Philip Round/Echo Staff / Comox Valley Echo – August 14, 2014

Should local property taxes be used to help tackle homelessness in the Comox Valley?  And if so, how much would you be willing to pay? Those could well be questions on upcoming civic election ballot papers in the biggest test of public opinion on the subject yet conducted here.

All four local governments – Courtenay, Comox, Cumberland and Comox Valley Regional District — will be urged to include an identical question on ballot papers for the November 15 poll.The secret ballot public opinion survey would be conducted like a referendum and on the same day and at the same places as people go to vote for their elected officials throughout the Comox Valley.

But unlike a referendum, the results will not be binding and will not provide authority to tax homeowners – although they are intended to give clear guidance to all those elected on that day as to whether voters have an appetite for contributing money to future initiatives.

The idea of putting a direct question to test the waters has come from members of Comox Valley Regional District, and at Tuesday’s committee of the whole meeting there was detailed debate on the wording of the special ballot.

After weighing up a range of options there was unanimity from the seven municipal as well as three rural representatives on a simple, clear question with three options from which people could choose. The question will be: ‘How much annual property tax would you be willing to pay to reduce homelessness?’

And the three choices in answer, based on the assessment of an average $300,000 house, will be: $0 (Nothing); up to $5; up to $10.

It is being stressed those would be flat-rate figures representing a total amount of extra tax each year for the average house – not, for example, a dollar amount for every $100,000 of assessed value. The committee agreed there needed to be a clear option for people to say they didn’t want to pay anything, but there was detailed debate on what other figures might be appropriate as guidelines for electors who were willing to go along with some additional cost.

There was no reference in the debate to what total amounts of money the various options might raise if implemented right across the Valley. But regional district finance staff believe around $40,000 would likely be raised for each dollar levied. So under the options quoted, the total ballpark figure would be a maximum of $200,000 for “up to $5” and a maximum of $400,000 for “up to $10”. For the ballot to go ahead, at least two of the three municipalities need to agree formally to participate alongside the regional district to ensure there is a fair cross-section of views in the Valley.

Representatives of all three municipalities at the CVRD meeting said they supported the initiative, and would urge their councils to go along with the idea to test the temperature. CVRD staff originally suggested a more detailed question that set out examples of what money raised might be spent on in order to tackle homelessness.

But elected officials were concerned that that might complicate the issue, or pin them down to specifics, when what they really needed was a clear steer on whether there was support for the idea of taxing in principle, and if so how much might be acceptable.

Even if there is clear support for one of the taxing options, the non-binding nature of the public vote means that the new CVRD board after November’s elections would have to engage in a formal process to set an actual tax rate to fund a new service – with more explanation of how the money raised might be spent – before it could go ahead. But if the November opinion vote proceeds, electors will be able to refer to a 600-word summary of local homelessness issues and initiatives on the CVRD website so people can have a sense of the thinking behind why local government is wanting people’s guidance on the financial issues.