Bill Black agrees with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives–Nova Scotia office, the Nova Scotia Chambers of Commerce and the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies. If you read Bill’s March 23 column, that conclusion might surprise you. Indeed, we expect it may well surprise Bill. But it is true. Let’s outline the areas of agreement.

Bill asserts that “most taxpayers accept the notion that better-off taxpayers should subsidize those less able to pay.” Giving him the benefit of the doubt, we will place him among “most taxpayers” and so, we have Point 1 of agreement. Bill then asserts that “a small second portion of the taxes, primarily for education, is provincially mandated. This amount could be collected by the province as part of its income tax.” Point 2 of agreement. If your government is going to spend the money, your government should collect the money.

Bill then argues that the current municipal tax system is broken, promoting, if we are reading his analysis correctly, sprawl and overspending, among other bad outcomes. He outlines, fairly quickly, an alternative taxing model based on charges for lot frontage. Presumably, he would not be advocating a new model of alternative revenue generation if he felt the current one was salvageable. Point 3 of agreement: The current system is dysfunctional and needs to be, at the very least, supplemented with alternative taxing tools. Which leads us to Point 4 of agreement: At least some of the revenues for municipalities can and should come from user fees, where they are clear, reasonable and defensible.

Bill then argues that Nova Scotia has to have a competitive level of taxation. It might surprise him to learn that at the public session on March 20 at Saint Mary’s University (a session that Bill chose not to attend, despite the fact he was presumably working on his March 23 piece at the time), it was CCPA-NS research fellow Michael Bradfield who discussed the issue and importance of tax competiveness, pointing out that Halifax scores in the top of KPMG’s analysis of competitiveness for businesses. Point 5 of agreement.

That’s a lot of agreement from a column that, from its tone and content, we assume was meant to be a devastating critique of our decision to collaborate on urging further exploration of this issue. We could respond in kind. But we have launched our loose partnership based on a different model, one of engagement and exploration. We were disappointed that Bill chose not to attend on March 20 and then commented on the 23rd, but we hope he remains interested and active on this file, and perhaps he will come to one of the other events being held around the province and we can engage in a more meaningful dialogue than can be achieved in the exchange of 800-word articles.

We could, as Bill urges his readers to, obsess on the differences between our collective positions (and there are, indeed, many), both between us and between commentators like Bill. We again choose not to. It is far too easy, and because it is easy, regrettably all too common, to dismiss ideas because “they” had them, whoever your particular “they” might be. In a world of 140-character tweets, 800-word opinion pieces and 30-second television sound bites, we, almost by default, focus on the areas of disagreement. Conflict, after all, draws readers and viewers and followers, and sells advertising.

Taxation and service delivery, governance and government are complex subjects. That is why, having published our various thought pieces and done our individual “media hits,” we have decided to go further and engage in a joint provincewide dialogue with Nova Scotians. We do not have all the answers, nor do we believe user fees or municipal income surtaxes are the miracle cure for every challenge facing our communities. But we do agree that the current system is failing almost everyone, and to simply tinker again with the property assessment model is unlikely to resolve the issues we face. We also agree that, globally, there are LOTS of alternatives to the current model and most deserve to be discussed and considered.

The province of Newfoundland and Labrador, when faced with this issue, did the right thing. It used the data and expertise on hand and launched a serious study of the alternatives. We are asking Nova Scotia to undertake a similar study and make the conclusions, and the supporting data, available to everyone. Such an approach would tell us which “what if” scenarios are real possibilities and which are pure fantasy. It would allow for better-informed decisions by policy-makers and ensure anyone studying the ideas can deal with the same data set and not just cherry-pick their favourite scarecrow.

Submitted by Michael Bradfield, research associate, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives; Charles Cirtwill, president, Atlantic Institute for Market Studies; and Wayne Fiander, executive director, Nova Scotia Chambers of Commerce.