Burpee-Mills council meets with Nature Conservancy on tax exempt lands issue

EVANSVILLE—While no real solutions have been found, a representative of the municipality of Burpee-Mills says council members had a good meeting with officials of Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) in regard to concerns with the designation of large tracts of conservation properties in that municipality being designated as tax exempt.

“Although we didn’t come to any real solutions it was a good meeting, giving us opportunity to give our perspective, and listen to that of NCC,” said Wayne Bailey, a Burpee-Mills councillor after the meeting with John Grant, program manager with NCC, last week. “We based our discussions on issues such as the difficulties the municipality has when lands are taken out of the tax base and are partially funded by the province.”

“One promise Mr. Grant did make is that the NCC is not currently looking at purchasing any more lands on Western Manitoulin,” said Mr. Bailey. “And he promised if there are any changes to this policy in the future, he will immediately contact the municipality involved to suggest a joint impact study of the proposed changes.”

“It was a positive meeting, particularly having the opportunity to sit down face to face and looking at issues they had identified,” Mr. Grant told the Recorder. “In some respects some of their concerns would have been lessened. For instance, I let them know before we were to acquire any more land––at this time there is nothing on our radar for acquiring more land––and we would let them know if we are planning any changes. That opened up communications, and if other municipalities or the MMA (Manitoulin Municipal Association) would like to do the same and sit down at a meeting, I would also like to do so.”

“I was pleased to hear that council’s main concern was more on the loss of revenues (with tax exempt properties) for the municipality and that is definitely understandable,” said Mr. Grant. “It comes down to the Conservation Land Tax Incentive Program and the Managed Forest Tax Incentive program. Both are provincial initiatives and the province should ensure that municipalities are not facing a significant hit financially for municipalities where landowners participate.”

“We worked through one example where funding comes from the province for tax exempt conservation lands, the main program being the Ontario Municipal Partnership Fund,” said Mr. Grant. “Later this year there is going to be some changes announced to the calculations and the formula being used by the province.”

Mr. Bailey reported that municipal councillors expressed concern regarding the lost tax revenue resulting from tax exempt conservation properties. Mr. Grant asked if the current provincial formula allotting $37 for each $10,000 of assessed value as payment-in-lieu would be adequate to offset lost tax revenue. However, it was explained by the councillors that this was a fraction of the taxes actually paid by other landowners.

“Our municipality’s residential rate would yield $2,054.07 more than the provincial payment-in-lieu on this specific conservancy property being discussed,” said Mr. Bailey. “In our municipality $1,000 is a lot of money.”

“The councillors are concerned that the new provincial formula, due shortly, will download even more of the cost of conservation to the municipality,” Mr. Bailey reported. “The municipal councillors felt that since the establishment of conservancy properties had been an initiative of the provincial government as a political ploy to appease the urban dwellers of southern Ontario, the province should continue to fully fund the program rather than providing continued legislation with a download of financial responsibilities to the municipalities.”

“I posed the question to council as to whether the $37 per $10,000 is sufficient,” said Mr. Grant. “We were trying to understand the tax implications, and where we go from here,” he said. “We couldn’t put our fingers on a solution but it was a step in the right direction. If there is a significant loss in revenue being felt by the municipality, especially considering the low assessment and population in the municipality, the NCC might consider supporting any request to the province for necessary changes.”

The councillors reminded Mr. Grant that the Western Manitoulin municipalities are carrying the bulk of the financial burden of conservation land designations on the Island, and as a result these tax exempt properties are eroding their ability to provide for shared service agreements with other Manitoulin municipalities. Mr. Grant listened attentively while councillors related significant information regarding Burpee-Mills’ lack of commercial revenue, related costs of servicing an aging population, as well as other significant factors placing an increasingly heavy burden on municipal finances. During these discussions, Mr. Grant was made aware of the strong landowner opposition building toward any conservation group efforts to either acquire land or have it designated to tax exempt status.

Mr. Grant said he has “very good” knowledge of Manitoulin Island and said the NCC is on common ground with the concerns shared by the councillors.

On the issue of impact studies, as Mr. Bailey had indicated, he reported that the councillors reminded Mr. Grant that none of the conservancy groups had participated with municipal officials to perform impact studies on the significant effects of these designations of large tracts of tax exempt properties. He stated that key criteria for selection of lands for purchase by the NCC was the presence of globally rare species or communities important to the Great Lakes basin. He said the NCC is considering a number of options in planning to manage each property in a manner to preserve the value for which it was selected. Mr. Grant made a commitment to council that their municipal office would be notified immediately of any NCC plans to purchase future properties or to significantly impact properties within the townships. He agreed to meet with council to participate in impact study discussions as required.

Mr. Bailey also reported that the councillors also expressed concern that the provincial government had not designated any limit to the amount of tax exempt conservation land that can be set aside in a given municipality. Mr. Grant agreed that this could be a serious problem. He assured the Burpee-Mills councillors that NCC currently had no plans for further conservancy property purchases in these two townships. However, he did clarify he was not speaking for the other conservancy groups such as the Escarpment Biosphere Conservancy.

“The NCC is just one conservancy that can purchase lands in a municipality,” said Mr. Bailey. “The NCC is a little more selective in the type of land they purchase to put under conservation.”

Mr. Grant later explained, “Municipalities have the ability to communicate their concerns through the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) to the province. This is another route Burpee-Mills could take. NCC and other conservation groups I would expect like to see the present tax incentive programs continue for municipalities, and compensation for any tax loss they face.”

“On the whole we were very pleased with the way things went and the discussion we had with Mr. Grant,” added Mr. Bailey. “He understands where we are coming from.”

Tom Sasvari