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School taxes may force long-time residents to cash out

Like many people who had the good fortune to buy property in Whistler before the boom, Paul O'Mara has seen the value of his home steadily increase over the years.

Like many people who had the good fortune to buy property in Whistler before the boom, Paul O'Mara has seen the value of his home steadily increase over the years.

His home in Nicklaus North has increased so much that his tax bill has jumped almost $4,500 in the past three years.

"But I have not increased my capacity to earn that much over the past three years," he said.

Almost half of this yearly tax bill goes towards school taxes.

After 28 years making his living as a general contractor in Whistler and raising his family here, O'Mara might eventually have to cash out and leave.

"You can't live on the value of a house."

It's a double-edged sword in some ways, he said.

O'Mara doesn't want people to think he's complaining about the fact that the value of his house keeps going up. But each year as the school taxes increase, it makes it harder to afford life in Whistler.

Whistler property owners pay the majority of the school tax bill for the Howe Sound School District – 68 per cent in 2000 – because the amount of school taxes paid by each homeowner is a function of property values. Those property values continue to rise disproportionately higher in Whistler than in other parts of the district.

Whistler accounts for than 20 per cent of the students in the district.

"Most of my contemporaries are working really hard and trying to afford to live here," he said.

But unless something changes most of that generation that raised their kids here are going to cash out and leave, he said.

The school taxes are exacerbating the continual struggle to ensure Whistler is an affordable place for people who live and work here.

"There's us ordinary people, except that we happened to buy in here 15-20 years ago. We were lucky," said long term resident Eileen Tomalty.

She said the taxes are driving people away to the neighbouring communities, where they are making their homes while commuting to Whistler to work.

This way they have more disposable income each year, she said.

"You can't blame them but we're losing their contribution to the community."

The town has recognized affordability as one of its key concerns.

"The municipality is deathly afraid of becoming an Aspen or Vail – a community that is owned by very wealthy people who don't have to live there and support the community," said O'Mara.

"If the inducement is to create value and then tax it to the point where only the wealthy people can afford it, they are not going to be the kind of people who will add to a community like this."

Councillor Ken Melamed said he is very concerned about Whistler's affordability strategy but there is little the municipality can do when it comes to school taxes besides lobby the government.

"We don't control school taxes," he said, as the provincial government sets the rate.

"We're fairly powerless when it comes to that."

More than 10 years ago a handful of local residents, including O'Mara and Eileen Tomalty's husband Gordon, formed the Whistler School Tax Action Committee. In 1991 the Committee lobbied the provincial government to address the inequity of the school tax issue in Whistler but to no avail.

"We made a foray into Victoria. They made fun of us in their subtle bureaucratic way and nothing ever happened," said O'Mara.

They did however succeed in creating public awareness and several hundred people opted not to pay their taxes that year to prove a point.

(They eventually had to pay these taxes, plus a 10 per cent penalty.)

This year the Liberals revisited the School Act, changing it to allow more than one tax rate per district, but Whistler didn't meet the criteria.

Tofino is the only municipality that will have a different school tax rate than the rest of its district this year.

"The government tried to create the argument that supports the idea that there are nothing but wealthy people living in Whistler who can afford the increasing disparity in school taxes," said O'Mara.

Recently Finance Minister Gary Collins announced a two per cent increase in school taxes province-wide, in order to raise $20 million.

"It's just an inflationary change," he said in an earlier interview.

"There has not been a change in the rate since the mid-90s."

But this increase, combined with the fact that Whistler properties went up in value between nine to 20 per cent this year, means that when the tax bills arrive in the spring they'll be even higher than last year.

O'Mara predicts that the problem will continue to get worse in Whistler.

"Unless something catastrophic happens, the Whistler curve is going to rise because people want to live here. It's a great place to live," he said.

Added to this is the Olympics. If Whistler gets the bid, property values are likely to jump up again.

"If the Olympics come here property values are going to triple or quadruple. How are they going to expect us to afford that?"

And it's not just property owners who will be dealing with the problem.

Renters will also feel the crunch as owners increase rents to compensate for increasing taxes.

According to figures from the Whistler School Tax Action Committee, the province gets roughly $1.3 million in school taxes from Whistler.

If the province cannot absorb a portion of that income, as it has done in Tofino, the committee suggests the taxes get redistributed throughout the school district.

This would mean there would be no cost to the province and at the same time make the school tax situation more equitable for Whistler.

As it stands, only Tofino will get school tax relief this year.