Nova Scotia

Multiple commercial tax rates could be coming to Halifax

Halifax municipal council could soon have the ability to set different commercial tax rates for different parts of the municipality.

Change could help address assessment disparity between areas

Municipal Affairs Minister Zach Churchill says his department is considering giving Halifax the ability to set multiple commercial tax rates. (CBC)

Different commercial tax rates could be coming to Halifax, but it won't be until autumn at the earliest.

There is a bill before Province House that, when passed, will give the municipality the ability to phase in commercial property assessments in an attempt to ease the burden on small businesses.

There has also been a call, however, to allow the municipality to charge a lower commercial rate for businesses based in areas with particularly high assessments.

Levelling the playing field

Businesses in areas such as Argyle Street in downtown Halifax say they are at a competitive disadvantage because their property assessments are so much higher than businesses in business parks.

Proponents argue the move would help level the playing field which, right now, sees everyone paying the same rate but has businesses in areas such as Bayers Lake or Dartmouth Crossing benefiting from drastically lower assessments than businesses on Spring Garden Road or in the North End, for example.

Municipal Affairs Minister Zach Churchill said staff in his department are looking at changes for tax rules in Halifax that could be ready to be introduced in the fall.

"At first glance it seems to be a positive one," he said of the idea.

"If it's decided that that's a positive move then we will move forward in that direction."

Challenges in other areas?

Whether it spreads to other areas in the province remains to be seen.

The minister said he could see how it might help with enhancing a municipality's downtown, although no formal request for such a change has come from the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities.

"I know there are concerns amongst municipal units that that ability outside of HRM could lead to kind of tribal competitiveness where businesses are able to play one municipality off the other," he said.

Churchill said he would need to make sure the government wasn't creating a situation with unintended consequences.

Cape Breton Regional Municipality Mayor Cecil Clarke, who is the president of the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities, said multiple commercial rates is a common subject as municipalities in the province get more of a direct role in economic development, although it's just one of the potential tools, he said.

"People are looking at what are the tools, so to speak, to be of assistance."

'You have to protect your main streets'

At least one small business operator wants to see the idea spread outside of Halifax.

Anna Shoub, known as The Hat Junkie, operates a millinery out of her home in Lunenburg. Having a variety of rates is a good way to grow downtowns and give small businesses a fighting chance, said Shoub.

Lunenburg-based hatmaker Anna Shoub. (Heidi Jirotka)

"You have to protect your main streets and you also have to protect the incubation of business, and commercial property taxes should be reflective of that," she said.

"One rate for commercial property taxes really makes no sense at all. It doesn't reflect the business owner's ability to pay."

Those who can should pay more

Shoub uses her own home-based business as an example: her commercial rate is the same as that of the local grocery store and other large operations.

She understands that municipalities have to make their money, but the same amount of money could be collected in a different way, "so that those with the best ability to pay were paying a higher rate."