Request made for meeting with minister on issue of tax exempt properties

MINDEMOYA—Algoma-Manitoulin MPP Michael Mantha will request a meeting with the minister of finance to bring forward concerns raised by the Manitoulin Municipal Association (MMA) on the tax exempt designation of conservancy purchased land.

“I’ve been working with the municipalities and was able to set up a meeting (just prior to Christmas) with the (the natural resources) ministry where the municipalities’ concerns were voiced,” Mr. Mantha told the Recorder on Monday. “We were told there is no mechanism for municipalities to appeal lands purchased within their community being designated tax exempt. These lands designated as tax exempt put a very big financial burden on municipalities.”

Ken Noland, chair of the MMA told members at a meeting last week, “I don’t know if we made any progress (at the meeting with Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) officials in December).”

Wayne Bailey, a Burpee-Mills Township councillor, pointed out a telephone conference call had been set up by Mr. Mantha with the MNR on December 17, 2012. “Some of the municipalities were involved and a number of pertinent questions were asked. It was amazing, one of the first things they said was that it’s the ministry of finance that establishes that conservation property land property is tax exempt.”

“We were told that as soon as a land conservancy group purchases a property, the land is automatically tax exempt,” said Mr. Bailey. “It doesn’t need any inspection for criteria as a wetland, or of scientific interest. And there is no requirement to hold any discussion with municipalities, nor are there are impact statements done on the effects this has on municipalities.”

“The MNR rep said this is the law, lands are tax exempt when they are purchased by a conservation agency, and we were told if we wanted this changed we would have to meet with the minister of finance,” said Mr. Bailey.

Mr. Bailey continued, “we asked several questions but there was very little depth in the answers that were provided. Farmland and lands and forest properties are required to pay 25 percent to the municipality, but when a conservancy group purchases land they don’t have to pay anything.”

The municipal delegation had told the MNR official, “we believe that there should be limits on the amount of acreage in each Manitoulin municipality that can be declared tax exempt by the MNR. Manitoulin Island’s population comprises of a much higher percentage of seniors, and lower income earners compared to the rest of Ontario. These people have difficulty carrying the tax burden resulting from tax exempt conservancy lands in our municipality. Is consideration given to a municipality’s ability to absorb the tax loss resulting from tax exempt designation?”

Mr. Bailey noted the answer provided by the MNR is, “no consideration is given to preparation of an impact statement to determine the short and long term affects of the declaration of tax exemption for conservation land. On application from the landowner, the tax exempt status is renewed each year without any follow-up study to assess the impact of the designation on the specific property.”

“Then I read the article in the Recorder recently involving Bob Barnett of the Escarpment Biosphere Conservancy (EBC) whose group is lobbying for the re-establishment of (Ontario Land Trust Assistance Program) funding,” said Mr. Bailey. “He also said the province is in agreement that 17 percent of Manitoulin and other areas is that 17 percent would become conservation lands.”

Mr. Noland stated, “I would like to know for every $1 million a municipality loses in assessment, how much we see for an increase in our taxes. When we are looking at all the shared services we (municipalities) take part in, it is all shared taxes. The municipality where land is designated tax exempt is hurt the most, but with all the services we share in, such as the health unit, policing and the District Services Board (DSB), these are all shared costs so everyone is affected.”

It was questioned by Gerry Strong that in the case of a conservancy group having purchased lands, whether a municipality can close a road to it if taxes are not paid on it.

“You can have land service agreements, but once again the only hammer the municipality has is if taxes on land are not paid for years we can put it up for sale,” said Mr. Noland. “But there is no recourse in this situation.”

Paul Skippen noted that when a government agency allows land to be purchased for conservation purposes to become tax exempt, “and in turn taxes are taken away from municipalities, and we can’t pay for the services we are supposed to provide for…it’s just mind boggling.”

Mr. Bailey said he is also perplexed as to why people, especially from the US and other countries, provide funding support for the purchase of lands in another area. That may benefit conservation, but severely affect the municipalities these lands are located in.

“My question is if they can pay millions of dollars to pay for the purchase of property, why aren’t they paying a couple of thousand dollars a year in taxes to help out the municipalities where these lands have become tax exempt?” asked Mr. Noland.

“Is there anything else we can do? It seems we are flogging a dead horse,” said Mr. Noland. “If we are able to set up a meeting with the minister of finance, who would be willing to go?” Several MMA members raised their hands in favour of attending this meeting.

“This presents a very big financial burden on municipalities. If they lose these lands from their tax base pool, it will become difficult for municipalities to survive,” said Mr. Mantha, who added he will be requesting a meeting with the minister of finance (Dwight Duncan) for MMA representatives to bring their concerns forward.

 Tom Sasvari