It’s no wonder residents of southeastern New Brunswick have been complaining about their tax bills. Out of the 102 municipalities ranked in the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies’ interim municipal report card for the province, five of the 11 communities with the largest average residential tax burden are located here.

Sackville, Dieppe, Riverview, Moncton, and Shediac are all well above the $1,078 provincial average, from Shediac in 11th spot at $1,561 to Sackville at $2,194 — the highest in the province. Dieppe residents are in second place and on the hook for an average of $2,000, followed by Riverview in eighth with a tax burden of $1,721 and Moncton in ninth with $1,676.

“I expect what you are seeing is a little bit of a trickle-down effect,” says AIMS’ acting president, Charles Cirtwill. “The economy is reasonably strong in those areas… People are doing okay, and as a result they are adding onto their houses, buying bigger houses, and as a result paying bigger tax bills.” On the other hand, the larger tax burden may also be a symptom of municipalities not taking due care in spending.

“It seems to be the general assumption that if we have more, we should spend more, not just how much it costs to cover our services,” Cirtwill says. “If you are doing well, you are going to get dinged by the government. It doesn’t necessarily mean you should be dinged, and it doesn’t tell you if you are getting value for the money you are dinged for.”

Cirtwill says the interim report is largely a collection of statistics and it is difficult to draw conclusions as to why things are as they are for any particular region or community. The final report, which the institute hopes to release by the end of the summer, should be able to do that a little more effectively.

However, he speculates that Dieppe’s tax burden is so high because of its plethora of high-end homes. “What you tend to see in municipal tax structures, generally, if you have an urban core and then an outlying core of suburban communities, you tend to see higher-end homes and if you have higher property values, then you are likely to see a higher average tax burden,” he says.

While it is true that Dieppe’s average residential property value at $159,343 is significantly higher than those of Moncton ($145,324) and Riverview ($137,488), Fredericton’s top theirs by more than $10,000 at $169,468, yet Fredericton taxpayers carry an average tax burden of $1,743 — more than $250 less than rate payers in Dieppe.

One of the possible explanations is the difference in outstanding debt per capita. Dieppe trails only Alma, which carries a debt of $4,120 per capita, with a debt of $2,732 per capita, the second highest in the province.

Fredericton, in contrast, has one of the smallest debts per capita in the province at $137. Cirtwill says the tax burden is impacted by a number of things, including the revenue per capita, which adds in how much the city makes off commercial taxes.

Belledune, for example, has the lowest tax burden in the province, at $490 per person, but the village also has the highest revenue per capita, $2,446, a reflection of its strong industrial base. “As a taxpayer you want your municipality to be aggressively growing that tax base so the burden on you is lessened,” Cirtwill says.

The province’s largest urban centres tended to have the highest tax burdens, the highest debts, and overall, were generally the biggest spenders, something Cirtwill doesn’t find surprising.

“In urban centres you have certain things, the labour rates tend to be higher so it costs more, there is a demand for a higher level of service,” he says. “But people have to remember in this exercise, you get what you pay for. If you demand a higher level of service, your costs are going to go up.” Water and sewerage service, garbage collection, and fire departments with paid staff are just some of the expenses that larger centres tend to incur that smaller municipalities don’t always face.

“I think one of the interesting things that we’ve seen, we would have had that assumption that at the top of every list would have been your large municipal units, but the medium sized units are spread around quite broadly, so there is quite a variance in the level of tax and service around New Brunswick,” Cirtwill says. “That is a good thing. Assuming we should all be at a certain price point is probably the wrong conclusion to be making.”

Cirtwill says the interim report is just a beginning.

The eventual goal is to blend the statistics together to paint a picture of how municipalities in the province compare against one another.

“This is the opening salvo in this exercise,” he says, adding AIMS is also planning to release a similar interim report for Nova Scotia.

“The job is to level the playing field between municipal staff, municipal elected officials, how much services cost, how that compares to other similar municipalities. It is really about openness.”