Philip Mcleod

The McLeod Report - London, Ontario

A regular commentary on civic affairs in London, Canada by journalist Philip McLeod.

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Well it’s fairly good anyway

LATEST REPORT #1,123: Six out of 10 Londoners, according to a recent survey, think they receive fairly good value for the taxes they pay the City of London. Does that mean they are happy about the state of affairs in this city, or fairly ticked off? 

Monday, August 31, 2015 – London Ontario

What does the term “fairly good” mean?

The question is asked in the context of a survey conducted in June for the City of London by Ipsos Reid. Some 500 Londoners were asked how they rated the value they received in city programs and services for the tax dollars they paid?

A solid majority, 59 per cent, said the value was “fairly good,” while 21 per cent said it was very good, 12 per cent said it was fairly poor and 4 per cent said it was very poor. 

The Toronto-based polling company lumped the fairly goods and the very goods together and, eureka, came up with 80 per cent who “believe the value for tax dollars . . . is at least good.” As you can image the mayor, councillors and senior administrators were ecstatic. 

The full report will be tabled at the meeting tonight of council meeting as its strategic priorities and policy committee.

Now I don’t want to get into a serious hair-splitting contest here, but where I came from – out in Alberta – fairly good wasn’t especially. It’s good with a qualification, a rather big one, that tends to push it some distance sideways. On the Alberta scale of my youth, it ranks below pretty good which was at least one grade below good.

For example. In my hometown of Nanton, population then 1,000, if you were fairly good at hockey – which I was – you might get invited to the tryout camp but you wouldn’t make the team unless they were desperate for players. Pretty good would be on the third or fourth line; good would be second line, in a pinch first. Very good would probably be a team star; exceptional would be invited to play at a higher level. Awesome would make the National Hockey League.

His name in my day was Johnny McKenzie. At age 16 he scored 60 goals in 30 games in a southern Alberta men’s league. That’s awesome and he went on to star in the NHL. Two years later, at the same age, I played goalie on the juvenile team and when a better one came along I got cut. That’s fairly good.

So when 6 out of 10 taxpayers say they think the value they get for their municipal tax dollars is only fairly good I’d argue this is cause for concern. Is this rating given out of ignorance – that is most people don’t know what they get for their tax dollars – or because of unhappy experience?

A lot of the money Canadians earn is taxed away. According to a report from the right-wing Fraser Institute last week, we now spend more on taxes than we do on necessities. The average family made $79,010 last year and spent $33,272 on taxes of various kinds and just $28,887 on food, clothing and shelter combined.

That’s a lot on taxes. However, if that average family was living in an average house in London, only about $2,500 of that tax went to the City of London. For that you can generally count on good roads to drive on, good sidewalks to walk on, good parks to play in. You get your garbage picked up regularly (even if once a year it’s a dozen days between service), well-stocked libraries to visit and clean buses to get you there. 

The average household sends far more tax money to Ottawa. But name one thing the federal government gave you in return that had direct impact on your life. How much does that colour what we think generally about paying taxes?

One flaw in the Ipsos Reid survey is that “fairly good” isn’t defined so we don’t know exactly what Londoners meant, other than most of us didn’t feel moved to tick the “very good” box. There is a hint in another question, however, that suggests how we should interpret the taxation issue.

That question was, how satisfied are you with the overall level of city services? A quarter (26 per cent) of Londoners said they were very satisfied. But 66 per cent said they were only somewhat satisfied. Said Ipsos Reid: “There is room for the city to improve satisfaction since most of these residents are only somewhat satisfied.” 

Well if you can’t get no satisfaction in this town then it stands to reason you’d be just a little annoyed about paying for it. 

All this suggests this city council and its administration have some work ahead as they sketch out a four-year budget. Partly more effort needs to go into explaining to Londoners the benefit they derive from city services paid for by their tax dollars. 

“Customer satisfaction results are used to further the work of Service London,” says a report from the administration that accompanies the survey results. “Perceptions about taxation and value for tax dollar results facilitate public input in the budget planning process.”

Exactly what those sentences mean is difficult to parse out. Let’s hope they mean there’s a fair bit room to improve the service delivery as well.