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Art gallery tax exemption hit; called poor neighbour, detriment to downtown

It and overdose prevention site operator appear to be punished for supporting unhoused
The Campbell River Art Gallery. Photo by Alistair Taylor/Campbell River Mirror

City council hit the Campbell River Art Gallery (CRAG) and the Vancouver Island Mental Health Society with a significant financial penalty last week by removing their permissive tax exemptions (PTE) in retaliation for their support of the downtown homeless population.

“The loss of this exemption has a significant financial impact for our organization,” CRAG executive director Sara Lopez Assu says in an Oct. 4 email to gallery members, partners and supporters as well as the Campbell River Mirror.

At its Sept. 28 regular council meeting, Campbell River city council removed the PTE when it passed a number of amendments to the Permissive Exemption From Taxation Bylaw. The PTE bylaw supports local community organizations that enhance the quality of life in Campell River. The bylaw was amended to remove the exemptions to the CRAG and the Vancouver Island Mental Health Society (VIMHS), which operates the overdose prevention site. The two organizations were described as “poor neighbours” that have an “extreme detrimental effect on businesses and visitations downtown.”

The amendments that some are seeing as punitive were put forward by Coun. Ron Kerr.

“There’s a couple of organizations in our community that are requesting tax deferrals while operating in a poor neighborly manner and are having significant negative effects on our downtown community,” Kerr said in his preamble to a series of three motions. “We’ve got a letter on our agenda today requesting that the Vancouver Island Mental Health (Society) be considered a nuisance property. This is following a letter on our previous agenda from a neighboring property asking for the same. Now, council has got limited means of changing the behavior of this organization. But that being said, we don’t have to approve tax deferrals. And we don’t have to give grants-in-aid. To me this is just rewarding poor behavior and poor neighborhood conduct.”

Kerr put forward a motion for the VIMHS PTE removal and followed it with one for CRAG.

“And everything I said about the previous applies also, I think, to this particular organization (CRAG),” he said. “They have been, and their behavior has been, very poor neighborly to the surrounding businesses and is having an extreme detrimental effect to our downtown businesses and visitations in our downtown area … we’ve got limited ways of letting these organizations know and and changing their behavior … we certainly don’t need to give them tax deferrals if they’re not working with us.”

The CRAG has been practically ground zero for the unhoused population congregating downtown with Spirit Square right next door. In fact, the CRAG has been the site of an ongoing encampment on one side of the Centennial Building with the covered entry way in front a popular place for people to shelter from the elements. The VIMHS overdose prevention site is another focal point for the gathering of the city’s population dealing with addiction. Both sites are highly visible downtown locations and there have been complaints from adjacent businesses as well as the public wishing to access those businesses and services.

READ MORE: Downtown business airs litany of complaints about overdose prevention site

Coun. Tanille Johnston was at odds with the majority sentiment and voted against the amendments.

“I don’t have any information that outlines, kind of, how the Campbell River Art Gallery is working against us,” Johnston said.

She questioned why the CRAG was responsible for policing the downtown core when that’s the responsibility of city bylaw officers.

“I also believe that there are roles and responsibilities for our bylaw officers, and that it’s not necessarily the role and responsibility of a business owner or a not-for-profit … society owner to be doing bylaw roles and responsibilities,” Johnston said.

Johnston said the CRAG has received “pretty awesome recognition” for the work it has done and has been engaging with “certain populations” in a way that has been actually keeping people off the street and putting them into places where they can do meaningful work “that is helping with their journey and trying to get to a better place.”

“I’m not understanding … the very strong language you’re using in regards to the Campbell Art Gallery essentially, kind of, destroying the downtown core,” Johnston said.

Coun. Ben Lanyon replied to that with, “I’m aware of a general attitude in favor of allowing camping in the awnings on city-owned property that is provided at zero cost to CR Art Gallery despite the city’s requests to the contrary. So there’s some amount of tension between (the) art gallery, perhaps their board, and the current executive director that exists and this motion recognizes that fact that certain things are being done on a property that’s provided at zero cost, that is antagonistic towards the city itself.”

Coun. Kerr also responded to Johnston, saying, “Coun. Johnson had asked for an example. And for one simple example, I think everyone is aware that the Visitor Information Center – which cohabited the Centennial Building with the art gallery – had to move because of behavior that was happening on the premises and around the premise. You know, I think this is one very clear example of the effect of a poor neighbor policy with with an immediate neighbor and that same behavior actually extends throughout the community. So (that’s) just one example.”

The motion to rescind the CRAG’s PTE was passed with councillors Johnston and Sinnott opposed. Rescinding the VIMHS PTE was also passed with Coun. Johnston the only vote opposed.

In her Oct. 4 email, Assu urged supporters to send mayor and council an email of support for the CRAG receiving the tax exemption, their experience with with CRAG and their thoughts on the benefit the gallery brings to the community. The deadline for the emails to be included on the agenda is 4 p.m. Wed., Oct. 11.

The rescinding of PTEs for these two organizations is the latest effort by this city council to combat the unhoused population camping downtown and perpetuating unlawful behaviour. The city passed a bylaw earlier this year to make it illegal to consume banned substances in certain locations around the community, punishable by a fine.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story listed the deadline for email submissions to the council agenda as noon, Wed., Oct. 4. That was incorrect, it as 4 p.m., Wed., Oct. 11.

READ MORE: Campbell River formally passes controversial public drug consumption ban

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