Provincial parties debate the property-tax system

“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.


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