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Group questions tax shift

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The Northern Action Group isn’t happy with town council’s decision to hike residential taxes by 10.5 percent (on average) while commercial ratepayers see theirs drop by 3.7 percent.

NAG spokesman Allan Bedard asked council Monday night to justify the shift, noting he was going to take the information back to the group.

“And I’m not sure where it will go from there,” Bedard told councillors, adding he felt the town should better inform the public on the taxation issue.

“[But] I don’t think it’s fair . . . that we should pick up the burden of the commercial or industrial base,” he argued.

But Coun. Sharon Tibbs said as the Administration and Finance executive committee went through the ’98 budget process, it realized something had to be done to provide commercial ratepayers with some tax relief.

“What we discovered is . . . that the Municipality of Fort Frances charges the third-highest commercial rate across the province of Ontario,” she noted, with Toronto being the highest.

In order to be competitive for businesses moving into Northwestern Ontario, Coun. Tibbs said the town had to do something about its high commercial taxes, which are significantly lower in Dryden and Kenora.

“We felt the opportunity was there. We had to address it,” Mayor Glenn Witherspoon added.

But Bedard stressed they couldn’t compare “apples and peaches,” noting Kenora and Dryden had tax bases subsidized through a telephone system.

“We’re not suggesting . . . that we get to levels that Kenora and Dryden have,” Coun. Tibbs assured, saying Fort Frances also boasted a 30 percent lower utility bill—the second-lowest in the province next to Cornwall.

And by luring business, she stressed the town was creating employment and reasons for youth to stay here.

Bedard also wondered if there was any talk of offsetting the tax base with reserve funds since the province had come through with Heritage Fund dollars for the auditorium under construction at Westfort.

“None at all,” Mayor Witherspoon replied, noting they still didn’t know what the final bills for the arena and auditorium projects would be.

At its July 13 meeting, council voted to drop the commercial tax ratio by 0.1, bringing it to 3.09. That means for every residential tax dollar collected, $3.09 will be collected from commercial taxpayers.

The mayor noted that shift represented a $24,000 increase to residential ratepayers, an average of $14 per household. The rest of the increase, he said, was due to the market value reassessment—which caused a 5.6 percent jump—and the auditorium and arena projects.

“Those two projects represented an increase of about four-and-a-half percent in Fort Frances,” he explained.

Meanwhile, the town has started its 1999 budget process, with division managers to receive their packages at the end of the month. But Mayor Witherspoon already has warned he didn’t want to see them coming back with any unnecessary capital requests.

“When a manager sits in front of us with a 43 percent increase, talk about a slap in the face,” he fumed during Monday’s committee of the whole meeting.

Council recommended managers come in with “realistic” capital budgets listing their needs rather than wants.

The ’99 budget is slated to be set in November.

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