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The worst of times for debate on property tax

Toronto Star - June 28, 1998
By Royson James - The Cities

Toronto politicians are this week studying at least six crucial staff reports on the vexatious issue of property tax assessments.

The voluminous reports outline the impact of the myriad options city councillors can employ to finally update the antiquated tax system.

The reports signal the final stage of the rancourous debate over Current Value Assessment in Toronto.

A week tomorrow, the public gets its say on the staff recommendations. And starting July 22, city council will hold what promises to be a seminal debate and vote.

A council task force has been studying the problem for several months and was expected to have made recommendations by now. But its members have been embroiled in petty fights and parochial positioning, and have so far shown an inability to separate out what's good for the whole city from what's good for their individual wards.

Now, it's decision time. The reports show councillors how to:

* Provide tax relief for low-income seniors or handicapped facing hikes due to reassessment.

* Shelter charities from crippling changes by giving tax rebates to nullify the hikes.

* Accept the provincial government's offer of a 2.5 per cent cap on any tax increase to businesses and large apartment buildings.

* Phase in tax increases to all property owners over two to eight years.

* Close the gap between the tax rate paid by tenants and the much lower rate paid by home owners.

At the best of times, a political debate over fairness and equity in the property tax system is an invitation to rhetorical warfare. But the current debate comes at the worst possible time. The council is new, politicians are still trying to figure out each others' positions, there is little trust, and many councillors are facing this issue for the first time.

The result is that the assessment and tax policy task force that is to provide council with direction is itself floundering.

Chair John Adams (Midtown) quietly pushes his agenda. Rather than dogged pursuit of solutions, he has too often resorted to a blame-the-province stance. Instead of seeking consensus, he has been the author of confusion.

One example. Since the preliminary tax rate for home owners was announced at 1.24 per cent of market value, Adams has fuelled speculation the rate would jump so sharply that many of those expecting tax reductions will, in fact, get increases.

The purpose was to dampen the appetite for tax reform.

At the last task force meeting, Adams boldly predicted the new rate would be 1.35, an increase of about 9 per cent or $250 on the average house. But when staff crunched the numbers, the rate changed only marginally, to 1.25, an increase of $19 on the average house.

Mayor Mel Lastman accused Adams of using ``scare tactics'' to get the plan defeated. ``He's trying to get people all stirred up.''

Another task force member, Rob Davis (York Eglinton) - with two-thirds of his constituents expecting decreases of an average 17 per cent - has joined other councillors in insisting they want all of their tax decreases immediately.

Even when the goal was commendable, the strategy around the issue has been politically questionable. For example, Adams introduced a motion to treat tenants the same as home owners. That's good. But some say Adams' motion is a poison pill: If he succeeds in getting a break for tenants, councillors would likely vote against the entire plan because the break comes at the expense of home owners.

Soon the shenanigans will end. Council must make these basic choices, knowing that each one affects one constituent or other.

If they reduce the tax rate on tenants, as they should, they must increase the rate on home owners, and they won't.

They must decide whether to phase in the impact over two to eight years, knowing that the longer the phase-in, the more difficult it will be to decipher one's tax bill three or four years from now.

The choices are often unappealing. Thankfully - and the province deserves praise, not scorn for this - doing nothing is not an option.

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