I recently sent a note to fellow columnist Allen Garr about a column he wrote in the Vancouver Courier regarding those new community gardens popping up all over the City of Vancouver. Garr and I don't often see eye-to-eye, but on the issue of developers re-classifying their property to avoid paying city taxes, we're on the same page.
First things first. Did you know that City has something called the Sustainability Branch? These are the folks ostensibly hired to make sure we don't all kill ourselves with garden pesticides, car exhaust, carbon emissions...and so on. Part of their mandate also includes supporting things like community gardens and increasing the amount of food we grow locally. All good stuff.
A few years back, NPA Councillor Peter Ladner brought a motion forward and directed staff to begin work on developing two thousand and ten community gardens, in advance of the 2010 Olympic Games. A noble goal indeed. So off staff went and they began working with developers and community organizations to meet the target set by their political masters.
Then along comes a recession, and development in Vancouver all but dries up. A poor economy results in a bunch of developer folks sitting on some pretty tax heavy, undeveloped land. Mix that reality with a bunch of well-intentioned folks in the sustainability branch who need to develop more community gardens and presto...you have a recipe for an organically grown tax loss scheme.
Garr goes into greater depth as to how the scheme works, but here is my Coles Notes version.
The developer asks BC Assessment to re-classify his land from a higher tax bracket (say residential condo use for example) to a lower tax bracket (say a 2010 community garden for example). We should note that this is a very lawful activity and completed sanctioned by the BC Assessment Authority.
Whereas the developer may have previously paid $1 million per year to the city in taxes for his undeveloped parcel of land, as a new 2010 community garden he'll pay a fraction of that. It's kind of like a win-win-lose scenario. The developer wins cause he pays less taxes. The folks planting their veggies win cause they now have land to plant them on. And the City loses about a million dollars in tax revenue in the process.
On the surface, this appears to be a classic case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing. But I can't help but think the City's Finance department had a mild heart attack when they realized what was going on. With the City bleeding red ink and finance folks desperately trying to balance the books, some of their own City staff were quietly cheering on the conversion of these revenue rich properties.
Garr points out this is now going to cost millions to the city treasury if the trend continues into next year. With the economy forecast to remain grim, I suspect it will.
So where is Mayor Robertson and his Vision colleagues on this issue? The silence has been deafening. But this shouldn't come as a big surprise given how closely aligned they are to local developers. As they say, you don't want to bite the hand that feeds you. So expect the COPE/Vision majority on Council to sit on their hands as the City's treasury gets hit big time.
As for Garr, I could only imagine how outraged he would have been if the NPA were still in power and had remained silent. Admittedly, he deserves full credit for raising awareness of the issue, but I hope his tepid criticism of Mayor Gregor and his Vision colleagues for their inaction doesn't lull them into thinking they're off the hook. I have no doubt that a few hard hitting columns from Garr, the godfather of civic watchers, and his worship would be on his knees.
Btw...you may be wondering how this story relates to the tomato reference in our headline? Well, Garr did the calculations and each tomato being planted on those wonderful 2010 community gardens will cost taxpayers about $350 in lost tax revenue. Dem is some fine tomatoes!