There are few things more difficult than examining your own prejudices, but I found myself doing just that recently after chatting with Coun. Greg Brown about permissive tax exemptions.
These are generally granted on lands and improvements used by not-for-profit organizations, recreation clubs, places of worship, private schools, hospitals and senior care facilities that demonstrably contribute to the “spiritual, educational, social, cultural and physical well-being of the community,” according to the Town’s policy.
In essence, they amount to a public subsidy of entities that are deemed to serve the greater good.
The buildings and footprints of places of worship, private schools, hospitals and senior facilities are exempt by statute, but exemptions for other lands and improvements are subject to the discretion of council.
Senior government institutions are also exempt, but the feds and province pay a grant-in-lieu of taxes to the municipality on their properties.
Other organizations have to apply every three years and, basically, prove their charitable or not-for-profit status and their worth to the community in the furtherance of the public interest.
Council recently rubber-stamped all but two of 43 applications for the next three-year cycle (2020-2022) of exemptions totalling approximately $317,000.
In light of the infrastructure crunch facing municipalities everywhere, it is high time we started to have a serious public conversation about these exemptions.
I have always subscribed to a firmly-held position that churches should be universally taxed.
I used to be able to make a cogent and detailed argument for that position, but it has been a long time so I set out to do my due diligence and research it again. In doing so, I recognized it was a position that was, shall we say, uncharitable and borne as much from prejudice as anything else.
What continues to bother me, however, is that the exemption is mandated. This stems from age-old assumptions that the advancement of religion is inherently a good thing for society in general and that places of worship are inherently a benefit to communities specifically.
I am not convinced either of those assumptions are valid and think, at the very least, they should be carefully re-examined.
I am willing to be convinced, however, that churches are worthy of their exemptions, but we should not just assume they are. The churches should have to play by the same rules as everybody else.
Smithers council can’t do anything about the statutory part, except lobby senior levels of government to change the law, which they should.
They can, however, if warranted, deny the permissive part of the exemption, which is something we ought to be looking at seriously in the future and not just accepting the status quo.
Other jurisdictions have already taken the step of using a more rigorous approach to evaluating churches’ eligibility for exemptions beyond the portions of their properties that are actually used for public worship.
There are five municipalities in B.C., including the City of Vancouver, that do not automatically extend permissive tax exemptions to religious organizations according to B.C. Humanist Association data. The District of Saanich is currently considering instituting a “public benefits test.”
In 2018, Nova Scotia’s property tax assessment department inspected 40 churches that have fee-based daycares and stripped almost half of their tax exemptions.
The City of Montreal has been doing it since 2015.
I am not saying we should strip the local churches of their exemptions, but it should be open to public discussion.