It wouldn’t be unusual for delegates to a Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities convention to focus on education tax.
It’s been a perennial issue for about 40 years.
But this year’s annual meeting will begin March 7 with more than half of RMs either withholding the education portion of property taxes they have collected or supporting those who have taken that action.
Glenn Blakley, an RM of Spy Hill councillor who speaks for the Tax Action Group, said in a Feb. 17 interview that 144 RMs have not forwarded the tax to school divisions and another 19 support the action in principle. SARM has 297 RM members.
The protest has also gained public support from the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association and the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association.
Blakley said it’s hard to see how the provincial government can ignore the issue.
“We’re hoping premier (Lorne) Calvert will make an announcement at the convention,” he said.
Calvert told the recent Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association convention that the government had not yet developed a long-term solution to the property tax issue.
Taxpayers across the province say the government should pay a greater share of education costs rather than rely on property tax to pay 60 percent.
They disagree, however, on how to go about getting what they want.
SARM, SUMA, the Provincial Association of Resort Communities of Saskatchewan, the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce and the Saskatchewan Real Estate Association have formed a coalition that has proposed the government move to 60 percent funding by 2008, thereby reducing education tax on all property classes.
TAG wants a cut to education tax on farmland of at least 25 percent by the end of March, followed by reductions of 10 percent in each of the following three years.
The level of tax relief has to be enough to make a difference for farmers who have seen negative net farm incomes, Blakley said, especially with more costly, larger school divisions now in place. It also has to address the inequity in the tax system, he said.
Statistics compiled by the RM of Craik show that, since 1987, the assessment in the RM has risen from $4.3 million to $56.8 million, a 13-fold increase. At the same time, the City of Regina’s assessment has grown by 5.3 times since 1987. Taxpayers in the RM are paying $20,000 for each student compared to $2,500 per student in many cities, said reeve Hilton Spencer in a News release
Blakley said the recent cabinet shuffle, which saw changes to the ministers responsible for finance, government relations and education, gives him some hope that the issue will be addressed.
“I’m feeling somewhat confident we’re going to get something but I am concerned it will be just a Band-Aid,” he said. He added that at least two urban centres, Craik and Rocanville, now support TAG’s objectives.
Municipalities are legally required to forward the school tax to the divisions.
Last week statements of claim were filed by South East Cornerstone School Division against 13 rural municipalities that are withholding tax: Coalfields, Wawken, Lajord, Surprise Valley, Francis, Hazelwood, Rocanville, Lake Alma, Brokenshell, Weyburn, Elmsthorpe, Scott and Golden West.
The school board is seeking more than $1.9 million in outstanding tax from these municipalities.
Lionel Diederichs, superintendent of finance and administration, said the division collects tax from about 48 RMs. There were more than 13 originally withholding the money, he said, and all received a letter demanding it. Several have since remitted.
“Is that because of a letter or because of something else? I don’t know,” he said.
Without tax money the division has to borrow from financial institutions, Diederichs said. The division borrows in a normal year, but a situation like this adds to interest costs.