Friday, October 23, 2009

Province should head off industrial property tax battle

OK, this is about industrial property tax battles.
But it's important. Depending on what happens, homeowners could face 70-per-cent property tax increases. Arenas and community infrastructure could be lost.
And thousands of jobs are at risk.
Catalyst Paper lost the first round in its fight to avoid paying property tax bills in the four communities where it operates - Campbell River, Port Alberni, North Cowichan and Powell River.
The battle isn't over. And Catalyst is just the vanguard.
Across B.C., the big employers in towns are fighting to pay lower property taxes. In Castelgar and Kitimat they've also launched legal actions. Some are threatening to close mills or other operations.
The companies have a case. For the most part, the municipalities concede that.
In the case of Catalyst, the four municipalities have been slowly trimming their industrial tax rates, and the company's burden, over the last several years. This year, the combined tax bill is down about 11 per cent.
But the companies say they're still being gouged. Given the recession, the rising dollar and collapsing markets, they can't afford to pay, they say. Competitors in the rest of North America face much lower local tax bills, they maintain.
Catalyst proposes to pay one-quarter of its tax bill. It calculates that reflects the value of the municipal services it consumes. The argument was part of its presentation in B.C. Supreme Court.
The challenge against North Cowichan taxes was the first of the four cases to be heard. Catalyst argued the taxes were so unreasonable and unfair as to be illegal.
Justice Peter Voith didn't buy it. The corporation made a good case that the taxes were too high, he found.
But the elected municipal council had set them legally, he ruled. "These matters are properly addressed by different levels of government and not the courts," Voith wrote in his judgment.
The tax rates are a legacy of a different time. Forest companies, mines and smelters were all highly profitable and often operated in one-industry towns.
They needed a stable workforce. Rather than building an old-style company town, they opted to pay high taxes to fund the services and infrastructure that allowed them to attract workers and their families.
Now they're less profitable. The towns are more diversified and a lot of people with no connection to the company are being subsidized.
In North Cowichan, residential property taxes are among the lowest in the province because Catalyst pays so much tax.
But fixing the imbalance isn't easy. If big industry pays less, than everyone else has to pay more or the municipality has to slash services.
In North Cowichan, residential taxpayers would have faced an immediate 70-per-cent tax increase to maintain services if Catalyst had won in court.
The provincial government should have taken the lead on the issue long ago. More than three years ago, the B.C. Competition Council, chaired by former NDP premier Dan Miller, recommended a 50-per-cent cut in industrial property taxes.
The B.C. Progress Board, which advises the premier, has also identified the problem.
The government has the power to cap industrial tax rates. But that would be intrusive and politically risky.
And the government could be accused of paying the company's tax bills, subsidizing them at the expense of their competitors.
Still, a combination of the threat, along with the carrot of some transitional funding to allow municipalities to plan for higher residential and small business taxes or budget cuts, could help resolve the problem.
That's what both Catalyst and the municipalities hoped would happen.
The government has opted to stay on the sidelines.
It could let the industries and the municipalities continue the battle. But there are significant risks to jobs and investment and public services in this dispute.
The provincial government has the best chance of brokering an agreement without a long and destructive series of skirmishes between big industries and municipalities.
Footnote: The issue raises the broader question of municipalities' reliance on property taxes. It's an odd way to assess taxes. A big family with a huge income and heavy demand for services pays the same as the neighbouring couple just scraping by.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

B.C. not really interested in preventing gambling crime

Sean Holman offers an extraordinary police perspective on the government's lack of interest in dealing with the crimes associated with casinos and gambling today.

"The former commander of British Columbia's now-defunct integrated illegal gaming enforcement team is questioning the provincial government's commitment to "meaningful" illegal gaming investigations. Speaking exclusively with Public Eye, Fred Pinnock also described the RCMP's senior management in British Columbia as demonstrating "willful blindness" when it comes to the connection between illegal gaming and organized crime. And he said his provincially-funded RCMP team should have been expanded - not shutdown.

Mr. Pinnock, who retired as a staff sergeant in September 2008 after 29 years with the force, acknowledged airing his concerns will make him "unpopular with some of my former colleagues."

But he felt compelled to do so - in part, because he believes his team should have been keeping tabs on what happens inside legal gaming facilities rather than just cracking down on illegal gaming outside those facilities."

