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School taxes taking bite out Whistler

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Inequities within the provincial tax system, coupled with rising resort property values, is leaving Whistler property owners with the brunt of the school tax bill for the whole district.

In fact, property owners here are paying almost three quarters of the school taxes for the entire district, which includes Squamish and Pemberton.

Meanwhile, less than 18 per cent of all students enrolled in this school district come from Whistler. There are a combined 842 students at Whistler Secondary School and Myrtle Philip Elementary, out of a total 4,700 students in the district.

"Whistler is currently paying a disproportionate share of the school taxes. It's paying somewhere in excess of 70 per cent and yet it has the smallest proportion of school age children and number of houses," said Jennifer Beresford, the revenue manager for the municipality.

This is becoming an increasing concern as property values in Whistler continue to climb each year, far beyond the two other municipalities in the school district.

While property in Whistler increased on average between 9 and 20 per cent this year, the school tax rate currently remains the same for all three municipalities.

"You could have a single family home in Pemberton that is valued at $200,000 and they would pay the same rate as a property in Whistler that's valued at $700,000. So obviously, the property in Whistler pays three and a half times more than a property in Pemberton in school taxes," said Beresford.

To calculate the figure that property owners pay in school taxes, a rate is fixed by the province and multiplied by the value of a property. Therefore the higher the value of a property, the higher the school taxes.

In fact, Whistler property owners are paying so much in school taxes that the average person is shelling out more to the school district than to the municipality in their annual taxes.

For example, in 2001 the average assessed value for a residential property in Whistler was $440,000 and the total taxes payable on that home were $2,670.

Of that $2,670, the school tax portion would have been $1,320 and the municipal tax portion would have been $1,193.

"When you have homeowners paying more than the municipal taxes to the school district then that starts to become a concern," said Beresford.

To make matters worse, the crunch from increasing school taxes is being felt even more as home owner grants continue to disappear in Whistler.

Again, rising property values mean that fewer Whistler home owners are able to claim this provincial grant.

The grant of $470 (or $730 for seniors) only applies to those owners with homes valued under $525,000.

"The home owner grant is a provincial grant so in some ways it helps to mitigate the amount of provincial taxes, like the school taxes, that are levied on properties.

"For Whistler it's very hard to find a single family home that's valued under $500,000 now, so not only are residents paying a disproportionate share of the school taxes, but fewer and fewer are eligible for the home owners grants so they are, in effect, being hit twice," said Beresford.

School tax inequities throughout the district are not a new subject in Whistler. But it's starting to get more and more serious, especially as the municipality focuses on the issue of affordability for permanent Whistler residents.

"The municipality and council recognize that affordability is a huge issue for the community and (they're) concerned about any elements of its finances which contribute to that," she said.

The municipality has incorporated its concerns about the school taxes into the Five Year Financial Plan 2002.

In that document they promise to "carry out a review of the equity of provincial school tax legislation with respect to Whistler taxpayers."

They are already dialoguing with the provincial government, which has promised to look into the situation. To date, their findings have not been made public.

"We're quite happy that the provincial government is examining this issue and looking at options," said Beresford. "The school tax legislation is provincial legislation so whatever they determine would have to be consistent and equitable for all taxpayers in the province."

No one from the Ministry of Finance was available for comment at this time.

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