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Tax politics heat up 

Dartmouth area councillors condemn “tax reform” as academics plan a demonstration and alternative proposal.

Last week, Dartmouth area councillors took an unprecedented public stand against the so-called "tax reform" proposal, which will likely come before the full Halifax council this Tuesday, January 26.

The Harbour East Community Council---which consists of Dartmouth councillors Gloria McCluskey, Jim Smith, Bill Karsten and Darren Fisher, Cole Harbour councillor Lorelei Nicoll and Eastern Passage councillor Jackie Barkhouse---unanimously passed a resolution in opposition to "tax reform."

"Tax reform" is a proposal to radically transform the municipal property tax system proposal I've been following to a "fee for services" system. Under the present system, owners pay taxes based on the value of their property---high-priced homes pay more than modest homes. Under the proposal, property owners would pay the same flat fee for services received, regardless of the value of the property. In effect, owners of high-end properties would see their taxes slashed by thousands of dollars, with lost revenue made up by increasing taxes on owners of lower-valued homes and apartments.

The proposal would hit the Dartmouth area hard. A City Hall report shows that, for single-family homes in Eastern Passage, city taxes would go up on average 35 percent under the proposal. In North Dartmouth, the figure is 31 percent. My own analysis (see "Why everyone loses under the city's property tax plan," December 10) found that the owners of North Dartmouth apartment complexes housing tens of thousands of low-income residents would see tax increases of several hundred dollars per unit, costs that would surely be rolled into rent increases.

"[The tax reform] proposals...shift the tax burden from a small segment of the population with high priced properties, to those with middle priced and lower priced properties," reads the councillors' statement. "[We] are not supportive of substituting one method of taxation to any of the ones proposed that are deemed to have their own inequities."

"This is the first time that a political statement like this has come out of a community council," said Karsten. "It's a bold move, a strong statement."

"This is the single most important decision that I've made as a councillor," said Barkhouse. "I'm 100 percent certain it's the right thing to do. We're going to take a bashing for this statement, but if there is a ship I'm going down on, this is it."

McCluskey and Smith have been opposed to the proposal from the start. Nicoll, who would see her own taxes drop by about $1,400 annually, said she opposes "tax reform" because it would shift the tax burden onto those least able to afford it.

Darren Fisher, who replaced ardent "tax reform" supporter [Feb. 22 corrections; see below] Andrew Younger in a by-election last summer, is also cousin to Bruce Fisher, the city bureaucrat overseeing the "tax reform" effort. And yet Darren Fisher is also solidly opposed to the proposal.

Meanwhile, retired Dalhousie economist Mike Bradfield and SMU business prof Larry Haivan are organizing their neighbours and other academics against the plan. Their opposition is notable because both are south end residents who stand to see thousands of dollars in tax cuts if the "tax reform" proposal is adopted.

The pair will soon bring forward an alternative tax reform plan, one they say is better and more socially just than the proposal coming before council this week. In essence, they'd like to see all property taxes reduced, with the lost tax revenue made up via an increase in the provincial income tax, with the province backfilling city coffers.

Haivan plans to bring his neighbours to an anti-"tax reform" demonstration outside City Hall Tuesday, explaining why they are opposed to cuts in their tax bills. I'll blog the demonstration and the council debate at thecoast.ca/bites and twitter.com/twitcoast.

Correction: Andrew Younger did not, does not, and will not support the "tax reform" proposal. He explained as much to me last time I got it wrong, and yet I persist. My apologies. —TB.

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