We have been discussing the differences between the rural and urban communities in the Municipality of Port Hope since the taxation issues arose in 2012, when the Council of the day proposed a significant shift in tax-burden from one ward to the other. The shift, which during the previous decade would have been considered counter to long-standing policy, catalyzed public discourse about the relationship between the two wards, the relatively urban former Port Hope and the relatively rural, former Hope Township. This paper serves to facilitate this conversation in order that the two communities might resume the interdependent and symbiotic relationship together, one that is organic, fair, equitable, and mutually respectful.
The two communities have been living side by side for over 200 years. The first white settlers to Smith’s Creek, the forerunner to Port Hope, were traders, and soon after followed agrarian settlers who came to clear the highly fertile land north and west of the port. The receding glaciers had left the former lake bottom rich in soil deposits and eventually some of the finest agricultural land east of the prairies. This is often lost on urban residents because the GTA has expanded in all directions gobbling up amazing fertile farmland. It is not the aim of this paper to bemoan this expansion, to argue the causes of it – largely immigration required for sustainable growth nationally and regionally – or to discuss the simultaneous advances in agriculture that have increased yields that offset the loss of arable farm land.
It is important, however, to remember that the rural area was first and foremost agricultural, and it is this history that formed the cultural DNA of the people who make their homes and livings in Hope Township. It is not a community that was founded on the fur trade, mineral extraction, industry, commerce, or lumber. All of these elements factored in the development of the rural community(ies) north of the port on Lake Ontario, but they were not the defining organizing principle. It was agriculture. And to a largely unrecognized degree, remains the key organizing principle of Hope Township. Agriculture is the largest economic driver and the largest employer in Northumberland County.
We find it interesting that until the time of amalgamation in 2001, the rural and urban communities lived quite harmoniously alongside one another, both enjoying and prospering from the interdependent and symbiotic relationship – and relationships – that had developed. Even during the first decade after amalgamation, there is little evidence that the two communities were moving away from living together in this manner: a fair and equitable system of representation and taxation had been negotiated at amalgamation that maintained harmony and sustainable growth in both wards. Prior to amalgamation and for the first decade following it, the rural population contributed about 15% to the total cost of running both municipalities, and then both wards. This was roundly considered historically appropriate and equitable.
So what changed?
Funding unsustainable growth is what changed, and the underlying driver for the expansion is at the heart of the issue, and therefore of this paper. As urban residents demanded more and more services, the associated costs rose. This on its own is not a problem if the tax-base has the requisite residential-commercial-industrial mix to support it. Witness downtown Toronto’s relatively low taxes, because they have a huge commercial and industrial base to share the tax burden. Councils, encouraged by a bureaucracy-growing staff, bought into the fallacy that more and more housing growth would result in a higher tax-base; of course it’s true, but the costs associated with servicing the new homes and families rise faster, especially when it includes new or/& upgraded streets, sidewalks, street lights, police stations, fire-halls and hockey rinks.
Eventually all this growth requires funding which results in increased taxes. Again, there is not space in this paper to delineate how taxes increased in Ward 1 to the point where the Council of the day ran out of sources for more funding. Readers are pointed to other documents produced by Port Hopers for Fair Taxes that point out the poor fiscal shape of the Municipality in 2012, and the Council’s need to find new sources of funding. Nor is there space here for a retelling of the story about how the Council, and senior staff, perpetrated the myth that Hope Township residents weren’t paying their share, that urban residents were carrying more than their share of the burden, and that this should have been rectified by earlier Councils. For more on these, the tax grab, Area Rating and special services, please see www.porthopecommunitygroups.org/porthopersforfairtaxes.
Just what are they afraid of?
We have come to recognize a discomfort when we attempt to distinguish the two communities and identify their differences. When the rural community says it’s different, the urban community seems to hear “we aren’t like you, we don’t like you, and we don’t want to be like you”. Perhaps the majority (fully ¾ of the MPH population is urban) feel threatened by this, maybe a bit like Ontarians hearing other parts of Canada passing disparaging comments about them. Perhaps it would be instructive to utilize a more distinct example: pretend you’re talking to a friend from downtown Toronto. They have come out from the city for an overnight stay in the country and they wax on about how beautiful, peaceful and friendly it seems. You say, yes, small town life is much different than city life: simpler, and people seem to have different expectations about what’s important. We don’t think we’re better than city people, but we’re different
For the record, and because it can’t be said too clearly, PHFFT is not trying to minimize the urban community or judge it for its differences; nor is PHFFT trying to set the rural community above the urban community. We are merely trying to articulate the differences to foster a healthy exchange, and to repair – heal is not too strong a word – the damage that has been done in the once amicable relationship between the two by the barefaced tax grab (and co-mingling the Hope Township LLRW fund worth approximately $12½ million with the Port Hope fund).
