To the uninitiated, the Royal Canadian Legion is often seen as a club for veterans offering a members-only pub.
The categorization misses the bigger picture of the Legion’s social service mandate and the misperception could be costing the charity buckets, according to David Sinclair, chair of the Legion Foundation for B.C. and the Yukon.
“There has been some argument from time to time, ‘well you’re a bar,’ … but I think that’s an argument that’s ludicrous,” he said. “I don’t see any other bars in town giving money to charity or volunteer hours of work that we do.”
Sinclair has been speaking to B.C. mayors, including in Victoria and Vancouver, to convince them that Legions deserve exemptions from property taxes like other non-profit organizations.
In Greater Victoria, Legions receive a full property tax break in Esquimalt and Langford and a partial tax break in Sooke. Victoria is the only municipality that charges full property tax.
Exemptions are “hit and miss,” Sinclair said. “It’s all depended upon the way the various municipalities and councils across the province view us.”
While some see Legion branches as private clubs, he argues otherwise.
He is backed by a recent ruling by B.C. Assessment which deemed them to be legitimate charities.
Legion membership is open to anyone, Sinclair said, and the aim is community service.
In B.C., Legions operate 4,700 housing units for seniors. In a year, they donate $4 million to charities, $400,000 to medical research and contribute 800,000 hours of volunteer work, Sinclair said. Legions keep for themselves hall rental and bar revenue, which generate “barely enough to pay staff and taxes.”
Sinclair hopes to win exemptions for two legions in Victoria: the Pro Patria branch at 411 Gorge Rd. E. and the Britannia branch at 780 Summit Ave. Together they have 1,890 members.
If granted, the tax exemptions could save the Legions from possible closure.
At the same time, however, the exemptions would end up costing taxpayers more money at a time when the city is keen to save wherever it can. It’s a perspective city council is sure to weigh heavily when Sinclair makes his pitch later this month.
The City of Victoria is in the middle of reviewing its permissive property tax exemption policies.
In January, it hired a consultant to study the issue and make recommendations.
The goal, according to the request for proposals, is to determine whether the city could give tax breaks, and if so, establish a cap on exemptions and a time frame for granting them.
The consultant will also recommend eligibility criteria to city council.
It’s a debate some special interest groups in Victoria will be watching closely.
In the past, the Victoria Secular Humanist Association has called for an end to tax exemptions for places of worship.
While places of worship are granted mandatory property-tax exemptions by provincial charter, municipalities can choose whether to also exempt associated structures, such as church halls and grounds. Victoria does grant these exemptions voluntarily.
More recently, other residents have complained about tax breaks given to private schools.
Mayor Dean Fortin said the request from the Legion needs to be taken seriously.
“In my mind, I want to see about our capacity to bring the Legion in … recognizing there is a cost,” he said.
“Is there a way for everyone (else receiving the exemption) to give up a little to bring them in?”
Property tax exemptions in Victoria
In 2010 the city granted $2.3 million worth of property tax exemptions to 118 recipients. They include non-profits, affordable rental housing and residential conversions of downtown heritage buildings.
The biggest exemptions granted were as follows:
• $158,742 Wilson Dalby/Mc and Mc Building
• $157,029 McPherson Playhouse Foundation
• $97,354 YM/YWCA of Greater Victoria
• $71,599 Victoria Conservatory of Music
• $66,856 Anglican Synod of the Diocese of B.C.
• $64,693 Leiser Building
• $62,887 Prior Building