The city council in Campbell River, B.C., has decided to eliminate a property tax exemption for two non-profit organizations due to concerns that they are negatively impacting the downtown area and being inconsiderate neighbors.
If the bylaw is approved during the upcoming council meeting, both the Campbell River Art Gallery and Vancouver Island Mental Health Society, responsible for operating an overdose prevention site, will be required to pay property taxes in the following year.
According to Sara Lopez Assu, the gallery’s executive director, this implies that the gallery will need to reduce its programming and lay off employees.
Local governments in British Columbia are able to create bylaws that exempt certain organizations from property tax for up to 10 years at a time. Such exemptions are often made for museums, recreation groups, and community housing.
During its latest meeting, the council granted final approval to various motions concerning the permissive tax bylaw. These motions included granting complete or partial exemptions to organizations such as the Campbell River Seniors’ Centre Society, Storey Creek Golf Club, and Campbell River Guru Nanak Sikh Society.
Councilor Ron Kerr then proposed eliminating the exclusions for the art gallery and the overdose prevention site.
He said an exemption for the overdose prevention site would be “rewarding poor behaviour and poor neighbourhood conduct.”
He expressed concerns about the art gallery, stating that it is causing significant harm to our downtown businesses.
He did not give concrete examples — but another councillor, Ben Lanyon, said the art gallery was letting people who are unhoused sleep under the awnings.
The art gallery can be found in the heart of the city’s downtown, specifically at Spirit Square, which is a public plaza.
Lopez Assu states that the area has served as a meeting spot for individuals without homes for an extended period of time.
During an interview on CBC Radio’s On the Island with host Gregor Craigie, she mentioned that there was no proof supporting Lanyon’s assertion about permitting individuals to sleep outdoors. However, she pointed out that the gallery has made efforts to involve homeless individuals in its activities.
It runs a weekly program where people dealing with homelessness, addiction or mental illness can come and create art.
On The Island7:56The city council of Campbell River has made the decision to impose penalties on a downtown art gallery due to claims of causing significant harm to neighboring businesses. We will be seeking the response of the executive director of the Gallery.
Lopez Assu stated that we did not select our current location and we had no part in causing the crisis we are facing.
“We aim to behave in a respectful manner, demonstrating compassion and uplifting individuals. Consequently, we are actively striving to be considerate neighbors.”
CBC News was not able to reach the spokesperson for Vancouver Island Mental Health Society, which operates the overdose prevention site.
Collaborate, don’t oppose.
Shawn Decaire manages Kwesa Place, a warming shelter and gathering place for people who are unhoused in Campbell River.
In an interview with CBC News, he mentioned that his city faces challenges related to homelessness and drug usage, although these issues are not more prevalent than in other municipalities.
He stated that the council was elected with the commitment of improving the city, and in order to accomplish this, they should collaborate with non-profit organizations such as the art gallery and the Vancouver Island Mental Health Society instead of opposing them.
Decaire highlighted that Campbell River, an Indigenous community, is home to commendable non-profit organizations striving to assist individuals in coping with the lasting effects of residential school-induced historical trauma.
In 2016, Statistics Canada reported that the Indigenous population of the city accounted for 12.8 percent.
Decaire attributes the art gallery for implementing programs that promote inclusivity within the community, featuring Indigenous, LGBTQ, and Black artists.
Public safety concerns
Earlier this year, the city became the first in the province to propose a ban on the use of illegal drugs in public spaces, citing a concern over public safety in its downtown core.
In September, Elle Brovold, the city manager, reported to the Union of B.C. Municipalities that findings from a survey conducted this year showed a significant increase in the number of people feeling extremely unsafe in downtown area. The percentage rose from seven percent in 2019 to 36 percent.
“The No. 1 reason people cite is result of public consumption of drugs. Whether or not there’s a fair correlation, that’s the perception out there,” she said.
This week, the local government implemented a prohibition on the consumption of illegal substances in numerous public areas.
The city manager of Campbell River has stated to CBC News that the staff is currently working on implementing the suggested alterations to the tax bylaw. Those who wish to offer their feedback or request adjustments can do so by sending an email to [email protected] before 4 p.m. on October 11, 2023.
CBC’s requests for comment were not responded to by Councillors Kerr and Lanyon within the given deadline.