Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Real Costs of Urban Sprawl Are Unsustainable

When Northern Ontarians contemplate urban sprawl, we may think of homes and businesses creeping up Highway 400 on our drive into Toronto. We may shake our heads at the loss of productive farmland, and wonder how it is that Southern Ontario decision-makers have embraced such an unsustainable form of urban development. As we sit in traffic on the 401, we may feel grateful that in the North, we don’t have to deal with the problems of sprawl that our Southern neighbours face every day.

However, we in the North seem to be equally enamoured with the development form known as “urban sprawl”. We’ve convinced ourselves that there is a demand for low density subdivisions on the fringes of built-up areas. We believe that it’s better for the City to collect taxes from people’s homes than from vacant lands. We justify sprawl because we perceive it to be less costly to build and maintain than new higher density developments in existing areas.

Unfortunately, the arguments in favour of suburban sprawl - demand, tax revenues and development costs – are part of an interconnected myth which too many elected officials throughout the Province continue to subscribe to.

As with everything, it’s important to look at a complete range of costs and benefits before determining whether a project is sustainable over the long term. James Howard Kunstler, author and urbanist, describes the North American project known as “suburbia” as being “the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.” Recent studies which looked at the costs of sprawl in Canada seem to confirm Kunstler’s opinion.

Many believe that suburban development is driven by the market demand of homebuyers. In their October 2013 report, “Suburban Sprawl: Exploding Hidden Costs, Identifying Innovations”, Sustainable Prosperity determined the biggest factor for home buyers was the price of a home. Purchasers often favour a home in suburbia which is initially cheaper to buy than a comparable home in a built-up area. However, when long-term costs are factored in, such as the ever-rising cost of vehicular transportation, suburbia begins to look less attractive for a homeowner’s bottom line.

Certainly, suburban homes are far less attractive options for municipal governments, which must extend hard services such as roads, sewer and water lines to new subdivisions. Low density homes hardly ever covers the true costs of servicing, and taxpayers are left to pick up the tab for new roads and pipes. The idea that “development pays for itself” due to higher tax revenue is certainly not what municipalities across Canada are actually experiencing.

Development charges, where they exist at all, often don’t differentiate between urban in-fill and suburban greenfield development. In some parts of Ontario, that’s changing, as municipalities like the City of Kitchener are area-rating development charges. By charging more for costlier-to-service low-density residential, Kitchener’s development charges are helping direct new development to less expensive locations.

Keen to collect new taxes, the real costs of sprawl are often hidden to growing cities. In booming Southern Ontario, municipal decision-makers have relied on increased revenues from new taxes and development charges to keep property tax hikes in check. However, with the pace of growth starting to slow in some of the GTA’s inner suburbs, like the City of Mississauaga, property taxes are starting to rise, as cities look for sustainable ways to pay for infrastructure maintenance.

In Northern Ontario, where tax growth from new development will be modest, it’s even more important that we question the need to build new roads and lay more pipes for development on our urban fringes. We simply can’t afford to continue buying into the myths of sprawl.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)

Originally published in the Sudbury Star, Saturday, May 24, 2014 (online: “May: Real costs of urban sprawl unsustainable", May 24, 2014), without hyperlinks.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Greater Sudbury Election Notes, Part 2: Melanson Derides Long-Term Fiscal Sustainability In Favour of More Pain for Taxpayers

Greater Sudbury Mayoral candidate and former Greater Sudbury Taxpayer Association head Dan Melanson just doesn’t seem to understand what municipal fiscal sustainability is all about. Wading into the recent, on-going discussion around the subject of development charges, Melanson came out firmly against this progressive revenue tool, in a letter printed in the Sudbury Star.

Development Charges and Sustainable Development

The City of Greater Sudbury is considering upping its development charges through changes to a by-law. Some in our City, including a few current members of Council and a number of registered municipal candidates, appear to be not only dead-set against raises charges, but in favour of eliminating them all together. Often the argument trotted out by those in opposition to development charges is the old and tired notion that development pays for itself already through taxes, and therefore development charges amount to nothing more than penalizing new development.

