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Bill Tierney: How much residential tax will we pay in 2013?

So now we know: For the second time in its young life, the Agglomeration of Montreal has been forced to revise its budget. As a result, we will only be charged a 2.2 per cent tax increase, not 3.3 per cent.

I say the second time because the first time Montreal backed down on an increase, it was the mayors of the demerged suburbs who forced it, standing up to Frank Zampino and Gérald Tremblay. This time it’s the taxpayers.

I even heard people talking about a tax revolt. Well, of course, if students can do it against their fee increases, why not get the kitchen equipment out against residential taxes? Or school taxes? Although I don’t see West Island homeowners parading in the streets of Montreal. It’s not the “hands off our cities” movement.

Tremblay, the former Montreal mayor, has stepped off the scene into the history of late 20th-century corruption scandal, and the media give the impression that no one is missing him. His party is collapsing as councillors try to put as much distance as they can between the party of Zampino and their own candidacies in next November’s election. Tremblay will, I guess, be pretty miserable this Christmas. And it won’t be much fun either for all those people named by the Charbonneau Commission. Talk about ruining a lot of Christmas dinners!

Tremblay and his executive committee, presided over by Michael Applebaum, who has since become the independent conciliatory interim mayor of Montreal, thought at one stage that we would all accept a 3.3 per cent tax increase. Now, Applebaum wants us to show relief that the Agglo bill is only going up 2.2 per cent. Apparently this hurts less because it’s close to the rate of inflation, and inflation is apparently acceptable. It’s a bit like wrinkles. You can’t avoid them in time.

There are even economic arguments in favour of inflation, although retirees on unindexed pensions wouldn’t agree.

For residents in most of the demerged suburbs, most of their residential taxes go the Agglomeration (for things like public transport, police, fire service, arterial roads, downtown Montreal, water, sewage disposal, etc.) When I look at our own 2012 bill, 62 per cent of our taxes went to Montreal and regional services.

Since 1999, the last year before the mergers, our residential taxes have increased by 55 per cent. We are now paying the Montreal Agglomeration as much as we were then paying our own town, and that included all the regional services offered by the Montreal Urban Community.

But, as we wonder what that tax bill’s going to look like in 2013, there’s one factor in our favour: the election next year. Municipal politicians are acutely aware of that rendezvous with the public in less than a year’s time. This is the council’s last budget before the election and councillors don’t want to get it wrong. And if you’re a member of council in a demerged suburb, you want to make sure that the only increase is in the Agglomeration tax. And you want to make that really clear on the tax bill you send out.

I recently had a call from a West Island councillor who didn’t agree with his council cutting its tax rate and using the town’s surplus funds to compensate for the increase in the Montreal Agglo tax rate. What was my opinion?

As a taxpayer, I’d be delighted with absolutely no increase. It’s obvious that residential taxes have to be controlled. Ideally, any increase should be even less than inflation. And if we have to use the town’s surplus to achieve that, let’s use it. The director-generals I worked with were instructed to keep the local tax down as the Agglomeration costs relentlessly climbed. We used surplus funds to balance budgets; but as we feed more and more tax money into the Agglomeration, it gets harder and harder to keep up with your own town’s rising costs, most of them built into the collective agreements with your town employees.

So, at the end of the day, your budget is political. All our councils are now waiting for Montreal to pass its own budget before finalizing their own. It’s the last thing you do before the Christmas break. But I have to say that it was always a bit of a shock when, after all the work, all the hours, we went into the hall to find only a couple of people in attendance for our budget meeting.

But who wants to go to a town budget meeting?

Bill Tierney is the former mayor of Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue. billtierney@videotron.ca

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