Ask Pat: Private School taxes

Duke asked—

The two large private schools on opposite ends of the city are nearing completion. My question is will the City be receiving any property taxes from these schools? It’s my understanding the BC Libs exempted them from certain taxes.

Short version: no, they likely won’t pay property tax. But as always, there is a longer answer. And this needs a bit of a “this is how I understand things, and I think I am correct here, but am willing to hear any corrections if people have them and I will fix the record” warning.

There are two types of exemptions from paying property taxes: statutory and permissive. As you may have figured from the name, the first is set in provincial regulation, Section 220 of the Community Charter outlines uses that may be exempt from property tax: Provincial property, places of worship, cemeteries, fruit trees(!), private schools and other things. The general interpretation of this act is that the statutory exemption only applies to the building or ground used for the prescribed purpose, not necessarily the entire property.  So a church that has a large parking lot and/or adjacent housing on the same property may not get statutory exemption for those auxiliary lands, but just for the place of worship.

The permissive exemption is also what it sounds like: something cities are permitted to grant, but are not required to grant. There are limits to how we can hand these out, and they are listed in Section 224 of the Community Charter. This permission is generally limited to government-owned lands not caught up in Section 220, parts of lands exempted under S.220 that are not strictly exempted by S.220 (like the parking lot around a church), or lands used by a charity or public service that are used for a community service or charitable work, including sports clubs. The City may grant partial or complete exemptions on these lands, but it is generally limited by Section 25 of the Charter which prohibits the City from providing direct assistance to a business. Whew.

In practice, the City does a review of permissive exemptions (and reviews applications for new permissive exemptions) in September or October, and updates its Bylaw in time that those exemptions can be factored into our financial planning for the next year. The last time we reviewed them in New West was on September 17, 2018, and you can see in that report the list of to whom the City provides exemptions. Both John Knox and Urban Academy are listed as exempt under S.224.

Now back to the other part of your question, Back in 2015, the BC Liberal Government was led by a Premier who proudly boasted that her child attended the most exclusive private school in Vancouver (one that had a large swath of “Permissive Exemption” real estate) while also taking public school teachers to the Supreme Court to defend an illegal contract that kept her from having to staff public schools enough to meet reasonable classroom size standards. That government signed in to law Bill 29, which extended a Statutory Exemption to all of these ancillary lands around private schools are part of the school operation. Student housing, parking lots, skating arenas, the woods out back where the kids smoke pot; as long as they belong to the school, they are now exempt by statute.

Frankly, this change probably does not apply to either the new John Knox school on 12th street or the new Urban Academy school at Braid and Rousseau, because both are modern “urban school” designs, with very little footprint outside of the building site. The parking is underground and the play area on the roof, so there aren’t open fields of “accessory lands”. The shift from Permissive to Statutory exemption is probably irrelevant in this case, though I am not clear why the City gives them an S.224 exemption when a S.220 exemption probably applies.

That said, both schools are being built on lands that had significant commercial value, and paid commercial property taxes before the schools took over the sites. If we ballpark the two properties at (land value only) $3 Million each, then at 2018 taxation rates for commercial properties, the property tax they would pay to the City would be a little over $30,000 each per year if there was a non-exempt commercial property on that spot. Plus about $12,000 each in School Tax. Take from that what you will.

Council – March 11, 2019

Our Council meeting on March 11 had its share of pageantry and drama, and much of it was after the annual May Queen draw. Alas, I don’t have time to blog at length about what got me hot under the collar during the Opportunity for Public Comment, as meta as it may have been, and you will have to watch the video to get the full experience. Still we had a packed agenda that started with an Opportunity for Public Comment:

Draft 2019 – 2023 Financial Plan
As discussed in workshop and blogged about at length, we have a proposed 2019 budget and 5-year financial plan. As always, between the public workshop where we discussed at length and made decisions about the discretionary parts of the financial plan, we accept correspondence and have a public opportunity to comment. The e-mail correspondence we received on the Financial plan was about 38 pages (almost all of it comprising questions from a single person that staff patiently responded to as best they could). We also had about a half dozen members of the public come to speak, assuring that the voice of the middle aged white man was well represented. I agree strongly with some of the input we received – two delegates mentioned that cities and (in turn) property tax payers are being unfairly burdened for the cost of local infrastructure when there are more progressive taxation types such as income tax available to senior governments, though little of that trickles back to local governments. I also strongly disagree with a person who receives 30-plus pages of responses from staff then is given a public forum to ask questions of Council complaining that this is a secretive and closed process.

