For the first time in years, Halifax regional council is looking at freezing municipal tax bills.
While the transit strike dominated city hall Tuesday, a quietly tabled budget document was turning heads around Halifax on Wednesday.
Council staff’s preliminary budget pitch encourages council to drop the general tax rate low enough to compensate for soaring property taxes, which would keep the average Haligonian with a single-family home paying the same municipal taxes they pay now.
The proposal comes less than a month after local homeowners learned that property values had gone up six per cent in the province and steeled themselves for a corresponding bump on their tax bills.
The idea that the city may not be pocketing that extra cash comes as a surprise, said Charles Cirtwill, president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.
“Taking the entire lift is pretty much par for the course in Halifax — has been for a while. In fact, they normally take the lift and then some,” said Cirtwill.
“So the idea that staff is actually recommending moving the rates down so that the average tax bill stays about the same is a remarkable step forward. And I like it.”
Council won’t start discussing the 2012-13 budget until Tuesday, since this week’s planned kickoff debate was pushed back by urgent transit strike business.
The 15-page document, intended as a starting point for council as staff seeks further direction, presents four different combinations of tax rates. All are built on the $2.4-billion extra in assessed property value for the next fiscal year, a number derived from values set by the independent Property Services Valuation Corp.
In three out of four options, overall bills for the average taxpayer stay the same or go down. In one, they go up by less than $100.
The document’s authors recommend that council keep bills the same by reducing the general tax rate by 3.4 cents and raising the transit tax rates by 0.7 cents, per hundred dollars of assessed property value. The moves would increase municipal revenue overall by $10 million.
But the four options leave lots of questions that only next week’s meeting will answer, councillors said Wednesday.
“I’m not sure what implications that would have for other property tax owners — commercial, or not in the single-family home category,” said Coun. Jennifer Watts (Connaught-Quinpool).
Apartment building owners pay higher property taxes than house owners, as do commercial property owners.
Pending a more detailed look at how the proposed changes would affect different groups across the city, Watts said she is cautiously optimistic.
She credited council’s efforts over the past few years to look at the big picture of its finances, including cost-saving measures, capital assets and recapitalization needs.
“That’s good news to be able to get to a point where we can look at this and say, ‘Wow, you know, it looks like we may be able to hold the line.’ “