Saanich religious institutions receiving tax breaks could face a public benefits test in the future.
Council Monday unanimously asked staff to prepare a report on the “implications” of introducing a public benefits test for organizations that currently receive permissive tax exemptions including places of public worship.
Coun. Rebecca Mersereau said she favoured a “longer look” into Saanich’s practice of granting permissive tax exemptions. “It has significant implications for the District,” she said, adding that it these exemptions could help Saanich achieve some of its larger strategic goals.
Staff, she said, should consider a number of ideas in their review of practices in Saanich, as well as elsewhere. They include financial sustainability, transparency, fairness in application, and perhaps above all, inclusivity, a point echoed by other speakers.
“For me, that [inclusivity] is the big one,” said Coun. Colin Plant. “It is not meant to attack any denomination or any organization that has certain cultural goals. But if your organization is not inclusive, I am going to have a tough time supporting you.”
To underscore this point, council directed staff to review current practices against conditions that could appear in an eventual public benefits test.
They include among others the requirement “that services and activities be equally available to all residents” of the municipality. Plant said that language fits his definition of inclusivity.
With this decision, council went further than staff, which had recommended that council simply receive a report into the issue of permissive tax exemptions.
The public heard earlier that Saanich would have to develop a new policy for permissive tax exemptions if it wanted to introduce a public benefits test for non-profits including religious institutions.
“A public benefits test for places of worship would be more challenging to implement as all such exemptions are currently established on a perpetual basis,” said Valla Tinney, Saanich’s director of finance, in the report. “Any implementation would be on a go forward basis or [council] would need to consider rescinding previously approved exemptions.”
The question of Saanich’s permissive exemptions entered public discourse last year after a provincial organization promoting secular humanism questioned why B.C. communities, including Saanich, continue to grant tax exemptions to properties that religious groups own.
Under existing legislation, Saanich may exempt from taxation any area of land surrounding buildings set apart for public worship. Once granted, the exemption is perpetual until properties changes ownership or are no longer used for their original purpose, the report notes. (Buildings used for public worship including improvements and the land underneath them are exempt from taxation under existing legislation).
According to the report, 46 Saanich churches have previously received permissive tax exemptions for the land surrounding their buildings. These permissive tax exemptions totaled $561,186 in 2018. By way of background, this figure represents about a third of the total value of tax exemptions granted in 2018, as Saanich granted non-religious institutions about $1.06 million in tax exemptions.