Photo: Councillor Michael Fougere on election night
Whether or not business interest groups have influence on decisions made by city council is not a new issue in Regina, but is a topic that was elevated in the weeks leading up to city’s civic election.
According to Ward 3 city councillor candidate John Conway, who came in at a close second to incumbent Fred Clipsham in the election, city council is dominated by ‘the business lobby.’ Council bases many of its decisions on what the business community wants, he said. The interests of residential taxpayers and people working for wages and salaries have become secondary.
He said city council continually listens to recommendations that come forward from organizations such as the Regina Chamber of Commerce and the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, but also from Michael Fougere, president of the Saskatchewan Construction Association, whom Conway said is one of the most influential city councillors.
Citing media reports that covered the mayoral debate on Oct. 22, Conway said current mayor Pat Fiacco takes the stance that when Regina is developing economically, everything else takes care of itself.
Conway said running the city with this view doesn’t work, and the evidence is clear in the policies made by city council. There are people in the city that can’t afford housing, people who are driven from their apartments due to condominium conversions, and citizens who can’t afford apartments because rent prices have increased.
In addition, there’s “the evidence of the shift in tax burden from business to property that’s happened over the last 10 years,” said Conway. “Ten years ago business paid 60 per cent of the property taxes, residential paid 40 per cent. Now it’s the complete opposite.”
However, Ward 4 councillor Fougere said that if people look closely at the city’s position, they might change their minds. He said “it’s way too simplistic” to conclude that the current city council is putting the interests of business first.
“I don’t agree with that assessment at all,” he said, noting city council meets with private citizens, organizations, and unions, and that all have equal influence on council’s policies.
The business community makes the argument with city council that it is overtaxed compared to other sectors, and residents make the argument that they’re overtaxed compared to businesses, said Fougere.
“It’s a trade-off between competing interests – people who see the world differently and want council to act. We have acted in our tax policy … and we have, to the best of our ability, made what we think is a fair balance trade-off.”
Marilyn Braun-Pollon, vice-president of CFIB Saskatchewan and Agri-Business, said she believes CFIB has been successful in influencing the policies to come from city council.
“We tell them that small business owners are fundamentally no different than residents when it comes to their commitment to the community and their priorities for the future,” she said, noting that entrepreneurs and people in cities are the engines of economic growth.
The CFIB has had a strong voice in ensuring that business property taxes are as competitive as possible, and reminds council of sustainable spending as the city moves forward in terms of population growth, said Braun-Pollon. While she said the CFIB has had success – Regina now ranks eighth out of 10 when it comes to 'the most entrepreneurial cities,' according to a CFIB report – there’s more work to be done.
"We’ve done a lot of work on … the gap between commercial and residential property taxes," said Braun-Pollon, adding that the city could do even more to reduce the gap further. But she said the CFIB’s lobbying has been successful in keeping average municipal mill rate increases down, compared to other cities, throughout the past five years.
Tom Graham, president of CUPE Saskatchewan, which represents public employees, said he believes CUPE has just as much influence on Regina’s city council as any other citizen.
While CUPE lobbies the city from time to time throughout the course of council’s term, Graham said he feels council doesn’t listen to CUPE as much as they should. He said Mayor Fiacco and council listen more to business groups rather than citizens.
Issues that CUPE is concerned with include homelessness, home availability and affordability, and fair taxes in terms of citizens getting their money’s worth for what they pay.
“We like to keep our members informed on issues, who stands for what, and we hope (council) listens to us and our members,” said Graham.