The City of Yellowknife hopes to change how property tax breaks are allotted, but some senior citizens don’t like how administrators have gone about it.
The City is asking the NWT government to amend legislation governing how municipalities decide who gets property tax relief, but City Hall stands accused of not bothering to consult local seniors about the plan.
At the moment, the Senior Citizens and Disabled Persons Property Tax Relief Act lets municipal governments exempt eligible people over the age of 65, and those living with disabilities, from a portion of their property taxes.
In Yellowknife, people have to apply for the exemption. Each exemption can reach a maximum of $2,000.
Now, the City wants more control over cases where some, but not all owners of a property are seniors or people living with a disability.
The City also wants to apply a financial means test to “ensure that property tax relief is directed at property owners who need it.”
Merlyn Williams, chairman of the Yellowknife Seniors Society’s advocacy committee, said those proposals took some seniors by surprise. He worries that if the changes go ahead, seniors could find themselves no longer eligible for tax breaks.
“It’s going to affect quite a lot of seniors in this town,” he said.
‘We should’ve had at least a courtesy’
City council adopted a number of resolutions on January 27, including one asking for changes to the tax relief act.
But the resolutions have no effect on their own.
Instead, those resolutions were brought forward to the Northwest Territories Association of Communities’ annual meeting in Inuvik a month ago.
At that meeting, the NWT’s different communities formally accepted Yellowknife’s resolution about the tax relief act – which means the proposal will go forward to the territorial government.
In full: Read the act in question
Williams feels seniors should have been better informed before that happened.
He points out the City’s January 10 Capital Update, which mentions council’s plan to discuss resolutions but contains no detail about what the resolutions are.
“We felt that we should’ve had at least a courtesy. If it’s going to affect us, let us know what’s going on,” Williams said, adding had he known, he would have gone to the meeting to ask about the proposed changes.
“To me it seems as if they were hiding that resolution from the seniors. They have a tendency to be afraid of grey power,” he said. “Don’t underestimate a senior, because he can be pretty powerful when he wants to be.”
Why the proposed change?
The City told Cabin Radio the resolutions were included in the January 13 governance and priorities committee meeting agenda and the January 27 council agenda – which are published on the City of Yellowknife’s website a few days in advance.
A spokesperson for the City said it had not consulted anyone because it can’t make the requested changes to the act, adding the City is not required to carry out any public consultation before bringing forward resolutions.
“Should the GNWT indicate that it is willing to consider the requested amendment, the City will consult with all impacted stakeholders,” an email from the City reads.
The City says implementation of any changes to the act, including what kind of tax relief different groups receive, would be informed by that consultation.
The City says it wants the act changed because the current legislation sets up problems.
For example, the City says, the definition of a dependant in the act is “vague and allows for diverse and potentially conflicting interpretations that may inhibit fair and consistent application of the tax relief provisions.” That definition affects who does or doesn’t get an exemption.
City Hall also takes issue with eligibility for tax relief being based strictly on age and disability.
“These factors now create unanticipated situations where, in some cases, very high-income households benefit from the tax relief whereas low-income households are denied on a technicality,” said a spokesperson.
In other jurisdictions like Ontario, seniors’ eligibility for property tax grants is based on income.
‘It’s not a done deal’
The proposed changes are now in the territorial government’s hands.
Sara Brown, chief executive officer of the Northwest Territories Association of Communities, said it usually takes more than a year before acts are changed. “Lots of consultation” would happen before then, she said.
If the changes do go ahead, Brown expects municipalities would have the freedom to enact them only if they so wished.
“It’s not a done deal by any stretch,” she said.
Wiliams believes the territorial government won’t be too quick to make the changes.
“They’re going to drag their feet over this one,” he said. “I don’t think they would touch it with a 40-foot barge pole, to be honest.”
Williams thinks the territorial government, which receives federal transfer funds for every person residing in the territory, would be reluctant to lose any residents over what amounts to a $2,000 tax break.
He goes further, saying he believes the property tax relief act was created, back in 1988, partly to appeal to seniors and persuade them to stay in Yellowknife.
“At one time there were big exoduses of seniors leaving Yellowknife,” he said.
“They just couldn’t afford to live here.”