Anyway, the Financial Plan will need to come to us in the form of the Bylaw, which will occur in April. I will blog more about the final financial plan at that time.


The following items were Moved on Consent:

Urban Indigenous Engagement around the development of the New Westminster Aquatic and Community Centre
This is a short report on the efforts staff are taking to engage the local indigenous population in planning for the new Aquatic and Community Centre (the project name of the replacement for the Canada Games Pool and Centennial Community Centre). It will be interesting to work through this framework and find what works and what doesn’t as we are going into a broader-reaching Truth and Reconciliation process in the City.

Recruitment 2019: Committee Appointments (SAC, NTAC, RJC, and ACTBiPed)
These are regular adjustments to various council advisory committees. People move, people (alas) pass away, and people shift their volunteer priorities, but advisory committees go on. We have named new representatives to these committees.

310 Salter Street (Port Royal Phase 6B): Development Permit and Development Variance Permit for Mid Rise Multi Unit Residential Development – Consideration of Notice of Opportunity to be Heard
One of the final pieces of the Port Royal development is an 87 unit 4- to 6-story residential complex on Salter Street. The proposed complex of three buildings meets the FSR and is smaller than the allowable maximum lot coverage, but requires variances for height and setbacks. There will be an Opportunity to be Heard on this on April 8th. C’mon out and tell us what you think.

Connaught Heights Park Playground Redevelopment – Preferred Option
The playground adjacent to Connaught Heights School needs to be refurbished. There was a pretty extensive child-centred community consultation, and a final plan is now proposed, for a mixed use playground to appeal to all ages nestled within the existing mature trees on site. The construction will take place while school is out for the summer, to reduce the impact on the students.

Vimy Heritage Oak Trees Proposal
There is an organization that preserves and propagates oak trees grown from acorns collected from Vimy Ridge shortly after the WW1 battle for the ridge ended. Working with the New West Heritage Preservation Society, there are two saplings to be planted on the front lawn of City hall to frame the Cenotaph and formal commemoration space.

2019 Environmental Grant Recipient – Project Scope Change
The plan to put together a documentary film on the history of the preservation of the Brunette River have been shelved for some creative and logistical reason. The City provided a bit of grant money for that project, but the organizers would now like to use those funds to create more educational multi-media materials on the same theme. I support this, as it is a story that needs to be told, and I think the mixed media proposal will reach a broader audience than the film.


We then had a couple of pieces of New Business:

Queen’s Park Sportsplex – Conceptual Design
After much too long of a wait, we have moved the Arenex replacement to final design. This has been a challenging project for several reasons, including details about insurance. The building that will start construction this spring in Queens Park will not have the old-timey charm of the Arenex, but will be a much more functional building for the primary user groups. The majority of the cost (about 80%) of the replacement will be covered by the insurance claim for the Arenex, though we will need to top it up a bit, mostly from a grant fund we have been holding in reserve for sports facilities in the City.

Climate Action in the City of New Westminster
This was a motion on notice form Councillors Nakagawa and McEvoy, which was well supported by a large delegation of community leaders from the Force of Nature Alliance. It is worth reading in its entirety:

WHEREAS The earth is currently on track to warm by more than 3 degrees Celsius; and

WHEREAS An October 8, 2018 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) finds that it is necessary to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, rather than 2 degrees as previously understood, and that doing so “would require rapid, far- reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of
society,” and that we have until 2030 to undertake these changes; and

WHEREAS The IPCC report puts the benchmark for greenhouse gas reduction targets for corporate and community-wide emissions at 45% by 2030, 65% by 2040, and 100% by 2050;

WHEREAS The British Columbia government declared a provincial state of emergency in 2018 over record-setting wildfires; and

WHEREAS The Legislature of British Columbia and the House of Commons of Canada have acknowledged the growing crisis of climate breakdown by holding emergency debates following the release of the IPCC report; and

WHEREAS Local governments worldwide are taking action to avoid the worst impacts of climate change and calling on senior levels of government for an urgent, emergency response; and

WHEREAS The costs to New Westminster for dealing with the impacts of climate change – including sea level rise – are significant; and

WHEREAS The most vulnerable members of our community are the most impacted by the effects of climate change; and

WHEREAS The City of New Westminster has been taking action on sustainability through the Environmental Strategy and Action Plan, Community Energy and Emissions Plan, and Envision 2032;

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED

THAT Council recognize that climate change constitutes an emergency for the City of New Westminster; and

