Why one Ontario city is soliciting donations to fight climate change

Instead of raising property taxes to fund its climate-change plans, Peterborough has gone a different route — it’s accepting voluntary donations from residents
By David Rockne Corrigan - Published on February 21, 2019
aerial view of Peterborough, Ontario
Critics of Peterborough’s new donation model say that the cost of fighting climate change should be borne by everyone, not just those who volunteer their money. (iStock.com/redtea)

When Peterborough’s budget talks began in early January, a group of local environmentalists hoped to persuade council to create a special fund for climate-change-mitigation projects, paid for with a 0.8 per cent increase in property taxes.

But when it became clear that a tax increase was unlikely to happen — Mayor Diane Therrien said the approximately $32 per year increase on a typical residence would be an “insurmountable barrier” for some — the group had another suggestion: Why not ask for donations from the community?

Council supported the idea and, on January 17, unanimously passed a motion directing city staff to provide a status report on the city’s efforts and to begin accepting donations “to support the Climate Change Action Plan” — an initiative developed by the City of Peterborough (in partnership with 11 other communities in the Greater Peterborough Area) that aims to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to 30 per cent below 2011 levels by 2031 through increases in energy efficiency and reductions in consumption and waste. Since then, the fund has raised more than $12,000 from 37 donors.

“There’s something important about citizens taking the lead. It allows them to say, ‘We’re doing something’ and puts pressure on our governments to get at it themselves,” says Linda Slavin, who, along with her husband, Al Slavin, is active in the Peterborough chapter of For Our Grandchildren, an environmental advocacy group.

The problem, Slavin says, is that the city does not have the money to fully implement it. “Some work has been accomplished. Changing streetlights [to LED], looking at traffic patterns — but the city doesn’t have the funding to tackle the big issues,” she says. (Melanie Kawalec, Peterborough's sustainability manager, disputes that notion; she says the city will contribute about $100,000 toward sustainability initiatives in the community in 2019 and funds other department- and project-specific requests related to climate-change mitigation. She adds that climate change is not just a municipal responsibility: leadership and funding will be required at the provincial and federal levels as well.)

First-time councillor Kim Zippel agrees with Slavin's assessment. She says that in her first few months representing the Otonabee Ward, she’s noticed that there has generally been more talk than action when it comes to climate change: “We always get funding to make plans, but we never get funding to do actions that are inherent to those plans.”

Zippel does note that the new council seems to be prioritizing climate-change action. The January 17 motion, which Zippel herself moved, also directed staff to look into “how a climate-change lens” could be used in future municipal decision-making. “Are we always considering our climate-change mitigation policies in every report, project, and policy? Of course we haven’t been,” she says. “It’s a shift in the way we do things, but it’s not impossible.”

The donation model is not without its detractors. Harry Kitchen, professor emeritus in Trent University’s economics department and an expert on municipal finance and governance, thinks that asking residents to fund a climate-change action plan voluntarily is “the wrong way to operate.”

“It’s a public responsibility,” he says. “Climate change is something that affects everybody, so we need to spread that cost on everybody. For those that can’t afford it, we have a problem. However, cities have ways to alleviate the property-tax burden if they so choose.” (In Alberta, for example, the province offers a property tax deferral program, whereby the province pays property taxes to the municipality, and the homeowner repays that sum at a low rate of interest when they sell their home.)

For Our Grandchildren plans to continue its push for more dedicated funding from the city during next year’s budget talks.

The special climate fund has, though, led to a shift in the community conversation around climate-change mitigation and moral responsibility, according to Kawalec. “We can’t afford to continue what we’ve been doing. It’s a climate crisis. We’re down to 12 years,” she says, referring to an October 2018 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that estimates that policymakers around the world have just that long to limit some of the most devastating potential effects of global warming.

“The passing of this motion alone has done more to elevate the climate-change conversation than any other action or approach that we’ve taken to date,” Kawalec says. “The tax-deductible donation has empowered people to step forward and make a difference.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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