Provincial parties debate the property-tax system

By Penny Caldwell »Penny Caldwell

November 25th, 2008

23 comments

“The system is broken. It is so busted, it is lying on the floor and cannot be fixed.” So said the NDP’s Michael Prue, speaking on the weekend about the province’s property-tax system.

Nobody in the standing-room-only crowd of cottagers was about to argue. When asked how many of them had received assessments that were above average in their area, everybody except one lone cottager had a hand in the air. Bob Topp, chair of Coalition After Property Tax Reform (CAPTR), which hosted the meeting in a hotel north of Toronto, announced that in Temagami, the assessed value of some island properties had increased as much as 100%.  (The average for the province is 20%.)

Above: Bob Topp (left) and Terry Rees, Executive Director of FOCA and a director of CAPTR

In addition to Prue, sitting on the panel of government representatives were Tim Hudak, finance critic for the Ontario Conservatives, and, for the government, Yasir Naqvi, parliamentary assistant to the Minister of Revenue, who likened attending the meeting to walking into a lion’s den. “I’ll put this politely,” he said. “We’ll agree to disagree.”

And so they did–disagree that is. The main point on which CAPTR parts with the government is the Liberals’ claim that the new four-year phase-in system brings predictability to the process. The plan does nothing to address volatility, Topp pointed out. And it makes the system less equitable because property owners are being assessed at the top of the market and will have to wait four years for falling prices to be reflected. “The more frequent the assessment, the more accurate it is,” he says. “In the early ’nineties we had a four-year cycle. Unbelievably, we’re back to it again.”

One cottager noted that the four-year system only works in an increasing market. He challenged Naqvi to ask his government to allow an interim reassessment, if it is clear that property values are coming down. The liberal MPP promised to take the idea back for discussion.

You have to hand it to Naqvi. He held his own, despite heckling from the crowd; however, his assertion that the government is working on a plan to upload the costs of services previously downloaded to municipalities was met with loud derision when he also announced they would be fully uploaded by 2018. “We’ll be dead!” one cottager sitting behind me shouted.

At that, I looked around and, while most of the cottagers in the audience appeared young enough to be safely jumping off docks for at least another 10 years, there was no ignoring the grey factor. It was nearly five o’clock, and most of these folks had been in the room since 8:30 in the morning at the Federation of Ontario Cottagers’s Associations (FOCA) meeting that preceded the CAPTR meeting. They were there because they care deeply about their cottages. It may be where they spent their own childhood summers before bringing their children and grandchildren. They, or their parents,  likely bought when cottage prices were much lower. Maybe they bought empty lots and built their own places with the help of brothers, fathers, and sons—the way it used to be done. Some lived their dream to retire to the cottage but can no longer afford to stay there or even pass the place on to their children. “Cottagers are selling their memories,” said one cottager from the Algonquin Highlands who reported increases of 60% on his cottage association’s three lakes. “Do you want them to sell their memories?”

Above: Paul MacInnes of the Maple-Beech and Cameron Lakes Association in Haliburton.

The most impassioned and poignant message to the panel came close to the end of the meeting. “Do people have a fundamental right to property, not in a luxurious way?” asked an angry senior. “You have to put something in place that allows pensioners somewhere to live, that doesn’t condemn them to basements.” She said that when owners of small, modest cottages or homes can no longer afford to pay the taxes, and the properties are bought up and developed, “it amounts to expropriation.”

The solutions? Both Michael Prue and Tim Hudak trotted out their pre-election platforms. The NDP had three proposals at the time: start uploading the download; implement a freeze-til-sale model (the assessments would only go up if  $40,000 or more of improvements are added); and create a seasonal tax rate for cottagers who don’t use municipal services. His proposals drew questions but were generally applauded by members of the audience, one of whom asked Naqvi if his government would agree to work with the NDP to reform the system. The beleaguered Liberal said he couldn’t commit his government to anything but, again, he would take information back. The Conservatives proposed a 5% per year cap on assessment increases.