This argument, of course, has proven false time and again – at least when it comes to certain types of development – and specifically to the most prevalent development forms in the City of Greater Sudbury: low-density urban sprawl. The mantra that “all growth is good” is a fiscally irresponsible one to cling to by anybody – but it’s absurd for someone like Melanson to subscribe to, given that he claims to want to champion lowering of municipal costs to taxpayers.

Without any recognition that development brings both benefits and costs, Melanson writes, “The major source of revenue for the city is our property taxes. New growth in that tax base is the lieblood for the future financial well being of our city.” Melanson, of course, is completely wrong on all accounts. Let’s dissect this statement, which seems to underpin his mistaken belief system.

The Real Costs of Sprawl

First of all, it’s well known that not all growth is good. In fact, residential growth tends to bring with it much higher long-term costs than is ever recouped through municipal taxes. The costs of providing services to residential uses are much higher than the tax revenue they generate. Yes, municipalities could choose to raise taxes on residential property owners in order to bring residential taxes and the provision of services into better alignment, but for the most part, raising taxes is seen as a toxic measure. And frankly, high residential tax rates are unsustainable for many reasons.

The Coalition for a Livable Sudbury provided a well-researched submission to the City on the matter of changes being proposed to the development charges by-law. The Coalition pointed out, based on municipal, regional and national-level research, that the cost of servicing residential uses tends to be about $1.40 for every $1.00 in municipal tax revenue generated. While this amount will vary from municipality to municipality, depending on numerous factors, the reality of the circumstance is clear and well-known: development isn’t paying for itself.

Finding the Right Balance for Development

This imbalance between costs and benefits can be minimized – residential development in existing urban areas and at higher densities have smaller costs for municipalities. Despite this, the development pattern in our own community has largely been to see new development in greenfield areas, contingent on the extension of services – the very type of development which costs taxpayers more in the long run. While that trend is starting to change, the fact of the matter is we still have an abundance of land designated for residential development in unserviced parts of our City.

Of course, the costs of building on greenfield lands tend to be lower, and developers can therefore derive a higher profit. And that’s with or without development charges, because right now in Greater Sudbury, development charges are applied no matter where development is being proposed, so those charges aren’t having any impact on where a developer chooses to build.

Using Development Charges to Achieve Broader Municipal Goals

The Coalition for a Livable Sudbury suggested that the by-law be changed to area rate development charges – by charging higher fees for more expensive-to-service low density development, and lowering fees on high density and mixed use development. This approach would provide the City with another tool to achieve the outcomes it claims to want to achieve in our Official Plan – more transit supportive, walkable, bikeable – and livable – communities.

Of course, the approach of area rating development charges would also achieve greater fiscal sustainability over time – exactly the sort of sustainability which candidate Melanson apparently doesn’t want for our community. Melanson needs to understand that not all growth is good. Really, he need look no further to the current economic mess our City is in right now, with crumbling infrastructure we can’t afford to fix. Had communities in this City been developed at higher densities, instead of through embracing sprawl, there’s no question that we would have been able to better afford to tend to the things which we’ve been putting off for so long. The infrastructure deficit is real, and only through sustainable fiscal practices can we finally start to get our house in order.

Look, development charges alone aren’t going to clean up the mess we’re in, but they are a progressive revenue tool which passes along the costs of new services to the people who are going to benefit directly from them, rather than burdening existing taxpayers. They can also be used to achieve other long-term outcomes beyond revenue generation, as pointed out by the Coalition for a Livable Sudbury. They can be used as incentives to develop in certain areas, and disincentives for expensive low density fringe development.

Melanson's Approach Ultimately Leads to Higher Property Taxes

Candidates like Melanson who believe that growth pays for itself need to do a little bit of research on the matter, because it’s very clear that fiscal sustainability won’t be achieved through municipal property taxes – at least not at their current level. And I doubt very much that Melanson is going to campaign on raising our property taxes. So where does that leave his fiscal plan? Clearly, he doesn’t have a serious, reality-based plan. Maybe his plan is just to try to pull the wool over the eyes of taxpayers while coddling up to the development industry.

