OPINION: City continues to fund a lot of highly questionable, specious and frankly, wasteful initiatives

By Stephen White

January 9th, 2023



City council begins deliberating on what the tax rate will be for 2023-24 today. They will formally receive the budget book.

Stephen White, who has delegated frequently on financial matters, did some research on what the tax rate will be for other municipalities.

Cambridge, St. Catharines, Oshawa and Peterborough are comparable in size to Burlington. The proposed property tax increases that have been adopted, or in some cases that are being proposed, are as follows:

 St. Catharines = 0.76%
 Oshawa = 2.6%
 Cambridge = 3.93%
 Peterborough = 4%

A starting point of 7% for Burlington is both excessive and unrealistic.

It raises serious questions about the extent to which Burlington City officials actively benchmark key performance indicators with other municipalities.

This City continues to fund a lot of highly questionable, specious and frankly, wasteful initiatives (e.g. rainbow sidewalks, bicycle lanes, art for public property, neighbourhood street festivals, speed bumps, excessive signage, etc.). You cannot expect residents, many of whom are on fixed incomes, to absorb rate increases in the magntiude of 7% when tax revenue is frittered away on this silliness.

If the LGBTQ community wants a rainbow sidewalk let them pay for it. Artists can display their works gratis in public parks without the City having to “foot the bill”. If cyclists want to ride on a public street God bless them and make sure they stick close to the curb. If neighbourhoods want to hold a street festival let them pick up the tab. And most of us can quite easily live without speed bumps every 2 blocks, or ten “no parking” signs within a few hundred feet.

Maintaining this “nanny state” comes at a huge cost, a cost that is increasingly borne by overburdened taxpayers. City Councils in Cambridge, St. Catharines and Oshawa understand that. Hopefully, Burlington’s Council will also finally get the message soon and “read the room”.

When you click on the links below you will be taken to the full budget for each municipality.  Caution – they are long documents

St. Catharines









Return to the Front page
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

15 comments to OPINION: City continues to fund a lot of highly questionable, specious and frankly, wasteful initiatives

  • Joe Gaetan

    The 7.0% increase in dollars will become the real dollar base for the 2023-24 increase. If you understand the “compounding effect” (usually applied to investing) you will know where this is going. We can navel gaze and try to pick out some lint to make a sweater all we want, but at the end of the day it is a 7.0% increase.

    • Dave Turner

      Yes it is 7% and will always be 7%. And yes it will be the new base for 2034/24. But that does not change the fact that Burlington’s 2023/24 base (including the 7% increase) will still be considerably lower than other cities such as Peterborough after its 4% increase, Oshawa after its 2.6% increase,

      OK, Mr Gaeten. Since you are so sold on percentages, I’ll take Burlington’s 7% increase and you can go and take Oshawa’s 2.6%. Fair enough ?

      • Philip Waggett

        Dave, since cherry-picking statistics seems to be your thing, why not take Oakville’s 3.4%, especially given that using your own data, Oakville residents are already paying less in property taxes.

      • Joe Gaetan

        The last time I Iooked I lived in Burlington. I value my hard earned dollars and expect elected members to listen to it constituents. I could care less what taxpayers in Ottawa, or Oakville pay in taxes as I have no idea what they get in return.

  • Blair Smith

    Thank you Stephen. I agree with you in the main and certainly with regard to the City spending from what we used to call ‘the discretionary budget’ at the expense of its mandated and core services.

    Loading the bad news into the first years of a “mandate” is a very old political trick. It assumes that the taxpayer (there really is only one) will forget the pain by the time of the next election. Unfortunately, the trick often works. Here, however, there is no overt political party and arguably (given the remarkable voter apathy) no real mandate either. The argument that the abysmal voter turnout was an indication of citizen satisfaction is something I just do not accept.

    This Council has, in my admittedly jaundiced opinion, failed to demonstrate the fiscal responsibility that was part of their campaign messaging in 2018 – repeated in 2022. They have burned through reserve funds on things as questionable as a $4 million wave break benefiting less than 400 relatively entitled people and part of a landscape (LaSalle Park) that is not even owned by the City. A directed $600k +.tender to define the already defined precincts of the downtown combined with an intensive but cynical engagement process wasted both critical time and scarce resources for political expediency (or worse). The scope of the exercise excluded the most contentious “precinct” – the Old Lakeshore – and the citizen consultation was restricted to two very similar options. Neither were necessary to move the UGC or correct the MTSA mis-designations; the latter corrections could have been effected a year earlier had not hubris and ego interfered. Additional pet and/or virtue-signalling/ ‘feel good’ projects like rainbow crosswalks, renamed parks, Love Your Hood block-party subsidies and ‘Food for Feedback’ festivals (the latter very inappropriately conducted during the election period) have further strained the coffers.

