Provincial costs increasingly downloaded to our municipal tax bill

July 14, 2023 – Property owners across BC recently received their 2023 Property Tax Notices from their municipality, accompanied by public relations messages attempting to mitigate the shock of yet another inflation boosted cost increase, designed to condition the public to accept that a year-over-year property tax increase of less than 10 percent is a sign of commendable constraint.

Here in Qualicum Beach, the Town set a year-over-year tax increase target of 6 percent, but what individual property owners experience may vary, sometimes considerably.

Exactly where are our property tax dollars going? Some findings were a surprise.

As a benchmark, we gathered the details for a specific modest 3 bedroom, 1 ½ bathroom detached bungalow close to the Town centre, with a 2022 property assessment of $739,000.

We compiled the homeowners’ detailed payable property taxes for the past six years, and calculated year-over-year percentage increases for individual levies. The numbers are the actual amounts collected by the various organizations supported by property taxes. A portion of the total municipal tax levy is often paid through the Home Owner Grant program but that is simply a redistribution of taxes we already pay out of our other pocket to the Province.

The percentage displayed to the right of each year’s column is the year-over-year percentage increase from the previous year.

The owners were concerned by last year’s (2022) property tax bill which increased 13.9% over the previous year (2021). So this year’s further increase of 6.8% was, by comparison, less painful. Such is the reality of ever-shifting property assessments.

What line items warrant taxpayers’ attention?

The fastest growing levy in Qualicum Beach’s itemized municipal tax bill is health care.

The Regional District of Nanaimo (RDN) requisitions money from Town taxpayers on behalf of the Nanaimo Regional Hospital District. According to Qualicum Beach Director of Finance Raj Hayre, in 2022 the Town’s share of that Regional Hospital District Requisition was $1,438,143.

This year the RDN has commanded $1,775,095, a whopping 23% increase in one year, apparently so the Nanaimo Regional Hospital District (NRHD) can “meet its partnership funding obligations for large priority projects that are urgently required in the region,” according to the April 19, 2023 Finance Director’s staff report to Council.

As the chart shows, this municipal hospital levy on a typical QB residential property has grown almost 300% in the past 5 years.

Aren’t hospitals and health care delivery provincial responsibilities?

They certainly are. The public is largely unaware of this downloading of financial obligations related to delivery of health care services — which are completely a responsibility of the province to fund — onto municipal governments and then onto property taxpayers.

In a recent article, comparing two early childhood learning (daycare) projects in Qualicum Beach, we criticized the Town for willy-nilly accepting financial burdens and risks (for QB taxpayers) for what are clearly the responsibility of the Province’s Ministry of Education and Child Care and its local School District 69 (Qualicum).

But here we are again, this time it’s health care, with the RDN and Town both capitulating to demands by the provincial government to fund non-municipal services, a burden that should be shouldered by the senior level of government, the province.

And what exactly does the Town get for coughing up $1,775,095 (and growing) per year for regional “hospital” funding?

Additional taxes buy diminished health care services

Not only can’t hundreds of residents get appropriate or timely primary care here in Qualicum Beach, but apparently if you need acute care, you are likely to find yourself admitted to Nanaimo Regional General Hospital (NRGH) without a specific doctor assigned to supervise your inpatient treatment!

As the chart shows, this municipal hospital levy on a typical QB residential property has grown almost 300% in the past 5 years.

This, according to a recent op-ed in the Times-Colonist by Dr. Christopher Rumball, an emergency physician at NRGH, who says that at NRGH, “I have begun to call these admissions IOU patients: Inpatients Orphaned and Unattached. As emergency physicians we believe we owe these patients a far higher standard of care than the cursory knowledge of their presence in our ER and our commitment to intervene if their blood pressure crashes or their heart stops.”

According to Dr. Rumball, the situation was made worse by BC Minister of Health Adrian Dix’s much ballyhooed deal to entice more physicians into primary care clinics in BC communities. “Our present circumstances [at NRGH] are an obvious and predictable outcome following the Doctors of BC and Ministry of Health signing a new primary-care agreement without full corresponding moves to retain the vital hospitalist workforce in community hospitals.” Hospitalists are essentially staff doctors who work at the hospital as their regular job.

So, it would appear Minister Dix was simply playing a shell game — making a grand gesture, with taxpayer money, to beef up the complement of community primary care practitioners, knowing full well this “strategy” would just further deplete the medical staff complement in community and regional acute care hospitals like the one in Nanaimo.

Why are municipalities collecting property taxes for hospitals?

Back to the fundamental question that deserves an answer: Why are municipal governments collecting property taxes to support acute care hospitals, clearly a provincial responsibility?

Taking another perspective, how many different ways are QB taxpayers expected to fund health care?

Consider a small business owner leasing retail space in a downtown commercial building. For example, let’s use the multi-unit Heard Centre building at 130 Second Avenue West, with a 2022 assessed value of $1,527,000.

Storm clouds at the Faye Smith Rosenblatt Memorial Pavilion on the Qualicum Beach waterfront. July 2023

The commercial mill rate (the property tax per $1,000 of assessed value) just for this year’s Regional Hospital District levy is 86.42 cents (more than double the residential property mill rate). So that building owner is dinged $1,319.63 just for the Regional Hospital levy, a cost that is passed on to their commercial tenants.

The Heard Centre tenants also pay sales taxes and business taxes to the provincial government, and then personal income taxes to both provincial and federal governments. And of course, if they own their residence in Qualicum Beach, they will be dinged again with the Regional Hospital levy.

All to pay for an acute care service that is coming apart at the seams, some would say in a death spiral, literally and figuratively.

As Dr. Rumball points out, from his perspective of 47 years of personal ER practice, we may have crossed the Rubicon. “We have never before admitted patients to hospital with no one assigned to look after their care,” he says.

Storm clouds on the horizon

Unless and until it is removed, and the RDN and Town get back in their lanes and refuse to levy property taxes for any provincial programs, including hospitals specifically and health care generally, this RDN Hospital levy will probably escalate even faster than the 295% increase over the past 5 years illustrated by our residential property tax bill example.

The next fastest growing line item on your annual Property Tax Notice will likely be RDN – Wastewater.

The French Creek Pollution Control Centre (FCPCC) built in the mid-70s, and upgraded in the mid-90s, is overdue for multiple major capital projects.

The RDN is currently planning $112 million of wastewater service capital projects over the next ten years, just related to the French Creek wastewater treatment centre. That does not include the Town’s own capital expenditures on its own sanitary sewer network connected to the FCPCC.

In that same decade we can expect that the return of higher interest rates coupled with a burgeoning federal debt will probably diminish the availability of federal government grants to replace aging municipal services infrastructure.

Buckle up. We may have seen the last of single-digit annual increases in our municipal property taxes.