Council passes first two readings of new property tax bylaw despite concerns from landlords and non-profit housing groups

Saskatchewan Landlords Association (SLA) CEO Cameron Choquette speaks to Prince Albert city council during a meeting on April 14, 2021. – Jason Kerr/Daily Herald

A new property tax bylaw that includes a $35 base tax to pay for four new police officers passed the first two readings on Monday despite concerns from the Saskatchewan Landlords Association (SLA) and local non-profit housing groups that the tax would unfairly target them.

Council approved the first two readings by a 7-2 margin after more than one hour of discussion and debate. The third and final reading is scheduled for Wednesday afternoon at City Hall.

SLA CEO Cameron Choquette was one of two presenters to speak against the proposal at Monday’s meeting. He said landlords are business owners, and like other businesses in the community, they’re hurting from the pandemic and can’t afford another tax increase.

“City council demonstrated a lot of passion for improving police presence and reducing crime in the City, and landlords are certainly in support of an additional police presence,” Choquette said during a phone interview on Tuesday. “However, we were disappointed that the base tax being used to fund additional police resources is being implemented in an inequitable fashion across the tax base.”

Choquette said they’d prefer to see council implement a mill rate increase rather than a base tax. He said it would ensure tax payments were determined by property values, so the richest property owners would bear more of the burden.

The SLA estimated Saskatchewan landlords lost between $30-million and $35-million during April, May and June of 2020, largely due to the eviction moratorium. Choquette said many landlords still trying to make up the difference, and adding a base tax will make it even more difficult.

“Council remarked that they intended to support businesses by not placing additional tax burdens on commercial businesses,” he explained. “What is important to understand is that landlords and property managers of all shapes and sizes are businesses.”

Mayor Greg Dionne said he had no problem supporting the $35 base tax because Prince Albert police are called to rental properties at a much higher rate than privately owned homes. Dionne told council he couldn’t share the stats publicly due to privacy concerns, but said it was enough to get him to support the base tax.

“We respond overwhelmingly to rental properties over privately owned homes, so who is using the service?” he said during the meeting.

“I support something that’s fair and equal. We all have access to police (services). We all have access to fire (services). To me, that’s how it should be going—everyone should pay an equal amount.”

Choquette faced multiple questions on Monday about why police are called to rental properties so frequently, and why the city has so many run-down rental properties. He said the SLA relies on tenants to report run-down or unsuitable units, but the organization needs to go through the proper channels before any action is taken. Usually, that means taking a case to the Office of Residential Tenancies.

He also noted that not all landlords are members of the Saskatchewan Landlords Association. In those instances, they have very little influence over how a landlord treats their tenants or maintain their property.

Many of the city councillors who spoke during Monday’s debate said they understand the need for crime prevention methods that go beyond policing. However, they blamed the provincial and federal governments for not providing enough funding to address issues like poverty, addictions, gang activity and mental health.

Supporters also argued that paying an extra $35/year would not be a major problem for most property owners, but the City could work with those who struggled to make their payments.

“All we’re asking is each door pay $35 a year for a multi-million service that we all get equally,” said Ward 5 Coun. Dennis Ogrodnick, the proposal’s most vocal supporter. “That’s what this is about. It amounts to $3/month. That can be a challenge for some. I understand that, and that’s where we need to be creative if somebody can’t pay.”

“The tax dollars that leave this City to go to Ottawa and to Regina need to come back to this community as well in terms of public safety, because to me, that’s what this is,” Ward 8 Coun. Ted Zurakowski added. “This is one piece of the pie.”

Couns. Terra Lennox-Zepp and Charlene Miller were the only two councillors to vote against the proposal. Lennox-Zepp also proposed an amendment to remove the $35 base tax from the 2021 property tax bylaw, but that was also rejected. She and Miller were the only two councillors to support it.

Like Choquette, Lennox-Zepp said she’d prefer to see council implement a mill rate increase because it was a fairer, more progressive approach. She also said implementing a base tax was not popular with her constituents, many of which had contacted her in the days before the meeting urging her to vote against it.

She also argued a base tax punished poorer property owners just because they needed help from the police more often than other residents, and said it unfairly targeted landlords who owned several smaller properties at the expense of larger corporations who owned one big one.

“We don’t use a base tax for everything. That would be preposterous,” she said. “We wouldn’t say that people in these smaller rental units should pay the exact same as people in single-dwelling homes. Of course not, and that needs to be applied to this situation as well. We need to consider progressive taxations.”

Councillors who opposed a mill rate increase said it would hit some property owners, like those living in the country-residential zone, much harder than anyone else.

River Bank Development Corp. executive director Brian Howell also spoke against the base tax proposal during Monday’s meeting. Like the SLA, Howell said River Bank supports the decision to hire more police officers, and appreciates that they have a vital role to pay in reducing crime. However, he also worried the base tax would place a difficult financial burden on the organization.

“It’s not $35/door. It’s $35 times 100 doors, or times 500 doors, or times 1,000 doors, or however many units a particular organization may have,” he told council.

“I think this move to flat taxes and regressive taxation is something that’s a slippery slope once you get started on it. Essentially what you’re doing is piling costs on organizations that have no place to regain them.”

Howell said raising their clients’ rent was not an option, since many of them were low-income earners, or residents who relied on supports like disability benefits and old age pensions.

Howell also pushed back on the notion that rental properties were taking up a large amount of police services. He said they have many rental units that have never had a police car parked in the street in front, or had police officers knocking on the door due to a disturbance.

River Bank has 90 affordable housing units located around Prince Albert. The organization’s goal is to provide quality housing at affordable prices while individuals attempt to improve their circumstances through employment or education.

Council will give the 2021 Property Tax Bylaw third reading at a Special Council Meeting on Wednesday, April 14 at 4 p.m.