My wife and I try to attend the Union Gallery’s annual fundraiser every year. It’s called Cézanne’s Closet; the format is you pay $100 for a ticket, and about 100 artists donate work to the gallery. You browse before the event, and then ticket numbers get called at random. If your number comes up, you pick a piece of art to keep!
It’s a ton of fun, especially as a couple — there’s always an interesting evaluation-and-negotiation phase to hit on pieces we both love.
This year, though, our #1 was identical when we compared notes: Wrong Turn at Point Pleasant, West Virginia, by artist Darby Huk.
We were chuffed! Darby’s a Master’s student at Queen’s University, and we could hear her on the Zoom call for the gallery event, so I knew she was in town.
Unbeknownst to Marisa, I reached out to her after the event and asked if she’d be interested in a commission of two more paintings to make it a trio of sorts (I don’t think this is technically a triptych, but I’m calling it that anyway), keeping with the “cryptids and vices” theme. Fortunately, she was into it! So we bought two more paintings from her…
¡Cumpleaños! Puerto Rico
Girls Night, Douglas, Wyoming
Together, they look like this…
Again, we’re super stoked! Now we just have to figure out where we can clear some wall space…
Really? Somebody online insists that they’re, like, the highest tax rates anywhere ever.
S/he’s wrong. Probably also says things like “government should be run like a business”.1
Let’s start with “what’s a comparable city?”
Population size is the clearest metric here. Nothing else really makes sense. A tiny village isn’t a fair comparison. Nor is a borough of a major city, nor is a city more than twice Kingston’s size. Size matters. Municipal taxes pay for municipal services for the population the municipality serves. Something weird seems to happen with taxes for all mid-sized cities, too (see below), which makes comparisons that don’t account for this doubly inappropriate.
In short, population size is the common-sense metric for determining “comparable” in a tax scenario. But hey, if you don’t like population size, there are two other ways to measure this below. Stay tuned!
Setting a comparative range based on population size
Where you might expect to see a correlation there – especially since large centres like Toronto and Ottawa have rates closer to the Milton end of the spectrum – there doesn’t seem to be much of a ratio mapping population size to tax rate.
Kingston is #9 on the list of 15. From the dead middle of a list of 15, it moves up one place in that same list.
So Kingston doesn’t have astonishingly high taxes when compared to other Ontario municipalities of similar size?
Kingston’s tax rate is proveably and conclusively average?
A smidge higher than average but not even in the top five in its weight class.
Why are mid-sized city tax rates higher than those of megacities and tiny towns?
It’s an interesting thing I noticed while working on this. Major centres have much lower rates, as do tiny towns. I don’t know why for a fact, but my theory is that mid-size cities have all the fiscal disadvangages of large cities – obligation to provide city water and full services, a cultural life that needs to be supported, sophisticated transit and library systems, and sports infrastructure – without the economies of scale that kick in once you’re at the million-citizen mark. Small towns don’t have to do this at nearly the same scale. There’s probably some soft population number at which these things spike, and another where they drop again.
Milton, for instance, is our outlier here. The suspicion is that as essentially a borough they can lean into Toronto as a sports/culture/transit mecca, so they can offer a dramatically lower tax rate than some of their peers in size. The other cities on the list are “standalones”, and essentially are providing Toronto-level services but to much smaller populations.*
Again, that’s just a theory. If you’ve got facts, I’d love to update this page.
A reader, connected to somebody once in Milton’s municipal services department, provides some context: “Milton has been able to get away with not providing (and paying the full freight for) what we might call a mature suite of municipal services for a number of reasons, and the current mayor (now Canada’s longest-serving, at 13 terms) takes it as an article of faith that property taxes shall not rise for any reason (more or less), and he will likely be re-elected until he’s carried from his office….the other thing to note about Milton is that it also has a municipal tier above it (the regional municipality of Halton, which, pending the provincial review of regional muncipalities, may or may not change dramatically), so certain costs are shared out between municipalities large and small within the region (e.g., Halton Regional Police Service).”
Let’s try a different comparison method! How about similar-ish cities?
