“We are committed to making life more affordable for all Manitobans ... People are living longer than ever now, and we want to help them stay in their homes.”
— Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger, Sept. 18, 2011, the day he made an election promise to eliminate school tax on seniors and farmland.
“If our premier, Mr. Greg Selinger, would have been honest and kept his pre-election promise to remove school taxes from seniors’ property tax, seniors would be able to afford reasonable increases in their property taxes. They would not be under the fear and stress of losing their home. Many seniors have to make a decision. Cut back on food, heat, light, in order to pay their taxes or lose their homes.”
— Ed Kostecki, retired school teacher, during the Brandon school board’s public consultation meeting on Monday.
Get ready to open your wallets, folks.
On Monday night, following a public consultation meeting, the Brandon School Division board approved its 2013-14 budget and a 7.8 per cent property tax increase.
That translates into an extra $107 on the average Brandon homeowner’s tax bill.
While the 7.8 per cent tax hike is a step down from the 8.2 per cent that trustees began the evening with, thanks to Brandon City Council’s 4.9 per cent property tax hike the previous year — during an assessment year, of all things — Brandonites are predictably feeling taxed out.
As the Sun reported yesterday, more than 30 people crammed into the Brandon School Division office to tell trustees that the then-proposed 8.2 per cent tax increase was not sustainable.
Shannon Alexander, a small business owner and one of 10 people to give a presentation to the division board, said that the amount of school tax she already pays is exorbitant.
“There comes a point when people can’t afford it,” Alexander said. “I know you have to look at the students, but the other end of the coin is the taxpayer.”
But apparently the indignation in the room only prompted trustees to offer a minor cut to the tax pain they intend to inflict upon the city, as they disingenuously went ahead and finalized a 7.8 per cent property tax hike anyway.
We fully understand the problem facing the Brandon School Division. With the budget, trustees have to factor in a rising student population, rising salary costs — which are only getting worse thanks to new teacher hires to meet the province’s limited class size mandate — and the need for more classroom space. We’ve spilled a lot of ink in defence of the school board’s position, and rightly so. But we and the public still expect our trustees to show a little more restraint.
But there are other factors at play here, too, and there’s a lot of blame to spread around.
While the situation is certainly taxing in Brandon — pun intended — news out of Winnipeg yesterday shows things are tough all over. Metro News Winnipeg reported that the board of trustees for that city’s largest school division approved a 6.7 per cent tax increase on Tuesday.
Considering the fixed costs of salaries, programming and provincial government initiatives like limiting class sizes, trustees told Metro News that they weren’t left with much choice.
“Those are costs we really don’t have any control over,” said Cathy Collins, chair of the Winnipeg School Division’s finance and personnel committee.
It’s the same refrain as in Brandon — high employee salaries and imprudent provincial policy whims are to blame for the budget increases.
As BSD trustee Jim Murray said on Monday, school divisions are at the mercy of arbitrators when it comes to teacher salaries. It’s either negotiation or binding arbitration for teachers, who don’t have the right to strike in Manitoba. As a result, salary costs — which make up 85 per cent of the division’s budget — continually go up as arbitrators only “look around the province and see what everyone else got” as Murray said.
And salaries are indeed high across the province. According to the Manitoba Teachers Society, a Class 5 teacher in Brandon earned a maximum of $82,323, or a minimum of $53,732 in 2012-13, depending upon teacher qualifications and years of experience. Although numbers vary a few thousand dollars, similar salaries are enjoyed across the province.
Meanwhile, seniors like Ed Kostecki have seen their property taxes rise substantially over the last decade. In Kostecki’s case, he paid nearly $6,000 in property taxes last year, up $2,400 from what he paid nine years ago. And yet Premier Greg Selinger has yet to make good on his election promise to eliminate property taxes for seniors and farmers.
Alexander is right — there comes a point where these continuous tax hikes are unsustainable. One of these days taxpayers are going to say enough is enough.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition March 13, 2013