The Cortes Island Fire Department wants to expand its service to include first response for medical emergencies. This issue is one of the referenda planned for the community following a non-binding vote in the fall. File photo/Campbell River Mirror

Cortes referenda won’t proceed as quickly as some hope

SCCA wants parcel tax taken off table as option to raise revenue

It might take a little longer for two referenda on Cortes Island to go before voters.

Area B Director Noba Anderson, who sits on the Strathcona Regional District board, had hoped to have residents vote as soon as possible in order to get the items into the next SRD budget, should they each pass a binding referendum.

“We’ve been at this for nine years on Cortes now,” she said. “We have gone through so much due process on this one…. The work has been done, the bylaws are prepared.”

One referendum question concerns a tax to support first responder training for the fire department.

RELATED STORY: Cortes Island emergency response service goes to referendum

The second is to establish the hall tax to support operations for two Cortes Island groups that provide community programming. Each received ample support during a non-binding vote in tandem with the fall local government elections – a so-called “referendum on the referendum” – to be brought forward again.

RELATED STORY: Cortes Island binding referenda to proceed in tandem

The plan through the hall tax is to raise $75,000 a year for the groups to use to help with operating costs and programming. However, in response to a request from a local community associations, Anderson suggested deleting a reference to the possibility of a parcel tax as a means to generate revenue for community hall operations.

At the latest SRD board meeting, directors had concerns about the pace of putting the bylaws through to go to referendum, with several wanting to give the public more opportunities in light of changes proposed to how the hall tax would be generated, such as removing the parcel tax as an option.

Area C Director Jim Abram said it was not realistic to try to get the questions to referendum and have them included in the 2019 budget cycle.

“The bylaws are not complete, they’re not ready,” he said. “I don’t know why we’re so intent on doing them right now.”

Area D Director Brenda Leigh echoed this, saying the SRD board should take into account opinions from those opposed. She said she had heard concerns from Cortes residents via email.

“I don’t think that’s fair to people, to the taxpayers. I think they should have the opportunity,” she said.

Leigh also said she wished to deal with each referendum bylaw separately.

“I may vote differently on each of them,” she said.

Charlie Cornfield, one of the Campbell River directors, said the changes proposed at the Nov. 22 meeting were coming forth from a director’s report rather than an SRD staff report.

“This is not the normal way we would do business,” he said. “Normally, it would be a staff report… not something that a director has written up. That’s why we hire staff.”

Director Andy Adams thanked the Cortes delegation that had presented on the issue and credited Anderson for her work but felt the matter needed more public input.

Earlier in the meeting, representatives from one of the community groups, the Southern Cortes Community Association, spoke to the board about what they would like to see, specifically removing a parcel tax as an option and using the mill rate, based on property values, for the tax.

Ultimately, the board voted to give the first and second readings of the bylaws for the issues to go to the public for input before any referenda take place. The board also accepted a motion by Adams to refer to staff to work out all details for the hall tax bylaw. He also wanted staff to prepare a draft policy to consistently address public input into the process.

“I think we need to tighten up our policies,” he said, adding, “We need a clear and concise and agreed-upon procedure and policy.”

SCCA OPTS FOR MILL RATE

For a hall tax, the Southern Cortes Community Association (SCCA) has considered two ways of generating revenue to support hall operations on Cortes Island, for themselves and another group, the Whaletown Community Club.

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

Myrna Kerr, SCCA vice-president and secretary, and John Sprungman, past president, appeared before the Strathcona Regional District board on Nov. 22 to outline why they feel a tax tied to the mill rate is a better option that a parcel tax.

“We are here because we support a hall tax for Cortes Island,” Kerr said. “We have come to you before, and I believe that what we’ve done this time is to provide you with a lot of information.”

The SCCA’s Sprungman was one of the original organizers of the petition that came before the SRD board last year and said the wish now was to eliminate a parcel tax. Instead, the SCCA hopes to generate revenue using the mill rate based on assessment values for properties.

He outlined the rationale for using the mill rate based on assessed values on the roughly 1,000 parcels of property on Cortes. The average assessment is currently approximately $345,000, which would mean a mill rate of $0.22 per $1,000 of property value.

“We’re suggesting this is a fairer way to tax,” Sprungman said. “It’s also consistent with the way all of our other local services are taxed.”

He found out from BC Assessment that 255 parcels have no improvements on them, which means the owners would have to pay the same tax as everyone under a parcel tax system.

“All those owners would have to pay the same thing as the people who actually have property there and live on it or rent it out. That seemed kind of unfair in that regard,” he said.

As well, there are other parcels that have multiple dwellings on them, which would mean the suggested $75 parcel would be reduced to much less for each household than for someone with one home on a property.

Sprungman said there are other considerations for SRD such as potential administrative costs in the form of a parcel tax review.

“I can bet you that on Cortes Island, a lot of people would appeal having to pay even $75, if they didn’t think they were benefiting from it,” he said.

He hoped to the regional district would be able to proceed with the bylaw and referendum quickly to help generate the funds for the groups this year.

“Our community associations are both struggling with these core expenses,” he said.

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