Of its many achievements, the ancient Roman Empire’s road system arguably remains one of the most impressive.
Three hundred and seventy-two roads spread around the Mediterranean Sea connected 113 provinces at the empire’s peak, covering a distance of more than 400,000 kilometres.
Paying for such infrastructure rested on the government’s shoulders, with officials often petitioning wealthy private citizens to contribute funds. Collecting taxes was another way road construction and maintenance were covered.
Fast-forward some 1,500 years and half a globe away, roadways and taxes were a hot topic during the May 11 Crowsnest Pass council meeting.
Council has come under public criticism recently after approving a 1.73 per cent increase to the municipal portion of residents’ property taxes. Henry Koopman, who wrote a letter of complaint to council and attended the public input session during the meeting, said the slight increase does not represent the jump in taxes he was required to pay.
“When we moved in last year, taxes were under $5,000,” he said. “They went up to $5,800.”
The issue wasn’t so much the tax amount, Mr. Koopman continued, but how little service he received for what he was paying, particularly in maintaining Evergreen Drive, the gravel road that permitted access to their property in Hillcrest.
“We’ve been here for a year and we’ve seen a grader once,” he said. “We’re paying all this money and we get nothing. The county I came from, we received grader service once a month.”
Mr. Koopman also cited the lack of dust suppression as an issue, along with being forced to pay the garbage collection fee despite going to the dump himself.
“We don’t mind paying taxes, but we’d like to get something for them,” he said.
Jay Wickens, a neighbour of Mr. Koopman, also spoke during the meeting about the lack of service being received.
“We’re feeling kind of left out of the loop. It’s more than just grading the road,” he said.
“The expectation of us as property owners is to keep it nice and neat. We expect the same treatment,” he added.
“Would like to just see more being done.”
Mayor Painter acknowledged gravel road maintenance had been an issue for some time and council was working to address it.
“This is the first council ever to actually have a policy in place that will deal with gravel roads in our community. They’ve been neglected for 40 years,” he said.
Addressing such an issue takes time and costs money, the mayor added. “We can’t afford to do them all [at once], so it’s a work in progress. We’re not going to drop everything else to address one road — there’s a plan in place.”
As it happens, the scheduled grading for Evergreen Drive was later that week.
“Your concerns are definitely heard, and we will be doing our best to look after them,” Mayor Painter said.
The mandatory garbage pickup fee, said Coun. Marlene Anctil, resulted from the municipality being billed from the landfill itself.
“You have to realize it still costs the municipality for you to take your garbage to the landfill. We pay fees there,” she said, adding that an individualized payment plan for each resident would be too difficult to implement.
The municipality also budgeted only $25,000 for dust suppression, though residents have the option to co-operate and pay for additional applications if they want it.
The bigger public issue was the increase in taxes.
Council recognized there was public frustration over the jump in property tax, with many experiencing situations similar to Mr. Koopman’s. The jump seems unjustified, particularly because the municipality announced a tax increase of only 1.73 per cent.
The issue at hand is understanding how property taxes are calculated. Total property tax is made up of several factors, including requirements from the provincial government. The 1.73 per cent increase applies only to the municipal portion of the property tax that council actually has control over.
A big part of the municipal portion rests on property assessment, which is performed by an independent third-party company the municipality has no influence over. If your property is assessed at a higher value, then your property tax will also be higher, even if the municipality didn’t increase taxes.
For Coun. Lisa Sygutek, an updated assessment on her home almost doubled her taxes.
“For a number of years I was paying taxes on a home that was significantly underrated,” she said. “Now I’m paying the proper amount of taxes.”
If people disagree with their property assessment, she added, they can appeal it.
More information on property assessment is available online at bit.ly/CNP_prop-assess.
Another aspect of property taxes council has no say over is provincial portions such as education and policing levies. Policing in particular was significant, as the municipality was required to pay $130,000 to the province that it didn’t have to last year.
Taxes for policing will only go up, as the municipality will be responsible for $270,000 next year and $340,000 in 2022. With the number of provincial and federal grants to municipalities decreasing, council is left with fewer budgeting options to meet both provincial requirements and its own operating and capital needs.
Once a municipality creates a budget, the amount of known revenue is subtracted to determine what deficit needs to be covered through property taxes. The deficit total is then divided by the total value of the municipality’s property — $1.02 billion for Crowsnest Pass — and then multiplied by 1,000.
The final figure represents the mill rate (from the Latin word mille, for 1,000), which is used to calculate the property tax of individual residential and business properties. The assessed property value is multiplied by the mill rate and then divided by 1,000, which gives the total amount of property tax owed.
Crowsnest Pass’s mill rate takes into account three components: the seniors’ housing rate, which is based on the budget needs of senior housing; the municipal rate, which is determined by the municipality to cover its operational and capital needs; and the school rate, which is set by the province to fund public education.
In 2020, the residential mill rate for Crowsnest Pass was 7.5115 and the non-residential was 17.1747; for 2021, those amounts have changed to 7.6415 and 17.4718 respectively. The municipality does give a 25 per cent reduction to small businesses in the community.
Understanding how mill rates are calculated and what the mill rates for different municipalities are provides a way to contextualize the amount of property tax residents owe.
“I took it upon myself to do a chart comparison with communities of similar size,” said Coun. Doreen Glavin. “We weren’t the highest and we weren’t the lowest and we were kind of in the middle.”
Part of the unique challenge Crowsnest Pass faces is the majority of its property assessments — 84.6 per cent as of 2020 — is residential.
Without a larger industrial or commercial portion for property taxes, said Coun. Dean Ward, council is left making up the difference with residential taxes.
“I find it kind of ironic that two weeks ago we had a lady that sent us a letter and made great hay out of us on the social media side about not wanting the coal mining or any of that industrial stuff. Then two weeks later, she’s making the same hay on social media that our taxes are too high,” he said.
“Well, when 80 per cent of your tax base is residential, where do you think the tax rates are going to come from? If we don’t want industry here that’s fine, but then we can’t complain that 80 per cent of our taxes are coming from residential.”
In an attempt to inform the public, council directed administration to publish information online explaining how the municipality’s property tax was set.
Additional information on Crowsnest Pass property taxes, as well as figures used in this article, are available online, including how they are calculated (bit.ly/CNP_prop-taxes) and information that helps determine the mill rate (bit.ly/CNP_tax-profile and bit.ly/CNP_financial-facts).
Sean Oliver, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Shootin' the Breeze