Meanwhile, lots of ideas poured forth for cottagers to take action:

•don’t forget about the issue now that the new system is in place; the four-year phase-in will end after the next provincial election

sign the petition on the CAPTR website

•attend the joint CAPTR-MPAC meeting in late January at which cottagers will be able to talk directly to MPAC officials. (Watch for details on the CAPTR website.)

•go online and bring down your property-assessment profile to be sure it is accurate

•appeal your assessment by the March 31 deadline, if you plan to file one (a Muskoka cottager at the meeting suggested everyone appeal their assessment in order to clog the system and show how faulty it is)

In the meantime, if you have an opinion you want to share, or any information to add, let us know.


23 comments

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Gerard Van Dalen

Oct. 8, 2009

1:14 pm

I suggest looking at what Halifax is considering. The report is available for download at http://www.halifax.ca/taxreform/. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Just modify it if necessary.


Packard

Dec. 18, 2008

10:34 am

Taxes and assessments are two different issues. As an "islander", I expect to pay taxes to benefit the community in which my property is located. However, I do NOT expect to carry such a heavy burden for services which I do not receive (garbage p/u, sanitary services, water, streetlights and sidewalks, education, police, ambulance and fire). Seasonal residents use a small proportion of these services and islanders use even less as their properties are completely inaccessible while the water is freezing or thawing. A different tax rate would be more equitable. Assessments...hmmm...a can of worms!! 1. MPAC's info is out-of-date. We all know properties with extra bathrooms, heat and other upgrades which are not reflected in the assessments but who's going to rat on friends? In our area, MPAC had 2 islands listed as 1 land mass (they've been separate since the Trent Severn Waterway was created)!! 2. I've been going the MPAC website route. It's not that easy. While my property profile shows waterfront variables, my property of interest report doesn't list those variables for other properties. MPAC says it does but haven't given me an answer on how to find it. 3. Are you aware that property owners with no heat get a decrease on their assessment but that decrease is based on the square footage of your cottage? So, a 1500 sq ft cottage with no heat gets a smaller decrease than a 3000 sq ft cottage with no heat...go figure!!! 4. Our property abuts a relative's property. Ours has a building on it and is a larger acreage. Our latest assessment went up 23% but the smaller vacant lot next door went up 66%! 5. As noted by others, the timing of assessments away from election time is problematic. The delivery of assessments was harder on island property owners. By the time they were received, boats were out of the water and freezing was starting so it's difficult to drive around finding comparable properties! These are just a few of the problems with our current system. Sweeping changes need to be made.


Thomas Orsi

Dec. 15, 2008

11:52 am

California's prop 13 (1% of your purchase price is the unchanging yearly tax) works, and work very well. Howard Jarvis spearheaded this (in the 70s!) to save seniors from being taxed out of their lifetime homes in Santa Monica, and it worked. Having owned a few properties in LA for the last 20 years I can tell you how no-brainer it is, never worrying about an unknown but potentially rising tax cost. make improvements all you want - it is your property, not the states! When and IF you sell, the buyer (and the bank) knows the cost with no shadows. No downside for everyone involved, including the state, as how much tax income they can expect is easily tallied. Next, we in Ontario can then buy and sell property as they do in California, without any lawyers, using standardized mandatory government-sanctioned forms filled in by your RE agent; but that is another subject. Taxes first!


