Anger in the chamber

Derek Montague
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Concerned residents criticize council for axing senior mill rate

The Happy Valley-Goose Bay meeting, held on March 25, was so well attended that not everyone could fit inside the room.

It was scheduled as regular town council meeting, held on the last Tuesday of every month in Happy Valley-Goose Bay. But the meeting turned out to be far from typical. Throughout the evening, Mayor Jamie Snook and the five councillors present were booed, heckled, and asked to resign.

The angry residents at the March 25 meeting were united on one issue: the council’s decision to get rid of Happy Valley-Goose Bay’s senior mill rate.

The council chamber was jammed with 50 residents, while dozens more had to sit out in the lobby. Most of those in attendance were seniors who were affected by the decision.

For years, residents 65 years-of-age and older received a much lower rate on their property tax than other residents. In 2013, seniors paid 2.0 mills, compared to the regular rate of 8.0.

But that has all changed with the 2014 budget, where everyone, regardless of age, pays 8.0 mills.

In lieu of a special mill rate for seniors, the town council decided to expand property tax discounts for low income households.

 A household that has a gross income of  $0 to $23,000 will get a 100 per cent discount, while those with a household income of $23,001 to $26,000 will receive a 75 per cent discount. Households with a $26,001 to $29,000 will see 50 per cent reduction, and finally, those earning 29,001 to $33,500 will receive 25 per cent.

 An added expense

Senior citizens who have a household income more than $33,500, however, are facing a 300 per cent increase in property tax.

“This council, to me, doesn’t seem to be the right council for the town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay right now,” said Wilbur Patey, who spoke during the delegations.

“I don’t know where you ever came up with this increase. I mean 300 per cent … can you imagine the impact that has on this town.”

Some of those who spoke at the meeting pointed out that the cost of living in Happy Valley-Goose Bay is a problem for many seniors on a fixed income, and an increase in property tax will only make things more difficult.

“Anybody who’s been into CO-OP or Northmart has been in the lineup and seen a senior citizen trying to put groceries in their cart, and they can’t do it,” said 45-year-old Waylon Williams.

“Yes we have an aging population, that’s nationwide. But the seniors of Happy Valley-Goose Bay built these chambers. I wouldn’t be who I am, without the people who came before me.”

Lack of communication

One of the factors that led to outrage over the tax change was a perceived lack of consultation with affected seniors. Most residents in Happy Valley-Goose Bay were not aware that the senior mill rate was being eliminated until the budget was already passed on Friday, March 7.

“When you were on my doorstep (during the election campaign), and I asked you why you were there, you said nothing about raising my taxes, did you?” asked one angry resident.

“All this was done by announcing it five o’clock, on a Friday afternoon; (that’s) small-minded, sir. To do it without consultation, is insulting to me, sir.”

Coun. Tanya Michelin admitted, during the meeting, that the council should have done a better job with communication and consultation before the tax changes were made.

“We failed the community by not communicating these changes,” said Michelin.

“I think that, as a council, we should have had some discussions around this issue. And, certainly, it has been a learning experience, if nothing else.”

Many concerned residents were also shocked that the town would bump seniors from 2.0 mills to 8.0 in one budget, rather than easing it in over a period of time.

“I would have thought that, if you were going to make an increase, it would be over a gradual period,” said concerned resident Paula Parsons.

“Looking at other town budgets, and areas, and decisions that have made, I believe a 300 per cent increase is actually unprecedented.”

Asked to reconsider

There was a loud chorus of calls, throughout the two and a half hour discussion about the mill rate for council to reconsider.

Mayor Jamie Snook, at the beginning of the meeting, told the crowd that the new tax structure was already submitted as a part of the budget. But, council was willing, he said, to re-examine the threshold for the low income discounts.

“We are committed to reviewing that. And if the number of discounts going out is not sufficient to what we had budgeted for, that’s something council is open to reviewing,” said Snook.

Giving all seniors a discount on their property tax, however, is not sustainable financially for the town, claimed the mayor, especially with an aging population.

“When we’re elected, we’re elected to represent everyone in town, not just a particular group,” said Snook in a media scrum during a council recess.

“To just go and say, ‘here’s a 75 per cent discount', that’s just not sustainable.”

Several of the councillors told the crowd throughout the night that axing the senior mill rate was the toughest choice they made during budget discussions.

“I’ll say that I struggled with this decision. I voted in favour of it, it would have happened anyway,” said Coun. Jackie Compton Hobbs.

“I do support the decision … but I have struggled with it, I’ll be honest with you.”

Coun. Shannon Tobin also told those in attendance that council would be willing to sit down with individuals who feel they can’t afford their new property tax. He then said that council would re-examine the low-income discount structure and the new tax system.