By only thinking for today, candidates Melanson have decided to throw away the long-term need for fiscal sustainability. Embracing growth at all costs will do nothing more than hurry us down the road to financial ruin that we’ve been on because we’ve refused to get our house in order. Arguing for lower taxes while cutting off revenue-generating tools that can also better balance the costs/benefits of new development may be fine and dandy if you want to pull the wool over the eyes of voters, but it ultimately leads to higher property taxes for everybody.

Greater Sudburians can’t afford candidates like Melanson, which offer non-reality based solutions to our very real fiscal problems, like our infrastructure deficit. Growth has not been paying for itself – and we taxpaying citizens of Greater Sudbury are really starting to feel the pinch.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Andrea Horwarth's Decision to Exclude Greens from Debates is Shameful for ONDP Supporters

Oh no. Here we go again. More anti-democratic hypocrisy from the higher-ups in the NDP.

The Ontario 2014 provincial election officially got underway today, although unofficial campaigning certainly began the moment that NDP leader Andrea Horwarth announced on Friday, May 2nd that she would not be supporting Ontario Liberal Finance Minister Charles De Sousa’s budget, which he had presented the day before. Horwarth’s announcement was quickly followed by Premier Kathleen Wynne’s trip to see Lieutenant-Governor, David Onley, with a request to dissolve the legislature. The L-G granted the request, but due to election laws here in Ontario, the writ didn’t officially drop until today, Wednesday, May 7th. Ontarians will be heading to the polls on Thursday, June 12th – a week later than otherwise so as not to coincide with Shavuot, which ends at nightfall on the 5th of June.

Andrea Horwarth Wants to Choose Her Opponents

In full campaign mode this week, on Monday, May 5th, NDP Leader Andrea Horwarth tweeted, “I’m challenging the other leaders to 5 debates on the real issues facing Ontario families.” The tweet included a link to the NDP website, on which was posted a full-length letter regarding Horwarth’s plan. Initially, when I read the tweet, I was pleased to discover that the NDP was finally acknowledging the importance of democratic debate in an election campaign by not discriminating against the leaders of all parties running in the election.

Green Party of Ontario leader Mike Schreiner might have had similar thoughts to my own, as he tweeted a reply back to Horwarth: “I am happy to accept your challenge to 5 debates”.

Unfortunately for Mike, and in contradiction to Horwarth’s own tweet, the NDP’s fine-print details on their website made it very clear that Horwarth’s challenge was made only to the leaders of the Liberal and Progressive Conservative parties, Kathleen Wynne and Tim Hudak.

Once again, the NDP has decided to try to shut down and silence other voices during an election period.

NDP: Putting Partisan Interests Ahead of the Public Good

NDP members and supporters should be appalled by Horwarth’s anti-democratic and clearly partisan decision to issue debate challenges to selective leaders. However, given the NDP’s track record in Canada for trying to keep the Greens down, it’s not a surprise to me, but it continues to be a massive disappointment – one of several which has led me to conclude that the NDP really isn’t interested in creating a healthy democracy in this province or nation, but rather is far more interested in obtaining power. And I’m sorry, but when a party puts its own partisan interests over the public interest, it doesn’t deserve your support.

It's time that NDP members and supporters which affiliate with that party because they are concerned about the health of our democracy take a long and hard look at what their support is buying them. Without a doubt, it's more of the same. If you truly believe that we here in Ontario and Canada must address the democratic deficit, it's clear that the leadership of the NDP has their own thoughts on these matters which aren't in keeping with yours. Why do you continue to support this hypocritical party with your time, energy and financial resources?

Debate Invitations: Who Decides?

Regarding Horwarth’s challenge – although Horwarth is free to challenge whomever she chooses, at the end of the day she and the NDP don’t get to decide which leaders are actually invited to debates. That’s a decision made by debate organizers. In Ontario, the televised leader’s debates are organized by a consortium of television broadcasters, including the CBC, Global, CTV and TVO. There are no written rules which determine which leaders receive invitations. During the last election in 2011, only one leader’s debate was held, and the broadcast consortium decided to exclude Mike Schreiner from participating.