Don Stewart

Dec. 12, 2008

9:56 pm

An "assessment" based system is likely here for many years, as going to another system (like services used) would require extensive study. Isn't what we need a system that is consistent, easy to understand and as fair as possible? Do you believe your fair share is last year's tax plus the per cent change in this year's budget? Do you believe your assessment should be based on a hard number, not a government estimate? Do you want predictable assessment changes when you make improvements? The Federation of Citizens' Associations (FCA) in Ottawa thinks it has the answer. The base of your assessment is the purchase price of your property in an arms length transaction. Each year your assessment is adjusted by the average change is real estate sale prices for your municipality. Thus, if the municipal budget does not increase, your assessment may rise, but the tax rate falls and you pay the same tax. If you make modifications within your current space, such as a kitchen reno or new windows, no change in assessment. If you add space, the amount added to your assessment is calculated by using province set cost per unit area construction cost times area. For example, if the costing used is $150 per square foot and you add 100 square feet, your assessment rises by $15000. Standard consruction cost numbers are used for building permits and by the insurance and construction industries, so it should be easy to do. When a property is sold, the selling price becomes the new assessed value. This may be higher than the previous assessment, but the buyer knows what his assessment will be and can easily predict the taxes. And the buyer is protected from excessive increases in the future. The system is simple to administer, since sales information can be captured by the province through land transfer tax reporting. So the system is simple, predictable and easy to administer. And it works for every municipality in the province. It is a residential only (including seasonal) solution. The bonus is it eliminates the need for MPAC in residential assessment, saving money for everyone in Ontario. It is better that the Conservative proposal, becasue it eliminates artificial caps and MPAC. It eliminates the huge disparities than can arise in the NDP proposal over time and an artifical $40000 cap on improvements. And do we need to discuss the Liberals minor modifications? Just call it Mike Harris version 2. The full details are on the FCA web site at http://www.fca-fac.ca/views/WGprtax.pdf It's a simple 9 page read. If you have comments for the FCA, send them to info@fca-fac.ca


Bruce

Dec. 1, 2008

9:34 am

Our MPAC-driven property tax system in Ontario is a disaster. It penalizes people who have worked and saved to own a vacation properrty. It also penalizes young people who buy homes in transition naighbourhoods or people who choose to live near transit. That said, I regret that cottagers do not gain much sympathy, especially when companies are closing and jobs are being lost. FOCA needs to build a wider coalition of opposition to MPAC if we are to have any hope of change.


Maggie

Nov. 30, 2008

12:46 pm

As a new cottage owner this year, our MVA is $11,000 over what we paid. Hard to argue that the assessment is wrong when you have just bought it. However, it is 1/3 more or higher than every cottage around us yet we could not/cannot afford to buy their properties (two have sold for almost double what we paid). If we complain, I worry that our neighbours will be reassessed not us, since ours is close to market. Not a great way to introduce yourselves! I also worry about "seasonal" assessments. I have seen it in England. Holiday homes pay less there, as I understand it. As a result, some villages do not have the tax base to support schools and other services so the permanent residents move, leaving villages empty except on the weekends. It has the effect of closing stores, pubs etc and leaving what feel like a Hollywood village set of empty houses. I am willing to pay taxes even if I don't use the services. I do "use" the facilities of the town nearby and they are there because of the services I help pay. I want equality with my neighbours taxes based on lot and buildings, regardless of location, with a premium based on size and quality of waterfront. World peace would be good too.


Jim

Nov. 30, 2008

12:38 pm

I do not like to pay taxes anymore than anyone else. However we still expect our various levels of government to provide services. I think we could improve the system if those who used the services paid for them. Our system should set a base tax rate that each user of a particular service pays regardless of the value of their home. I do not think that the users should be the only ones who pay for those services as many of them indirectly protect or benefit us. For instance, our education system helps our entire population even if we do not have children in school. On the other hand, each of us should pay only once for the education system not twice because we own two homes. We should pay a base tax based on what services are available to us and the balance of the cost of providing that service be distributed amongst all tax payers. The concept of taxing us based on the value of our homes is the same as the "take more from the wealthier" concept that lies behind our income tax policy. If we had a basic user tax than those not on the waterfront would likely be required to pay more and the trend, which I believe is unfair, of shifting the tax to the waterfront owners and reducing the tax for non-waterfront owners would be reduced to become a little more equitable.


Rob

Nov. 29, 2008

9:21 pm

Phillip, I can appreciate your sentiment that mass protest can get results, but imagine what would happen if we didn't pay taxes at all. Nobody to regulate pollution, restore power after snow storms, repair pot holes, plow roads, deal with sewage, teach kids, clear road-kill... the list goes on. Maybe the government could tighten spending and make its employees work a little more effectively. Times are going to be tough for everyone the next few years. My take on it all is that the previous generations have been spending tax dollars and polluting freely for far too long. They have been fueling the sense of entitlement that everyone has in this day and age. My kids are going to be the ones to clean up the mess.