THAT Council direct staff to report back on how the following action items can be implemented:

1. Update existing City plans with new targets as per the IPCC report;
2. Increase ambition and/or accelerate timelines for existing actions under the Environmental Strategy and Action Plan and the Community Energy and Emissions Plan;
3. Consider new actions to help the City achieve its targets;
4. Consider new actions that would help reduce GHG emissions beyond the scope of the City’s current climate targets;
5. Track and report on community emissions;
6. Engage the community in discussion on how to drastically reduce GHG emissions with particular focus on those most vulnerable to climate impacts and most in need of support in transitioning to renewable energy;
7. More broadly communicate with the community about City emissions and targets;
8. Implement a carbon budget; and

THAT Council direct staff to include climate action for consideration within the City’s strategic plan that is currently being developed.

I don’t have much to add to that, except that I struggled with considering if we should do this before or after we had completed our Council Strategic Planning work to set out goals for the term. It was Councillor Nakagawa who convinced me that the Climate emergency needs to frame our Council goals, because vice-versa is how we have always operated as a City, as a province, and as a country, tacking on climate as just one more thing we need to deal with. This is the existential struggle of our age, perhaps the first truly global existential struggle. We need to act, and act with purpose.


The following items were Removed from Consent for discussion:

Cannabis: New Retail Store Application Evaluation
As we discussed at some length last summer, the City has put together some guidance and community standards for cannabis retail operations that wish to open in #NewWest. After receiving 22 completed applications for these businesses, staff used a ranking system to prioritize 5 applications to be reviewed together as an initial tranche, one in each of Downtown, Uptown, Sapperton, 12th Street and Queensborough. These 5 will still need to go through a Zoning Amendment Bylaw, which should happen in April (no, not on the 20th), and if everything goes well with the City, the Liquor and Cannabis Regulation Branch, and the applicants, we should have our first stores opened by the summer.

There were many delegates who came to speak to this process, all of them representing businesses that did not make the scoring cut, or were ranked lower than their competitors. However, I hold the opinion that the process was clear and fairly adjudicated. This was not going to be an easy process, and the gold rush mentality about this new industry makes these conversations difficult. Although I think the process was more fair and accountable than the alternate “lottery” process for choosing first wave applicants, it was inevitable that some would not be chosen – even really good applicants. Everyone, successful and otherwise, put serious money and time into the application process, and as with cutting-edge entrepreneurs, really put their heart in it as well. The quality of the applications showed this.

The 5 applicants who got through this first screening will still need to go through Zoning and business license approvals, so there is some work to do yet, and there will be a Public Hearing, so I am going to hold my comments about individual applicants until then.

Interesting to note that there are still some issues to work out with the Province on regulation of these businesses. The LCRB wants these stores to have opaque windows, but for both community design and safety reasons, opaque windows are no longer favoured in retail zones. This is something we need to work out with the LCRB.

Naming of Two New Streets in Queensborough
We have two new streets being created in Q’Boro, so they need names. The Community Heritage Commission and Queensborough Residents Association were consulted, and the names Kamachi and Ota rose to the top of the selections, honouring the memory of two prominent families in the earlier history of the ‘Boro.

330 East Columbia Street (Royal Columbia Hospital Project): Update on Rezoning to Allow for the Renovation, Redevelopment and Modernization of Hospital Facilities
RCH needs to do a rezoning for the next phases of development on the site, which will require some staff and committee review of things like setbacks, height, density and massing, transportation requirements, and design elements. It will go through some committee review and public consultation in April. Phase 2 of the RCH Project is the big one –with a new Acute Acre tower that will be the largest building on site. Folks in Sapperton especially should spend a bit of time getting to know this project and its potential impact on their neighbourhood.

The movement of Ambulance access to the Sherbrook Street side of the building is sure to be something Lower Sapperton residents are going to have opinions on, but the maintenance of a pedestrian and cycling connection through the campus from the Sapperton SkyTrain Station to lower Sapperton is a positive idea.

I also took a moment to reiterate that East Columbia cannot be the primary road access for staff and visitors of this major acute care hospital. The community’s dreams of East Columbia as a great street supporting a vibrant commercial district mean we need to reduce this traffic load on that road, not increase it. The only alternative is for the regional traffic accessing the hospital (and adjacent commercial development at the Brewery district) to have direct access from Brunette Avenue, which would require a light-controlled intersection at Kearey, Allen, or Sherbrook. This will be a tough sell to regional traffic mongers like the Trucking Association and the Gateway Council, but regional traffic on regional roads is the primary plan for not just New Westminster and Sapperton, but for the entire Greater Vancouver region. This is a fight worth having, and we need to get Fraser Health on side with it.

