Supposed ‘bad neighbour’ no more; city covers gallery’s property taxes

Relations with arts facility improves as does safety and homelessness mitigation around building

The Campbell River Art Gallery (CRAG) no longer appears to be seen as a “bad neighbour” by city council after funding of the gallery’s 2024 property taxes were approved Thursday, May 9.

Council took the gallery’s Permissive Tax Exemption (PTE) away last October in retaliation for the facility’s support of the downtown homeless population but said then and has since followed up with a commitment that it would cover the taxes if there was improvement in communication with the city, safety concerns and negative impacts of homelessness.

At its Sept. 28, 2023 regular council meeting, Campbell River city council removed the PTE when it passed a number of amendments to the Permissive Exemption From Taxation Bylaw. The PTE bylaw supports local community organizations that enhance the quality of life in Campbell River. The bylaw was amended to remove the exemptions to the CRAG and the Vancouver Island Mental Health Society (VIMHS), which operates the downtown overdose prevention site. The two organizations were described as “poor neighbours” that have an “extreme detrimental effect on businesses and visitations downtown.”

The amendments that some saw as punitive were put forward by Coun. Ron Kerr.

“There’s a couple of organizations in our community that are requesting tax deferrals while operating in a poor neighbourly manner and are having significant negative effects on our downtown community,” Kerr said in his preamble to a series of three motions at the September, 2023 meeting.

READ MORE: Art gallery tax exemption hit; called poor neighbour, detriment to downtown

Kerr said council has got limited means of changing the behavior of organizations but “We don’t have to approve tax deferrals. And we don’t have to give grants-in-aid. To me this is just rewarding poor behavior and poor neighborhood conduct.”

CRAG executive director Sara Lopez Assu appealed to the community for support after she became aware of council’s intention to essentially punish the gallery for its lenient and supportive attitude towards unhoused people camping around the Centennial Building, the city-owned building housing the gallery. Lopez sent an email out urging supporters to send statements of support for the CRAG receiving the tax exemption, their experience with CRAG and their thoughts on the benefit the gallery brings to the community.

Lopez said the loss of the PTE would have a “significant financial impact” on the gallery.

Council’s actions generated a flurry of letters supporting the gallery and criticizing the city. Council’s actions even resulted in critical comments from provincial Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon.

“…attacking people who are trying to be good neighbors and trying to address that challenge (homelessness arising out of addiction and mental health) in the community is not the way to go about it,” the minister said.

Council backed down from pulling the 2024 PTE saying it could see funding the 2024 property taxes through the Council Contingency fund if a “productive solution and path forward to address community safety and downtown revitalization was established,” a report to council’s May 9, 2024 regular council meeting says.

READ MORE: Campbell River backs away from pulling art gallery tax support

The May 9 report says that since last October, communication between the CRAG and the city’s Bylaw Department has improved and “combined with specific proactive work by the Bylaw Department and security staff, has thus far proven to be effective in mitigating the amount of issues presenting at the Centennial building property.”

As a result, a motion was recommended for council vote that the CRAG’s 2024 property taxes be funded by Council Contingency because “relationships have been strengthened and improvements have been made to the property around the Centennial Building. These changes have helped to address safety concerns and negative impacts that homelessness has had around the Centennial Building.”

That motion was passed at the May 9 regular council meeting without any discussion.