Cortes Community Consultation Meeting On Tax Service Referenda

(CKTZ Broadcast 5 – 6:30 PM Sat, June 8 & Sunday 9:30-11 AM)

By De Clarke

SRD sent four representatives to Cortes island by water taxi on June 6th to conduct a community consultation meeting on two tax service referenda:  the long-delayed and controversial hall tax, and the first-responders training tax.  Present at the meeting from SRD were:  Chair Michele Babchuk, CAO David Leitch, Tom Yates (Senior Manager), and Aniko Nelson [Parks and Planning Manager].  Present at the meeting from Cortes were approximately 80 community members.

SRD Presentation

Due to extremely limited time (1.5 hours) the agenda was strictly observed.  At 6 pm Director Noba Anderson introduced the SRD personnel and thanked them for coming.  SRD then made a concise and informative presentation about the probable content of the hall tax bylaw and the timeline for a referendum.  They anticipate an opportunity for Cortes Islanders to vote on both referenda in October of this year, which is soon enough to make both halls and the fire department eligible for funding in 2020.  Most of SRD’s presentation covered the hall tax issue, because support for first responders training is overwhelming enough to make it almost a foregone conclusion.  They disclosed the requested budget, the approximate yearly parcel tax payment, the approximate yearly mil rate payment for the average Cortes property, the tax service area (the whole island), and the approval process any referendum has to undergo before it can be brought to the public.  They offered fairly confident estimates of the tax assessments should these referenda pass.

Cost To Average Taxpayer

Their estimate is that the hall tax if assessed by mil rate would cost the average ratepayer $92/year, and by parcel tax would cost each parcel owner “a little more, in the mid-90’s.”  (The average ratepayer would be the owner of a property of average value, which on Cortes is about $350K. ) They guesstimated that this average ratepayer would pay about $50/year for the first responders training service.  Later discussion revealed that their projected mil rate for the hall tax was about 25 cents, and for the first responders 12 or 13 cents (number of pennies per $1K of house value).
David Leitch was the primary presenter for SRD; he explained that while some aspects of the hall tax bylaw were negotiable and they welcomed feedback, others were not.  Negotiable elements were the method of assessment (parcel vs mil rate) and the assessment area boundaries.  The requested budget was not negotiable, as it had been derived by SRD’s staff from figures submitted to them by SCCA and WCC documenting their yearly expenses.

Future Implementation

Mr Leitch also explained that implementation of any tax service would involve a contractual relationship between the supported organisation(s) and SRD.  The organisation would be obliged to present SRD annually with accurate reports of its expenditures, to demonstrate that funds were being spent appropriately and achieving the desired end.  He mentioned more than once that the amount requested for the tax service was by no means the total budget for the community halls, but only covered the most basic operational expenses;  the halls would continue to fund-raise and seek grants for anything beyond that core support.

Mr Leitch also explained that implementation of any tax service would involve a contractual relationship between the supported organisation(s) and SRD.  The organisation would be obliged to present SRD annually with accurate reports of its expenditures, to demonstrate that funds were being spent appropriately and achieving the desired end.  He mentioned more than once that the amount requested for the tax service was by no means the total budget for the community halls, but only covered the most basic operational expenses;  the halls would continue to fund-raise and seek grants for anything beyond that core support.

18 Speakers From The Audience

SRD’s presentation moved along briskly and was complete in 25 minutes, after which they opened the mic to (first) those who had signed up on the Speakers’ List, and (second) the floor.  Of the 18 individuals who chose to speak, five were opposed to or skeptical about the hall tax, and the remainder were supportive.

Questions Raised By Skeptics or Opponents:

Will the halls retain their autonomy, or will SRD take over the management?

Answer:  the halls retain their autonomy;  SRD reserves the right only to subject their bookkeeping to a yearly (internal) audit.

Can the amount of the allocation be increased, and if so how?

Answer: the amount can be increased by 25 percent over a five year period to keep up with inflation, but any increase beyond that would require a bylaw revision and a referendum.

Will the halls be held to a new, higher safety or code standard because of this funding?

Answer: no, SRD will not own the halls (as they do on Quadra);  the usual Cortes Island code will apply.  If there are safety issues such as seismic upgrade, there are appropriate sources of grant funding for this kind of major capital project, which SRD would be happy to help us apply for.

How many properties are there on Cortes?  The census lists only 535 households.

Answer:  there are over 1000 distinct land parcels on Cortes Island.  The tax rates proposed for these referenda are based on the parcel list maintained by BC Assessment.

Would foreshore leases be considered parcels for tax purposes?

