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Monique Keiran: Nav Can assessment downloads costs to municipalities

A Supreme Court of B.C. decision confirmed earlier this month that the air-traffic control tower at Victoria International Airport should be valued at $20. The property had been assessed at $1.43 million.

A Supreme Court of B.C. decision confirmed earlier this month that the air-traffic control tower at Victoria International Airport should be valued at $20. The property had been assessed at $1.43 million.

The ruling came after a long battle between North Saanich, where the airport is located, and Nav Canada, which owns and operates Canada’s civil air-navigation system.

The court-confirmed value of the property means about $26,000 less annual tax revenue for North Saanich. The municipality has already reimbursed Nav Canada $43,000 for taxes paid for 2011 and 2012. It is now expected to refund $55,000 for 2013 and 2014.

The ruling also applies to three other Nav Canada properties in B.C. The air traffic control towers at the Castlegar, Penticton and Pitt Meadows airports had originally been assessed at between $270,000 and $423,000. And it sets a precedent for Nav Canada’s appeals of assessments of 120 other properties in B.C., including properties at the Vancouver International Airport valued at $9.9 million.

It sets a precedent also for other properties with single uses and low market exchange.

It has been pointed out that Nav Canada’s legal wriggling out from its property-tax responsibilities is yet another way in which other governments — with significantly larger revenue bases — are downloading responsibility for services and their funding onto municipalities.

Nav Canada is a privately run, not-for-profit corporation, not a federal agency. In 1996, Ottawa vested the organization with a monopoly over navigation services at Canada’s airports. That association sticks in the public’s minds — as does the federal government’s role, via six federal agencies, in operating many B.C. airports and regulating many activities at all of them.

Federal agency or not, at its North Saanich properties, Nav Canada uses water treated by the regional government, which receives a portion of the property taxes collected by North Saanich, and piped to the airport through a system built and maintained by that government. The corporation makes use of sewage infrastructure and waste-removal also provided by the region to take away its liquid and solid waste. Its employees drive to work on roads built and maintained by municipalities. Its properties are, in part, protected and made secure by police forces paid for by municipalities.

Since the 1990s, when the federal government cut billions of dollars from transfer payments to provinces, followed by the spending and service cuts by B.C.’s government that began in 2001, pressure on municipalities to make up the service and funding shortfalls has steadily increased.

As outlined in a report published this fall by the Vancouver-based Columbia Institute, local governments in B.C. are now forced to compensate for other governments’ cuts to housing, mental health, addiction, social services, wastewater treatment, flood management, drinking water and other types of infrastructure. The most telling measure of downloading onto municipalities that the report points out is that the B.C. government has downsized “thousands of employees since 2001, while the number of local government employees has risen by 30 per cent.”

To deal with the shortfalls, municipalities can raise property taxes or increase user fees.

The province cites its low provincial taxes as a major incentive for new investment in B.C. What isn’t mentioned in the banner-waving ads is that what businesses don’t pay to the province is instead either paid — clumsily and inequitably — to local governments or paid out in the form of more crime, more homelessness, more frustrating rush-hour waits in the Colwood Crawl, more burst water mains flooding major transportation routes, businesses and employees’ homes, and other manifestations of funding neglect.

And if the new-to-B.C. businesses prove their properties qualify for assessments similar to Nav Canada’s properties, pressure will increase further on everybody else to ensure our municipalities remain communities with the services and infrastructure that add so much to our quality of life and make these places so attractive to move to, live in and do business in.

So that they can attract new residents, organizations and businesses that don’t begrudge paying their share for services and infrastructure.