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Tax hike looking a little lower

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Fort Frances residents now may be facing a 15.25 percent property tax increase for 2004, not 18-20 percent as previously believed, as the town continues to crunch numbers.

Treasurer Peggy Dupuis noted during a special committee of the whole meeting Wednesday night that as the budget currently stands, residential, multi-residential, pipeline, and farm properties will see a tax increase of 15.25 percent while large industrial will see a hike of 7.625 percent.

She noted previous figures only had factored in the revenues from residential, but the added monies from taxing the other classes brought the revenues up to a point where the 18-percent tax increase wasn’t necessary.

Dupuis also noted the 15.25-percent jump assumed council would adopt the proposed user fee schedule currently before it, including a “bag tag” system that would be implemented May 31 and only give residents five free “introductory tags” at that time.

During discussion on tax revenues, Mayor Dan Onichuk noted that due to the tax assessment policy of the province, the town, as well as other municipalities across Ontario, aren’t getting all the property tax revenues they should be when it comes to multi-residential housing.

He said tax assessment for those properties is based on income of the residence’s owners (and correspondingly, occupancy), and that if a building has only half of its units occupied, the owner pays less taxes.

“It’s like saying if your business goes down, your taxes go down,” explained Mayor Onichuk.

While acting CAO Mark McCaig said management and council are making progress on the budget, Mayor Onichuk admitted council still has to consider factors such as paying off the debt of the condominiums (particularly in the case all the units don’t sell this year) and an expected increase in the Rainycrest levy in June.

Coun. Neil Kabel added there are some staff contract negotiations currently going on that, once resolved, also may affect the 2004 budget.

Coun. Tannis Drysdale noted the budget also may be affected by some funds resulting from the federal government’s “new deal” with municipalities, but this, too, was impossible to factor in at this time.

With the picture of a residential tax increase become somewhat clearer, Coun. Rick Wiedenhoeft said the public should realize that “Fort Frances has been cushioned over the past four years” when it comes to taxes.

Dryden, for instance, has seen a 30 percent tax increase over the past four years.

“It’s time to catch up to where we should be,” he said.

McCaig stressed the town is dedicated to answer the “ongoing need to identify efficiencies” and must “persistently lobby” the province to adjust funding formulas to the benefit of overburdened municipalities.

“The day we get finished with the budget, we have to look at the operation [of the town] as a whole,” said Coun. Roy Avis, noting he’s had feedback from the public regarding making staffing cuts at the town.

McCaig replied a strategic plan will be the town’s next major undertaking as soon as the 2004 budget process is over.

While council has a special meeting slated for noon on March 31, at which time it previously was thought the final budget might be ready at that date, that might not be the case now, noted Mayor Onichuk.

“We definitely have to meet again before voting on the budget. Not everybody’s singing the same song,” he remarked.

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