County mulls scrap­ping va­cancy tax re­bates

Lambton com­mer­cial and in­dus­trial prop­erty own­ers could lose va­cancy re­bate pro­grams

The Observer (Sarnia) - - FRONT PAGE - BAR­BARA SIMP­SON

Sar­nia-Lambton busi­nesses could lose a mu­nic­i­pal prop­erty tax re­bate pro­gram as early as next year.

County fi­nance staff are propos­ing the elim­i­na­tion of va­cancy re­bates – once man­dated un­der Sec­tion 364 of the Mu­nic­i­pal Act – after the prov­ince re­cently gave the green light to mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties to cre­ate their own poli­cies on va­cancy re­bates.

Un­der the ex­ist­ing pro­gram, all Lambton County com­mer­cial and in­dus­trial prop­erty own­ers can ap­ply to their mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties for tem­po­rary tax re­bates if at least a por­tion of their prop­erty is va­cant for at least three months.

Successful prop­erty own­ers can re­ceive be­tween a 30 to 35 per cent tax re­bate.

County fi­nance staff, how­ever, are rec­om­mend­ing scrap­ping the va­cancy re­bate pro­gram in an ef­fort to en­sure mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties have predictable and sta­ble funding go­ing for­ward.

“This is not about try­ing to pe­nal­ize some­one,” said John Innes, the county’s gen­eral man­ager of fi­nance. “This is not about col­lect­ing more taxes.”

County fi­nance staff ex­pect to lay out their plan to lo­cal busi­ness own­ers through a public con­sul­ta­tion process over the next few months. Staff also plan to meet with the Sar­nia-Lambton Cham­ber of Com­merce to ex­plain the pro­posed change.

Mem­bers of county coun­cil’s af­ter­noon com­mit­tee were pre­sented with the plan Wed­nes­day as part of a staff re­port on 2017 tax poli­cies.

That re­port also rec­om­mended county coun­cil not move for­ward with a re­duc­tion to the farm­land tax class ra­tio as re­quested by the Lambton Fed­er­a­tion of Agri­cul­ture.

If the county pro­ceeds with elim­i­nat­ing va­cancy re­bate pro­grams – which could hap­pen ef­fec­tive Jan. 1, 2018 – it would not only im­pact the county’s pro­gram but also the re­bate pro­grams of its mem­ber mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties, in­clud­ing Sar­nia and Petro­lia.

But Innes said busi­ness own­ers could still get tax re­lief by choos­ing to ap­peal their prop­erty as­sess­ments and/or ap­ply­ing for a tax re­bate if they’ve made changes to their prop­erty.

This abun­dance of avail­able tax breaks was one of sev­eral con­cerns On­tario mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties re­cently shared with the prov­ince dur­ing a re­view of its va­cancy re­bate pol­icy.

Up un­til this point, com­mer­cial and in­dus­trial prop­erty own­ers have been able to ap­ply for a tem­po­rary va­cancy re­bate, as well as ap­peal their prop­erty as­sess­ments to se­cure a per­ma­nent tax break, Innes said.

“In essence, you’re giv­ing them a break for the same thing, so mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties, like Lambton, have ar­gued to the prov­ince it should be one or the other,” Innes said.

Point Ed­ward Mayor Bev Hand said her mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ment is strug­gling with sta­bi­liz­ing its budget be­cause its ho­tels are seek­ing mu­nic­i­pal tax breaks due to the fact they’re not at 100 per cent oc­cu­pancy.

“To me, it’s not fair be­cause we’re still giv­ing them ser­vices and we’re mak­ing our budget based on those tax dol­lars and then they turn around and ap­peal and they win,” she said.

St. Clair Town­ship Deputy Mayor Peter Gilliland said the cur­rent sys­tem al­lows prop­erty own­ers to “double dip” to get mul­ti­ple tax breaks that di­rectly im­pact mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties.

“They can work us right to the death,” he said.

County coun­cil’s af­ter­noon com­mit­tee on Wed­nes­day en­dorsed staff plan’s to ini­ti­ate a public con­sul­ta­tion process for the elim­i­na­tion of the va­cancy re­bate pro­gram. It also en­dorsed keep­ing 2017 prop­erty tax class ra­tios – ex­cept for the land­fill class – the same as those set in 2016.

Coun­cil as a whole, how­ever, will have the fi­nal stay at its May 3 meet­ing.

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