How Your Tax Dollars Are Spent (1)
March will be upon us on Sunday and what do we have to look forward to in addition to ice blasting on the Rideau River and gaining another hour of daylight ?
March is tax time. It's when the dreaded envelope bearing the city's return address hits our mailboxes. The first property tax installment is due in March.
But wait-- you say -- I thought the city had decided to hold off issuing tax bills until April.
Indeed, during the recent labor dispute involving OC Transpo, city council toyed with the idea of postponing sending out the tax bills for a month. This delay was supposed to help alleviate financial burdens on Ottawans caused by the bus strike.
"Toyed with the idea" is the operative phrase here. In case you missed it, council did an about-face, changed its collective mind and reverted to the original plan. Tax bills would go out in March, as usual. What you have here is another shining example of the decision-making process so loved by current council members. It's a wonder they didn't spend another $100,000.00 to hire a consulting firm to tell them what to do.
When you receive your tax bill, pay close attention to the "transportation" line. That's how much you're paying to subsidize OC Transpo. Should be about 20% of the total.
School boards used to be the biggest gobblers of property tax dollars. Education at the primary and secondary levels is now funded by the province -- like hospitals. And, like hospitals, there can be no deficits. There can be no running back to the taxpayers for more money. In hospitals, balancing the budget can mean bed closures and layoffs. In education, balancing the budget can mean school closures and layoffs.
OC Transpo has now replaced the school boards as the gaping maw into which large bundles of property tax dollars must be stuffed.
Most of us realize it's unrealistic to expect that property taxes will never increase. If, during the last municipal election campaign, you believed zero meant zero, then Citizen Ellie has some swell Florida swampland you can have for but a song !
It is, however, realistic for property ratepayers to expect that those operations funded with their tax dollars are managed in a cost-effective, efficient manner.
Can we say this about OC Transpo -- an organization which has yet to come up with a set of numbers accurately reflecting what the bus strike cost ? For once, Citizen Ellie agrees with Councillor Cullen -- the city's auditor-general should get right on this one !
The fare box accounts for about 50% of OC Transpo's revenues. The plan for 2009 was to increase revenues coming from the fare box to 55% of the total -- meaning that an increased share of the cost of transit services would be provided by the users of the service, rather than from property taxes. This was to be achieved by a variety of means -- increasing ridership, providing additional service on high demand routes, delivering consistent service, reorganizing the management structure by bringing bus maintenance and purchasing into the OC Transpo organization, realizing approximately $12 million in productivity improvements through a series of targeted efficiency improvements and developing a new relationship with front-line employees to build job satisfaction and reinforce service excellence. All airy-fairy stuff --no talk of fare box increases here.(This information has been taken from the city's budget 2009 background paper -- option 4.)
We all know what's happened to these stellar goals -- gone with the bus strike which paralyzed the city for nearly eight weeks.
So what's left ? The only option to achieve the 55% cost recovery target -- and in this economic downturn it should still remain a 2009 goal -- was and still is fare box increases and reducing service. If that means layoffs, so be it. Nurses, commercial airline pilots, even TV personalities get laid off. Why not bus drivers ?
Naturally there would be a huge outcry, and if there's one thing current members of city council don't like, it's huge outcries. It's easier to stick it to the property taxpayer. Never mind that he or she is already groaning under the burden.
Meanwhile the arbitrator's report is still to come. There is no guarantee that the city's position will be upheld. There's every chance that the union will come out of arbitration with all of its demands intact -- and maybe more.
When contemplating this arbitration, a read of Auditor-General Alain Lalonde's 2007 audit of the city's labor relations practices is not comforting.
He found the city had a poor track record in upholding the employer's position through the grievance procedure, especially at arbitration. "Collective bargaining mandates are not driven and developed from long-term strategic plan objective -- they are bottom-up, short-term and operational mandates which do not anticipate and pave the way for true business transformation." (You can read this for yourself on the city's web site -- Ottawa.ca -- click on "auditor general".)
Stay tuned. There's more to come.
Overtime Can Make You Very, Very Sick !
Just a note to those OC Transpo drivers scheduling themselves to work double shifts etc. etc. According to a study published in the latest edition of the American Journal of Epidemiology, based on analysis of 2,214 middle-aged British civil servants, those working more than 55 hours a week had poorer mental skills than those who worked a standard work week. And it gets worse. There were problems with short-term memory and word recall and the effects were cumulative. The study concluded that long working hours may raise the risk of mental decline and possibly dementia.
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