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Hall tax referendum divides Cortes Island

Division goes back years to previous bylaws on idea
Cortes Island voters will be asked on Oct. 20 whether they support the idea of a hall tax. File photo/Campbell River Mirror

This Oct. 20, when people around the region cast ballots for local government, Cortes Island residents will have to decide on a proposed hall tax.

They will be asked if they are willing to support some form of levy to generate funds for community hall services.

Proponents, most notably, the Southern Cortes Community Association (SCCA), are trying to raise a stable source of money to cover the increasing operational costs of running the hall on Cortes Island at Manson’s Landing.

“We’ve built this amazing piece of infrastructure. It’s really all we have on Cortes in terms of primary services to the community,” said Julian Ayers, president of the SCCA.

RELATED STORY: Cortes Island to vote on hall tax idea in fall elections

The SCCA is aiming to gain about $46,000 a year to cover maintenance and operations, some repairs as well as expand programming. Another group, the Whaletown Community Club is looking for $15-20,000 a year. The Strathcona Regional District estimates this would have to be raised either by a parcel tax of about $80 per lot or a tax based on assessments – as an example, an average house worth $345,000 taxed at $83 per year – though Ayers estimates a parcel tax would come in lower, at about $75 a year.

Ayers said there has been a reduction in gaming funds from the province in recent years to help organizations like the SCCA cover regular costs.

“A couple of years back, the government decided … it was no longer an eligible expense for charities and societies to receive from their gaming grant,” he said.

In the first year, this meant a loss of more than $15,000, and Ayers said they have never recovered and had to cut back on hours of operation and staffing hours.

“We had to put out an urgent appeal to the community for donations, so we could pay our liability insurance,” he said.

On the other side, opponents feel the SCCA has misspent money on expensive upgrades to the hall, such as a generator, and that they should not be given more.

“They’re living beyond their means, they’ve got all these big ideas, but they don’t have enough support in the community,” said resident Maureen Bader, a one-time B.C. director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and a member of a group called the Cortes Coalition for Responsible Government that appeared before the SRD last fall to express their concerns with funding the hall through taxation. “They try to do more than they can actually fund. That’s the underlying issue.”

Bader questions how the association can still hold events when there is a power outage. She said they are not opposed to the hall or programming but question whether private community groups should receive tax funding as opposed to collecting money from memberships or getting volunteer contributions.

“If a community really supports these organizations and if they’re run properly, they should be able to survive,” she said.

As an example, she said they did get voluntary contributions to support the roof repairs to the aging building.

Ayers responds these infrastructure projects are typically paid for by grants, as is some programming, or in the case of the generator, a subject of separate fundraising campaigns.

“We’ve been very, very successful in raising grant money to fund improvements,” he said.

Other than grants-in-aid from the regional district – actually tax money – they are lacking a source to fund core operations in light of lost gaming revenue.

The “no” side says the community has already rejected the idea. In the presentation last fall, the Cortes Coalition for Responsible Government pointed out a couple of hall service bylaws were defeated approximately eight years ago because of community opposition.

At the time, the bylaws went through an alternate approval process, which can be defeated if a percentage of voters express opposition to a bylaw. The threshold for the SRD is 10 per cent.

Opponents have also said proponents have created a false sense of community support for the plan. However, the “yes” side wonders why their opponents do not want voters to go to the polls to decide once and for all.

“The community association’s position all along is that this is a democracy, at least last time we looked,” Ayers said. “What I mostly have to say to the ‘no’ side is why are you afraid of a vote?”

On the surface, this referendum should settle the question by giving the regional district direction from local voters, but because the SRD board opted for a non-binding referendum, there is a good chance the proposal, if approved, will have to gain the official assent of voters once again in 2019 by going to a binding referendum.

Cortes Island is also holding a non-binding referendum on establishing funding for first responder training for the fire department.