Amid opposition, Tiny debates taxing churches

By Derek Howard
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Tiny council will be sending a letter to the province asking for a decision on municipal authority implementing tax policies on places of worship.

Sparked by a conversation at the committee of the whole last month where Coun. Steffen Walma proposed sending a letter – and only a letter – to the Ministry of Finance and the Association of Municipalities of Ontario requesting the delegation of authority to all provincial municipalities, controversy erupted in the municipality as if Walma had proposed imposing property taxes on places of worship altogether.

Despite Walma’s insistence that such authority was out of any municipality’s hands and under provincial control, which was the reasoning for his desire to return power to the municipalities, the notice of motion was responded to by Coun. Dave Brunelle, who defended the many merits places of worship provide. The motion was carried with Brunelle’s sole opposition, to be discussed at a future council meeting.

In the weeks following, residents were in contact with each other and with members of council regarding the supposed attack on places of worship, resulting in a crowded attendance at this week’s regular council meeting.

During open deputations, several spoke to the matter.

Mayor Dave Evans, Deputy Mayor Sean Miskimins, and Walma had to remind members of the public that the discussion was about sending a letter, but some citizens as well as Coun. Brunelle once more directly addressed the merits of churches in the township.

Resident Aaron MacDonald pointed out that taxing churches could potentially force closing or sale of those properties.

“Using the $2.8 million assessed value, whether council arbitrarily considers taxing places of worship based on Tiny residential or commercial tax rates,” said MacDonald, “council would be trying to gain control of an additional $21,000 to $45,000. And if that would make or break a municipal budget versus the greater toll on the community, I think we have bigger issues.”

MacDonald added that places of worship provide community and support for those in need, and received loud applause from members of the audience at his conclusion.

Walma offered that veterans at the Royal Canadian Legion also may also look to the Legion for that same community support structure, which MacDonald countered that the church was not a business as the Legion was.

Following MacDonald was a deputation from former Tiny council member Gibb Wishart, who said that MacDonald had “hit the nail on the head” with his words.

“The collection, which is where the money comes from at the church service, is not sufficient to carry taxes – let alone a pastor or a priest,” said Wishart. “They’re already up to their neck. Churches are funded by volunteer donation. Churches are a registered charity with the government of Canada.”

Wishart praised Walma for his out-of-the-box way of thinking, “and very often can generate some great ideas, but I think this one is not so great.”

As Walma asked how much a priest makes, Wishart estimated roughly $60,000 per year from his observations in the community.

According to the 2016 labour market as federally updated in 2022, a Salvation Army commissioned officer (such as a minister, priest, chaplain, or pastor) makes a mid-range average of $55,000 salary in Ontario and $49,000 in Canada. A religious education worker (such as a brother/sister, deacon or missionary) makes a mid-range salary just under $37,500 on average in both Ontario and across Canada.

Not all residents were against the proposal. Business owner Brandon Pickard stated in his deputation that he was in support of inclusive taxation, pointing out that further sources of revenue generation were becoming difficult to locate.

“I understand that churches were developed as a tax shelter and we go back over the course of the last hundred years and there are so many denominations; and this is a sweeping bill where we’re looking at the taxation piece,” said Pickard.

Using his own business operation as a reference as well as the example of minor league baseball teams regarding attendance and collections, Pickard spoke to the issues raised by the previous deputations.

“I think the proposal to charge churches is reasonable,” said Pickard, “and from what I’ve heard on the assessment of what the bill might be for a church, if someone is being paid $60,000 a year and there’s a cleaner and the place is busy, that sounds like a business to me.

“I encourage council to really look at this one, and understand that you’re on the forefront that is very controversial in this province, and it’s very important to hear from both sides,” he added. “I don’t think any churches are going to close, or skip town if they had to pay a few extra thousand dollars.”

A member of the audience chose to interrupt Pickard’s deputation at that moment with words about churches closing, to which he quickly retorted: “Then I guess we’ll have more room for people to live, work, and play in Tiny Township if they do.”

With deputations concluded, the matter was raised for council to decide upon. Coun. Brunelle began his opposition by calling the action “premature,” sharing that he wasn’t sure which information was correct and looking toward public input for clarification on property taxes and charities.

Walma replied, “I guess from Coun. Brunelle’s perspective, this is a cart-and-horse scenario: Do we ask the residents for their input prior to having the authority to even do it?”

Coun. Kelly Helowka also stated he would want more clarification on the matter, while Deputy Mayor Miskimins supported the letter stating that the province had control over property taxation while Walma was asking if municipalities could have that control.

Evans pointed out that a possible future could involve the province wanting to tax places of worship, which he was strongly against as mayor of the township.

“Where I’m looking at this argument is, frankly, less in terms of the tax policy but more in terms of representing the wishes of our people in this community,” Evans stated.

As the conversation wound down, Walma quickly interjected with one last fact from the provincial land tax page of the Ontario website regarding registered charities. “It talks about how you can claim the property tax portion on your income tax, and get a 40 per cent rebate for your property taxes that you pay,” he shared.

Evans quipped: “Not just a meeting, but tax advice.”

Despite opposition, council approved sending the letter to the Ministry of Finance and AMO requesting municipalities be delegated authority to decide if and/or how it implements tax policy on places of worship.

Archives of council meetings are available to view on Tiny Township’s YouTube channel.