    What is truly appalling is that no core business review or zero-based budgeting exercise has ever been conducted by anyone who knows how to perform the exercise. Strategic Plans are proudly generated with timeframes (25 years) that are completely meaningless and performance criteria/yardsticks that cannot be measured. Goal statements or strategic objectives are presented as ‘Service Categories’ with bundled expenditure envelopes. I would guarantee that you will never know what is important unless you fully understand, decompose, describe and measure your core businesses; you will never meet your goals unless you measure them and report actual performance against measurable targets. But perhaps this is part of the management strategy of the City – if you don’t articulate, don’t measure and don’t report, then you always succeed, always meet the ill-defined commitment. One would think that someone with training, experience and a certain skill in these processes, like Paul Sharman, would be screaming foul. His complicit behaviour lately is somewhat puzzling – perhaps one of my favourite 50’s movies, “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, has had yet another remake.

  • Dave Turner

    Mr. White

    I question both your method of comparison and the comparatives you have chosen to use.

    The use of percentages when comparing is often misleading and fails to provide a true, clear and accurate picture.

    Simple math shows that equal percentage amounts are not necessarily equal in terms as whole numbers.

    For example 10% of 100 (10) does not equate to 10% of 50 (5).

    So a 3% property tax increase in one municipality is not necessarily a smaller increase than a 5% increase in another municipality in terms of actual dollars and cents.

    One has to look at the dollars and cents increase not the percentage increase.
    In your opinion piece, Mr. White you offered four municipalities as being of comparable size to Burlington. The table below shows how from a size perspective your selections are not at all comparative.

    Further population size is just one factor that bears upon the tax rate. Each municipality likely finds itself in a different position as to the need to catch up on prior years when tax increases did not keep pace with inflation or the need to build or replace infrastructure. Over the past several years the clamour has been to keep property tax increases to at or below the rate of inflation with little to no heed paid to needed infrastructure repair and replacement.

    Burlington has certainly for many years been robbing Peter (reserve funds) to pay Paul (operational costs). Now we find ourselves at judgement day so to speak.

    The table below shows left to right (1) municipality, (2) 2022 population, (3) 2022 property tax paid on a house assessed at a value of $500,000, (4) estimated 2023 percentage property tax increase, and (5) 2023 estimated dollars and cents property tax increase.

    Burlington, 205,000, $3,898, 7.0%, $273
    Peterborough, 134.500, $7,457, 4%, $298
    St Catharines, 140,000, $7,077, unavailable, unavailable
    Oshawa 170,000 $6,628, 2.6%, $172
    Cambridge, 125,500, $3,717, 3.93%, $146
    Oakville, 211,000, $3,662, 3.40%, $124
    Hamilton, 580,000, $6,226, 6.9%, $429
    Sources:- WOWA.CA & MPAC

    So Mr. White, would you rather be paying a 7% increase in Burlington or a 4% increase in Peterborough, or a 6.9% increase in Hamilton from an actual dollars and cents increase amount? Or Mr White maybe you’d rather pay a much smaller percentage tax increase as in either Peterborough or Oshawa, but where your dollars and cents tax bill is going to be almost twice as much as in Burlington?

    Please can we all stop using the phrase “fixed income” which is often used to described those who are on pensions. Those on salary, those hourly paid, as well as those living on pensions/savings are all on fixed incomes.

    Your comment about the “nanny state” shows that you do not understand, all public programs, whether Federal, Provincial or Municipal Are all funded by the tax payer. Not increasingly paid for. They are 100% paid for via taxes, direct or indirect.

    I am not saying I am overjoyed at the prospect of paying 7% more. But I value the services provided by the City, even if I personally do not use them. If I am annoyed or frustrated with anyone for there being a 7% increase in 2023, then that would be towards all those who successfully lobbied for unrealistically low Increases in prior years.

    Best wishes.

    • Philip Waggett

      Actually, Dave, I think you should have used Oakville, our immediate neighbour, as your comparative. How did Oakville get its tax increase down to 3.4%, less than half of Burlington’s? The answer in part can be found in a slip made by MMW during discussions around our last budget when she described the preliminary numbers as a “wish list”. This told me that there is no real budgeting going on at Burlington City Hall—department managers shoot high rather than a careful line-item analysis of the budget; clearly, they are not given tight budgetary targets to work with. And of course, overriding this is the political focus of MMW; like her federal Liberal cousins in Ottawa, MMW has never seen a tax she didn’t like and feels she knows better how to spend our money than we do.