Read the rest of the article at

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A man with no hands and mandatory minimum sentences

Terry Bazzani could star in an ad campaign about the foolishness of mandatory minimum sentences.
Bazzani has no hands and short arms. He has only half of his left foot. He's had a series of surgeries on his face. He has no criminal record.
And he has pleaded guilty to importing heroin. He was a drug mule; he swallowed heroin capsules in Colombia and flew to Toronto. Police had been tipped off and arrested him.
It's a serious crime. It's also the kind of offence that some politicians would like to see linked to a mandatory minimum sentence. Judges would have no discretion. Anyone guilty would receive a guaranteed term in a penitentiary.
Fortunately, the measures aren't in place. Bazzani will be sentenced later this month, based on the judge's analysis.
The politicians think they can decide the appropriate punishment without knowing about the crime or the people sitting the courtroom - not just the criminal, but the victims too.
But crime circumstances vary. For some offenders, serious prison time might be appropriate - a repeat drug trafficking offender or high-volume importer. A strong deterrent sentence might be needed.
Bazzani has no convictions. He said the smuggling wasn't planned. He traveled to Colombia to see a woman he had met online. He was approached in a bar, offered $10,000 to swallow the drugs and fell for the lure of easy money. (That might not be true of course, but the Crown has offered no evidence to contradict the story.)
And offenders' circumstances vary. Imprisonment is a serious punishment for anyone.
But Bazzani would do spectacularly hard time. No hands, remember? He can't feed himself, except sandwiches. He can't clean himself after going to the bathroom, unless he has a shower. He spent five weeks in pretrial custody and went without brushing his teeth, cleaning himself and ate little food.
And he certainly can't stand up for himself. Which means that in prison he will be a victim, or locked up a protective custody. Bazzani's doctor spends two days a week providing care for inmates at the Vancouver Island Regional Correction Centre. The handless man would be in danger in prison, says Dr. James Henry, who said he treats inmates who are victims of violence.
Bazzani illustrates one problem with mandatory minimum sentences. Some people are going to be punished with sentences far out of proportion to their crimes, because judges are fettered with arbitrary, political sentencing rules.
There are other problems. They don't actually reduce crime, for starters.
And they cost taxpayers a fortune as more prisons are built and staffed to house a growing number of inmates.
B.C.'s jails are already overcrowded. The Solicitor General's Ministry service plan says there are "dangerous levels of inmate overcrowding" and reveals prisons are operating at 185 per cent of capacity. The situation "increasingly compromises community and staff safety," the ministry says.
The federal government has passed legislation to impose mandatory minimum sentences for a wider range of drug offences. The Senate is now reviewing the law and the Conservatives have already complained its not moving quickly enough to "get tough on crime."
The Conservatives won't reveal the cost of imprisoning more people as a result of their changes to the Criminal Code. But the government has doubled the capital budget for building new cells. At a minimum, analysts suggest, it will cost more than $100 million a year to lock up the new inmates.
Which might be fine it reduced crime and made Canadians safer.
But it doesn't. The Americans have been down this road. Thanks in part to mandatory minimum sentences, the U.S., on a per capita basis, imprisons six times more of its citizens than Canada. Crime has not been reduced; it is not safer. Just poorer
And more people like Bazzani have ended up in desperate situations behind bars.
Judges - the people who actually hear the evidence and study the laws - are far more likely to impose effective, appropriate sentences than politicians looking for some good headlines.
Footnote: Here in B.C., the problem isn't just jail overcrowding. The Solicitor General's Ministry service plan also notes that the number of offenders under community supervision orders jumped by 10 per cent last year, to 22,000. The increases, without a corresponding increase in staff to ensure offenders obey the rules of their release, are also compromising public safety, the ministry notes.

B.C. a bad bet to help gambling addicts

Good work in the Times Colonist today on the B.C. government's abysmal record in working to prevent problem gambling and help the inevitable victims of the Liberals' huge expansion of gambling in the province.

The Press Pass column in the Sunday Times Colonist also provided this background.

"HYPOCRITES ARE US -- The B.C. Liberals have made a habit lately of saying one thing and doing the opposite (see HST later in this column). But nowhere is that more blatant than on the gambling file, where they recently expanded Internet gaming, while cutting help to problem gamblers.

One wonders what Tourism Minister Kevin Krueger would say about that if he were still in Opposition. This is him, back in 1997, attacking the NDP government of the day: "Women in British Columbia will die because of gambling expansion; that's the prediction of our experts at UBC. Some 37 per cent of the spouses of pathological gamblers abuse their children. So children may die as a result of gambling expansion, and their blood will be on the heads of the government that expanded gambling and of the MLAs who voted for it. This is a serious, serious issue."

WE'RE NO HELLS ANGELS -- Asked recently why the Liberals have drifted so far from what they once said in Opposition, Housing and Social Development Minister Rich Coleman credited a growing understanding of the gambling file, if not the $1 billion-plus profits.

"I think you have to mature on the file over time," he said. "That's what we've done. I think you also, like any product, have to stay current with the issues around it."

For instance, Coleman claims one of the biggest problems with Internet gaming is that "it isn't controlled." People can visit thousands of unregulated sites run out of the Barbados and Cayman Islands, he said.

"We'd rather do it here, and know what's in front of us, and also, at the same, we can, on our site, keep people informed on issues around problem gambling if they need help and all that stuff ... We're managing and watching it a lot differently than somebody that frankly doesn't care about them."

How that squares with a 34 per cent cut to the problem-gambling budget remains unclear."