More than 1,000 letters presented to council at April 29 meeting
© Derek Montague
The crowd gives Reg Bowers a standing ovation after speaking to council at the April 29 town meeting
A group of concerned seniors came to the April council meeting in Happy Valley Valley-Goose Bay, armed with a load of signed petition letters. Their goal was to convince council to bring back the special senior tax rate that had been eliminated in this year’s budget.
For years, seniors aged 65 and older have benefited from a much lower mill rate on their property tax in Happy Valley-Goose than other citizens. In 2013, seniors paid a 2.0 mill rate, compared to an 8.0 rate for everyone else. Now, as of 2014, seniors have to pay the same 8.0 mills.
Ever since April 10, when seniors and concerned citizens formed a 14-person committee to combat the tax increase, letters have been passed out in the community for people to sign.
“…The seniors devotedly paid taxes for 30, 40, 50 years and then were given a break on their taxes,” reads the letter, in part.
“We respectfully ask that you take this request seriously, as it affects the many seniors and their families in our town.”
At the council meeting on April 29, the council was presented with more than 1,000 of these letters, signed by other residents.
Reg Bowers, a senior citizen who helped form the committee on April 10, spoke to council during delegations. He asked council, pointedly, to reverse their decision on senior taxes.
“Are you going to sit there now, given the fact that there’s a thousand people requesting you to rescind that motion, and tell me, in good faith, that you continue to support it?” asked Bowers.
“If there was a motion brought here tonight to rescind it, would you support it?”
Mayor Jamie Snook and the rest of council claim that the new tax structure is fairer to all residents. With the senior mill rate taken away, council has installed more 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 an income of $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.
At a special meeting, held April 16, in response to some of the criticism they had received, the council also announced senior tax discounts for 2014.
Seniors, aged 65 and older, who have a household income between $26,001 and $50,000 will receive 50 per cent off their property tax. Seniors who make over $50,000 in household income will receive a 25 per cent discount.
If a senior also qualifies for a low-income discount, they cannot, however, apply for both.
Snook told the crown during the April 29 meeting that many residents have been taking advantage of the new discounts. According to the mayor, 43 people had applied for the low-income discounts, up to that date, and 32 seniors applied for one of the discounts announced on April 16.
“So far, $60,000 has been given back in the form of discounts,” said Snook.
But the seniors and concerned residents believe it is only fair for seniors to have the same special rate they had always received. Many say tax breaks should not be determined by income and all seniors should be given the same rate.
Reg Bowers pointed out to council that the 2.0 mill rate helped offset costs that many seniors struggle with on a fixed income.
“We’ve heard from people who find it difficult to pay because they’re travelling outside for medical (reasons),” said Bowers. “The older you are, the more likely you are to have increased medical costs.”
Many of the seniors who spoke during the delegations expressed frustration at the battle with council over the tax issue. To them, their elected officials simply aren’t listening to their concerns.
Wilbur Patey, who has been one of the most outspoken critics of council since the tax increase, said it might be time to start protesting.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever speak here again because, the fact is, this is useless. We’re going to be beating our gums for a long time,” said Patey.
“We’re going to have to do something better than this probably … get out in the parking lot, get some plaques and ropes or whatever. This is not working.”
The council did have at least one senior who is publicly supporting them. Jim Learning spoke during delegations and told his peers that they should be concerned more about future generations than their own taxes.
“I support this council. I know I’m not going to get any applause for that,” said Learning.
MHA speaks out
Lake Melville MHA Keith Russell made a surprise appearance at the meeting. When he spoke during delegations, he said he was supporting the seniors, and asked council to find alternatives to generating more revenue.
“I speak in support of the seniors today…,” said Russell.
“There’s got to be a way that (creates revenue) that’s not on the backs of our seniors.”
Russell also sympathized with the council, saying public officials got a tough job and won’t always appease the public.
“We certainly set out to do the greatest good for the greatest amount of people,” said Russell.
“I know you guys have a tough job.”
After the meeting, Russell told the Labradorian he has received hundreds of phone calls and messages about the senior tax issue in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
“The response has been overwhelming,” said Russell.
“We definitely have an issue going forward.”