Steve

Nov. 29, 2008

4:44 pm

Alan. The difference between Whitby taxes and Toronto taxes are NOTHING to do with Assessment. Its the Tax rate set by YOUR LOCAL COUNCILLORS. Place the blame exactly where it's supossed to go, on Councillors who have a spending problem


Phillip Dezwirek

Nov. 29, 2008

3:50 pm

To truly make an impact every cottager should not pay their taxes. The local and Provincial authorities could not take action against hundreds of thousands of citizens and the shock of the reaction would bring the problem and its inherent unfairness to the Front Page of every newspaper and newscast in the Country. Al little anarchy could bring a great result. This may sound a little wacky but we have been put on the back shelf by every Party that has been in power.Hard times lie ahead and those in power who are mainly recession proof should be looking to protecting their constituents.


Waverunner

Nov. 29, 2008

12:42 pm

NDP strategy will not work at all (see Steve's comment), Conservatives always have and would again continue to make a mess of things sacrificing some minimal savings for us in property tax, but ultimastely destroying our social service sectors, which by the way is probably more important to all of us but especiually our seniors. The Liiberal approach, while difficult for us to swallow, ensures the best track for the future and loing term investments in whats important.


Ken Taylor

Nov. 28, 2008

11:12 am

While there are oodles of examples of how the current system leads to unfair results, it is not clear that any other system would have a fewer net number of 'unjust' results, and that is the dilemma. Lets' drop all the nonsense about some consiracy or other; it is simply that we all want someone else to pay. The real issue is that true seasonal use cottagers use (or are provided with) so few of the municipal services their taxes pay for, but if we had some sort of 'seasonal' tax rate, we'd all scream at any any restiction on our use. Besides, we'd still expect the childless urban couple to pay the school taxes, or the couple away for a 3-month winter holiday to pay their full taxes, wouldn't we? Every system has inequalities, and it seems that protesting on the theme of assessment system fairness(even in a declining price market) will not get us anywhere; it is not that we are to pay later when prices recover, we want to pay less, period. We already agreed to the phased-in approach. Since no government level or officials are likely to argue for major reductions in taxes AND in all services to their citizens, it seems that the only choice for cottagers is to organize and push hard to local goverments to prioritize things that will directly benefit cottagers; reforestation of streams and lakeshores, and high level pollution control to improve water quality, ecosystem-protection parkland, habitat protection and management. Let's make the point that these things are more important to cottagers than having the best-paved roads and curbs and municipal offices in the County(which we mostly now have anyway after the 'good times' for muni-tax income).


mcgeejs@csolve.net

Nov. 27, 2008

3:45 pm

The present system is carefully politically crafted to ensure that the current uproar will subside before the next provincial election and we'll be whacked with more big assessments shortly thereafter. This is happening in other agencies that are supposed to operate without political manipulation. Just look at who is calling all the shots on the electricity front. They set up the Ontario Power Authority to come up with a plan for future electricity supply and then told them what the plan had to be???


Billsky17

Nov. 27, 2008

12:59 pm

Just so you folks in Ontario don't feel like you are alone in this battle, similar changes are happening here in BC. Our cabin (that's BC talk for cottage) assessment increased 140% for land and 100% for improvements resulting in a 100% increase ($1500 - $3000) in taxes in one year. BC just announced a 1 year freeze so we are stuck at these high rates. Property taxes today have nothing to do with level of service. They are a wealth tax, a tax on unrealized captital gains; gains we may never see. The system is very broken. Keep up the fight. We are starting a movement here on the unfairness of the capital gains tax upon transfer of the family cabin / cottage to children, etc. Many think that system is broken as well and is causing a significant change in Canadian family lifestyles. Is there interest in Ontario in this issue?


