Property Taxes: A Reader Explains Area Rates

Note: In the Spectator’s ongoing series on property taxes, we have yet to touch on the subject of area rates, which are usually levied to provide services (like regional transportation or fire hydrants) to residents within a specific geographic area. Luckily, a reader has done the job for us, writing to explain the latest developments in Kings County, Nova Scotia, where residents of some communities — including hers — have been asked to pay an area rate to support the Hantsport Fire Department, in neighboring West Hants County, which provides their fire protection service.

I have been reading with interest your articles on municipal taxes, and the other evening I got to see some tax calculations in action.

I went down to my local community hall after reading a notice posted on a telephone pole near my house: a meeting to discuss – and vote on – a new area rate for fire services. I must confess that I expected to hear my neighbors railing at the government and agitating at the thought of paying more taxes. I am ashamed to say that I completely underestimated them.

Our mayor started out by explaining that the operating costs for our volunteer fire departments are covered through regular municipal taxes, and that area rates are levied to cover capital expenditures, in this case a retrofit to Truck 2 and a new Truck 6. And all the fundraising? The sexy firefighters holding up traffic to ask drivers to put money in their boots? Said the mayor:

That’s their own stuff: to do things for their halls, or whatever – it’s their own special fund.

(Note to self: you are not obligated to put $20 in the boot lest the fire department go broke and not be there when the house burns down).

Hantsport fire truck. (Photo by Christy Marsters via Hants Journal http://www.hantsjournal.ca/news/local/2010/6/29/hantsport-purchases-new-fire-truck-from-1428858.html)

Hantsport fire truck. (Photo by Christy Marsters via Hants Journal)

 

Power points

The mayor’s power-point guy then showed us a slide explaining how they calculate the area rate: it is essentially the total cost of the new equipment, divided by the total property assessments in our area, multiplied by the percentage of calls that go to our area.

A whole lot of hands went up and everyone started talking. The power-point guy got all flustered and asked to save the questions until the end, but one man said, “No – I have a question about this slide in particular.” The man then went on to discuss in detail the ins and outs of the formula, in particular the actual percentage of calls that went to our area, at which there was a murmur of assent. In fact, everyone at the meeting seemed to know that it wasn’t 43.9% (as per the slide) but more like 35% of the calls that went to our area.

I was amazed. It turned out these citizens had formed a committee to study the issue and look into some problems that had come up when the nearby town dissolved. One after another, they spoke knowledgeably about the history of the thing, and the numbers and how nobody minded paying the rate but that they needed transparency about the numbers and some assurances that the new trucks would remain in the area. In fact, they had at one point tried to find out exactly how many 911 fire calls had been placed from our area and had been told they would have to submit a freedom of information/protection of privacy (FOIPOP) request to get that information.

Our mayor, who is newly elected – and who, I must say, handled the meeting incredibly well – didn’t know any of this. He said:

I have no choice but to trust that the information I get from my volunteer fire departments is true. So let’s vote for the area rate, and then I’ll look into it, and if the numbers are wrong I’ll adjust them accordingly.

He went on to say that if we rejected the area rate, then council would have to impose it anyway (at which point we all wondered why we were being asked to vote on it). The good people of Hantsborder and Lockhartville prevailed, and the mayor, who was elected on a platform of transparency and public consultation, eventually agreed to postpone the vote, meet with the citizens’ committee, look into the numbers and hold another public meeting in June for the vote.

How’s that for civic engagement?

 

Featured image: Fire hydrant by Dori, own work, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Kate Sircom

 

Kate Sircom is a school teacher and a resident of Lockhartville in Kings County, Nova Scotia. 

 

 

 

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