Concerns around potential discrimination were echoed as pastor Ken Keber of Bethel Christian Centre and Lorne Westnedge of the First Baptist Church addressed council at Monday’s committee of the whole meeting.
“I read the paper and saw everyone else got an exemption basically except the churches. That smacked me in the face,” said Keber. “I don’t want to be suspicious, but it does make me wonder.”
At a council meeting this month the city passed the first three readings of permissive tax exemption bylaws.
Council voted to exclude the churches, who asked for exemptions in amounts less than $1,000, but to include the Kalein Hospice Society.
Despite appearances, councillor Donna Macdonald, who chaired Monday’s meeting, insisted council’s decision had nothing to do with the groups being churches.
“Certainly this was not an anti-religious gesture,” she said. “It just so happened it was the churches because the vast majority of their properties are exempt under statute and provincial legislation. We have no control over that.”
Macdonald said council was unaware that when they voted to remove the exemption from the churches there would be a large impact.
“It’s not just the $200 or $300 of municipal taxes, but it multiplies and becomes a more substantial sum and I don’t think we were all clearly aware of that,” she said.
Keber said once municipal, school and regional taxes were tallied, Bethel Christian Centre would need to pay a total of $3,400.
“Being a charity, budgets are very tight and we’ve been using savings as we have been operating a bit in the red for the last few years,” said Keber.
“It’s been getting a bit better, but this immediately puts on us a new burden. We are trying to be self-sufficient and suddenly we have to come up with a few thousand dollars more.”
In Westnedge’s presentation to council, he questioned why the parking lots of the Granite Pointe Golf Course and the Nelson and Area Rod and Gun Club would be exempt and not the churches.
“I understand the City’s predicament with lack of funds and so on,” he said. “My concern was the lack of consultation. This certainly was a change in policy and it is precedent setting.”
Westnedge said he was unaware of any other community in the province that has actually instituted a similar bylaw.
While some may have attempted to do the same, he said they backed away from the idea — as council ultimately did Monday.
In the special council meeting following the committee of the whole meeting, council rescinded third reading of the bylaw passed this month and amended it to include the churches at last year’s amounts and to reduce Kalein Hospice’s exemption from 100 per cent to 50 per cent.
Mayor John Dooley — who joined the meeting by phone from Vancouver — suggested that workshops be included in next year’s consultation process.
“We’re going to review this whole process over the next year,” said Macdonald. “It seemed a bit of an unfair hardship to remove the churches for this year on such short notice.
“It may be that we will make the same decision again that these smaller requests may not be considered. We don’t know what the outcome of the process will be, but I think it’s only fair to put them back in until we’ve had a chance to put this through.”