Wrong message

During a year-end breakfast meeting co-sponsored by the Winnipeg Real Estate Board and the Manitoba Real Estate Association, Premier Gary Doer told those attending that his NDP government was not happy about the increases in property taxes levied by the province’s school boards over the last few years.

“We need better co-operation from the school boards,” said Doer as reported in the Christmas issue of the WREN.

The premier further commented that, while his government has increased tax credits and is working to eliminate the province’s share of property taxes on homeowners and farmers, he is discouraged that school boards undo these measures by continually hiking their share of taxes on property.

This is also a concern shared by the WREB and MREA and other members of a coalition, representing 200,000 Manitobans, established to lobby the provincial government to change the way it funds education. This coalition of groups, organizations and citizens has proposed the phased elimination of all property taxes now used to fund education. The coalition is proposing that education funding come entirely from the provincial government’s general revenues, calling education a societal benefit like health care which is funded through general revenues.

According to the Probe Research survey, commissioned by the WREB and MREA, six in 10 Manitobans agree with them that education should be funded through general revenues.

Meanwhile, Education Minister Peter Bjornson seems to be on another page than the premier.

In a recent Free Press article, he is quoted as saying that the continued hiking of property taxes by school boards doesn’t concern him. Taxes can go up and up and he sees no problem. 

An editorial in last Tuesday’s Free Press on  Bjornson’s “no problem” attitude was headed Absolutely Foolish.  The editorial writer went on to say that Bjornson’s message was the wrong thing to say at the wrong time since this is a reassessment year. The signal the education minister is sending to school boards, said the writer, is that they can increase property taxes as they see fit, “and by at least 18 per cent this year.”

Reassessments on average have gone up 18 per cent in Winnipeg with the provincial average around 5.2 per cent. But, in terms of municipal property taxes, the hit is blunted by local governments readjusting their mill rate to a lower level. This is especially true in Winnipeg where city council has opted year after year for at least a municipal property tax freeze, which can only be achieved when the mill rate is reduced during reassessment years.

A WREB report said that school boards don’t feel the need to lower their mill rate. And, with the mill rate at least remaining the same during reassessment years, that means more tax dollars are collected by school divisions.

In 2000, the city reduced its mill rate to coincide with an assessed property value increase of eight per cent, but school boards didn’t follow suit. The result was an eight per cent windfall to school divisions.

Lorne Weiss, the chair of MREA’s political action committee, said the association is continually getting calls from dissatisfied homeowners whenever the province announces a property tax cut and then “school boards pick up the slack.”

He said even if the mill rate doesn’t increase, the new 2006 reassessment will result in a significant property tax hike for Manitobans.

Over the years, the WREB and MREA have called for various education ministers to take the step of forbidding school boards from taking advantage of reassessment years. Nothing has come of this, and this year is probably no exception given the pronouncements of Bjornson. In fact, as the Free Press editorial writer said, the education minister  has given school boards the green light for a massive cash grab.

While the premier says his government is not happy about such cash grabs, apparently the education minister, who is a cabinet member of his government, suffers no such qualms. 

Perhaps Bjornson simply misspoke. After all, he’s an intelligent man. His missteps when presenting his government’s position may just be the result of the fact that he is a rookie MLA, who immediately was appointed by Doer to a very important portfolio that is always under media scrutiny. 

He can’t possibly feel comfortable with school boards continuing to ignore the plight of taxpayers? Yet, his comments were apparently said with conviction.

Suetonius in his Lives of the Caesars, said of the Roman Emperor Tiberius: “To the governors who recommended burdensome taxes for his provinces, he wrote in answer that it was the part of a good shepherd to shear his flock, not skin it.”

If Bjornson had expressed his true feelings on the issue, it is indeed worrisome, and quite contrary to what the premier told MREA and WREB members just before Christmas. In light of what the premier publicly stated, it makes absolutely no sense for Bjornson to tell school boards to “skin” the flock.

It may be time for Doer to relay to Bjornson something in the same vein as Tiberius’ good shepherd message.