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The City of Winnipeg is facing more than two dozen disputes over school division property taxes.
The city believes property taxes should be charged on about 25 division-owned non-school buildings, and divisions believe they shouldn’t, said Coun. Brian Mayes (St. Vital).
Mayes, who serves as council’s school board liaison, said the confusion stems from provincial legislation, which exempts schools from paying property taxes to the City of Winnipeg. But school divisions have argued some of their other buildings, such as those that house clinician offices and storage, should also be exempt, he said.
The councillor said the issue has been a point of contention since at least 2014. Three of the current 25 cases are set to go to court, though no hearing date has been set.
"My frustration is all of this time and effort and legal expense for two different levels of government, fighting over really how to interpret legislation from another level of government. I would prefer if the appeal were simpler and could just go to the Municipal Board," said Mayes.
The councillor stressed he’s not critical of the current provincial government on this file, since its officials have been open to discussing it. A Manitoba government spokesperson declined to comment since the issue is before the courts.
A former Brandon School Division trustee, Mayes said he’s not sure whether the divisions should be made to pay property tax on all of the affected buildings.
"The city councillor (in me) likes to see the revenue, the former school trustee thinks those people (in school division offices) are vital to the educational process. I’m conflicted, is a good way of putting it," said Mayes.
The councillor said the matter is complicated because the French and English versions of the tax exemption don’t share the exact same meaning. In French, the exemption applies to property that is "used for the needs of a public school," while the English version exempts property that is "used for a public school."
One of the court "test cases" involves the former William Russell Elementary School in Windsor Park, which is the Louis Riel School Division Resource Centre. That site offers office and storage space and is used every day, said Mayes. The other two test cases will affect other school division-owned buildings at 1075 Wellington Ave., and 1395-97 Spruce St.
The lawyer for school divisions said the disputes reflect an expansion of school services over recent decades, some of which were centralized in non-school buildings to save money.
Lawyer Mark Newman said those resource buildings could support psychologists, audiologists, library resources, teaching aids, audiovisual equipment and computer equipment.
"What frequently was done in small spaces in schools now has been taken out of a lot of those schools and is done in bigger spaces off-site… but in buildings owned by the school divisions, whose sole purpose is to support the broad education objectives that our school systems have these days," said Newman.
"The nub of this is that school divisions don’t have buildings, generally speaking, that aren’t used for the benefit of students," he added.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.
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