Pressure to cut or freeze taxes has placed a stranglehold on Reginas ability to provide services and maintain vital infrastructure. Provincial funding cuts to municipalities have tightened the grip even further, leaving the city with little room to move. And its clear whos putting the squeeze on the public sector: a coordinated and relentless business lobby that convinced city council to eliminate Reginas business tax.
Not satisfied with this tax break and the gap its created in the city budget businesses are back for more. Groups such as the Regina Chamber of commerce, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and the Canadian Federation of Independent Business have been lobbying hard, opposing any tax increase and targeting city services.
The chambers budget submission calls for mass contracting out and complains that workers rights in the Trade Union Act have curtailed most discussions surrounding alternative service delivery models. The chamber also calls for right to work legislation and suggests employees be asked to take over and run services themselves.
Downtown Regina businesses demanded higher user fees for recreation services and criticized city workers salary increases. The Canadian Federation of Independent Business also zeroed in on salaries: It is very clear that while senior level employees earn less than similar jobs in the private sector, other City jobs are paid in excess of private sector norms. The CFIB called for a comprehensive review of all activities with an eye to contracting out.
While loud, the business cries do not reflect the communitys voice.
City polls and surveys clearly show the population is not in favour of service cuts to finance business tax cuts or other tax cuts. They are willing to pay what it takes to keep those services in place and even expand them, says John Conway, a sociology professor at the University Regina and a Regina public school board trustee.
I get the sense among some city councillors that theyre realizing they can cave to the business lobby, but theyre never satisfied. They just keep asking for more, he says.
While the city does some contracting out, Bill Cronin cant see how more will save the city money. Weve been compared quite a bit to the outside. We come in at equal to or below the cost of contracting out. Were cheaper and the city gets a quality job, so that adds more to the value.
Cronin, whos worked in the citys parks and recreation department for 22 years and is president of CUPE 21, says in-house qualitys evident in road maintenance, where contractors sometimes build and patch city streets. Our work stands up longer and a lot better than the contractors. He also points to the city golf courses, where maintenance was contracted out and then returned to city workers after quality declined.
Contracting out isnt the answer. Its ideological. They have this idea that there are certain services that the private sector can provide and are capable of doing. But the savings arent there, says Regina city councillor Fred Clipsham, whos been on council since 1994.
That same business lobby took its case to the provincial government in 2000, winning the removal of any reference to the business tax from the Urban Municipality Act. The change in the law, which gives municipalities the power to levy and collect taxes, prevents Regina and other Saskatchewan cities from introducing a business tax in the future.
It was an appropriate and reasonable tax, says Conway. It was part of the cost of doing business in Regina. Businesses get access to an educated labour force and all the amenities and services that make the city a good place to do business.
The promised harvest from the business tax elimination hasnt materialized, according to Cronin.
If it worked according to what they said, it would bring more business into town, create more jobs, which would create more taxpayers, which would grow the city. The opposite has happened. Weve actually lost businesses. Theyve either moved out or closed down. The only people who benefited were the major players, like Sears and the big box retailers. They ended up with the money, which actually left the province.
Instead, the elimination, combined with declining provincial revenue-sharing grants, has left the city struggling to do more with less.
Between 1991 and 2001, the level of permanent city staff dropped from 8.7 per 1,000 residents to 7.7 staff. City workers are left providing more services to a larger number of residents with fewer resources.
The citys parks, recreation services and golf courses are assets we like to have, says Lucy Eley. A long-time city council observer and a senior whos been active in her community association since 1979, Eley says targeting these services hurts everyone.
The people pressing for a sell-off or new fees are the ones who can afford to pay. But youve got to have things that everyone can access, otherwise well all pay when our quality of life goes down, she says.
Those services keep people happy and occupied. And they give people pride in their city. Thats what we all need to feel a feeling of pride, as though youre part of something thats worth having. You should be proud to be a citizen of your city, knowing that peoples concerns and needs are being met, says Eley.
Growing infrastructure needs create added pressure. Like every other Canadian city, weve cheapskated on the capital side to continue to fund operations in the 90s. Thats catching up to us now. Its about our ability to keep up with deterioration thats a consequence of these things thats a problem were not in a keep-up cycle, says Clipsham.
Regina water worker Alex Lenko sees the problems every day. Absolutely the pipes and plants need upgrading its happening, but not fast enough. Were running them well now, but more is needed.
City council is at a critical moment, says Conway. Either they will totally cave in and let the chamber of commerce run the city, or theyll stand up and take control.
Lucy Eley says council must remember the community it serves. The city should be a place of cooperation, a society where were all working together for the common good.