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No relief on school taxes in sight

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Long-term local Paul O’Mara says the time for "polite discourse" with the province about Whistler’s school taxes is over.

Instead, he supports a demonstration with banners during the International Olympic Committee’s visit next week to let them know that some locals simply cannot afford for the Olympics to come to town.

"I’m fully prepared to get out there with banners and tell the IOC that I don’t know if individuals can afford it," he said.

O’Mara supports the Games, but if past school tax increases are any indication of the future, he says he could be paying about $35,000 by 2010.

"If I’m retired by then how am I going to afford that?"

In the past three years, the school taxes on his home have gone up 70 per cent but his ability to pay them hasn’t risen at the same rate.

This year they’re set to take another big jump after the province announced a 2.5 per cent rate increase.

Despite efforts by the municipal government and local resident Garry Watson, it doesn’t look as though there will be any tax relief in Whistler in 2003.

On the contrary, school taxes in Whistler are expected to go up on average about 22 per cent in 2003. That means the average permanent resident’s taxes will be up to $1,800 compared to an average of $240 province-wide.

"I do agree that it’s very disappointing," said West Vancouver-Garibaldi MLA Ted Nebbeling.

"There’s a special situation in Whistler that is not being recognized."

The special situation here means that Whistler is paying a disproportionate share of the school tax bill for the Howe Sound School District because school taxes are a function of the value of property.

As Whistler property values soar, school taxes rise accordingly.

"Property values have never been an indication of a person’s ability to pay for something," said O’Mara.

"The government has never bothered to differentiate between the wealthy and working class in Whistler."

But the Minister of Finance, Gary Collins, says that the government does understand about the working man’s plight in Whistler after repeated meetings with Nebbeling and Whistler council.

"We understand it very clearly," he said this week.

"People who live in Whistler are disproportionately impacted by the overall rise in property values."

Although they understand disparities, Collins said the solutions are very complex.

"We’re trying to find a solution that works for the residents of the community but doesn’t provide unnecessary tax relief for (others)."

He added that those people who can afford to pay the taxes should still pay taxes.

"It’s very complicated."

Collins said that they are still working on solutions and will try to implement them as soon as they can.

But O’Mara said the government has had enough time now to figure this out.

About 10 years ago he was part of a group that led a school tax revolt in Whistler. About 100 property owners refused to pay their school taxes that year to highlight the disparities in the taxation system.

In the end they each had to pay a 10 per cent penalty for the revolt. And since then the school taxes have continued to rise.

Nebbeling says he can relate to the problems in Whistler because he has a place here.

"I live in Whistler so I know what these pressures are," he said, adding that it came as a surprise to him that Whistler was to get no relief because he still believed discussions with the province were ongoing.

"My job now is to get to the Minister of Finance."

But O’Mara said the time for talking is over.

He bided his time quietly while the municipality tried to work out a deal with the province.

"I have respected the process and I think it was important to let that process occur," he said.

"They’ve had every opportunity to make a decision."

Now that has failed, he says Whistler has to get the government’s attention another way, like a visual demonstration to the province.

"It’ll be determined by the people who respond."

O’Mara can be reached through e-mail at pomara@telus.net.

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