Another underlying fear appears to stem from majorities and minorities: the majority finds it hard to recognize the minority, or the minority’s concerns as valid. We hear and experience this when we talk with residents in the urban majority in an attempt to articulate the distinctions between the two communities. Consistently we are told that we are not different, and that we all just need to get along as one community. The underlying premise is that rural people are being difficult, and not sufficiently enlightened. Rural people, however, perceive this lack of understanding by their neighbours as judgmental, condescending, and negating. By negating rural people’s claims and concerns, it’s akin to the husband who tells his wife that she has no concerns, that she effectively doesn’t exist.
This concept of two communities needs addressing: many have balked at the concept that the Municipality of Port Hope consists of two communities living side by side in a harmonious arrangement that respects their differences. They argue that we are “one community” or that we are “many communities” but seem uncomfortable recognizing that this is a both/and arrangement, not an either/or one. In other words, we are one community and we are many communities, indeed there are many communities in the one community. However, the two forming municipalities did not come together to form one new municipality of one like-minded people, they came together as two wards who co-exist together in a negotiated relationship. There is debate whether the organizing principle at amalgamation was to make us one community, or two, but many people now suggest that we are one – not acknowledging that we are distinct, and that the distinctions were protected in the original agreement, and that they might actually benefit both in the long term.
We hope the distinct nature of the two communities can be explored more fully in a community-wide discussion that proves healthy, respectful, and productive. The underlying, but not well articulated, aversion to the concept of two communities appears to stem from a fear of diversity. This in itself is interesting given the emphasis nationally and culturally around diversity, and its defense elsewhere, and in other settings.
So, just what are these differences?
And why are rural people so intent on articulating and defending them? That’s the point of the paper: to articulate these in a way that urban people may draw closer to them, and in time even learn to value them, to see how they are a fabric that brings energy and multiplies the benefits of the relationship, do not detract from it.
With that background and appeal for understanding, some examples of how the rural culture is distinct:
Rural people, on average, have larger properties. Even those who don’t own or live on the larger properties enjoy the vistas and peacefulness of the less populated areas. For the record, these same vistas and surroundings are enjoyed by urban people and visitors to the Municipality.
Rural people are more likely to provide and fund their own services, are less likely to receive benefits from the community, and therefore government-supplied, services. Think here about libraries, fire stations, police buildings, community centres, hockey rinks, and parks. Think also of streetlights, garbage pickup and storm sewers. This list is not provided to feed the debate about who pays for what, or which community pays what share, but rather is provided to demonstrate the difference in mentality or approach to communal life together.
Rural people are typically less concerned about growth and expansion, and more likely to focus on preservation and sustainability. They are more likely planting trees and managing woodlots, using no-till farming to prevent erosion, using the manure from their animal herds to fertilize their fields, or clearing a fence-bottom to increase their arable acres.
Not that urban people don’t understand these concepts or even champion them, but environmental behaviours will more likely be something for which an urban person advocates, rather than it being a way of life, literally a way of making a living. To some degree it’s about scale: a rural person is likely working with big equipment or planning a strategy across 50 to 100 acres whereas an urban person likely has a recycling bin they put at the curb, or a compost heap in their backyard. Neither is better than the other, just distinct.
An urban person will complain at a dinner party that they can’t purchase pesticides to keep their small patch of dandelions under control. A rural person will buy a $250,000 tractor to pull a piece of equipment costing $50,000 and has satellite hookups, that distributes fertilizers, purchased or produced organically. Again, not better or worse, just distinct.
Rural people aren’t all rich ex-Torontonians who sold their expensive homes and settled on vast estates, in fact there are only a handful of such people, who frankly chose the quiet and peaceable, largely rural, lifestyle. For the many others of more modest means, for whom possession of large tracts of land is not evidence of wealth, the land can often represent a serious cash-drain; many land owners are ‘land rich and cash poor’. Urban readers might at this point say that’s their choice, but it needs to be said that it is not a choice in the same way that it is for the relatively affluent ex-pat from Toronto, or some other urban or suburban area: most farm people have inherited their land and their ancestors have worked diligently to keep and pass on the land. Keeping the land translates to making a living and not cashing in on the asset at the end; it also means the attempt to retain it for those coming along behind. An urban person might be concerned about the inheritance they leave after death, but they have the luxury of living off the proceeds, or even the capital, if they need to, or if they live that long. When a rural landowner – think rural business owner – considers their legacy, they are often thinking about the land, the buildings, the equipment, and the house. And they’re thinking about a lifestyle to protect and nurture.
At this point the urban reader may well say, well that’s the rural choice, but why would the rural person expect urban people to support – financially – a lifestyle choice that is not in the best interests of the community? But this type of reasoning gets right to the point of the discussion: the rural person is asking the same question, “why would urban people expect rural people to fund their lifestyle choices, and all the supporting infrastructure it takes to provide it?” Over the years we have repeatedly asked Council and Staff to supply an accurate accounting of the costs that relate to the services provided by each department on a ward-by-ward basis. With a clear understanding of the ward-specific costs of delivering municipal services, we can reach the goal where each ward, urban and rural, pays its fair share of the tax burden.
Written by Bill Bickle on behalf of Port Hopers for Fair Taxes