SG challenged over ‘sticker shock’
South Glengarry’s finance department is seeking a solution for tax bill ‘sticker shock’ related to what the township refers to as “local improvement charges” – namely, maintenance and repairs to municipal drains, as well as beaver dam removal – the cost of which is borne by property owners after the work has been completed.
“If your house is on a municipal drain, and somewhere downstream there’s a beaver dam that has to be taken apart, it’s a municipal responsibility (under the Drainage
Act) to remove that dam to prevent a flooded river,” newlyminted township treasurer and general manager of corporate services Lachlan McDonald told council at the most recent regular meeting on Sept. 5.
“We do the work and then bill it out (to the property owner/s) the next year...We don’t send out (assessment) letters when the work is done (or before).”
Mr. McDonald was commenting on a recent letter from Williamstown resident Ross Holden, sent to the township and addressed to Mayor Ian McLeod and council, in which Mr. Holden expressed his displeasure with his third/final tax bill for 2017, received in August, because of a retroactive charge he was assessed for beaver control-related work.
Mr. Holden had received no prior notice that he would be charged for the service.
“This bill had an additional $1,086.39 under the heading of local improvement,” wrote Mr. Holden.
“Needless to say I was surprised, as there was no local improvement work on my property. I do not consider the removal of beavers local improvement, but animal control.”
Mr. Holden added that he contacted Mr. McDonald to inquire about the increase, and was informed that he was “responsible for any problems occurring to the creek (Williamson Drain)” which traverses his property.
“This creek drains kilometres of property in South Glengarry and therefore should be a county responsibility,” stated Mr. Holden, who was further bewildered that the added assessment charge was retroactively cumulative, predating his purchase of the property.
“I was told that the amount billed was because of the removal of beavers going back to the year 2003. I only moved here in 2006,” said Mr. Holden.
“Beavers were removed about five years ago, on my property, but I was never made aware that I would be taxed for this service.”
Mr. McDonald – who pointed out that Mr. Holden’s bill was reduced somewhat after their conversation because the pre-2006 charges “were not really his burden” – explained that the term ‘local improvement charge’ is synoymous with ‘municipal drain charge,’ and that property owners benefit from improvements to the drains, and “therefore, it is very local.”
As for assessing the improvement charges cumulatively, outgoing treasurer Mike Samson explained that given the number of files involving municipal drains in the township – he estimated about 100 properties were on the Williamson Drain alone – it is not administratively viable to assess them on an annual basis.
“It’s time-consuming.. .You’d have to have a couple more people in the (municipal) office to address that,” said Mr. Samson.
“What we’re (presently) doing is waiting a couple of years to make it worth the trouble to assess it...I don’t suggest that there’s much more you could do...You could assess every couple of years, if you wanted to.”
Mr. Samson indicated that the issues surrounding the assessment of the ‘local improvement’ charges don’t stem solely from township policy.
“Lawyers, when there’s a transaction, a sale of property...very, very seldom ask the question, ‘Is there a mu- nicipal drain on this property that should be considered (for assessment)?’” he said. Mayor McLeod concurred with Mr. Samson. “I think the obligation is on the legal counsel for whomever the purchaser is to find out if there are any back taxes owing,” he said.
While council agreed that legal oversights could be a contributing factor, they also empathized with Mr. Holden.
Deputy-mayor Frank Prevost was particularly vocal about the township’s policy regarding assessment for drainage maintenance/beaver control.
“It’s a little shocking at the end of the day getting a bill and you don’t know what the hell it’s for,” he said.
“If I’d bought this property two years ago, for instance, and you send me a bill from 2003, I’m going to have a major problem with that.” Coun. Bill McKenzie was equally upset. “From what I’m gathering here, we (the municipality) know where the municipal drains are in this township...We can go and see when a property is sold and the purchaser comes in to pay the taxes...and say, ‘Here’s our directory of municipal drains’,” said Coun. McKenzie.
“That’s what computers are for, I gather. I don’t see the difficulty, frankly.”
However, township clerk Marilyn LeBrun explained that there is no digital listing of the township’s municipal drains.
“Ok, so maybe that’s a good place to start,” replied Coun. McKenzie. “I don’t know. There’s gotta be a way.”
As discussions on the matter concluded, Mayor McLeod requested that Mr. McDonald and the township’s drainage superintendent, Gary MacDonald, meet and come up with some suggestions for resolving the ‘local improvement’ charge dilemma, and that Mr. McDonald incorporate the results of those talks into a staff report to be presented to council at a later date.