      • Dave Turner

        Mr. Waggett, I was not trying to offer any comparisons with Burlington’s circumstances. All I was trying to do was point out that comparing percentage increases is meaningless, because the base number to which the percentage is applied differs from one municipality

        Why is Oakville’s dollar increase lower than Burlington’s? Your reason may be correct, but I doubt you have any concrete evidence to back it up. So it’s speculation. Another speculative possible reason is that Oakville did not cut its service provision and infrastructure as has Burlington. So no catching up needs to be done. Another possibility is that Burlington provides a broader range of services. You and I can only speculate.

  • Hilda Cirotto

    Stephen makes a very good case for more prudent fiscal restraint. I agree with the aspects he mentioned. I appreciate the research and links provided.

  • Ted Gamble

    I cycle a lot weather permitting in Canada and entirely avoid public streets preferring the bike paths. Its not safe.The streets were not designed to accomodate bicycles and as a taxpayer todays utilization which I cant see changing significantly does not warrant extravagant ideological funding.for the few. Burlington needs to focus on key priorities and reduce discretionary spending.


  • Chris Ariens

    A couple of observations about some of the items that the original post identifies as “questionable, specious and frankly wasteful”.

    Firstly, what are the actual budget dollars being spent on these initiatives? If, let’s say we stopped doing all of those things, what would the tax rate be? I would argue that we might be able to reduce the increase from 7.0% to 6.5% at best. However by doing that, citizens would rightly question our commitment to diversity and inclusion, addressing climate change, and tackling the massive issue we have with speeding and traffic safety, that continually are some of the biggest issues our councillors hear about from their constituents. In the grand scheme of things, financially, it’s a drop in the bucket.

    Burlington’s taxes are driven by one fundamental reality, the decisions made in its history to build a city the way we have built it and fund it from the property tax base. A city where most people have no choice but to rely on cars to get around, because doing otherwise is either tremendously inconvenient or dangerous. A city where retail trade made up an oversized component of commercial taxes. Building and maintaining our transportation system is much more expensive than most of us realize. And the costs have increased substantially over the past 3 years, while there has been close to no growth available to pay for it, so the burden falls upon property taxpayers. There’s also some unique challenges in this budget like the number of firefighters, which have not kept up with the fire department’s expectations of what is needed for a city like ours.

    Look at the Capital budget…$496 million over the next 10 years is in the ‘City that Moves’ bucket. The overwelming majority of that ($383 million) is allocated to roadways. There are some investments being made in transit, yes. There are also notes on many of the road projects, speaking to the fact that there is a cycling infrastructure component (cycling facilities are generally only built when a road comes up for renewal or reconstruction), which has not been included in the cost or funding for any of the projects detailed in the Cycling Master Plan that was passed last March.

    Essentially what our budget is saying when it comes to bike lanes, is that instead of planning to invest our tax dollars on improving our cycling network, to help get more cars off the roads, reducing emissions and traffic levels and improving residents’ health, we are expecting money to fall from the sky (aka the federal / provincial governments who have their own fiscal challenges) to pay for them.

    I’ll likely be dismissed by your readership as a shill for the ‘cycling lobby’ but the likely outcome from this budget is going to continue to be a few cyclists clinging to the curb hoping they don’t get run over. If I read the room correctly, all of the cities with whom we are competing with for young talent, for employers, and for investment dollars, are all making significant investments in these quality of life issues.

  • David

    Any owner of any business will be aware of mission creep of its administration staff, if left unchecked the costs will spiral out of control. An example of this is Twitter.

  • Michael Hribljan

    I could not agree more!

    The City conducted a survey and held an open house to obtain input from citizens of Burlington. The results are in Appendix C of Report F-01-23. I would say it is buried and wondering if anyone one is reading this?

    Look at Question 7, its very clear what the majority of respondents want, a net decrease in levels of service to manage 2023 budget.

    Those that answered to increase levels of service are clearly in the minority across all but one category, Climate Change Initiatives, (energy efficient buildings, tree planting, active transportation, preparing for extreme weather events, etc), which is a 50/50 split.

    So, if our politicians are following what the public is telling them, we should see very few if any increases in service levels, in fact what the respondents are saying is a net decrease service levels overall.

    I have posted a similar comment, however it the City continues to put out surveys to residents and want their input, they should follow that input as they do work for the citizens of Burlington which sometimes seems to be forgotten.

    Otherwise, don’t waste the time of those that have used their valuable time to provide that input.

    • Chris Ariens

      Hi, Michael. Wasn’t sure about your statement about Question 7, so I took another look at it.

      With the exception of ‘Arts and Culture’, every single category in the budget had a greater number of people requesting an increase in service levels than the number of people who requested a decrease in service levels. For example, on Climate Change initiatives, 89 people answered “Decrease service levels”, 189 answered “Maintain service levels” and 202 answered “Increase service levels”.

      The survey data you referenced does not support your conclusion that a majority of residents want a net decrease in levels of service whatsoever.

  • Perryb

    “Cyclists should stick to the curb”?