Answer:  Yes, all parcels would be treated alike.  [Here Director Anderson noted that in earlier discussions when a parcel tax was being considered, there was a proposal to exempt foreshore leases.]

Will there be some criteria to determine success or failure of the funded projects?

Answer:  yes, SRD’s annual review and audit of each organisation’s yearly expenses and activities.

Why should the whole Area B be taxed for these services, when parts of it are inaccessible and contain no users of the services?  What about remote, voluntarily isolated individuals who never visit the halls?  What about parcels where the fire department has no road access?  Garbage collection is funded by a parcel tax that is more selective, applying only to inhabited properties with road access;  so is the fire department allocation.

Answer:  these services, unlike garbage collection or house-fire response which requires road access to provide, are seen as benefiting the entire island as a community.  First responders training, for example, would benefit residents travelling on any of our roads.  Mr Yates commented:  “My kids are grown and gone, but I still pay school taxes.”

(Comment) Maureen Bader, local anti-tax activist, used her microphone time to assert that the non-binding referendum should not be regarded as a strong indicator because in her opinion as a scrutineer, many voters did not understand what they were voting on and were not aware that their property tax would increase if the referenda passed.  “Santa Claus isn’t going to pay these taxes for you,” she quipped.

David Leitch responded that the real referendum will present a fully developed bylaw whose language will be unequivocal and available to everyone.  It will specify the requested budget, and all the other information presented at this meeting.  Every voter will be able to see clearly how their invididual property tax assessment changes if the referenda pass.

Questions From Those In Favour Of The Tax

Of the 13 individuals who spoke in favour of the hall tax proposal, most were property owners and all favoured the mil rate assessment method. Points/questions they raised:

It makes no sense to split the island into sub-areas for assessment;  both halls should be supported by a single tax service assessed over all of Area B.  We do not split the fire hall support into separate regions making southern Cortes pay for Mansons and northwestern Cortes pay for Whaletown;  we just pay for a fire protection service.  We’ve been divided enough on this, let’s do this together as a community.

Don’t most communities on the coast support their halls with a property tax?  Is this unusual?

Answer:  no, it’s quite normal.  And having reviewed the budget information from both halls, SRD found that their volunteers and staff were working very hard to “tax as little as possible.”

Wasn’t the non-binding referendum bizarre, and a waste of money?

Answer:  actually a non-binding referendum is not that bizarre, it is one of the ways that regional districts measure public opinion on controversial referendum issues, and it costs very little (not having to go through all the stages of approval required for a real referendum).

(Comment) Our organisations are underfunded and are not able to provide the level of services we want to provide to our community.  We need core support.  Grants are not reliable.  Constant fundraising exhausts our volunteers.  The delay in getting to this referendum is hurting us.

(Comment) We’ve heard claims from some hall tax opponents that renters should not be allowed to vote on this matter, because they are not ratepayers.  “This is BS.”  Landlords pass property tax onto their renters;  renters have every right to vote on these tax services.

I’m a property owner:  do I have to be a citizen to vote in this referendum?

Answer:  Yes, you do. (This changed after questioner revealed she was not a Canadian citizen.)

(Comment) There are a lot of gray haired people in this room tonight, but let’s not forget all the young families who can’t be here because they don’t have childcare.  We need our halls to maintain the kind of community that attracts young families;  we need them for the future of our island.

Why has this process been so slow?  Why all the caution?  Why has it taken so long despite a consistent 2/3 majority over several years supporting the hall tax concept?

Answer:  We received over 1000 pieces of correspondence on this issue and hundreds of letters that were from opponents.  Seen from the outside, the majority will was not obvious to us..

If you received hundreds of letters, how many of them were from the same person?

[No answer.]

Do these referenda affect First Nations on Cortes?

Answer:  No, First Nations land is exempt from property tax.

Conclusion

The meeting ended on time (7:30pm).  Chair Babchuk summed it up:  SRD had got what they came for, a sense of the majority will on certain details of the bylaw text.  She assured the audience that the drafting and approval process would continue with all possible speed, and that there would be a referendum in the fall, most likely October.  She concluded her remarks with an acknowledgement of the efforts of Noba Anderson, Regional Director for Area B;  the audience responded with an enthusiastic ovation.  While all speakers were acknowledged and thanked with varying degrees of applause throughout the meeting, the ovation for Director Anderson was the most prolonged and energetic of the evening.

Disclosure: De Clarke is a volunteer Director of the Whaletown Community Club (WCC), which oversees Gorge Hall and other Whaletown buildings.

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