Thursday, November 24, 2011

Blanket Posting

CTVNewsSaskatoon: City Admins Defend Tax Hike in 2012 Budget
CTVNewsRegina: Wall Fed up with SaskTel's Cellular Service Problems

So, despite the slim two topics sourced above, we'll see where this blog post goes. We'll start with the Saskatoon plan to increase property tax by 4.7% for next year. City officials have defended the plan by stating the new income into the city will be used to hire six more city police officers; while also boasting that other departments will not be increasing staff.

Here's the problem with this plan...As any long term resident of Saskatoon will know, there's some problems with the way the city is currently run. Let's take a seasonally relevant issue, such as snow removal, for example. A person I respect once referred to Saskatoon's snow removal service as 'snow moval' service, given the city's penchant for scrapping snow from the streets into piles which remain in the middle of the roadway until the near end of winter.

This process has already begun, as many streets (such as Central Ave, for example) have started to have snow moved from the sides of the street into piles in the middle. Now, one can surely understand the problem with this. It's hard enough making left hand turns in the summer, now imagine making one with a giant snowbank obscuring your view of traffic.

I've basically given up left hand turns for the past four winters, since the snow banks make each turn a game of 'Turn or No Turn' with my life as a prize. And yet, the city has never once talked about fixing this issue. Saskatoonians already pay a good share of property tax, and we've yet to see just what it is we are actually paying for.

I have no problem paying property taxes, provided that the services rendered for those taxes are worth what we are being charged. The snow removal is just one example of a service which is currently failing in in its present incarnation, yet one that the council is not talking about in terms of improving. Then we come to the issue of road repairs in the city as well...

A friend of mine lives on 106th St, and at the end of the road where it becomes Egbert Ave there is a massive patch of gravel that has been sitting there for the better part of half a year. The gravel was a stop gap measure to repair broken pavement in that area, and it has been a bane for any who dare to cross it. For almost three weeks, the gravel pit was a sinkhole that drivers had to avoid by basically driving on the right hand sidewalk. And the answer to this problem was not to repave the section, but add more gravel.

No one likes tax increases, I think we can agree on that much. But when we are subject to them, we expect that we're going to get a fair shake. Given the roads and other infrastructure services in this city, I can tell you pretty confidently that we aren't getting a fair shake right now. As such, should the city really be talking about raising property taxes?

Let's look at the other ideas, shall we?

Saskatoon's population has exploded and we've seen increases to our city. As such, this brings in new taxpayers to the system. Granted, it also brings some added costs. However, if you factor in the idea of new taxpayers to the system, plus a comprehensive review of current expenditures, I'm sure you could skip the idea of a tax increase altogether.

Our tax dollars currently are being questionably spent; (questionably as in 'how are they spending', not questionably as in 'illegally' spent.) and we deserve to examine how they are being dolled out before we commit to raising more money.

Any simple budgeting process will tell you that if you're having a spending problem, you don't fix it by spending more without addressing the problems in the system. Yes, we could raise more tax dollars, but if we don't address problems within the system it is a stop-gap measure at best. So, the city should be looking at ways to enhance its current spending and find more effective ways to spending current tax dollars, before committing to a tax increase.

The two problems with road infrastructure should be proof enough that our current tax dollars are not being spent in the best possible way; and as such, we should make an effort to ensure that the city will do more to examine current spending measures to enhance review, before they simply raise taxes as the knee jerk reaction.

In the long haul, a tax increase may be necessary. If that turns out to be the case, then that is what we need to do. But, it should not happen until the city has proven that there are no means of maximizing current spending to the best possible way.

And that brings us to Brad Wall.

Wall tweeted today that he is committed to addressing problems with SaskTel's cellular service. Now, I'm a SaskTel customer (surprise surprise) and must be one of the fortunate ones, because I've had no issues with my cell phone.

But apparently, there's been some issue with congestion and dropped calls. This prompted Wall to suggest that SaskTel doesn't have the capacity to handle the volume of calls that its customers are trying to make...

Now, the doomsayer in me says that that sounds like the first volley in excuses to privatize the crown. After all, saying that SaskTel can't handle the capacity sounds  alot like saying 'Other cell phone companies don't have this problem, let's open the market for them'...But we'll leave conspiracy theories alone...At least for now.

Wall has committed to the Minister responsible sitting down with the SaskTel President in the weeks ahead to discuss the problems and challenges ahead. So, how did SaskTel get in this mess?

Well, let's examine some issues around capacity.

For example, did you know that Rogers and Telus rent SaskTel's cellular towers? That means Rogers and Telus customers are using SaskTel's infrastructure to provide cellular service to their customers. Now, I'm not the biggest cellphone tech person...But I'm sure that having three different companies relying on the same cell phones towers is going to have an impact.

So, Wall doesn't mention the fact that SaskTel's infrastructure is being 'piggy-backed' by two of the other major providers in the province.

Then we come to my favourite part of this problem: This problem is Brad Wall's own.

Remember when the Saskatchewan Party took all of SaskTel's profits? In 2009, they took 80% of a $129 million dollar profit. In 2010, SaskTel posted a $155.2 million profit (source), and 2010 was the first year of the Saskatchewan Party government taking 100% of SaskTel's profits.

Now, that's a lot of money that was earmarked for improvement to SaskTel's infrastructure throughout the province. So, instead of having the money on hand to pay for these improvements SaskTel was required to get loans instead. Loans which likely did not cover the full cost of plans to fix up the infrastructure, and which will push the crown into debt. After all, it's hard to pay back loans when the government keeps taking all of your money.

So, the Wall Government made this mess (or at least made it worse) by robbing SaskTel of the funds necessary to pay for infrastructure development, upkeep, and expansion. So, if Wall wants to start talking about finding solutions to SaskTel's cellular problems, why doesn't he start with letting the corporation actually keep some of the profit they've been making?

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