Interestingly, in 2011, a group of Northwestern Ontario organizations comprised of the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association (NOMA), the Northwestern Ontario Associated Chambers of Commerce (NOACC) and the Northern Ontario Development Network (NODN) invited the leaders of the Liberal, Progressive Conservative and New Democratic parties to participate in a debate about northern issues. Horwarth and Hudak accepted the invitation, while then-Ontario Liberal leader Dalton McGuinty declined to participate. The event was not televised.

So, it really is up to debate organizers to determine whom they should invite. In my opinion, both the broadcast consortium and the Northwestern debate organizers provided a significant disservice to Ontario voters, and to democracy, by refusing to invite the Green Party’s Mike Schreiner to their debates.

And it may very well be that the same travesty of democracy is about to take place in my province again.

A Green in Every Riding

Look, the Green Party is the only other party in Ontario besides the 3 old-line parties which consistently runs candidates in every single provincial riding. Greens did so in 2007, again in 2011, and are doing so in 2014. With Greens on the ballot in every riding, it makes absolutely no sense to refuse their leader’s participation in debates. Take it from me, voters want to know more about the Green Party and its leader – and the televised leader’s debates in particular offer Ontario voters the single-most important opportunity to assess a Party and its leader. Why aren’t Greens at the table?

Some would say that the Greens haven’t earned a place at the debate table, either because they’ve not won a seat in the provincial legislature, or because their polling is lower than that of the other parties. That’s true – but it’s not reason enough for the Green Party’s exclusion. Some also subjectively believe that having four party leaders might make for bad television, even though televised debates taking place during elections throughout Canada have often included 4 or more participants.

Polling Does Not Matter

First and foremost, let’s do away with the notion that polling matters. Recent elections in Alberta (2012) and B.C. (2013) have shown that polling data can’t always predict electoral outcomes. Further, anybody who knows anything about polls knows full well that polls fluctuate during an election period, often based on the performance of a party’s leader during a televised debate! It is very difficult to move in the polls without the public exposure offered by a leader’s debate.

But again, really, polls don’t matter. The federal Green Party has even called for banning polls during election periods because of the grave disservice they do to voters through their bias. I fully support initiatives which ban the publication of polling data during elections because it makes an election about the horse race, rather than about the issues. And while I know that you can’t separate personalities and partisanship from elections, you can undertake to do certain things to minimize their impacts, such as banning polls. Or, as is done in Ontario, prohibit election advertising during portions of the election period (Ontario’s advertising blackout is in effect as of today, and will be lifted on Tuesday, May 20th at midnight).

The Dictates of “Tradition”

So, what about the other reason: Greens don’t have a seat in the Ontario legislature, so they shouldn’t be allowed to participate in the televised debates. I admit that there may be some merit to this argument – indeed, it’s the argument which is usually trotted out by supporters of the broadcast consortium as the primary reason why the Green Party has been excluded from debates in the past. Some even believe that it’s a “tradition” to exclude all but parties which have a seat in the legislature.

It may have been a tradition at one time – but at least since 2008, that tradition has been out the window. In the 2008 federal election, despite having a seat in parliament, the broadcast consortium did not invite Green Party of Canada leader Elizabeth May to participate in the two televised leaders’ debates it was organizing. No explanation is ever given regarding these decisions, but the thin gruel offered up by consortium supporters was that Blair Wilson, who had only days before the writ dropped indicated his intention to sit in parliament as a Green, never actually did so, because the election call torpedoed his official floor-crossing. From a technical standpoint, maybe there was some merit to this – but only from a very narrow technical point of view.

May did ultimately participate in the televised leader’s debates, but only after a public outcry, largely directed at then-NDP leader Jack Layton from the grassroots of his own Party, led to him changing his mind. Layton had been on record about the Green Party’s participation in the leader’s debates – he had accepted the consortium’s decision to exclude the Greens without comment. Only then-Liberal leader Stephane Dion and then-Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe offered some support, by agreeing to participate in debates if May was invited.

In 2011, of course, all of the leaders of the federal parties, including Layton and Duceppe, were onside with the consortium’s decision to exclude May. “Tradition” was cited by their supporters as the reason.

