Thorold City Hall 1;25-10-2009 (2)

Thorold Council held a special edition of General Committee Tuesday to discuss CIP’s (Community Improvement Plans). It was billed as public information session but it was readily apparent that it was also a Council information session. In the old days, they would simply have met and straightened it all out but now Provincial regulations say that, in our case, any five members of Council having coffee or a beer (with or without the Mayor), constitutes a quorum of Council and must be public and advertised.

So here they were to discuss mostly just this one topic, although they kick me and the three Brock students there to watch out so they could go in camera first for over a half hour to talk about project managers again. They also quickly deferred a last-minute report to finalize live-streaming of Council due to the lateness of the distribution of the report and uncertainty over what they’d agreed to in budget deliberations.

Just as a point of information, though it has become abundantly clear to me from comments I’ve heard that people think the City has a wide leeway when dealing with their laws, this isn’t entirely true. If you read the reports that go to Council, nearly every one cites the Provincial authority or Provincially-authorized policy that allows the move to go forward. This because, essentially, municipalities don’t have an actual right to exist, unlike many other countries. It’s basically a figment of the Province’s imagination, to be created, amalgamated and ruled as a convenient scapegoat for Provincial policy.

Case in point is property taxes. The Province controls the budgeting process, the assessment process, the appeals process, the methods of collection, the avenues for collection, etc. Property taxes are in all practicality the only form of income a municipality is allowed (user fees, fines, the portion of Gas Tax that the Region passes down to us, and even development charges are drops in the bucket). The Province also controls who can get out of paying a portion of them and how.

You and I can’t get out of them in any way, even in cases of poverty and destitution. The best the City can do for us to give us a narrow range of options for how to arrange payment. But sometimes developers and others businesses can get out of some of their taxes for a spell to spur development. And that’s how we get to the subject of CIP’s.

Thorold has basically three kinds of CIP’s, or will when the rules are passed. Probably the most obvious and talked-about is the Façade Improvement Plan, which is run jointly with the Region. When someone in the Downtown Improvement Area wants to spruce up their business’s face, they get approval from a committee and then the two levels of municipal government each kick in half, up to $5,000 each. So far at least, the City has gotten more than its money’s worth out of the programme, if anyone remembers what Thorold used to look like.

Another is the Central Tax Increment Programme, which basically subsidizes developers who meet all Smart Growth criteria, which consist, in large part, of in-filling and increasing population density and applies only to the central area of downtown, which ends roughly at Sullivan Ave. This means what we used to call urban renewal (replacing old houses) and using up vacant lots. The Mayor questioned this programme because he feared that the taxpayers would be funding student housing, but staff ensured him that the project must be of a scale to seriously impact the City in a positive way and that they have an escape clause which allows them to deny any project that they feel wouldn’t be beneficial.

This programme, which formerly gave an 80% rebate on a property’s tax increase for 10 years, will now have a sliding scale. Provided it passes when the by-law is before Council, the new rebate will be as follows: 80% for the first five years, 60% for years six and seven, 40% for years eight and nine and, finally, 20% for the tenth and last year. It will also allow for a 50% rebate of development charges in increments.

The third kind of CIP is the Brownfields Programme, for projects such as the Exelon property conversion to housing. That is to say, it’s to help defray the costs of cleaning up largely industrial (or other contaminated) property to make it safe to live on. This one will now have a limit on the timelines for the development, which the old one doesn’t. This programme allows for a total forgiveness of up to three years’ worth of taxes.

I’ve never felt comfortable with the idea of letting those with money get out of taxes. On the other hand, if we must have development, I’d rather it was of the Smart Growth or brown fields type because that land is already chewed up or contaminated. Better than sacrificing more woods or farmland.

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