Survey shows majority favour school tax shift: groups call for the government to finally act

Get education funding off the backs of property owners is the message found in a new survey commissioned by the Winnipeg Real Estate Board and the Manitoba Real Estate Association.

Sixty-two per cent of Manitobans said that funding for public education should come from the province’s general revenues rather than property taxes, according to the Probe Research survey of 1,011 Manitobans between September 20 and October 3.

“Manitobans are fed up with education taxes showing up on their property tax bill,” said Lorne Weiss, chair of the MREA’s political action committee.

“The survey confirms what real estate agents have suspected for a long time, Manitobans no longer want the value of their property to determine if they can afford school taxes. 

“Our retired seniors in particular find it a burden,” he added. “For them and for REALTORS® this is a quality of life issue.”

The survey results showed that Manitobans 55-plus are the most adamant about changing the system of funding. Seventy-two per cent of this group want education funding to come from general revenues. 

Weiss used the example of a recently-sold run-down property on Henderson Highway to demonstrate the tax burden on individual taxpayers. The total tax bill on the property without indoor plumbing was $1,100 with $800 going toward taxes for education. 

“Something’s not right when that happens,” he added. “The owner could have used the $800 for plumbing.”

According to the survey, only 13 per cent of respondents felt education funding should continue to come from municipal property taxes. Another 15 per cent said a blend of general revenue and property taxes should be used.

“The public has spoken,” said WREB president Ruthe Penner. “It’s time for the government to act.”

Weiss said the provincial government  has continually told REALTORS® that the public doesn’t care enough about the issue to warrant any real change to the method of funding education.

“The survey gives the government a strong message that they may have been right 10 years ago, but not today,” he said.

During an earlier meeting with Education Minister Peter Bjornson, the WREB was told that the province is already doing enough to alleviate the tax burden for property owners by implementing a combination of amalgamations of school divisions to eliminate administrative costs, tax credits and gradual elimination of the province’s share of property taxes for education on residents and farmland.

Weiss said REALTORS® spend more time in homes with taxpayers than most politicians, “and we know what they think. Manitobans want the government to get education taxes off the property tax bill.

“Education is as dear to us as health care,” he added. “But, you would find it ridiculous to see health care on the property tax bill.”

According to the survey, there is little difference between rural and urban Manitoba when it comes to a desire to change the system. Sixty-one per cent of Winnipeg respondents and 63 per cent of the respondents outside Winnipeg said they want education funding to come from general revenues.

Even renters (59 per cent) are in near agreement with homeowners (63 per cent) that property taxes are not the way to fund education, according to the survey.

“The issue is not going to go away,” said Weiss. “It is going to get hotter when the new property tax assessments come out in six months.”

The new province-wide reassessment that comes into effect in 2006 is based on 2003 property values which have increased dramatically since the previous reassessment based on 1999 property values.

Based upon new property values, the average Winnipeg homeowner can expect a reassessment increase of 23 per cent. But, it is the mill rate which determines whether a tax increase will occur. Even if school divisions keep the mill rate at the level this year, school property taxes will climb.

Weiss said he doesn’t blame school trustees for increasing their share of property taxes, since “they aren’t getting enough funds from the government.”

“If this was such a good model for funding education, why don’t they (the government) fund health care that way?

“But, it’s not a good model — it’s convoluted.

“Nobody wants to change the quality of education. We want a shift in taxation. We want to convince the province that it’s a shift and not a tax grab,” Weiss added.

Weiss said the proposal from the Education Finance Coalition, which represents 40 groups and organizations and over 200,000 Manitobans, is for the provincial government to undertake a taxation shift to general revenues over the next four years.

He said a good start would be to eliminate the shuffle of $175-million the government collects for its education special levy on property and then gives back the money to Manitobans in a tax rebate. 

“Right now the province gives with one hand and takes away with the other. And, administrative costs take up a lot of that money.”

“We’re not telling the government how to govern,” Weiss added. “We’re just trying to get the government to address the issue of how unfair it is to fund education through property taxes.”

The survey results are considered accurate within plus or minus 3.2 percentage points within a 95-per-cent certainty.