Concerned residents criticize council for axing senior mill rate
© Derek Montague
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.”