As we've outlined, city and town councils across the province have the freedom to exempt certain lands from property taxes. In an effort to understand what cities have done, earlier this year we wrote to every city, town, village and incorporated district in BC and asked them. While most communities provide these exemptions to religious properties, we found a sizable proportion require organizations to demonstrate a public benefit prior to receiving the exemption and a small number of communities that choose not to provide any permissive tax exemptions.
We downloaded the contact information for the 162 municipalities in the province from CivicInfo BC's database. We then emailed each of these (except for the City of Vancouver, which is governed by a separate law) on March 20, 2018. You can read our emails here. The City of Vancouver's policy was found by searching its website.
Based on the responses, which varied from detailed answers to our questions to links to the city's website where policies could be found, we restricted our analysis to two questions for this report:
- Does the municipality grant permissive tax exemptions for religious properties?
- If so, do religious properties have to pass a public benefits test prior to receiving the exemption?
Data were extracted from the answers provided and where necessary from the policies available on the municipalities website. Other questions, such as the amount of foregone tax revenues and details of the application process will be explored in individual municipality profiles.
In total, we have data for 98 of 162 municipalities in British Columbia. Our results are available online.
We found that an overwhelming majority of municipalities grant permissive tax exemptions to religious properties. That said, there were a few notable exceptions.
First, a number of smaller villages - like Anmore or Lion's Bay - don't actually have any religious properties to exempt, so the issue has just never come up.
Second, we found five communities whose councils have decided to either reject permissive tax exemption requests from any organization (often preferring to provide direct grants that the council supports) or who provide only a small number of exemptions. These include small communities like Keremeos but also the City of Vancouver. We'll profile some of these communities in the coming weeks.
Looking only at the 86 communities who do exempt religious properties, we found a wide variation in policies. Nearly one in three require that applicants for a permissive tax exemption demonstrate how the property in question will serve the greater needs of the community. This is often done through an application form where the organization must explain who it serves and how that benefits the broader public.
For many small communities, whether they apply this test or not, permissive exemptions are considered on an annual (or fixed term) basis by council. In these cases (as is required by the Community Charter), a notice is put out that the council is considering permissive tax exemption applications and local residents are invited to provide input on whether those should be approved or not. While this council debate may still be considered a vetting process, for purposes of this study, we didn't consider it a formal public benefits test.
Aside from a public benefits test, some communities will only provide exemptions for property up to a certain size. Others do not provide exemptions for any property used as a residence or not directly connected to the organization's primary purpose.
These data were collected by BC Humanist Association volunteers and analyzed by Ian Bushfield, Executive Director. If there are concerns about the data, please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sign up below to follow our Fair Property Tax Exemption Campaign as we begin to profile some of these different municipalities. We'll be asking for your help to learn more about what your city or town's approach is.
And any concerned citizens can watch for their town council's public hearing on permissive tax exemptions, which are usually held between August and October, or talk to their local candidates for the October 20 municipal elections.