Are ex­clu­sive golf clubs pay­ing their fair share in taxes?

Thornhill Post - - Contents -

Is ev­ery­one in the city pay­ing a fair share? That was the ques­tion last month, as the City of Toronto was once again de­lib­er­at­ing over the Toronto bud­get.

Are home­own­ers pay­ing enough or too much? Are small busi­nesses pay­ing too much? Should arts fa­cil­i­ties get a spe­cial tax class?

There is a move­ment to keep the city af­ford­able and di­verse and not let it be­come a play­ground for the rich and fab­u­lous.

So what of old-timey in­sti­tu­tions such as pri­vate golf clubs? Shouldn’t such places pay their fair share?

Lo­cal res­i­dents might be sur­prised to learn that some of the wealth­i­est en­claves in the city get spe­cial tax breaks dat­ing back decades — agree­ments that are un­break­able, ac­cord­ing to City of Toronto of­fi­cials.

Take Rosedale Golf Club for in­stance. This very pri­vate golf course in cen­tral Toronto dates back more than a cen­tury. It has ranked as one of the best golf cour­ses in the coun­try.

Mem­ber­ship, if it is of­fered at all, runs up­wards of $90,000. But since the cre­ation of metropoli­tan Toronto in the 1950s, the club has en­joyed the ben­e­fits of a fixed as­sess­ment agree­ment, mean­ing that property taxes are paid on a his­toric pre-de­ter­mined amount. The dif­fer­ence be­tween that amount and the amount payable un­der the cur­rent as­sess­ment value is de­ferred, as is in­ter­est on the de­ferred amount.

Maybe it’s time the play­ing field was lev­elled so that the com­mu­nity ex­acts some sort of ben­e­fit, and al­low kids or adults from pri­or­ity neigh­bour­hoods to use the course once a week.

Other clubs that cater to a very ex­clu­sive clien­tele, such as Oak­dale Golf & Coun­try Club and the Toronto Hunt Club, get the same deal.

“As it turns out now, the guy who washes the floor in the locker room at these clubs is sub­si­diz­ing the mem­bers of the club,” said Howard Moscoe, a for­mer Toronto city coun­cil­lor who tried and failed to beat the agree­ments nu­mer­ous times over his long ca­reer in pol­i­tics.

His bat­tles over the pri­vate golf club deal­ings are chron­i­cled in his new book re­leased late last year.

“Most peo­ple don’t even know of these agree­ments,” he said.

There were 12 pri­vate clubs that got these sweet­heart deals, and only nine re­main. Moscoe es­ti­mates that monies owed to the city could be as much as $41 mil­lion. But there is more to it than sim­ple tax breaks.

When the agree­ments were struck with dif­fer­ent metropoli­tan Toronto ar­eas, such as Eto­bi­coke, Scar­bor­ough and North York, the fear was that with­out them the large tracts of land would be­come hous­ing de­vel­op­ments.

“They are still ac­tive con­tracts that we are bound by to­day,” said John Lon­garini, man­ager, op­er­a­tional sup­port for the city.

“And they were de­signed, from what I gather, to pre­serve green space in the de­vel­op­ment era when large tracts of land were be­ing used up for hous­ing.”

Should a club ever be in­clined to cease be­ing a club and the mem­ber­ship cash out and head straight to the Grand Cay­man Is­lands, the club would first need to pay back its de­ferred taxes and ac­cu­mu­lated in­ter­est.

The con­cern is that with­out the pro­tec­tion­ist agree­ments the free mar­ket forces would prove too strong and the golf clubs would sell off the land to a de­vel­oper.

There is prece­dent, and it is hap­pen­ing with greater fre­quency as of late. In Markham, mem­bers of the York Downs Golf Club up and sold their mas­sive 417-acre plot of land, which will soon be­come a mas­sive res­i­den­tial de­vel­op­ment de­stroy­ing the ma­jor­ity of the cher­ished green space that pro­vided many en­vi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fits.

The Ladies’ Golf Club of Toronto in Thorn­hill sold a slice of its land to a de­vel­oper to al­low for the con­tin­ued ex­is­tence of the club.

And the same thing is hap­pen­ing in Oakville where Clublink is try­ing to plunk a de­vel­op­ment with thou­sands of units over­top the his­toric Glen Abbey golf course. The town is fight­ing hard against the Glen Abbey de­vel­op­ment, at­tempt­ing to use a her­itage des­ig­na­tion, but it could be lost.

In the blink of an eye, mas­sive green spa­ces will be paved over.

The seven mu­nic­i­pally owned golf cour­ses in Toronto have been los­ing money for years, and the city is re­view­ing their op­er­a­tions.

It is un­likely the city would carve up the Don Val­ley Golf Course and par­cel it up for de­vel­op­ment, but stranger things have hap­pened.

The trou­ble is golf­ing isn’t as pop­u­lar as it once was. Com­bine that with a strong real es­tate mar­ket and a short­age of large plots of de­vel­opable land, and that’s a recipe for dis­as­ter.

That’s what wor­ries Toronto mem­ber of pro­vin­cial par­lia­ment Mike Colle, au­thor of the On­tario Green­belt leg­is­la­tion, who has heard talk of the pri­vate golf club tax issue come around ev­ery few years, usu­ally around bud­get time.

“The bot­tom line is that this isn’t go­ing to mean any kind of end to poverty or hous­ing short­ages or fix the Toronto bud­get,” he said.

“We are just get­ting flooded by peo­ple and con­dos. The last thing we should be do­ing is jeop­ar­diz­ing green spa­ces. And as much as these golf cour­ses are some­times seen as priv­i­leged places, if they weren’t golf cour­ses, they would be con­dos right now.”

The only way to get the pri­vate golf clubs in Toronto to pay taxes at cur­rent rates, ac­cord­ing to Lon­garini, would be to amend the pro­vin­cial leg­is­la­tion, and it doesn’t seem likely.

Given the cur­rent de­mand for hous­ing and the ten­u­ous na­ture of golf in gen­eral, the best move might be to strengthen pro­tec­tions and to ex­act some ad­di­tional com­mu­nity ben­e­fits. Why not let the pub­lic to play on the cour­ses once per week?

“I don’t want to look at [amend­ments] that in a way jeop­ar­dize [green space],” said Colle. “We have to be very care­ful es­pe­cially in the cen­tre of the city with Rosedale and these cour­ses in very sen­si­tive spa­ces.”

Rosedale Golf Club did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

The guy who washes the floor in the locker room at these clubs is sub­si­diz­ing the mem­bers.”

Clock­wise from left: for­mer coun­cil­lor Howard Moscoe and two cour­ses be­ing turned over to res­i­den­tial de­vel­op­ment, York Downs and Glen Abbey

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