May. 23, 2019

Time to look for 'public benefit' in city grant program

Churches and taxation – there’s a can of worms few people want to open, especially elected officials. So, here goes.

That hot-button issue seldom surfaces unless you’ve got a large number of newly-elected members. For instance, like in Nanaimo. In Saanich the city council is looking at including a “public benefits” test for exemption of property taxes.

Taxes on church buildings and their land footprint are covered under a statutory exemption – a provincial regulation. What is optional for local government is the additional land, like parking lots, that many churches have. That’s the burning question, should they pay taxes on that extra land? Those entities benefit from fire and police protection and other muncipal services like streets without contributing to them.

Thoughout history, churches have always been known for their contributions to the community – looking after the poor and less fortunate. How much has that changed with the ever-growing government involvement in that aspect of community?

Here in Nanaimo some churches are a shining example, they pitch in wherever they are needed. The bigger question is how many share in this obligation to community? Including public benefit as a criterion in granting tax exemption sounds like a legitimate request – after all, the historic exemption of churches was based on their direct contribution to community.

When I was on city council I was chairman of the grants-in-aid committee as well as the Safer Nanaimo (housing and poverty) working group. Coun. Diane Brennan and I met with the ministerial association to discuss their role in helping those in need. We also had a committee to review the grants-in-aid process, including how it related to churches. The conclusion was that the total saving to the city would actually be very small and could raise a lot of other issues.

Present Councillor Don Bonner was a member of the grants committees during my tenure, so he already has some insight into the process.

Another look at the issue is timely for Nanaimo in view on the newly-struck task force on homelessness. It would help to have up-to-date information on community benefit from those who are cashing in on the tax exemptions. Are they actually contributing?

This goes beyond churches. The real question is, should all such tax exemptions be earned, based on their contribution toward the community? Many non-profits regularly apply for these tax exemptions. Is it time for our city council to review which organizations deserve to be exempted?

Your comments are welcome – editor@nanaimonet.com