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Mayor again cited for tax arrears

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BRANDON -- It is the most reasonable expectation any taxpayer can have -- that those entrusted with imposing and collecting taxes pay their own taxes -- but that expectation has not been met in Brandon.

Last week, the City of Brandon released a list of properties with outstanding property taxes dating back to 2012. One of those properties is located at 841 Rosser Ave., while another is located at 126-10th St. City of Brandon treasury officials confirm the legal address of that property is 122-10th St., even though the number over the door is "126."

According to her most recent personal asset declaration filed at Brandon city hall, Mayor Shari Decter Hirst is a part-owner of each of those properties.

The city's tax arrears list indicates there are $7,814.81 in overdue property taxes for the Rosser Avenue property and $29,770.39 for the 10th Street property. Interest is accruing on the amounts outstanding and, if the 2012 taxes are not paid by October, they could go to tax sale.

This the second time in less than a year the mayor has been ensnared in controversy surrounding unpaid property taxes. Last May, the city issued a tax-arrears list that indicated a portion of the 2011 taxes, and all of the 2012 taxes, were unpaid for the Rosser Avenue property.

When confronted by the media, she blamed her husband, his bookkeeper and accountants for the tax default. She told the CBC's Marilyn Maki "We are now caught up, including interest payments, on all outstanding taxes." But city treasury records indicate only the overdue 2011 taxes for that property were paid. The 2012 and 2013 taxes remain unpaid.

The timing of the release of the tax-arrears list could not be worse for Decter Hirst. This is an election year and, though she has yet to declare her intentions, she has given plenty of hints she will be seeking re-election.

Even worse, she voted for the city's 2014 budget on Sunday, which includes a property tax increase and a hike in her salary.

Decter Hirst did not respond to a request for comment regarding this issue, but others did.

"The optics certainly don't look good," says Colin Craig, the Prairie director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. "It's interesting how she always seems to be pushing for big tax increases, but she can't seem to pay her own taxes on time."

Coun. Stephen Montague, a potential challenger for the mayor's chair this fall, is even more blunt. "As members of city council, we are held to a higher standard and expected to lead by example," he says. "This is a complete breach of trust and a failure of leadership by the mayor.

"It's a slap in the face for hard-working Brandonites who pay their taxes on time."

Election-year rhetoric aside, the mayor's predicament exposes serious deficiencies in the law regarding the conduct of municipal officials.

The Municipal Act contains provisions setting out various grounds for disqualification of a mayor or councillor, but the failure to pay property taxes is not listed among those grounds. In fact, there is no provision preventing a mayor or councillor with unpaid taxes from voting in favour of increasing taxes, as happened in Brandon this weekend.

The act requires councils to establish codes of conduct, but the code of conduct recently adopted by Brandon's city council is silent on the issue of unpaid property taxes.

Most Manitobans would object to a mayor or councillor collecting a salary while in default on taxes, but there is no provision in any Manitoba law that empowers a municipality to deduct unpaid property taxes from a mayor or councillor's pay.

Since Decter Hirst was elected as mayor, Brandon has sold several properties for unpaid taxes and has taken title to at least one property. It is incomprehensible a city would take such drastic measures against its citizens when its head of council has not paid her own taxes.

Democracy rests on the principle that those who make laws must themselves comply with those laws. If lawmakers will not respect that principle, we need legislation to force them to pay the taxes they force us to pay.


Deveryn Ross is a political commentator in Brandon

Twitter -- @deverynross

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 14, 2014 A7

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