Opinion » Maxed Out

Maxed out

Choices in hard times

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Would you prefer to see your property taxes go up... or would you rather see me cut this dog's throat?

Zippy the Dog's hopin' that's a rhetorical question in such a dog-lovin' town. Me too.

Sadly, it's about as rhetorical - and pointless - as most of the questions asked in the recent Mustel Group telephone survey designed to rally statistical support for Fortress Muni's foregone conclusion to bolster the revenue side of sources and uses.

"Would you rather pay more property taxes or would you rather see Meadow Park Wreck Centre closed down, the grass uncut, potholes the size of Manitoba on the roads, crack dealers in your neighbourhood, rapists violating your loved ones, elimination of arts funding and, oh yeah, your dog's throat cut?"

"Sorry, what were those choices again?"

Of course I had to lie to the person reading the text on the other end of the phone to hear the questions since I work in media and would, therefore, be disqualified from taking part in the survey and would, instead, most likely be redirected to the office of Miss Communication. It didn't take two graduate seminars in quantitative methodology to understand the gist of the answers the questions were designed to elicit. Still, I don't feel I entirely wasted my education dollars taking them. I most definitely wasted my time answering the questions though.

Despite the skewed questions - and the mother of all questions left unasked - barely half the permanent residents of Tiny Town supported higher property taxes. And what was that unasked question? Good question. It was would you rather pay higher property taxes or would you like to see municipal salaries and wages frozen and/or rolled back? Support for that question would have made the philistine's unwillingness to support the arts pale by comparison.

Before my home is stormed by torch-carrying muni workers I implore you, read on. I'm fer ya.

A variant of that question was raised last Thursday evening when the most recent in the series of budgetary placating sessions was held at the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre. "Why don't you freeze muni wages, you chowderhead?" is, I believe, close enough to the exact phrasing that was used for purposes of this page.

Without boring you with details or trying to explain the inexplicable - like why any time was spent trying to "benchmark" Whistler to Vail, Aspen and that pathetic excuse for both a ski hill and a town, Breckenridge - I'll share the three most important things that came out of the two hour session.

First, your property taxes are going up. This year, next year, the year after that.... oh yeah, so are non-tax taxes. Pay to play, water, and just about anything else that might transfer dollars from your pocket to muni hall. Since senior levels of government can download costs to municipalities and there are no junior levels of government to which the muni can reciprocate, the end of the download line is, well, us. If you smile with your mouth open it's easier to pay through the teeth.

Second, there's no way in hell the muni is going to seriously contemplate anything on the spending side of the equation until after the Olympics. To hear Billy tell it, there's no way anything's getting attention except the Olympics. If that comes as a surprise, you should consult your family physician and check to make sure your brain hasn't run out your ears.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, there's a deep pool of frustration in the community at what people see as a new, elevated class: municipal workers. This will come as a shock to the municipal workers themselves, who see themselves more as the trodden upon rather than the trodders.

The anger and outrage goes something like this. My business is taking a kicking in this global recession. My job - choose one - hangs by a thread; vanished like a fart in the breeze. Why the hell shouldn't you feel the pain too?

Now, I've got to level with you, oh my brothers and sisters toiling away for the Man, you were not done any favours by the defence thrown up on your behalf. If anything, it outraged the villagers more. If you see any glowing fires outside your door, I wouldn't jump to the conclusion it's an Ullr celebration.

The defence? "We have a contract with our staff and we can't break it."

Last Thursday, that sounded feeble and specious. This week, after the management of AIG, the company that pretty much lit the fuse on the global economic crisis, used that same we-have-a contract excuse to pay bonuses totaling $165 million to employees whose performance(sic) sunk the boat in the first place - after sucking the federal teat to the tune of $170 billion - it sounds a little too, how shall I say this, Nuremburg.

"Ve haf a contract." "Ve vere only following orders." You decide.

Nobody buys the contract excuse. We've all seen too many contracts disappear in hard financial times. A contract? Tell it to auto workers. Tell it to airline employees. Tell it to pensioners. Tell it to businesspeople who've watched firm orders disappear. Tell it to twinkies. Tell it to anyone who can't offload lower revenues to taxpayers.

The low point of the evening was also the comic high point. When it was suggested muni employees be approached about voluntarily renegotiating their pay increases - representing $675,000 of the $3 millionish budget shortfall, 22 per cent - councillor Ralph leapt to his feet in agreement. When it was pointed out council had pretty much abrogated the moral high ground to negotiate any such deal by refusing to refuse their own automatic pay increase, a sober D'oh settled over the auditorium. Oh heck, it's only symbolic.

I don't think anyone ought to be scapegoating muni workers over the mayor's, council's and management's unwillingness to take the hard road instead of the easy road. While I'm sure there's some deadwood knocking around the hall, I know most of the staff are conscientious and hard-working. They're our friends and neighbours and I don't begrudge them what I'd like for myself: a living wage and a good job. The fact that most people outside the bubble of muni hall either don't enjoy those things or, if they do, live with the current threat of watching them disappear, has more to do with the resentment that played out Thursday than any real desire to inflict pain.

At the end of the day, there's not much this mayor, council and administrator can do other than what they're doing. That's not to say there aren't other things that can be done. Just that this isn't the crew who can do them; they've made that perfectly clear. Live with it.

Oh yeah, and no dogs were harmed writing this column.