Proposal for Public Realm Improvements in Brow of the Hill at 1010 Fifth Avenue
Another small parklet in the Brow of the Hill Neighbourhood, where the City has some of the greatest density and least access to public green space. Little hubs like this can really make an apartment-centric neighbourhood a home. I’m happy to support them, and happy that Councillor Nakagawa (a champion for the Brow before it was cool!) called for a more “green” design.

Quayside Tugger Pilot House: Removal and Replacement Project
With mixed feelings, I am sorry to report Tugger has to go. She served us well for 30+ years, but rusting structural elements are taking their toll. The underlying decking needs significant structural intervention, and that simply cannot happen without deconstruction and removal of the ol’ tetanus tug.

The good news is that a new play structure is planned and will be installed in his spring, thanks to support from the local Rotary Club in memory of long-time member Dr. Irwin Stewart (who provided $50,000 for the project), and Bosa (who are doing the deck repairs).

The design is a bit controversial, just as most every other playspace is when seen as a rendering and as a replacement for what we are used to. But I like the nod to the old tug, and the creative use of the main evidence that the Fraser is still a working river – a heaping barge – as the foundation for an all-ages tumble space.

Downtown Dog Off-Leash Area – Partial Relocation
The downtown off-leash area has been in place since 2009, but the land it is on does not belong to the City, and with a new building on part of the lot and a new memorial park planned for the site, we need to move the urban dog park.

We went through some public consultation, and dog parks are always exciting and challenging public consultations for a variety of reasons. However, the best current option is to put a dog run at Simcoe Park.

I am challenged by the idea that we won’t have a dog park below Royal Avenue. I am asking staff to continue to look for opportunities downtown, recognizing we don’t have much City-owned land in the downtown, but a lot of people in apartments have dogs, and need this service. I have a few ideas that I hope staff will explore, but I’m not going to share them now because I honestly don’t know the practicality of feasibility of either site, and I don’t an to set expectations. There is work to do here…


Finally, we adopted the following Bylaws

Engineering User Fees and Rates Amendment Bylaw 8097, 2019
Cemetery Bylaw Amendment Bylaw No. 8102, 2019
Development Services Fees and Rates Amendment Bylaw 8098, 2019
These Bylaws that represent our annual adjustment of various fees and charges in the City – almost every bit of revenue that we collect that isn’t taxation, were adopted by Council. Be sure to put “2019” on your cheques.

Controlled Substance Property Bylaw Amendment Bylaw No. 8081, 2019
Noise Bylaw Amendment Bylaw No. 8082, 2019
Construction Noise Bylaw Amendment Bylaw No. 8083, 2019
These Bylaw amendments are housekeeping measures to update the language of older Bylaws to match new bylaws and senior government legislation. It was adopted by Council, so check your language.

Electrical Utility Amendment Bylaw No. 8096, 2019
This Bylaw updates our electrical utility rates for 2019, and it was Adopted by Council on a split vote (Councillor Johnstone opposed).

(draft) Budget 2019

I guess we knew this was going to be a tight budget year for New Westminster, as it is for most Cities in the lower mainland. The shift in MSP / employer health tax has impacted many municipalities hard, which I will talk more about below. Combine that with our aggressive capital plan, regular inflationary increases in costs, and constant demand for new services, and the tax increase is higher than some would have liked this year. That said, I actually would vote to make it a little bit higher, and indicated so to Council. Here is my rationale.

The current proposal is for a 5.28% increase in property taxes. That is about a $117/year increase for the “average” household. For perspective, the “average” household in New West is a $1.2M house that went up in value over the last year by 9%, or about $100,000. Condos went up a little more than houses overall, so the tax increase for condo owners will be proportionally higher than for detached house owners. The City has no control over that, it is just how the market works.

For the purpose of explanation, it is helpful to break that 5.28% into component parts. The numbers below are my back-of-the envelope estimates drawn from the kinda complex budget documents (you can see a staff report here), and of course the budget has not been passed yet, so the numbers may change. All that to say nothing below represents official numbers or communications, but this is close enough to an accurate breakdown to foster conversation:

1.8% is directly attributable to the shift in the MSP and employer health tax. This could be viewed as downloading: increased local government costs that will be funding something that should be paid from provincial and federal coffers. However, I generally reserve that for when we shift the burden for a service to local governments, not just the cost – an oft-mentioned (by me!) example is underfunding the provincially-funded ambulance service so that our locally-funded Fire and Rescue staff need to cover the load. regardless of what you call it ,the effect is the same. We and other cities have challenged the province to not apply this to local governments, and we lost that fight. So here we are, and need to budget for it.

