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I was born and raised in Stratford and have lived there most of my life. Stratford is a wonderful community to live and raise a family, and I’m proud to call it my home. When I decided to become a councillor for the Town of Stratford, it was to give back to my community. One of the more pressing concerns raised by residents while I was campaigning, and still today, is the issue around the revenues generated by our tax contributions and the limited services we get in return.
The current situation is such that the town’s non-commercial property assessments are approaching $1 billion and the majority of tax revenues, approximately 61 per cent, generated from these assessments are going back to the provincial government as part of a resource-sharing agreement.
This effectively leaves the rapidly growing town with little resources and room to maneuver to address the growing needs of our community. In fact, proportionally speaking, the town’s share of revenues obtained by the province by way of the Comprehensive Urban Services Agreement (CUSA) grant have actually been declining. As the residents of Stratford are so rightfully pointing out, we deserve to have more of these tax dollars reinvested in our community.
That said, last week the Stratford adopted, albeit later than planned, the budget for the 2019-2020 fiscal year. In principal, the residents of Stratford should be happy the budget was balanced without raising taxes. The fact is, however, we came close, really close, to raising taxes. How the budget was balanced is what compels me to write this op-ed. This being election season and all, I believe the residents of Stratford deserve to know and understand how our town has been seriously forgotten and underserved by the current Liberal government. This, despite being one of the fastest growing communities in the Maritime provinces.
The only reason taxes weren’t raised last week is because just prior to the writ being dropped, the province suddenly and very quietly decided to help the town balance its budget in a last-minute gesture that provided a soft funding commitment, just before the town council vote on the budget. Although I would much rather see the province provide funding to the town rather than have to raise taxes for the residents, what I find particularly troublesome is that this seems to have been done as an attempt to gain political capital in an area that has been otherwise neglected by the Liberal government for many years.
For numerous years, the previous stewards of the town’s finances, who are now, incidentally, running as Liberals in the current provincial election, have until last week never been able to strike a deal with the province to help the town’s residents obtain a fairer portion of the tax revenues generated by the property and commercial taxes paid by my fellow residents. Yet, out of thin air, as though it was magic, a deal was struck with the province in a matter of a week to help the town balance its budget. This is something that the Liberals have never before entertained. Coincidence or political shenanigan? I’ll let you decide, but in my humble opinion, this type of political shenanigan has done nothing to address our community’s long-term financial needs, which is what the residents clearly want and deserve.
The Town of Stratford has been suffering for the better part of a decade from a stagnant CUSA grant, which deprived the town of approximately $3.8 million. The CUSA grant was arbitrarily imposed on the town by the Liberal government in 2008 in order to balance its own budget. As predicted at the time, a decade later it is clear that the only benefactor from this change has been the provincial government, and we, the residents of Stratford, find ourselves in a situation where taxpayers are paying the same tax rate, but receive less services in return.
Stratford is the leader for growth on P.E.I. and needs a healthy partnership with the newly elected government for the benefit of the town’s residents and the Island as a whole. At present, Stratford and its residents are in a very vulnerable position financially, which will certainly lead to future municipal tax increases if left unchecked. So, during this campaign season, I encourage all Stratford residents to ask pointed questions to each candidate that shows up at their door, regardless of the party, what is their party proposing to help one of the fastest growing community in the Maritime provinces. I certainly think we deserve better, do you? Perhaps your vote can help influence how we go forward from here.
Darren MacDougall is a Stratford town councillor representing Ward 2.