Dueling petitions were presented to Strathcona Regional District directors recently over an issue that some say has divided the community on Cortes Island.
A group of Cortes Islanders are pushing for a referendum to seek support for an annual tax to fund the community’s Manson’s Hall and possibly the Gorge Hall.
Sue Ellingsen, a referendum advocate, told electoral area regional district directors at an Oct. 11 meeting that the group has gathered 458 signatures on a petition asking for the regional district to hold a referendum.
“Everybody wants their voice heard and I don’t know of any other way this can be done,” Ellingsen said.
John Sprungman, who has been working with Ellingsen on the petition, said the tax would help the Southern Cortes Community Association keep the Manson’s Hall afloat.
“The board occasionally struggles to find money to keep the Manson’s Hall going,” Sprungman said. “There are a lot of people on Cortes who are in favour of tax support for our community halls.”
Manson’s Hall offers several programs, including yoga, a pre-school, toddler play group, a youth program, a Friday Market and seniors activities. It also houses the food bank, a pottery studio, the post office and Cortes radio station office, among other things.
Julian Ayers, president of the Southern Cortes Community Association, which operates the hall, said a reduction in grants, including a B.C. gaming grant, has prompted the hall to seek $46,000 annually, indexed to inflation, in sustainable core funding supported by a tax base.
“We lost a few primary tenants. Most were replaced but at lower rates,” Ayers said. “Some years are not as successful and we’re barely able to keep the doors open. We had to reduce our hours and services last winter.”
But not everyone on Cortes is happy with the possibility of paying for the hall, and more than 200 residents have signed a counter petition.
Maureen Bader, spokesperson for the Cortes Coalition for Responsible Governance, said Cortes islanders already struck down a proposal for hall taxes in 2010, and said nothing has changed since then.
“We had two hall service tax bylaws defeated in 2010, just because the process didn’t give an answer the proponents liked, doesn’t mean we have to be beaten again with the same stick,” Bader said. “This issue has once again divided the community.”
Bader added that the tax would be a burden.
“A new tax-funded non-essential service is inappropriate on an island that has a small population with an average household income of $25,000,” she said. “So we would contend that most Cortes Islanders can’t actually afford to pay more taxes and quite frankly, shouldn’t be forced to.”
Cortes resident Rod Lee seconded that.
“We don’t want to impose a tax on ourselves when we have governments to do that for us,” said Lee, noting Cortes property owners already pay enough in taxes. “And we do recognize the importance and the need for essential services. For something like the hall, which we don’t see as essential, I’d like to keep those tax details in mind.”
Bader said they can see the value in the hall but said at the same time, the association needs to live within its means.
“It’s a little bit like BC Lottery’s tag line, ‘know your limit, play within it’ and that’s what we want to see,” Bader said.
According to the Southern Cortes Community Association’s financial statements, in 2016/17 the association received $78,926.28 in capital improvement grants, donations and program grants, which includes a $23,450 B.C. gaming grant. Up until last year, the association was receiving $38,950 in gaming grants.
Financial statements show that in 2016, the community association generated $113,048 in revenue through grants, fundraising, long-term rentals, occasional rentals, the Friday Market, programs and a program gaming grant. Programming and operating expenses cost $112,035 which left $1,013 in excess. Projections for this year, however, show $110,138 in revenue due to a drop in the gaming grant and $118,625 in expenses, for a deficit of $8,486. The association is forecasting deficits of $19,080 in both 2018 and 2019, based on predictions of cuts to grant funding.
Whether or not the issue goes to a referendum is still up in the air, however, as Dave Leitch, CAO of the regional district, stressed that at this point a lot more information needs to be gathered before a decision can be made on whether or not a hall tax, or even a referendum, is appropriate.
“I have no answers because I’ve received so much conflicting information, I don’t know without consulting the community,” he said. “I will be in touch with everybody.”
Cortes Director Noba Anderson, who is currently on leave from board meetings, said she believes a referendum is appropriate.
“I am most certainly in favour of a referendum on this matter,” she said. “It’s the only democratic way to decide this matter.”
In the meantime, regional district staff will be going to the community to undertake preliminary consultation with the Cortes Island community and will report back to the board with what they heard.