Readers reacted vividly to my recent column on the City of Whitehorse’s building program, including the new $24 million flagship city hall recently approved by mayor and council.
One question was: Who is going to pay for it?
Step forward, Kaushee’s Place, Whitehorse Food Bank and Learning Disabilities Association Yukon (LDAY).
City council recently published the list of property tax bills for these organizations. Kaushee’s Place, a women’s transition home that “offers refuge for women and their children experiencing violence,” will pay $12,259.19. The Food Bank is on the hook for $5,469.80 and LDAY needs to fork over $1,867.91.
Strictly speaking, if these organizations were for-profit companies their property tax bills would be double the amounts above, and the city is giving them a 50 per cent discount for their good work.
But why is the city charging any property tax on Kaushee’s Place or the Food Bank at all?
There are 23 organizations on the list who will be contributing over $165,000 to the city to pay for projects such as the new city hall. They are a who’s who of mostly volunteer organizations doing good work in our community. Others include Canadian Mental Health Association ($1,987.17), Golden Age Society ($5,215.87), the Victoria Faulkner Women’s Centre ($2,179.54). There are also cultural groups such as the Guild Society ($17,585.24) and MacBride Museum ($41,850.12) and sports groups such as Softball Yukon ($24,610.56) and Tennis Yukon ($206.81).
Some might say that these community groups, which are not government organizations, should pay property taxes like everyone else. Not all citizens play softball, use food banks or require mental health support.
On the other hand, churches pay zero property taxes. It’s hard to think of a good rationale for why a church should get a 100 per cent exemption while food banks and women’s shelters do not.
It must be annoying for the community volunteers at these organizations, when politicians laud their good work in speeches then turn around and send property tax bills.
There is also a strange red-tape cycle when these community groups apply for funding. They include the property taxes owed to one government department as expenses on their funding application forms, then other government departments provide various grants that may or may not cover property tax expenses.
This does allow politicians to maximize the number of positive press releases issued, but wastes the time of volunteer managers.
You could also ask if the financial pressure these taxes put on volunteer community groups is worth the benefit the City of Whitehorse enjoys from the money raised. Most of these groups are run on tight budgets where boards debate each loonie. There are plenty of other overhead costs such as rent, utilities, and bookkeeping. This is the land of duct-taped office furniture and wearing a sweater in the office instead of turning up the heat.
Meanwhile, the city ran an annual surplus of $13 million in 2019 and, despite the impact of the pandemic, over $10 million in 2020. The $165,000 collected in property taxes from community groups seems trivial against the scale of these sustained surpluses.
It seems like a bad idea to put financial pressure on community social-service groups, when the alternative is for their over-worked volunteers to do something else and leave these critical activities to be covered by government itself. This would mean far higher costs for government than a bit more property tax abatement.
Part of the problem is the game theory behaviour of the Yukon’s many layers of government. If the city let the Food Bank off the hook for its property taxes, that would cost the City money while also lowering the pressure for the territorial government or some federal program to support the Food Bank.
Meanwhile, if the Yukon government covered the bill, that would in effect be sharing a portion of the federal transfer payment with a junior level of government rather than expanding some territorial department.
With the money plane dropping off over a billion dollars a year for the territorial government, you really have to wonder why city council doesn’t just sit down with the territorial cabinet a few blocks down Second Avenue and get a cheque for $165,000 to make this whole thing go away.
With a municipal election coming up, you might ask some of the incumbents why they haven’t done this already.
In the meantime, if your finances weren’t too badly hit by the pandemic, please consider donating to one of the groups mentioned above. Most of them have accounts on CanadaHelps.org. You may like the feeling of donating at Christmas or for a special cause. But these groups do good work, and you can be sure their treasurers will be very happy to receive a donation in July just after they paid their property taxes.
Full disclosure: I used to be on the board of the MacBride Museum, my spouse is on the board of Tennis Yukon and I am a member of some of the other community groups mentioned.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist and received the bronze for Outstanding Columnist in the 2019 Canadian Community Newspaper Awards.