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Okotoks council will not waive property taxes for house fire victims

A pair of Southern Alberta homeowners whose homes burned down will not be getting tax relief while their homes are rebuilt.
NEWS-Fire Empty Lot BWC 3212 web
A bare foundation and a severely damaged home remain in Sheep River Cove on April 28, where a March 15 fire burned both houses. Okotoks Town Council has denied the request of the homeowners for relief on their property taxes.

The Town of Okotoks has decided not to grant municipal property tax relief to the homeowners whose houses in Sheep River Cove were destroyed by fire last month.

Graham and Wendy Coulter said they learned their request was denied by Council on April 28, when The Wheel reached out for comment.

"I am paying for a 2,000 square foot home that is not there," Wendy said Thursday. "All I've got is four concrete walls in the ground and a concrete driveway."

In a 4-2 vote Monday, Council chose to deny the Coulter's ask as well as their neighbours, Bruce MacDonald and Karon Friesen.

CAO Elaine Vincent told The Wheel, that in addition to the choice not to forfeit or reduce the municipal tax payments of the couples, Council has also indicated plans to follow municipal legislation that allows it to receive unpaid taxes through the insurance company if that issue arises.

Thus far, that has not occurred and the Coulters have willingly continued with monthly TIPP payments, but had asked that amount to be reconsidered given the decrease in value of their property.

National director for consumer and industry relations at the Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC), Rob de Pruis, said municipal legislation indicates fire insurance proceeds can only be paid to the Town from the company if they go unpaid by the property owner.

"Let's assume a person didn't pay their taxes for four or five years. The municipality has and can put some type of lien on that property," explained de Pruis. "So, anytime there's a loss pay out, there's always some type of a lien search to see if there's anyone else who has a financial interest in the property.

"What that section is relating to, is if there are any outstanding taxes, that the insurance company would pay out not only the homeowner but also any other person that has a financial interest in that property which could be the municipality."

Wendy and Graham previously said the response from the Town throughout the process was adding to the stress caused by the "extremely traumatic event."

Following presentation of the requests during the April 11 meeting, Council voted to delay a decision pending legal advice, with the issue to return for a decision at the next meeting, April 25.

On Monday, Coun. Ken Heemeryck presented a motion that no cancellation of property taxes be granted and if needed, the Town would follow suit under the municipal legislation.

The tally during the April 25 meeting saw Couns. Heemeryck, Gord Lang, Rachel Swendseid and Mayor Tanya Thorn vote in favour of the motion while Couns. Cheryl Actemichuk and Brent Robinson voted against the motion.

The other option before Council was to proceed under an alternative section of the municipal legislation, which has guided the development of a Town policy that outlines the process under which Council could consider the cancellation or reduction of property taxes.

"When extenuating circumstances result in the building and/or improvements being destroyed (partially or completely), uninhabitable, or unusable, Council will apply the following in determining the direction to take with respect to a request for property tax levy cancellation," the document reads.

"The property owner will be responsible for any requisition portions of the tax bill and only the municipal portion of the taxes will be considered for cancellation, only the building/improvements portion of the taxes will be considered for cancellation [and] any tax cancellation attributed to the extenuating circumstances will be prorated from the time of damage to the end of the taxation period."

Robinson cited this policy as the reason for his vote against the proposed motion.

"We have a property tax cancellation policy in place that provides for council to consider when exactly the circumstance that happened to these people happened," he said.

NEWS-FIRE Sheep River Cove BWC 2282 web
Firefighters work to extinguish a blaze that consumed two homes and damaged two more in the Sheep River Cover neighbourhood of Okotoks on March 15. The homeowners request for property tax relief was denied by Town Council on April 25. File photo Brent Calver/OkotoksTODAY

Property taxes are based on the assessed value of the property as of July 1 of the previous year and the physical condition of the property as of December 31 of the previous year.

The only way that the assessment for the property would accurately reflect what is left after the fires is if the homeowners do not have a rebuilt structure on their property by December 31 of this year, when the new assessment for the physical condition of the property would be conducted. The new assessment would stand for a full calendar year.

Wendy said the couple has decided to pursue an early assessment for May in order to establish a new value for the house-less property. It is unclear whether or not this is a possibility.

"We're going to go through the process and have them come and assess the house now," she said. "If they want to play that game, we can play that game too, because we've got nothing but time on our hands."

Vincent explained that while the financial cost to the Town to relieve these two sets of taxes is rather small, the message that would be sent on precedence for victims of house fires is quite significant.

She cited the April 8 fire at the off-leash dog park in Drake Landing which came alarmingly close to several neighbouring houses that could have ended very differently without the quick work by multiple fire departments.

"We've had a very dry winter and you live on Drake Landing ridge, five minutes of different wind in that scenario, we could be dealing with a very, very different scenario in front of us," she said. "So you have to balance both the needs of the individual and the needs of the guarantee of that revenue."

The Coulters are sure precedence was high on the list of Council's considerations when it came to its choice.

"Nobody has ever stood up and asked the question, so they don't know what to do," said Wendy. "And, there's literally zero compassion there."

The CAO explained individuals faced with financial challenges following a tragedy such as a fire should not feel desperate when it comes to paying Town bills. Residents are able to negotiate alternate terms of payment that better align with their situation.

The couple will finally be moving into their rental home on May 1, more than six weeks after the fire.

"We still have good days and we have bad days, it's like a tsunami," said Wendy. "This is week six and we're still living out of a suitcase."

They are working to rebuild the home that they lost, exactly as it was.

Wendy explained that that process will not be easy, given that they have to wait on the Town to move along with the process of their rebuild, as they apply for demolition permits and rebuild permits, et cetera.

She said it took the Town three weeks to issue a permit to demolish the remnants of the charred home.

On top of the property taxes the Coulter's will be short, they will also be paying for the necessary permits to rebuild in Sheep River Cove.

"They're going to make more money off of that than that measly amount of taxes that we're asking for them to give us relief on," she said.

"My little amount of money for six months is not going to cripple the Town of Okotoks. We know we'd still have to pay fire, police, school taxes.

"But we should not be paying taxes on that structure that is not there."