“Tradition” Exposed as Non-Traditional

But is it really tradition to exclude parties which have no seats in the legislature from participating in televised leader’s debates? Maybe it is in Ontario – but it’s certainly not the case throughout Canada. Green Parties in New Brunswick, PEI and most recently in British Columbia, were invited to participate in televised leader’s debates during elections in those provinces. Greens did not hold any seats in provincial legislatures at the time the writ was dropped.

British Columbia provides some useful insight into exploding this notion of “tradition”. Then-BC Greens leader Jane Sterk was invited to participate in the televised leader’s debate. Sterk’s performance, well-received by the media, may have had a small impact on voters, as Greens were able to mount challenges in a number of B.C. ridings. Ultimately, Andrew Weaver was elected MLA for the riding of Oak Bay-Gordon Head.

Sure, these things might have happened even had Sterk not participated in the debate (it is worth noting that Conservative leader John Cummings also participated in the debate, and his party failed to elect anybody). More telling for me was the tone of the provincial election. Prior to the debate, the NDP and the Liberals didn’t want to talk about the Green Party – refusing to even utter its name. After the debate, neither the NDP or the Liberals could ignore that the Greens would be a force in the election, even if only a limited one. Suddenly, the Green Party and its candidates, which were used to being ignored, had targets painted on their backs. Money was spent on advertising in efforts to split the vote, most notably when the Liberals took out a full-page ad in a Victoria newspaper, urging voters which cared about the environment to vote for the Greens, and not the NDP (or strangely, for the Liberals).

It is also important to note that the B.C. Green Party did not run candidates in all B.C. ridings, yet their leader, Sterk, was nevertheless invited to participate in the debate.

No Good Reason to Exclude Greens

Which brings us back to Ontario. There is no good reason for debate organizers, be they the broadcast consortium, regional groups such as NOMA and NOACC, or even local riding-level organizers, from excluding the Green Party from their debate invitation list. Further, there is every reason why Greens should be invited to debates, and especially to any and all televised leader’s debates. And it starts with the fact that Greens are running in every riding throughout Ontario. A political party which can provide each and every voting-age Ontarian with a ballot option should not be excluded from participating in any debate. And the leader of that party must be allowed to tell Ontarians what his party will do if elected.

Yes, it’s also true that the Green Party has its own take on issues and policy which are different from the other parties, and should be able to have the same level of access to get the message out as granted by broadcasters to other parties. And while I agree that more Green voices ought to be heard by voters, in my opinion if the Green Party offered up the same old policy initiatives as the other parties, its leader should still be allowed to participate in the televised debates because of the fact that Greens are offering each and every voter an opportunity to cast a ballot for a Green candidate.

Vested Partisan Interests

Yes, I know – as a Green partisan, I’m biased. But let me be clear about this: I’m a Green partisan because of my biases – it’s not the other way around. One of my biases has to do with a serious concern over the weakening of the health of our democracy here in Canada. The actions, or lack thereof, the old-line political parties have done little to strengthen our democratic processes, and in fact have weakened our systems at every opportunity. Successive Liberal and Conservative governments in particular have put their own interests ahead of the interests of the public that they’ve served, and it’s just not right.

The NDP, which has only formed government a handful of times provincially (and never federally), has talked a good game about addressing the democratic deficit. Yet each and every time the NDP has found itself in power, it has behaved in a similar manner to the old-line parties, and has chosen to ignore its own member-approved policies about electoral reform. As a result, voters have got more of the same.

And now, in Ontario, the NDP is once again trying to suppress the opportunity for voters to hear other voices during the election. Rest assured that the NDP’s negotiators which the broadcast consortium are echoing their leader’s stance on whom should be invited to the debates. Throughout Canada, the NDP has done everything in its power to silence the Green Party, generally with success.

NDP Fails to Walk their Talk

You can’t talk convincingly about creating a healthy democracy when your actions suggest that you have no interest in doing so. On this issue, the NDP continues to be hypocritical – and NDP grassroots members and supporters ought to be ashamed of leader Andrea Horwarth’s decision to call for Mike Schreiner’s exclusion from the televised leaders’ debates.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)

For a further take on the matter of Greens being excluded from debates by the vested interests of big political parties, you may be interested in reading this blogpost of mine from August, 2013: What Lessons Canada’s Green Party Can Learn for 2015 from the Australian Greens in 2013.