Property taxes are unfair because they consider neither a person's ability to pay, nor the quantity of government services which a person consumes. Taxes on a particular property must be paid regardless of whether your annual income is $10,000 or $110,000. Property taxes are the same whether your household has six people using municipal services or just one.
Property taxes are also unfair because they can increase rapidly and unexpectedly with the market value of one's home, as much as 5% or even 10% in a single year.
The question is not whether the Current Value Assessment System must be reformed, but how. Recently the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) polled its supporters on different models of municipal taxation. Based on survey results and on additional research, the CTF advocates a Municipal Property Tax Cap - the slayer of "assessment creep."
As a maximum, annual increases to property taxes should be limited to the rate of inflation. Alberta's Municipal Government Act should be amended to make it illegal for municipalities to raise taxes on property by an amount which exceeds the inflation rate. If local politicians want to increase taxes further, they would have to ask taxpayers' permission in a referendum. Taxpayers themselves would be able to use similar initiative provisions to get a property tax reduction proposal on the ballot.
Residential property values themselves would be based on a combined formula including lot size, house size, and habitable square footage. Unlike market value or current value assessment, properties would not fluctuate in value each year. Any "assessment growth" would only result from the construction of new residential properties. Because properties would still be assessed relative to each other, changes to one's property and differences in lot and house size would retain progressive elements found in the existing property tax system.
Another important change is toward a more user-based or user-pay system, by lowering property taxes and instituting more fee-for-service arrangements for water, sewage and garbage collection. But this kind of change must be revenue neutral, and not increase the overall tax burden.
Unfortunately, change will probably not come without a fight from municipal politicians. They would prefer to maintain a system which allows them to set budgets first and raise taxes to pay for them later. Under the current system, politicians and bureaucrats have little incentive to reign in their spending.
Ultimately, the responsibility rests with Premier Klein's government to replace the Current Value Assessment System with a fairer, more predictable form of property taxation. Cities, towns and districts are not the only ones taxing property. The provincial government will also take $1.2 billion from Albertans in property taxes this year - over $1,500 paid by the average family of four.
However, until the Municipal Government Act is amended, nothing stops Edmonton, Calgary, and other cities from imposing a Municipal Property Tax Cap on themselves, as a matter of policy.
Voter turn-out in municipal elections is very low, which means that each vote counts even more so than in federal or provincial elections. Before going to the polls on October 18, voters should ask the candidates for Mayor and for City Council whether they support a Municipal Property Tax Cap. Electing taxpayer-friendly representatives at the municipal level is an important first step towards lower and fairer property taxes.
John Carpay, Alberta Director, with files from Tasha Kheiriddin, Ontario Director