Seniors show up with picket signs, 25 delegations slated to speak
© Derek Montague/The Labradorian
Out of all the signs brought to the meeting, 21 of the signs were professionally made. According to a group of seniors, members of the business community donated the signs.
The battle between a group of seniors and the Happy Valley-Goose Bay town council over property tax is showing no signs of abating.
During a contentious town council meeting on May 27, dozens of senior citizens and concerned residents packed the chamber to express their continued displeasure with their elected representatives.
The meeting contained 25 people signed up to speak during delegations, which often turned into heated verbal exchanges. Boos and jeers were rained down on Mayor Jamie Snook and other councillors throughout the evening.
The controversy began March 7, when it became known that the senior mill rate, for residents 65-and-older, would be eliminated in the 2014 budget. For years, seniors paid a much lower rate on their property tax than other citizens.
In 2013 seniors paid a rate of 2.0, while other Happy valley-Goose Bay residents paid an 8.0 rate. This year, everyone, including senior citizens, pays an 8.0 rate.
The council decided, instead, to provide tax breaks to 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.
Then, on April 16, after more than a month of controversy over the new tax structure, the town council, during a special meeting, announced senior 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.
The new senior discounts have done little to quell the storm, however.
It was clear from the get-go that the May 27 meeting would be a combative one. Seniors arrived with 21 professionally made picket signs. Others brought their own homemade signs.
The signs contained slogans like “One Term Council,” “Don’t mess with seniors,” and “Thank You For Nothing.”
The delegations did not go smoothly either. Council gave each speaker five minutes up at the microphone, a time limit that was often exceeded.
When Reg Bowers, a senior who has been publicly critical of council, got up to speak, Mayor Jamie Snook asked that Bowers apologize for comments he made previously. Snook accused Bowers of making misleading and defamatory comments about members of council.
“It would be good if you considered an apology to council for those comments,” said Snook, before being drowned out by jeers and laughter.
Bowers refused to apologize.
Rupert Dawe, another outspoken senior on the taxation issue, recommended that a new committee be formed, independent of council, to look at this issue and strike a compromise.
Things got heated again when Dawe began asking each individual councillor around the table if they agreed on his idea to find a compromise. After asking Coun. Shannon Tobin for his input, Snook momentarily interrupted Dawe from his line of inquiry.
“What’s wrong with asking each person individually?” responded Dawe. “What’s wrong with it?”
After Dawe continued to question each councillor, and got around the table to Coun. Tony Chubbs, Snook once again stopped the senior from his inquiry.
“(This is) yet another meeting where there’s certainly no respect for any process,” said Snook. “For a group that’s demanding respect, we’re certainly not being shown any as a council or as a chamber.”
Throughout the meeting, Snook continued to show frustration with a perceived lack of respect for the rules while delegations spoke.
“We’re here trying to get through (25 delegations),” said Snook. “There’s absolutely no intention of the gallery following any process. If it continues this way, it’s just going to ruin it for future meetings.”
Charlie Warr, a prominent senior businessman, who also once served on the town council, accused the town council of fighting against the seniors of Happy Valley-Goose Bay with their new tax structure, rather than for them.
“We had to fight with the provincial government for the people of this town. We had to fight with the federal government for this town and the people. You are fighting the wrong people; you’re fighting the seniors,” said Warr, to loud applause.
A solution to the tax controversy may be on the horizon. A grassroots committee of seniors and concerned residents is planning to meet with the town council on June 4 to discuss the matter.
There can only be one rate of tax, says Pomeroy
During the meeting, Coun. Bert Pomeroy informed the crowd that, according to the Newfoundland and Labrador Municipalities Act, towns are not allowed to have two separate mill rates.
Pomeroy referred to section 112 (2) of the Act, which allows for “one” tax rate:
“For the purpose of establishing a real property tax, there may be imposed with respect to real property used for residential purposes one rate of tax and, with respect to commercial property, another rate of tax.”
This section of the Act, and the interpretation of it, said Pomeroy, means having a special mill rate for seniors is contrary to the rules.
“Whether it was done it the past, or whether it was accepted, it’s something that wasn’t enforced by Municipal Affairs,” said Pomeroy.
“Councils in the past had been advised as well that it’s in contravention of the Municipalities Act. No action was taken 22 years ago, or however long, simply because there were very few people who took advantage (of the senior mill rate) at that time.”