Cortes Is Different

Originally Published on the Cortes Tideline

By De Clarke

During all the fire and fury over Cortes’ proposed “Hall Tax,” it occurred to me that the problem of increasing difficulty in operating and maintaining our Community Halls can hardly be unique to Cortes. Surely other communities are facing similar challenges; it would be worth finding out how (or whether) they were solving the problem. So I set out to investigate the funding basis of as many coastal community halls as possible, in communities not too different from our own: smallish, rural-ish, remote-ish.

Twenty Community Halls

The table below summarises what I found out.

(Alert Bay didn’t get back to me in time, so we don’t have that info yet. Blue population figures are under 200 people, yellow ones are over 5000, i.e. more than a factor of 5 away from our own approx 1000 people.)

As you can see, I managed to find funding information for more than 20 community halls ranging from Haida Gwaii to the southern gulf islands. These communities vary in size between populations of less than 200, to more than 15000, as shown above; those closest to our own size are probably the most relevant. Cortes is one of only three communities that don’t support their community halls with a baseline operating budget from property tax assessment.

Cortes Is Different

So that’s the executive summary: almost every hall in my survey receives funding from the property tax base for basic maintenance and operations. Cortes is quite unusual in this regard.

Now for some details…

Since a lack of tax-based funding is clearly the exception rather than the rule, it’s worth taking a quick look at the other two comparable non-conformist Halls. 

Mayne Island

Mayne Island takes a really different approach: they don’t need any taxpayer support because a very wealthy American once lived there who deeply loved the community; 25 years ago he set up an Endowment specifically for the Hall. He was also a wizard at investing, and has managed the fund for them ever since. Now in his 80’s, he’s parlayed the initial stake of $50K to an endowment of around $1M. The terms of the endowment restrict its use strictly to operations and maintenance, so Mayne Island’s Hall is set for life. They are living off the dividends. Nice to be them!

Thetis Island

Thetis Island‘s community hall is a fascinating case. They manage entirely on donations and revenue from fundraising! However, it’s worth looking more closely at their community and finances to understand how they can do this.

The resident population of Thetis is around 350. They are fairly tightly clustered in one region of the island (“downtown”). Their Community Association charges a $90/year membership fee, which provides about half of their revenue; almost every resident chooses to be a member. Use of the Hall is free for all nonprofit community groups, but some groups choose to pay rent anyway (as a donation). All public programming at the Hall is free to members, and “by donation” to non-members. As my contact said, “We have some people here who are really struggling, and we don’t want to exclude anyone. We are a charitable organisation and it’s our mission to serve the whole community.”

Thetis hall also publishes a quarterly (paper) newsletter which is free to members and takes advertising. A few subscriptions are sold to non-members. The advertising generates another $4K a year or so (in other words, local business owners solidly support the hall). The interesting thing about Thetis Island, to me, is that its community has essentially decided to tax themselves (by purchasing memberships in the community association) at almost the same amount that has been suggested for the Hall Tax here (actually a bit higher, since $85 was an upper limit on the proposed tax assessment for Cortes). This reliable funding enables Thetis Hall, among other things, to provide free office space for other nonprofit organisations on their island. This in turn frees those organisations from some financial stress, in a beneficial chain reaction.

Thetis hall, years ago, wisely sought charitable status. They are thus able to offer receipts for tax deductions to their donors. They receive reliable annual donations of up to $500 from several of their residents. It looks like Thetis Hall has nearly unanimous support from its small, close-knit community.

These notable exceptions – cases where a hall is doing well, is offering a wide variety of programs, and is popular in its community, yet has no RD or muni tax service support – turn out to have some significant differences from our situation on Cortes.

Comox Valley District

I also looked at the history of some of these hall tax allocations: do they balloon alarmingly over time? Comox Valley Regional District has the best (most easily navigated and understood) financial records online, so I took a quick look at the funding for their halls. I looked at the last 5 years, during which there have been no increases in allocation. The amounts are unchanged, year after year. The same is true of most community hall assessments, unless a major project was undertaken (like building a whole new facility).

Quadra Island

Quadra Island, by contrast, does show a steady increase in the assessment for its community hall. But Quadra Island seems to be an exception. There is no reason to expect all hall taxes to inflate rapidly from year to year. Given Quadra Island’s hall budget history (which has indeed ballooned, as SRD 5 year plans show), I’d suggest including language in any bylaw that (a) caps the tax service amount and (b) specifies a fixed index of inflation, so that a further public process is required to adjust the amount otherwise.

The halls that have secure funding – whether from millionaire philanthropy, unanimous community support, or property tax base – seem to be flourishing and heavily booked, with a lot of community participation. Programs for seniors in particular are very popular, as are after-school activities for youth; where basic maintenance and operations are covered there is (as you’d expect) a lot more energy and funding for programming. When I asked Ucluelet’s program manager whether they did a lot of fund-raising for their community centre, she said “Oh god, no.” She knew how time-intensive and unremunerative constant fund-raising can be. She was startled to find that there was any community on our coast that did not support its rec centre or community hall from its tax base. “I can’t believe you’re even having to ask this question,” she said.