Sounds great! This time, let’s map Kingston against cities that might be less similar in population (we’re still excluding places that are less than 30% as big, or over 200% larger) but share most of Kingston’s key attributes:
A large and dynamic downtown
Multiples of various ‘city’ indicators – movie theatres, sports complexes, schools
At least one major educational institution (a university or two or more colleges)
Well developed tourism infrastructure
To make this list, I reached out to a number of people – Tourism Kingston, the City of Kingston, and Kingston Economic Development. They have a firm sense of the city and who our “competitors” are. With their help, I arrived at the following list:
*Muskoka is an interesting case, where it seems there’s a regional tax rate and then a town rate that attaches to that. Huntsville, one of the towns, comes in at the middle of the tax rates and incorporates the regional rate into its own. I think. It’s a bit hard to understand. It might be as high as $17.40 if Muskoka levies an additional bill to the town bill.
How does Kingston do in our second test?
Here, Kingston is just under halfway down the list – 6/12 (I’m awarding it the tie with Sault Ste-Marie, because who can honestly say they’d prefer the Sault?).
So in two tests vs. comparable cities or municipalities, Kingston is… average?
Slightly over in the first, slightly under in the second.
Comparisons by average home price
This is a toughy. It involves doing a ton of clicking around on the CREA National Price Map (https://www.crea.ca/housing-market-stats/national-price-map/), and even that gives huge areas, not specific municipalities. So “Kingston” covers what I think of as Kingston, but also includes Napanee, Gananoque, probably Yarker, possibly Pontypool, etc. “Oakville-Milton” is insane because it has a bunch of boroughs in its catchment and is even more expensive than the GTA region. I can’t find a source more granular than this.
So this really is fudging something in search of a better way of doing it, but without home price averages (ideally for single-home residences, to align with our tax category) for individual municipalities instead of huge catchments, it’s hard to find a better way.
So here are average real estate prices circa February 2019:
Average real estate price
Barrie & District
London & St. Thomas
They’re big regions, so let’s just grab three on either side for a field of seven:
Seven regions with comparable average real estate prices to Kingston
Average real estate price
London & St. Thomas
And, I don’t know, the most comparable city in each region for…
*I’m not thrilled about it either – it’s too big a city to be a valid comparator – but since Mike Harris jammed mega-mergers down everyone’s throat a while back, we don’t have the sensible comparator, Nepean, to stack against.
**Ottawa doesn’t post its tax rates! It’s the only city that doesn’t seem to do that.
***Another tie! Again, I’m going to give it to Kingston, because, I mean, Trenton.
Where does Kingston land this time?
When you stack the most comparable cities in the regions with the closest average real estate prices, Kingston is second lowest in a field of seven for tax rates.
That’s three different ways to compare Kingston fairly to other places and see how the tax rates stack up.
It is indeed.
And just one last time: Kingston doesn’t have amazingly high tax rates compared to similar municialities?
One last time: nope. Squarely in the mid-range. Low, by some measures.
So will these Actual Facts stop all the complaining?
Oh, my sweet summer child, no. Tax Whiners tend to wind up in a Venn diagram that strongly overlaps with people that say things like “the facts don’t care about your feelings,” so one might expect that exhaustively researched facts will keep them from repeatedly venting their feelings, but I’m… not optimistic. I’m probably going to get called a “Neo-Marxist” by people who don’t know what Marxism is. Yes, that’s a whole thing now.
Hey, that Internet Person is now going on about tax rates per capita / tax rates per income / tax rates per building / whatever.
Ugh. The ratio fallacy. It’s a kind of a combination of a lack of math and a not-great grasp on civics. That takes quite a bit of unpacking so I’ve put it on its own page.
1. If somebody’s answer to “should government be run like a business?” is anything other than “no, that is insane, a business’ ideal model is to maximize benefits for a tiny number of owners or shareholders, and a government’s ideal model is to maximize benefit for everyone, which is literally the exact opposite, so while it’s fine to say governments should pursue efficiency or not be wasteful, business is a ludicrous model, governments should be run like very good governments, and you should feel bad for even asking that question”, you can safely ignore anything they have to say about government, civics, economics and politics. Send them to this page and if they call you a “snowflake” or a “Neo-Marxist,” tell them I said they owe you a quarter.