn around - be like Gander - and bite the hand that feeds you.
For a decade the Gander council has been fighting the airport authority to pay taxes. Now, even though Gander has lost its appeal on the issue in the courts the airport authority is expected to cut a deal with the town - $1 million up front and new yearly, $125,000 or so. Persistence pays off, big time!
Gee, maybe we should temporarily amalgamate with Gander and have Mayor Claude Elliott and his tribe fight Nalcor and the province for us on the value of the hydro power at the Grand Falls.
The Grand Falls was the name once associated with the powerful senior hockey team the Andcos (Anglo Newfoundland Development Company). The team's name changed after the original mill owners sold out. The new name, the Cataracts, has much to do with the Exploits River and its waterfalls that now generates a pile of cash for the province.
The present racket about senior hockey is a god send in the sense that it shows the mayor and many people in the town still have fight in them, yet.
Now, let's harness that same spirit and redirect our energy at the province so that we can become once again a proud industrial town with jobs, for the whole region. And thus, future budgets with a less likely tax increase.
Like the cheer of the glory days of sports at old Grand Falls Academy we have to "Peg away" - work doggedly - for new uses of the power and trees. Peg away, for taxes on the power plant. Peg away, for a better municipal operating grant.
Peg away! Peg away! And then some more.