Editorial: Reducing tax exemptions is the wrong move

Saanich council has set foot on a path that, in all probability, leads nowhere. Councillors voted unanimously to have staff examine options for cutting back the tax-exempt status of various not-for-profit organizations.

The agencies involved fall into two groups. The first are all 45 churches and religious missions in the district.

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The second group comprises service organizations such as the Children’s Health Foundation of Vancouver Island, and activity centres such as the Garth Homer Society. This group also numbers 45.

Collectively, these agencies enjoy property-tax exemptions totalling $1.062 million. Churches benefit in the amount of $561,000, and the remainder accrues to community groups.

There is a legal aspect to consider. Under the provisions of the Community Charter, churches themselves cannot be taxed.

However, the B.C. Supreme Court has ruled that adjacent lands owned by places of worship can be taxed.

Coquitlam has exercised this option, and Victoria city council considered taxing parking lots belonging to churches, although in the end councillors decided not to proceed.

It is this option that Saanich is examining. There is no plan to tax either churches or community groups as such, but any adjoining lands might be fair game.

Since many of these agencies raise needed revenues from such property, council is, in effect, considering a financial clampdown.

This is surely the equivalent of political suicide. Is Saanich seriously prepared to hamstring the Goward House Society or the Girl Guides of Canada?

It is true some of these community groups appeal to a narrower audience, such as the Victoria Rowing Society or the Southern Island Sailing Society.

Councillors have said their concern is directed at agencies that are less than fully “inclusive.” Perhaps they find rowing or sailing societies elite.

Yet that is a narrow-minded line of thought. Urban communities today are much more crowded, jarring and unwelcoming than in earlier times.

Anything that brings residents together in a productive exercise should be welcomed. It really doesn’t matter what that exercise is, so long as it strengthens community ties.

The same argument can be made for houses of worship. Presumably council’s view here is that the majority of residents attend no church. Why, then, should they subsidize an activity in which they take no part?

Yet modern churches have long since broadened their sphere of influence from purely faith-based initiatives to wider community engagement.

Some run soup kitchens. Others offer counselling. They play a far greater role in society than conducting religious services.

There is also the unfortunate reality that places of worship everywhere are increasingly under fire. There was the horrendous assault on Catholic churches in Sri Lanka, where more the 250 people were killed.

Jews in several European countries have resorted to placing armed guards outside their synagogues. And mosques around the world have been attacked, including the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City, where six worshippers were shot and killed.

Saanich, of course, intends no physical harm of any kind. But it is an undeniable fact that religion as a stabilizing force is in decline. There is no public interest in accelerating that retreat.

It is understandable that council would wish to examine every possible economy. Money is always scarce, and the demands on municipal governments grow with each passing year.

But it would be counterproductive to lessen the resources of community groups that do good work, even if much of it is out of the public eye.

The most obvious example is the Salvation Army Victoria Citadel. Is council ready to hit this essential agency with a tax increase of $81,264? And more than that, are councillors willing to make good the inevitable cuts in service if they pursue such a course?

So far, this scheme is purely political musing. It should stop there.

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