It would be a brave soul who set out to draw up a list of the most absurd government decisions. There are so many to choose from. There was the occasion, some years back, when the government of Newfoundland set out to corner the market for greenhouse cucumbers. Nightly temperatures in St. John’s? Zero or lower six months of the year. Adult intake of cucumbers in Newfoundland? One half cucumber per year. Money lost in the scheme? $22 million.
Or this moment of idiocy: When a government official in Manitoba heard that an abandoned deer fawn was being raised by a family, he drove over and shot the animal. His reason? It’s illegal to make pets of wild animals. His ministry? The department of conservation.
And this testament to foolishness: Detroit recently declared a financial emergency, yet the city retains a “horseshoer” on staff. Salary and benefits? $56,000. Last update in the job description? 1967. Number of horse-drawn carriages? Zero.
But these pale in comparison to the ruling by the B.C. Property Assessment Appeal Board that the navigation- control buildings at Victoria’s airport are worth just $20.
That’s right. A couple of pizzas and a Coke will buy you a six-storey control tower, home to an advanced collision-avoidance system and enough communications gear to launch the next Mars mission.
Before the board announced its decision, the estimated monetary value of the complex was $1.4 million. Now, with the wave of a bureaucratic wand, it’s basically worthless.
Indeed in one important sense, it is completely worthless. The District of North Saanich used to collect about $25,000 in property taxes from the site each year. Now the municipality will get nothing.
This isn’t the appeal board’s first head-slapper of a ruling. It already declared airport control towers in Penticton, Castlegar and Pitt Meadows valueless.
A decision is outstanding at Vancouver International Airport, assessed value $9.9 million.
And in 2012, the board reduced the rated value of the B.C. Ferries Horseshoe Bay terminal from $47 million to $20. That wiped out $250,000 in property taxes payable to the District of West Vancouver and posed a similar threat to other municipalities with ferry terminals.
What produced this spate of perverse rulings? According to the appeal board, ferry terminals and airport control towers have no market value.
That’s either because there are no willing buyers out there, or because lease agreements prevent them being sold. If something can’t be bought or sold, it has no value.
We suspect museums with famous paintings would be surprised to hear their collections are worthless. The gold bars in Fort Knox or the crown jewels aren’t for sale. Does that mean they have no value?
And why, in any case, should we care that B.C. Ferries has a no-sale lease agreement with the Crown? Lease agreements can be changed at the drop of a hat. Or the change of a government. So can appeal boards.
But there is a larger issue here. These decisions assume that a retail market is needed before value can exist. Why should that be so?
The properties in question create income for their operators. That is one basis for assessment. And they demand and consume municipal services. That is another.
The provincial government has already admitted the weight of these arguments. The ferry terminals have been revalued back to a sensible rating.
But the appeal board is unmoved. Airports fall under federal jurisdiction, meaning this nonsense will continue unless Ottawa steps in.
Persisting in a course that is unpopular but right shows courage. Persisting in a half-baked theory that undermines municipal finances is foolhardy.
© Copyright 2013