If you want to take a more positive look at (spin of?) this tax increase, remember that it is a result of phasing out of the MSP system. That means the $40 or so that this 1.8% costs the “average” household is easily offset by the $1,500 the “average” New West household saves in reduced MSP fees. If that is no help, then at least recognize this is a one-time event, and that there will actually be a slight reduction in City costs next year as the final MSP phase-out occurs. That means we will be starting the 2020 budget year ahead of the game by about $300,000.

4.23% is direct growth and inflationary pressure – increased wage and supply costs related to just doing what we do every day. This goes up both because of because of inflation, and because the population City is growing at a rate of about 1.6% per year, so we need to do about 1.6% more stuff. Add to this inflation a little above the 2.0% projected CPI increase (don’t get me on a rant about how the CPI “basket of goods” does not fairly reflect the inflation of running a municipal government) and the projected 2.5 % wage growth across the region. Much of this increase is locked up in contracts with our staff, which have annual increases built into them. Of course budget time usually results in some on-line trolling of City workers. For the record, I no not think our staff is underworked or overpaid. Wages in New West are a little below the regional average for municipal governments for people in comparative roles, and our ratio of exempt staff to union staff is about 13%, which is slightly below the average of comparable sized municipalities (a fact that is directly counter to the rhetoric used by some during the recent election).

-2.46% That’s right, this is a negative. The growth part of above means that there are more properties / people to pay taxes and more services bought from the City. The taxes from new construction and increased other revenues allow us to actually reduce the overall tax rate by about 2.5%.

1.2% is related to new spending. This is all new staff positions and operational and capital costs related to things we do now that we didn’t do in the past. This is “discretionary spending”, the money we get to haggle over at this point in the budget cycle. And haggle we did.

The reality for us on Council is that people rarely ask us to do less. Every week, people come to Council asking the City to do something more, be it paint more crosswalks or plant more trees or give more to a local group to help run a festival or provide homelessness outreach. Nine times out of ten, we want to do it, and often I see the strained look in staff’s eyes as they are the first to recognize that we don’t have the capacity in our budgets or room in staff work plans to do this, and they are going to have to come back to Council with hat in hand, asking for the resources to fund what Council has already said we want them to do, or to ask us which of the existing programs or services we should cut. It is only the week of budget that everyone asks us to spend less, but aside from “finding efficiencies”, I never hear specific programs that people want us to cut.

The “nice to haves” in the budget reporting this year added up to more than $2 Million, and would have put us well over a 7% tax increase. This means we did not fund some of the things I would have loved see happen this year in the City.

To give you an idea of what kind of new spending we did approve, here are a few line items from the report:
• $122,000 (equal to 0.15% tax increase) to hire two new staff to ramp up the tree maintenance and planting program as we move forward with Urban Forest Management Program;
• $80,000 (0.10%) to bring in some expertise to guide us through our Truth and Reconciliation process;
• $225,000 (0.28%) to run the QtoQ ferry service year-round;
• $54,000 (0.07%)for a part-time Facilities Project Manager to help us make budget and timing on a couple of our bigger capital projects;
• $100,000 (0.13%) for a full time program coordinator to carry the Intelligent City program forward for one more year;
• $65,000 (0.08%) for a Special Events program coordinator to help for community partners to run events like Fridays on Front.

0.5% The final piece of the budget increase this year is the Capital Levy. We introduced this special line item last year as a buffer for our increasingly extensive capital plan. The big item is, of course, the replacement of the Canada Games Pool and the Centennial Community Centre, which will blow a $100 Million hole in our budget. This is a big enough story, and this is already a long enough blog, that I am going to hold off commenting more on the Capital Plan until a follow-up blog. Short version: I think we should be putting more into this Capital Levy and keep it at 1% this year, but the majority of Council did not agree.

What we have now is a proposed budget framework, subject to some last-minute number crunching and adjustments by finance staff. There will be a budget bylaw (and new 5-year financial plan) prepared, which will come to Council for deliberation, though the real debate happened in workshop last week (see the video here). Of course, we always invite public comment and delegations to come speak to the budget and let us know how much they appreciate the hard work staff and Council do to manage the City’s finances responsibly. Alternate opinions are also welcomed.