Wealthy Albertans look to avoid tax pain — for now

Pay now or pay more: wealthy Albertans are trying to cram as much income into the 2015 tax year before tax rates go way up. What's it going to mean for Alberta's books?

High-income residents are prepaying as much tax as possible now to avoid higher rates in 2016

Some Albertans are trying to cram as much income into the 2015 tax year as possible before tax rates climb. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Ike Kolias is planning to pay a big tax bill in April — and he's happy about it.

Kolias is claiming four years of income from his investment business all in 2015. That's because starting in 2016, his taxes are going up — way up. Claiming the income in 2015 will save him thousands of dollars over the next four years.

It's a matter now of preserving capital.- Ike Kolias

Kolias says that he's not the only high-income Albertan making the decision to claim as much income as possible in 2015. If you have the ability, he says, it's the only prudent thing to do in a province where nothing is certain — except higher taxes, of course.

"It's a matter now of preserving capital," Kolias told CBC News. "You're in an economy that's gone bad, and you're not going to be making the same money in the future that you're making now."

It's perfectly legal. Accountants will tell you that it is entirely sensible. And economists say it is to be expected. If you raise taxes people change their behaviour.

Taxes higher by as much as 9%

For many years, it was good to be a high earner in Alberta. The provincial tax rate was 10 per cent, no matter what the income level. But the flat tax was killed by the former Progressive Conservative government last spring before the election, and Alberta's new NDP government has introduced four new marginal tax rates.

In 2016, Albertans with an income above $300,000 will pay a 15 per cent tax rate provincially. Federal taxes will also increase in 2016, to a maximum of 33 per cent for those who make $200,000 or more. Put it together, it's a 9 per cent increase for the highest income earners. 

There are a lot of them in Alberta. According to the most recent numbers from Statistics Canada, nearly 130,000 Albertans made more than $200,000 a year in 2013. 

But accelerating your income, the way Kolias has done, is not for everyone.

"Obviously it's only for people who control their income," said Fraser Boyd, an accountant with Roberts & Company.

"Anyone that operates under a corporation because that's the mechanism that allows you to do it: doctors, dentists, lawyers, accountants and then the small business owners."

Jack Mintz, a fellow with the University of Calgary's school of public policy, told CBC News."So the questions is, when you have a nine point hike  what do people try to do to avoid it, to plan around it.

"So one of the things they would do is shift income that they would expect to earn in the future into 2015."

Mintz said that he would expect investors to also try to shift income to the earlier year by capturing capital gains early. 

"People respond to taxation," Mintz said. "Suppose the government puts a higher tax on beer compared to wine. People switch to wine instead of beer, that's tax avoidance."

Impact on provincial coffers

This is happening to some degree across the country as Canadians react to higher federal taxes, but because Alberta is seeing a double whammy, with many wealthy households, it's expected to have an impact on the province's books.

Mintz said that the top 10 per cent of households in Alberta paid 45 per cent of the province's personal taxes in 2013, and even if not all of those households can shift income around, enough will to make a mark.

Boyd agrees. 

"I fully expect — and most people that I talk to in the profession think — that 2015 is going to look like a very good year from a personal tax revenue perspective because there will be so much income taken in this year," he said. "But I expect the next few years to be quite dry."


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