Talk about tax reform and you’ll get near-unanimous consent that it should occur, but it all falls apart after that. How to reform a tax regime is a dog’s breakfast of facts, opinions and possible solutions.
The Nova Scotia Chamber of Commerce has published a treatise on municipal tax reform that outlines the problem and proposes some solutions. And the chamber has agreement from the the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives — think-tanks on opposite ends of the political spectrum.
While that kind of agreement is rare, it doesn’t mean the three organizations have struck on the correct course.
Chamber executive director Wayne Fiander was in Sydney recently touting the proposed solution to the perpetual problem of municipal taxation based on property value assessments. The problem is that property values don’t necessarily reflect the owner’s ability to pay or the level of services available.
A study prepared for the chamber by chartered accounting firm Collins Barrow compiles some useful numbers that outline the problems inherent in a tax system based on property assessments, but the chamber’s conclusions about the numbers are based on some questionable assumptions.
For example, the chamber suggests a cap on the multiple used to set commercial tax rates over residential rates, based on the multiple used in other provinces, but the data does not indicate whether the balance between commercial and residential properties in other provinces is the same as the ratio in Nova Scotia, let alone among different municipal units.
As well, the chamber says municipal governments should charge the same rates for the same services for all consumers. It does not address the fact that services are wildly unequal in regional municipalities such as Cape Breton or Halifax, where distant rural properties have no municipal sewer and water, and no sidewalks, for example, but the municipality provides most or all of those in the urban cores.
Some municipal infrastructure and services, such as policing, must be paid for by all taxpayers in the municipality.
And mechanisms, like frontage or area charges, exist to make users pay when it’s appropriate for various services. They complicate tax comparisons between properties, but they also ensure fairness.
It’s not fair that someone on a fixed income can be hit with a tax increase simply because the neighbours have made improvements to their properties, sparking assessment increases.
But it’s equally unfair if someone with little income on a small urban property has access to services that are paid for by someone in a rural area with lots of income but no services.
The chamber’s call for more provincial work on the topic is easy to support, but its solution — basing municipal taxes on income — is still problematic.
The better solution is likely to be a combination of income-based taxes that reflect a property owner’s ability to pay and user fees that connect levels of taxation to use of actual services.