By Doug Hallett
Mayor Karen Farbridge says she won’t support a special levy on property taxes to help finance a proposed city-building investment fund, which would be used first for redevelopment in the Baker Street area – including building a new main library there.
Her position on the controversial special-levy proposal was posted on her city hall blog last Wednesday. This comes as city staff are finalizing their recommendations on the Guelph Economic Investment Fund and on redevelopment proposals related to the Baker Street Parking Lot.
“The blog is my personal opinion,” Farbridge said in an interview Thursday. “It doesn’t represent council and it doesn’t represent the organization.”
It’s still possible that council could vote in favour of a special levy, as Kitchener did a decade ago to fund mainly downtown redevelopment and as Mississauga has done for various purposes, she said.
However, Farbridge’s stance could erase a major distinction between her and Cam Guthrie, her main contender in this year’s race for mayor.
At a council meeting in February, only Guthrie and Coun. Gloria Kovach voted against a motion to endorse city staff’s approach for structuring a Guelph Economic Investment Fund. One of the sources of money for this fund being eyed by staff was a special property tax levy that would last for several years, council was told then.
In her blog entry, Farbridge cited two key reasons for not supporting a special levy in this situation.
“First, we have to live within our means,” she said. “In 2009, we removed $273 million of capital projects from the capital budget – more than 50% of the value of listed projects. We did this to ensure we lived within our means.
“The discipline we established in our capital financing program is working. Our financial position continues to improve every year. That same discipline needs to guide how we accommodate the building projects of two local boards (public health and police) as well as the impact of the court’s recent ruling in the Urbacon case,”
she said, referring to a judge’s recent ruling that the city is liable for firing the Toronto contractor it hired to build a new city hall.
“Second, raising funds through a special levy is just too easy – it saves us from having to work hard at building the case for investment,” she said in her blog.
Farbridge told the Tribune there’s no connection between her May 21 blog and a May 20 city hall announcement that a scheduled May 28 council meeting on the investment fund and Baker Street redevelopment was being postponed. She said she’d been working on the blog entry since hearing a particular speaker at the Guelph Urban Design Summit held at the River Run Centre on May 5 and 6, who influenced her thinking.
A special levy “is just property taxes,” Farbridge said, and it’s a useful tool for such things as hospital redevelopment. It has been used for that purpose in Guelph. “People know what benefit is going to come to them, and there is a clear end point.”
But it’s different when a special levy is proposed for “a long-term, ongoing implementation of a growth strategy,” which is what’s happening with the Guelph Economic Investment Fund, she said. The plan is to use this fund first for downtown redevelopment centred on Baker Street and then to use it elsewhere, such as in the Guelph Innovation District in the east end and later to foster development south of Clair Road, she noted.
Not having access to money from a special levy would mean city hall has to be “more creative” in seeking funds elsewhere, such as from senior levels of government and from partnerships with the private sector, Farbridge said.
“I’m not saying it’s going to be easy; it’s never been easy,” she said.
A special levy is “just one of the many tools” for financing a Guelph Economic Investment Fund, Farbridge said.
By Doug Hallett