Editorial: Taxpayer, ratepayer or citizen?

With school back in session local eyes now turn their focus to the upcoming municipal election. Already we’ve seen from responses in The Leader, and in other media, the repeated use of certain terms which are often treated as totally interchangeable: taxpayer, ratepayer and citizen. They do not, however, all mean the same thing.

According to Webster’s Dictionary: a taxpayer is someone who pays taxes. A ratepayer pays for public utilities like water, sewer or electricity. And a citizen is someone who lives in the municipality.

Political candidates regularly direct their comments toward “taxpayers.” Technically, this term includes only those who are actual homeowners in the municipality. Continually addressing ‘taxpayers’ implies, rightly or wrongly, that unless one is a property owner, one may have no ‘real’ stake in what a municipality does or offers.

A 2014 study by Michael McGregor and Zachary Spicer called The Canadian Homevoter: Property Values and Municipal Politics in Canada published in the Journal of Urban Affairs found that actual home owners are more likely to vote in a municipal election, mainly because homeowners are regarded as more concerned with property values. It also suggests that’s why many voters who rent are less likely to vote.

Yet citizens should care enough to vote. Every single voter should feel he/she has a definite and real stake in ensuring good local government. Municipalities provide services to all citizens within their boundaries, regardless of their status as homeowners or renters. And these services are supposed to be delivered equally.

An apparent lack of engagement (and subsequent often low voter turnout in municipal elections) among certain potential local voters, suggests that there needs to be a decided shift in how municipalities, and municipal candidates, refer to those who live in their regions.

It’s time to change the conversation to what a local government can provide for its citizens, rather than just for its “taxpayers.” It’s time to ensure that conversations become far more inclusive.

After all, absolutely no one wants to feel like a mere footnote at election time.

Inclusivity of all socio-economic groups will create a more reflective local government. In 2018, we need to ensure that election promises address every citizen’s needs, and not just those of the “taxpayers.”