Taxes and The Common Good: Thank You, Neighbours.
The day we were hit by the season’s worst (so far) snow storm was also the day I received my property assessment notice. I would have been delighted by the gain in our property’s value had it not been for the warning that it “will likely result in a tax increase in 2015”. It was no consolation that I did not have to trudge through snowdrifts to pick up the good news at a community mail box; Canada Post delivered it to my door.
The occasion was an invitation to write a column about property taxes and municipal services. To get accurate information I contacted the City and was referred to its web page (will I ever get used to the Internet?) where I found the information I was looking for. I set out to rationalize and evaluate the relative merits of quality and quantity of municipal services and the impact of their costs on my lifestyle.
Fresh out of the shower, the coffee pot percolating, I watched the plow truck drive by my house, followed by the garbage truck picking up this week’s recycling. How much does all of this – water, sewer, road maintenance and waste collection, to say nothing of police and fire services, parks maintenance, and more – cost? How much tax should I have to pay?
Taxing real estate on the basis of its assessed market value is a long-established source of revenue for local governments. Property taxes are meant to be a tax on wealth, yet in a majority of cases residential property is mortgaged, which means that at least a share of the tax is a tax on debt. Why do we not tax banks and other lenders for the value of the mortgages they hold, which are their assets, and tax property owners for the difference? As a pensioner I will be lucky if my income’s purchasing power will remain constant this year, lower gas prices notwithstanding. It is only because of the number of people who mortgaged their future to purchase a new home, thereby raising demand and with that sale prices, that I may be liable for a greater share of the revenues needed to pay for municipal services.
What emerged as an unquestionable truth in my attempt to determine if the City was providing me with fair value for my property taxes was the realization that, were it not for the taxes paid by everybody else, I would be up the proverbial creek without a paddle. The real value of that axiom known as the common good is that the value of what we, citizens individually, receive for the taxes we pay is far greater than what we could hope to receive if we had to purchase every common good service provided by the municipality from suppliers in the private sector. That is not at all to denigrate the private sector. Without the range of supplies and services provided by a healthy private sector the municipality would not be able to deliver the common good services we take for granted.
French philosopher André Comte-Sponville lists gratitude as one (#10) of 18 virtues in his 1995 bestseller A Small Treaties of the Great Virtues. “The egoist,” Comte-Sponville ponders, “is ungrateful not because he doesn’t like to receive. He is ungrateful because he doesn’t like to acknowledge his debt to others and gratitude is this acknowledgment.” He contends that gratitude is the secret of friendship because of what we share in common with friends.
This column is my thank you to my fellow citizens for their many contributions to the community’s common good, an immeasurable contribution to the quality of life I am privileged to enjoy.