Saturday, December 20, 2008



Three ways of describing municipal assessment in Ontario today. And if you want to disagree, say because you work for the Municipal Property Assessment Corp., be warned that one of those words is from Premier Dalton McGuinty.
Indeed, there is such an aura of stupidity, arrogance and sloppy arithmetic about MPAC and how it has screwed up, again, that I didn't feel it necessary to bellow.After all, even the premier doesn't think the latest barrage of numbers from MPAC are realistic. Of course, ever since the provincial ombudsman, Andre Marin, ripped to shreds how MPAC flopped at its task in 2006, MPAC has no defenders, other than a few profs who want to explain in Dick-and-Jane fashion how market-value assessment works.
So I was gentler than usual in a blog about the latest calculations from MPAC. And I conceded their task isn't simple. But observers like Penny Caldwell, the editor of Cottage Life, seemed to wonder about my restraint in a blog she writes.But I believe in the old lawyers' maxim. If you have a strong case, state it calmly. If you have a weak case, shout.
It's possible Ms. Caldwell has nerves scraped by all the incidents reported to her from cottage country about inane assessments. Yet I figure this time our case is so substantial, there is no need to bellow that these assessors may set a record as the stupidest bureaucrats on Planet Earth.
After nearly 6,000 columns and several thousand editorials, I am used to turning up the rhetoric. But when this fog of unreality hangs over an issue, let them stew in their own miscalculations.
In a blog, I said the assessment on my cottage on the Trent River has gone up 300% since Jan. 1, 2005, even though the only improvements made came after the MPAC deadline of Jan. 1, 2008, for the next round of tax increases.
Torontonians are also furious about their latest jumps in assessment, one of the two factors in determining your municipal taxes. (Councils set the other factor, the mill rate.)
And in the city, I've been hit again. But miraculously it was only a 27% increase. Of course my neighbour's house sold for $50,000 less than the asking price - and that was before the real estate market blew apart in this recession/depression - but the assessor once again ignored such pertinent info.
Up in cottage country around Burnt Point (where the Trent River curves south of Havelock) my neighbours are up in arms about increases far smaller than my cottage's 300%.
When the key people in the North Seymour Ratepayers Association get together to talk about what's happening with two massive developments that would ruin our area, they are furious about 55% and 60% increases.
The irony, of course, is that in columns for the Toronto Sun, and in pontifications on various TV and radio shows, I have predicted for several years that a slump in real estate was coming.
That was the "bust" part of the best-selling book by David Foot of U. of T. And cottage country faced huge problems in gasoline costs and cottage taxes. The spectre of pervasive unemployment hung over everything. This depression/recession didn't hit out of the blue. For several years if you went to the annual financial meetings of companies like the giant Fairfax insurance conglomerate, run by Prem Watsa, Watsa warned you that the perfect storm was going to hit the world economy.
It arrived right on schedule, but I don't think even Watsa realized just how many dumb jerks there were who could waste a billion dollars as if it was used gum.
Yet MPAC, plus more senior over-paid bureaucrats, didn't prepare for it. So major budgets were incapable of dealing with the emergenices. And all the assessment calculations for the coming years have been rendered meaningless because of the collapse of the real estate markets. We are supposed to pay taxes for years based on calculations that no longer make sense. Profs and politicians may argue that it really doesn't matter what the new market-value calculations are as long as everyone is treated the same. But, of course, they aren't all being treated the same when you have the assessments for some properties set below what the properties just sold for on the open market, and then there are all the properties where the assessment is higher than the taxpayers just paid.
What madness is this! When assessments are set too low on your property, your neighbours are screwed. When the assessments are too high, you're being screwed.
Where cottage assessments differ from those in the city is in the added value placed on water frontage. Yet around my cottage, and indeed in many stretches of shoreline in southern Ontario, there are now so many weeds due to zebra mussels, it's difficult to swim and some cottages have been up for sale for years. The carefree days when you couid romp or work in the water without water shoes and gloves is now just a memory. It's a regular battle against the snarls of weeds, and one you face with the active opposition of governments. There are gauntlets of permits, and if you do finally get permission to use a herbicide, it costs more than Channel No. 5.
Of course, cottagers hardly are given municipal services to match those routinely provided within even villages. The nearest real public road is 1.6 km from my cottage. The municipality sort of looks after another kilometre, leaving the vital final link up to us. We have, of course, no sewers, potable water, street lights and garbage collection, and, as we've found out during city strikes, don't even think of putting a child into the local schools.
Yet councils really don't appreciate all the revenue they get from their seasonal residents. Cottage taxes are useful to pay for improvements to infrastructure that benefit year-round residents most. But heaven help you if you have the gall to protest some local's scheme. Then you hear all about the NIMBYs who don't care about local jobs.
A councillor wrote the Sun after my column about this saying that I didn't have the right to criticize when I hadn't lived there year-round for years. The Trent Hills mayor mouthed similar malarkey after many cottagers had the audacity to show up to complain about a massive local development.
I proposed twenty years ago that Queen's Park stop this nonsense where cottagers were good only to be plucked as if they were chickens rather than golden geese. I said a royal commission should examine the fairness of cottage taxation and determine if they were paying more than their share, The commission could have been headed by someone like Frank Miller, a former premier and treasurer who owned two resorts. After all many hearings into taxation have produced some startling findings, such as the one chaired by Willis Blair, a prime-rib Tory and former senior councillor, who found in the late 1970s that there were thousands of properties in Ontario that paid no municipal taxes at all, due to corruption or stupidity.
Now that we face years of taxes based on unreal assessments, but the one man who could stop this does nothing but say he as premier hopes that councils will be gentle when they rape their taxpayers. And we're certainly not going to be aided by councillors like Toronto's budget chief, Shelley Carroll, who points out that homeowners don't pay that much towards the cost of services. (Of course, the way Toronto's council has sold out to the unions, the cost of those services has become obscenely bloated.)
When McGuinty asks councils to be reasonable, it's like putting a big steak in front of a pit bull and expecting it not to gobble it up if you ask nicely. Taxpayers will be lucky if their arms aren't chawed off.
The sad thing about all this is that it's only going to get worst. These MPAC estimates for what our properties are worth now for taxation purposes will seem like the cruelest joke ever perpetrated on the residents of Ontario who are no stranger to the jests of the clowns in government.

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