Case Bassie

Nov. 27, 2008

12:34 pm

It's the year after year difference in the assessment increases between waterfront properties and non-waterfront properties that are a problem. This leads to the waterfront property owners paying a growing share of the tax base to the municipalities. The Liberal fix does not address this. The municipalities could apply a small discount factor to the mill rate for waterfront properties but the money has to come from somewhere. A few yars ago the government came up with funding for the municipalities to allow "managed forests" to be taxed at a significantly lower rate as farm properties. Why can't they also do something similar to deal with the icreasing disparity in property taxes.


Mike Bailey

Nov. 27, 2008

9:05 am

Taxes should be based on use of services and not how many bathrooms you have or square footage etc. etc. If it were done this way all would be fair. Cottage properties go up in value much more then the property in the nearest town however the residence put a much higher demand on the tax revenue. We have a private road, septic system, our own well, no garbage pickup, no children in their school yet we pay for all this in our taxes.


Alan Koehler

Nov. 27, 2008

8:49 am

I agree - everyone in the province should appeal both their permanent residences and their cottages in order to clog the system. The entire property tax system is broken and the City of Toronto is the worse offender. Our house in Whitby is accessed at $343,000 and last year we paid $4,200 in property taxes. The same house in Toronto and assessed at the same value or more paid $2,200 in property taxes -no wonder the politicans in Toronto constantly complain about not having sufficient funds to run the city. As for our cottage taxes that we pay and receive zero services from local township in return, if it was not for the cottager in the township it would be considered as a third world country and I know they will sock it to us again this year and for the next 3 years based on the "current assessments." So get the word out - appeal, appeal, appeal your assessment!!!


Don Paterson

Nov. 26, 2008

9:04 am

Possibly consideration could be given to basing assessments on a similiar residence on a non-lakefront residence, nearby.


Steve

Nov. 25, 2008

2:50 pm

Laura, there are many variables to consider. You cant look at it without examing in depth. As for Asessed value..it doesnt matter if your value is $1000000 or $100, the local taxing authority are the ones who create the tax rate so, whatever your value, they get their taxes.


Laura

Nov. 25, 2008

12:28 pm

I have a friend who owns a modest (quite rustic, if you know what I mean) waterfront cottage in the Huntsville area. His next door neighbour has a small mansion, complete with bunkie, sauna, boathouse with accomodations above it, etc. Their assessments went up almost exactly the same. My friend's place is now worth the same on paper as the other guy's. How's that for equality?


Penny Caldwell

Summer Cottager

Nov. 25, 2008

12:14 pm

The proposal to “clog up the system” was suggested by a cottager as a way to send the message that the system needs to be overhauled. Michael Prue said 10 U.S. states use the ”freeze-til-sale” model. I’m curious to know how cottagers feel when they find their assessment is considerably higher than that of their neighbour.


Laura

Nov. 25, 2008

11:50 am

What's wrong with the NDP way of thinking? At least they're offering a way to keep cottages (and homes) in the hands of the owners. We had the most beautiful waterfront property in the family for over a hundred years. Five acres were bought for about 50 dollars and now it belongs to someone else because the government felt they were owed more. Up until roughly 15 years ago, the road was so bad we couldn't get into the property in the winter except by snowmobile and in the summer, the first people to use it were the ones to clear the newly fallen boulders out of the way. Now we're expected to pay them huge taxes because the wilderness that attracted us and kept us coming back, is over populated, the rough dirt roads look more like city side streets and we have to listen to the traffic of nosey people just out for a drive. Talk about "pave paradise and put up a parking lot"! "Improvements" are made that we don't ask for (sometimes don't want, either) that we only use for half the year and we have to pay more than city or town residents? The cottage properties that hold sentimental value and memories, that were bought(often)cheaply as a place for families to spend quality time together, are considered valuable in a dollar sense only because others want them. That is what causes "inequity".


Steve

Nov. 25, 2008

10:47 am

The NDP system is a bastardized version of Propostion 13 in California-Which is a mess. It created MORE of an inequity. As for "clogging up the system". How will that help?


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