Let them eat cookies

From a recent Terrace Standard report, I learned that City Council denied a property tax exemption to a local soup kitchen. The amount in question, according to the article, is “almost $4,000.” Council came to the conclusion that the soup kitchen was a money-making operation and should therefore have to pay taxes as a business.

I don’t have an issue with the B.C. Assessment Authority or with the staff at City Hall. Their responsibility is to administer the laws and regulation enacted by politicians. My issue is with our Council whose job, as politicians, is to make policy decisions.

Council has exempted 16 properties, including the curling club, from taxation in 2018. The Bread of Life Soup Kitchen is not among them. I do not want to engage in a debate over the profitability of this or any soup kitchen, rather I am asking Council to take another look at the permissive tax exemption authority granted by Municipal Charter section 224(2)(a). This section allows council to exempt properties “that are owned or held by a charitable, philanthropic or other not for profit corporation and the council considers are used for a purpose that is directly related to the purposes of the corporation.”

The dictionary defines a philanthropic organization as one “devoted to helping needy persons or to other socially useful purposes.” The details of an organization’s sources of income are not what Council ought to consider. The question is whether or not a bowl of soup and a slice of bread served by volunteers to homeless people amounts to a philanthropic purpose. The capacity of a philanthropic organization to pursue its aims is linked to its capacity to generate funds. What difference does it make whether the organization’s income is generated from cash donations, from in-kind donations, or from rental income?

The article quotes one councillor reminding us that: “We have to keep in mind that every dollar we exempt on one party comes from someone else, or comes out of services.” I calculated that, in my case, the cost of exempting this soup kitchen from property taxes without cutting services, increasing only residential property taxes to compensate the revenue loss, would amount to the cost of one cookie at my regular coffee shop. Would I – would any resident in this community – be willing to forego one cookie in 2018 to help the Bread of Life Soup Kitchen?

Instead of increasing residential taxes Council could cut a service by the amount of this tax exemption. Council could reduce its own expenses allowance by that $4,000. I am not suggesting a pay cut for Council, only a reduction in the budget allocation for attending out-of-town conferences.

There is value in municipal conferences at the regional, provincial, and federal levels. I know that from my experience as municipal administrator. Reducing this budget allocation by $4,000 would not have to limit Council members’ attendance at out-of-town municipal conferences. Council could set up collection booths in local malls and supermarkets to raise the money needed for that purpose. Council members engaged with citizens in conversations about the value of their attendance at municipal conferences could serve to enlighten both parties as to the benefits to be gained by the community from councillors attending out-of-town municipal conferences.

I am as willing to contribute one cookie per year to help pay for Council members’ conference expenses as I am to contribute one cookie per year to help pay for the operations of the Bread of Life Soup Kitchen. It is not a matter of one or the other.

Council may want to consider a couple of fitting lines from Taylor Mali’s poem Like Lilly Like Wilson: “That changing your mind is one of the best ways / Of finding out whether or not you still have one.”

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