Friday, June 26, 2009

Talking About Taxes

There are few words that can trigger as violent a reaction in Alberta as the word “taxes”. Some Albertans see taxes as major impediments to employment and wealth creation. Others tend to see taxes in a slightly more benign light. However, most of us don’t feel particularly warm and fuzzy when it comes to paying income, property or consumption taxes.

Yet a community’s ability to raise money collectively through taxation to meet its social and infrastructure needs is a key element of community empowerment. Why then do we have such a negative perception of taxes? And what role do taxes play in the context of community life?

A symphony of messaging from right-wing politicians and think tanks, orchestrated by the powerful corporations owning almost all Canadian media, creates the context in which we view taxes. We absorb their refrain– “Taxes Are Evil” as it loops endlessly on the media conditioning machine.

Yet the reality of taxation is much different. Our taxes are the investment we make in our community’s social, economic and environmental well-being. Taxes build our schools, hospitals and clean and police our streets. They build the roads and infrastructure linking our communities and driving our economies. Taxes support community social programs, our parks and recreation facilities and pay for our municipal employees. Ultimately, they are the manifestation of a community’s commitment to itself and its future.

There is no quicker way to disempower a community than by politically punishing municipal governments who use their taxing powers to meet local needs. Yet local governments contemplating tax hikes know they will face a media-led storm of protest when they raise taxes to meet community needs– particularly if those perceived needs are social or environmental in nature.

Here in Alberta, we see the results of that fear. In too many Alberta communities, especially in rural Alberta, nothing of any consequence happens unless the provincial government is the primary funder. How can we create a provincial composed of diverse and creative communities if we continue to choke off the local responsibility to raise the money required to support that diversity and creativity?

Perhaps it’s time we looked at taxes in the same way we look at other investments. What is the rate of return from a local dollar invested in our own community? If we use that yardstick, we might see taxes in a whole new light- and begin the community renewal process we so desperately need.