“In 1986 we applied for a Charitable Gaming license and bingo became our chief funding source. By 1991 we had to augment that by going to referendum to get on the tax roll. The population voted 64% to support the Community Centre through property taxation. This marked a huge change in our focus. We could now concentrate on recreation programming instead of fundraising to survive.
(Web site of Quadra Island Community Centre)

Multiple Villages on Gabriola, Salt Spring

One challenge faced by Cortes is that we have multiple villages scattered at some distance on one island, and multiple community halls. Whaletown and Mansons Landing are far enough apart that for each it’s a bit of a trek to attend events in the other village. So we have not one but two community halls (three, if we count Tork’s community centre which was built with private funds), for our population of only 1000. The Whaletown hall is much cheaper to operate than Mansons, but it still adds to the total cost of community centre support.

Other islands with multiple halls are Saltspring which has three, and Gabriola which has two. So, though their population is higher than ours (a lot higher in the case of Saltspring), they share with us the challenge of multiple social centres. Their halls are supported by a tax service via Capital RD and CVRD respectively.

The Regional Districts

It’s worth noting that not every tax-supported hall has its own named service. Pender Island’s community hall doesn’t, for example; but they are still tax-supported, so I’ve counted them in that category. They have to apply every year to their RD for a share of the overall Parks and Rec budget. It works – they are doing well and providing valued services to the community – but they are never 100% certain about next year’s funding. Their program manager said, “There is no way we could stay open without this funding from the regional district.” One of the arguments they made to their RD was that they were being taxed for “Arts and Culture” support which did not exist on Pender, only in suburban/urban areas; they asked to have that money given back to support their local community hall, and their RD agreed.

Also worth noting: halls that have “struck the deal” with their RD to become a tax-based service have benefitted in another way, by access to the RD’s umbrella insurance coverage. In some cases this has reduced their insurance costs and helped to balance the books. 
The Province appears to be supportive of community halls in general (perceiving, perhaps, their key role in disaster preparedness, fitness/health promotion, social networking, youth programming etc). Halls I talked to that needed upgrades and refits (for weather proofing or to meet modern code) have been successful in acquiring grants to cover renovation expenses. Concerns expressed recently (and anonymously) in the Marketer that the age and condition of our halls make them effectively a “bad investment,” I think should be allayed by (a) our success in acquiring grant funding for renos and upgrades, and (b) the availability of (more) affordable insurance. It bears repeating that our halls are actually not in bad shape; a lot of donation and grant money has been raised for renovations. We don’t need to replace or rebuild them any time soon.

The halls have been accused of making no effort to contain their costs. It seems to me hard to overlook the grant-writing effort and planning that led to replacement of inefficient furnaces with modern heat pumps in both halls, or the recent reno of Gorge Hall that included thermal windows to reduce the heating bill; both these projects were attempts to contain costs by reducing our halls’ utility bills.

Conclusions:

There was such outrage in some quarters about the very notion of supporting our community halls via a tax service, that at first I thought this must be a new and radical idea, foreign to the culture of coastal BC. What I have found is actually the reverse — that almost all our coastal community halls are funded via property tax assessment, many of them for over 25 years. 

Even tiny Tahsis, with a population of less than 350, has a full-featured rec facility and much-used community hall thanks to property tax assessment; they have facilities we have never dreamt of, all free for community members. In their case, about half the tax revenue comes from two idle mills whose owner is paying commercial property tax on the two large parcels. (Again, nice to be them!) But the rest comes from residential rate payers… and I’m sure their swimming pool, gymnasium, bowling alley and pool tables make the 2300mm rainfall of a Tahsis winter a bit easier to bear.
Even independent-minded, nonconformist Lasqueti has RD tax-based support for their community hall, and so does blue-collar Texada. Cortes is an oddball. We are in a small minority. And not enjoying the unusual advantages of Thetis or Mayne, it’s not surprising that we find ourselves struggling. We’re not struggling because our hall management or societies are incompetent, or because funds are being wantonly wasted; we’re facing the same challenges as everyone else, but without the same advantages.

We don’t have a millionaire philanthropist/investor eager to set up an endowment to support our halls into the future (at least, no one has stepped up yet!). We also don’t have one, single, cohesive centre of habitation; we lack the solidarity of Thetis’ small, co-located community and more closely resemble Salt Spring or Gabriola socially. Mansons Hall (SCCA) does have charitable status, but Whaletown doesn’t. In other ways, we are not “different” at all: we face all the same problems that other small community halls are facing as the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s grow ever more distant: more burdensome regulations and bylaws, more demanding insurance requirements, higher Hydro bills, more Byzantine grant application procedures, a long slow decline in volunteer hours, etc.

It’s no secret to Tideline readers that I personally support the establishment of a tax service to provide baseline funding for our halls, nor that I consider community centres an essential resource for a healthy community — emphatically not a luxury or a frivolous expense. My recent conversations with other community associations and hall operators elsewhere have only reinforced this view. Not being one of the special cases like Thetis or Mayne, I think we need to look again at what the overwhelming majority of our peers have done to solve this problem… why not adopt the already-invented wheel? I know we often say proudly that Cortes is Different. But there are times when being “different” really does just mean being stubborn to the point of self-sabotage. Why should we reject a solution that has worked for about 90 percent of community halls on the coast? As Oct 20th approaches, perhaps we should take some time to ponder how different we really want to be.

NOTES: this article is the result of a few hundred minutes of phone calls and my own personal opinion. It is not the official position of any Cortes organisation, nor the work of any person other than myself. Heartfelt thanks go to the 40 or so people in coastal BC community associations, ratepayers’ associations, regional district offices and community centre offices who took the time to talk to me about how they were making ends meet. Any errors are almost certainly mine (in memory or transcription) and not theirs.

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