Big Valley village council turned down a request to forgive almost $40,000 in unpaid taxes. The request was turned down after a private discussion at the regular meeting of council Sept. 23.
Village Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) Tracy Mindus presented councillors with an agenda item titled “Property tax forgiveness request.” Although the request letter itself was not available to the public, Mindus described it as involving two properties, which appeared through the Zoom meeting to be tax roll 000 0020 and tax roll 000 0190 and involved almost $40,000 in arrears, apparently for both the 2020 and 2021 tax seasons.
Mindus stated the request came from the property owner who requested the tax bills be forgiven.
Apparently the request stated the properties were purchased with the tax debts existing, that the new owner has incurred a lot of expenses in purchasing the properties hence the new owner was asking village council to waive the old tax bills.
The CAO stated the village council, through the Municipal Government Act (MGA), has the authority to waive tax debts but added that, “...this can be precedent setting.”
Coun. Art Tizzard stated he felt the request should be denied as he saw no reason to waive a tax debt for one property owner when the council has already turned down similar requests from other property owners.
Mayor Clark German noted the debt in question was “...a significant amount of money” and if councillors waived this debt council would have a tough time turning down similar requests from other property owners.
Coun. Harry Nibourg requested the discussion move into “closed session” to discuss the request privately.
Closed session is a power granted to councils by the Municipal Government Act (MGA) to discuss things like staffing problems, people’s personal financial details and contract details the municipality may have with private businesses among other things.
A motion was made at about 1:26 p.m to discuss the request in closed session and passed unanimously, and the zoom council meeting was closed to the public until about 1:30 p.m., when it moved back into the regular meeting.
No reason was given to explain why the request was discussed in closed session, nor was the FOIP section named for that reason.
After the closed session was ended a motion was made to deny the request for tax forgiveness which was passed unanimously.
A number of municipalities covered by this reporter also receive requests for tax forgiveness on a regular basis and most handle them in the open council meeting.
Some of the municipalities make the requests available to the public, while some make the requests available to the public but remove the names of the property owners involved and include only the tax roll numbers.
The ECA Review contacted the Ministry of Municipal Affairs by email Oct. 4 regarding requests for tax forgiveness being discussed in closed session, and spokesperson Chastity Anderson stated there are rules for closed session but much of it relies on the request itself.
“Section 197 of the MGA states that councils and council committees must conduct their meetings in public unless the matter to be discussed is within one of the exceptions to disclosure in Division 2 of Part 1 of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy (FOIP) (s. 16 to 29),” stated Anderson.
“The exceptions include matters where disclosures could be harmful to personal privacy, individual or public safety, law enforcement, intergovernmental relations, or economic or other interests; reveal confidential evaluations, local public body confidences, or advice from officials; or disclose information that is subject to legal privilege.
This section also indicates that a council or council committee must pass a resolution stating the reason and the section of FOIP that applies before closing all or any part of a meeting to the public.
“To balance the privilege set out in section 197(2) of the MGA, section 197(3) prohibits the passing of a resolution or bylaw during a closed meeting (with the exception of a motion to revert to a public meeting); therefore, any decision resulting from closed session discussions must occur in the open public meeting.
“It is up to the municipality to interpret that section of the MGA and determine whether they think the request is a matter where disclosures could be harmful to personal privacy. The decision on whether the council discussion around a request for tax forgiveness would largely be based on the business case presented from the property owner,” added Anderson.
Stu Salkeld, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, East Central Alberta Review