“This plan is supposed to make it affordable for all, for the young people to buy a house and for the seniors to live here,” said Tobin

“We’re willing to reassess this, because you guys have told us here tonight. You guys have sent a message.”

derek.montague@thelabradorian.ca

Geographic location: Happy Valley, Goose Bay

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Recent comments

  • Alicia
    April 02, 2014 - 07:07

    Honestly, nobody wants to pay to give you a raise. Taxes (not just for seniors) have gone up over the past few years, and without ANY increase in services, it's completely unacceptable. For the extra money it would be nice if people in the valley could at least drink their tap water, or even have it be something besides bleach...

  • Rex smith
    March 30, 2014 - 08:37

    The recent decision by the 11 council is almost hillorous , they ran on a campaign of transparency and the first real decision they made they tried to do it in the cloak of darkness. They want to tax seniors a extra 300% but yet give theirselves a raise. Thank goodness for young Tobin, the only one to vote against it

  • Sandy
    March 26, 2014 - 18:04

    I do not see the new tax structure as being totally unfair. I will be careful with what I say, if I understand what the town is trying to accomplish, and the new criteria, is to provide benefits for ALL low income families in HVGB. Is it not possible that there are seniors living in our town, who are very well off, while there may be young families struggling to make ends meet? Obviously if this new tax structure is is causing duress, or financial burdens to select seniors, it should be revisited. I would suggest a different criteria for seniors. For example: say for seniors with income from 0 - $35,000.00 let the rate remain at 2.0 mills, for incomes from $35,000.00 to $50,000.00 a modest increase up to 5.0 mills. Income higher than $50,000.00 should pay the going rate of 8.0 mills. I commend the town on their efforts to provide benefits for low income families. Our new Town Council is learning you can't please everybody. :-) Good luck.

    • George
      April 04, 2014 - 16:58

      It is NOT the towns place to know or ask anyone how much they are worth. Do you actual trust these people ? I sure don't. The poor have social service to go to . The toen had a fair system of a fixed discount for all old people. The ones with fancy homes and large yards paid more. Now some people in town will pay ZERO on our back. Drug dealer or criminal with no income declared stay for free and let others cover the cost is fair ?

    • George
      April 04, 2014 - 16:59

      It is NOT the towns place to know or ask anyone how much they are worth. Do you actual trust these people ? I sure don't. The poor have social service to go to . The toen had a fair system of a fixed discount for all old people. The ones with fancy homes and large yards paid more. Now some people in town will pay ZERO on our back. Drug dealer or criminal with no income declared stay for free and let others cover the cost is fair ?

  • Sandy
    March 26, 2014 - 18:03

    I do not see the new tax structure as being totally unfair. I will be careful with what I say, if I understand what the town is trying to accomplish, and the new criteria, is to provide benefits for ALL low income families in HVGB. Is it not possible that there are seniors living in our town, who are very well off, while there may be young families struggling to make ends meet? Obviously if this new tax structure is is causing duress, or financial burdens to select seniors, it should be revisited. I would suggest a different criteria for seniors. For example: say for seniors with income from 0 - $35,000.00 let the rate remain at 2.0 mills, for incomes from $35,000.00 to $50,000.00 a modest increase up to 5.0 mills. Income higher than $50,000.00 should pay the going rate of 8.0 mills. I commend the town on their efforts to provide benefits for low income families. Our new Town Council is learning you can't please everybody. :-) Good luck.

  • Stan Oliver
    March 26, 2014 - 16:18

    The agorance of the council is unmeasurable, they think they are above being questioned, it's not sympathy seniors want it's empathy . At no time did seniors say they want a hand out but rather a hand up. In all my years involved in the community I have never heard of such disrespect for those who built our community.

  • Tough, tough issue
    March 26, 2014 - 15:39

    http://www.macleans.ca/politics/why-seniors-shouldnt-get-discounts/ -Interesting discussion in Macleans based on some numbers. Not saying I agree... but there are objective numbers for this argument. Objectivity shouldn't necessarily always rule the day though.

  • Sharon
    March 26, 2014 - 15:14

    Why is it the Town Council of Happy Valley-Goose Bay does not concentrate on collecting fees from citizens that have delinquent accounts for these items instead of picking on the senior citizens who are probably the first ones to pay their bills. Why don't they do as other provinces do and publicize in the local newspaper the people that are delinquent and the amounts they owe to the town. Maybe they will be shamed into paying their accounts. Leave the people on fixed incomes alone. Not everyone in HV-GB works for Muskrat Falls and Voisey Bay but they have to suffer the consequences of the big salaries. I though this new council was going to be a good change for the town, it does not seem to be going that way at all.