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Councillor says Toronto island tax system ‘smells of privilege’

A city councillor says his motion before Toronto’s executive committee requesting a closer look at island tax rates is all about ensuring equity in the city, though residents of the small harbour neighbourhood are accusing him of misrepresenting the facts.

There are about 260 homes on Toronto’s harbour islands and while the residents there don’t own the land, it remains one of the most picturesque and desirable areas to live in the city.

Coun. Jon Burnside said he wants to understand why residents there pay about $1,500 a year in property taxes for an island property, while someone in his ward would pay about $4,300 a year for a one-bedroom unit.

“We can’t have two different systems. We can’t have one people under one system and another class of people under,” Burnside said. “To me, it smells of privilege.”

Burnside has a motion before the committee requesting staff to report back later this year with a plan to look at area rating taxation. “Which is looking at an area which is unique, circumstances are unique, and apply a tax rate that reflects the uniqueness of that situation,” he said.

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Burnside said he feels island residents would qualify for the application of such a policy. His motion also calls attention the cost of delivering municipal services to the island, which he says are approximately three times as high as the rest of the city.

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After a budget process where Mayor Olivia Chow passed the highest property tax increase since the city’s amalgamation, arguing residents wanted more city services, Burnside said island residents should be paying their fair share.

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Global News spoke with many who live on the islands who refused to go on the record, but those who did accused the councillor of only telling part of the story.

Jamie Smith has lived on Ward’s Island for about five decades. He said what is being left out are the unique circumstances of ownership. He, like other residents on the island, may own his home, but he leases the property. Smith also said his tax rate jumped up like every other Torontonian after this year’s budget.

Smith argues that while property taxes on the mainland may be higher, so too are property values. “Part of what you’re paying taxes for in Toronto is the opportunity to make a windfall on the house that you own,” he said, “and I can’t make that, so I’m not paying taxes for the privilege.”

Another resident, Michael Harris, accused Burnside of trying to score a cheap political win by targeting a population that would only provide a relatively small revenue increase for city coffers. Smith argued Burnside would be better suited looking for savings in the city’s current spending plan.

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“I think he’s smart enough to go after amounts that are much more substantial in the tens of millions of dollars, not $250,000. It’s a diversion tactic,” Harris said. “And I think it’s a cheap shot.”

A statement from the City of Toronto’s communications department said a single residential property tax rate applies to all residential properties in Toronto, regardless of where they are. The difference in the amount paid by island residents, is because the assessed values of properties there are lower on average than on the mainland, in part, because they are leased.

The assessed values of island properties are provincially regulated by the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation (MPAC).

The chair of the Toronto Islands Residential Community Trust also declined an interview, but Alison Rogers said in an email it is in favour of fair taxation for all Torontonians.

“We are working with the city councillor to address the inaccuracies in the motion and ensure that decision-makers are supported by accurate facts and a clear understanding of the unique legislation that governs Island properties,” she wrote.

A spokesperson from the Mayor’s office added in a separate statement that Mayor Chow supports the work of the MPAC, which is currently reviewing property assessments to make the system more fair city-wide.

Coun. Burnside’s motion will be debated before Thursday morning’s executive committee meeting.

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