On September 25 this year, a group of UBC residents met Vancouver-Point Grey MLA David Eby about a burning issue in their community.
It’s about the fee for fire services that was levied by the previous B.C. Liberal government on residential neighbourhoods in UBC starting in 2016.
Vancouver-Point Grey, which includes UBC, used to be represented by then B.C. Liberal Premier Christy Clark. In the 2013 provincial election, Clark lost her seat to Eby.
At the meeting, the residents comprising the UBC Neighbourhoods Taxation Working Group told Eby, now also Attorney General with the B.C. NDP government, that the imposition of the fire service charge was unfair.
Previously, the group wrote Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Selina Robinson to request the termination of the fee that will cost $1 million per year starting in 2017-2018.
“Because of the unusual way in which revenue is raised to fund community expenses, the fire service charge imposes a substantial financial hardship on the community and creates additional challenges for the community’s financial viability,” according to the group’s August 28, 2017 letter to Robinson.
One of the signatories to the letter was retired tax lawyer William Holmes.
“David [Eby] I think is going to raise the issue with the responsible minister [Robinson], but other than that he didn’t promise us anything,” Holmes told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview.
According to Holmes, the decision to levy a fee was based on what he considers as a wrong assumption that UBC residents do not pay their share to cover fire services.
As his group’s letter to Robinson asserted, “a portion of the general rural property tax paid by UBC property owners already funds the community’s share of the cost of fire protection service”.
“Of the $2.58 million tax paid this year, it can be calculated that approximately $440,000 is to fund police services,” the letter explained. “This is the amount by which our police tax is reduced in recognition that a portion of the general rural property tax is considered to fund policing (the rates of police tax payable in all rural areas are reduced for this reason from what the rates would be if the areas were municipalities).
“That leaves $2.14 million to fund other services,” the letter continued. “The only other service we are aware of receiving from the provincial government is fire protection service, for which the separate charge is now made.”
In the interview, Holmes said that residents are concerned that the fee will eat into funds that are used to pay for other services in the community.
“The fire charge imposes an unfair burden on residents on the community, on the UBC neighbourhoods, because the community already pays a large amount of money to Victoria for which it receives virtually no other services,” Holmes said.
The UBC Neighbourhoods Taxation Working Group is separate from the University Neighbourhoods Association (UNA).
The UNA, which acts as the governing body for the five residential areas of Wesbrook Place, Hampton Place, Hawthorn Place, Chancellor Place, and East Campus, is currently chaired by Richard Alexander.
According to Alexander, the province informed the residents’ association in 2016 that the government would be implementing a “fire tax”.
Alexander recalled that the UNA was given a choice of paying the fee through either the rural tax or the services levy that residents pay to UBC.
The UNA chair explained that if the fee was included in the rural tax, it would have meant an additional $50,000 administrative surcharge.
“In June 2016, the UNA board elected to pay the fire tax through the services levy and they did so not because they necessarily liked the fire tax, but it was financially or fiscally prudent for them to avoid a $50,000 a year administrative surcharge,” Alexander told the Straight in a phone interview.
Alexander also said that the UNA and UBC formed a joint financial task force to manage the cost of the fee and ensure that other services for the community would not be affected.
“They [UBC] looked at some of the service charges that the UNA was paying for civic-related matters, and they reduced them by $800,000,” Alexander said. “So 80 percent of this new tax was immediately compensated for by reduced fees.”
For the remaining $200,000, Alexander said that the UNA is covering the amount from its reserve funds.
Michael White is the UBC associate vice president of campus and community planning.
In a separate interview, White said that the partnership between UNA and UBC resulted in managing the fire service charge without any effects on either the property taxes being paid by residents or the level of services being delivered to residential neighbourhoods.
“We don’t want residents to pay more, and we don’t want the service levels to be affected,” White told the Straight by phone.
White was also asked about how the university looks at the claim by the UBC Neighbourhoods Taxation Working Group that the fire services charge is unfair.
“The key thing for us was understanding that the province, they have mandate to do this and they did it,” White said. “And that we wanted to make sure that we help manage the impact of it for the UNA and the neighbourhood.”
On October 2 this year, Vancouver-Point Grey MLA Eby responded to concerns raised by Hampton Place residents Aprodicio and Eleanor Laquian about the fire service fee.
In his letter, Eby recalled to the Laquian couple that he committed during the last election to provide a “full accounting to constituents of the amount of rural taxes paid by the UNA and the use those funds are put to by the provincial government”.
Eby said that he will seek information to “ensure that the UNA is being subjected to fair tax treatment”.
“It is my hope that this information will clarify the correctness or incorrectness of assumptions made by the province when the new fire tax charge was imposed on the UNA neighbourhoods,” Eby wrote. “As you know, the tax was imposed because the government at the time believed the UNA benefitted from ‘unfair’ rural tax benefits in not having to pay for fire services when other rural communities do.”