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Split council puts Pitt tax collection in jeopardy

(From top - left) Mayor Deb Walters; Janis Elkerton; Bruce Bell; Dave Murray; Tracy Miyashita and Gwen O
(From top - left) Mayor Deb Walters; Janis Elkerton; Bruce Bell; Dave Murray; Tracy Miyashita and Gwen O'Connell.
— image credit: The News/Files

The City of Pitt Meadows won’t be able to collect taxes if a divided council fails to pass a bylaw that sets the increase for 2014 within the next month.

With the clock ticking towards a legislated May 15 deadline, city director of finance Mark Roberts warned council there are serious consequence if they are unable to reach a compromise.

Failure to pass a property tax rate bylaw amounts to an offence against B.C.’s Community Charter, which requires municipalities to annually adopt a bylaw that authorizes the city to collect taxes.

Penalties include a fine of up to $2,000, imprisonment for up to six months - or both.

“As awkward as it was for me to write the report, I felt it was incumbent on me to tell them,” said Roberts, noting that it is unlikely that a council member would be prosecuted.

“It’s up to them how they want to move forward.”

With the recent resignation of Coun. Doug Bing, there are currently six members of council - three who voted in favour of the 2014 Financial Plan Bylaw and three against it. Bing, who is the MLA for Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows, stayed on to ensure the budget passed and phoned in to cast his vote.

Couns. Bruce Bell, Janis Elkerton and Dave Murray remain opposed to the city’s 1.9 per cent tax increase, as they believe it’s possible to slash it further. The city received a petition signed by 1,500 people calling for a “zero tax increase” for the second year in a row.

With a three-three split, however, Roberts is worried the tax rate bylaw could face defeat, forcing the city to revisit its entire budget.

“We don’t want to go there,” he said.

“The option now is for somebody to vote for it who wouldn’t normally. This bylaw is not about just collecting the tax increase, it’s about collecting all tax revenue that allows our city to function.”

Although it is impossible to predict the outcome of any vote, leaving the vote to chance when there would be substantial consequences and little opportunity to rectify the problem would be unfair to the public, members of council and the process itself, Roberts noted in his report.

A 1.9 per cent increase would add $52 to the tax bill for the average single-family home, valued at $450,000.

Mayor Deb Walters does not know what will happen in the next few weeks, but noted the scenario outlined by Roberts has never happened in B.C. history.

“I’m not sure what will happen. You’ll have to ask those councillors what they are doing,” said Walters.

“We certainly are a divided council. There is no getting away from that. But this bylaw is not a matter of just imposing taxes, it give us the right to collect taxes … that’s what pays for our police force, our fire department, our roads to be repaired.”

Coun. Elkerton has asked to see how much of a surplus the city had in 2013 and, perhaps, apply it to the year’s budget, decreasing the tax increase.

Coun. Bell had hoped council would have reached an agreement by now.

“We are getting down to crunch time. Everybody understands something has to happen,” said Bell, adding he still believes this year’s tax increase can be reduced to just one per cent or something lower than 1.9.

Coun. Dave Murray also believes there's more to trim, pointing out that contracted out services are one area that could have been looked at.

"We haven't covered everything yet," Murray said.

"We haven't done our due diligence in being effective money managers. I think we could do a little bit better."

Council will hold a special meeting to discuss the property tax rate bylaw on April 29.

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