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Mayor's aide lashes out at anti-tax group

Mike Magee, chief of staff for Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, is seen in this press conference file photo from Nov. 22, 2005. Magee said the Vancouver Fair Tax Coalition "should be ashamed of themselves" for publishing a large ad criticizing council.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

A business group's publicity campaign lobbying for no new taxes in Vancouver has instead sparked a declaration of war from city hall.

The decision by the Vancouver Fair Tax Coalition to launch a campaign for a zero increase, claiming that city councillors ignore the negative effects of increased spending, "is a direct, political, gratuitous attack on Vancouver's mayor and council," said Mayor Gregor Robertson's chief of staff, Mike Magee. "They should be ashamed of themselves."

A large half-page ad in the Vancouver Sun, which referred to the mayor once as Mayor Robinson, was "extreme, childish and amateurish, especially after all we've done for the business community in the last three years," he said. "I don't know what they're achieving other than burning bridges."

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City councillors received input from the public last week on the proposed $1.1-billion 2012 budget, which recommends a 2.5-per-cent overall tax increase to cover the additional $30-million in spending from 2011. The staff report says half of the money will be going to police.

They will be voting Monday on whether to approve the budget.

Mr. Magee said the surprise attack ads have seriously damaged the business group's relationship with the city, by portraying council as not caring about spending going up.

He said the tax increases for the four years of Mr. Robertson's time in office have been below the rate of inflation, except for the first year when the new council had to cope with the spending decisions made by the previous council.

And the tax increase is lower this year than most other municipalities in the region, including traditional low spenders like Surrey and Coquitlam.

Significantly, the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association, which is nominally a member of the coalition, has declined to take a public position on the city's 2012 budget, which it usually does. Executive director Charles Gauthier said he couldn't talk about why the BIA had decided on that.

The dispute comes at the end of four years of relative peace between the tax coalition, a group that has been extremely effective in getting business taxes reduced, and the Vision council, which was working hard to craft an image for its party as fiscally prudent and pro-business.

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The coalition came into existence in 2005, with the specific target of pushing Vancouver to lower its business taxes. It argued that residents needed to pay more taxes, saying businesses were paying more than half of the tax bill even though they accounted for only a fifth of the city's service costs.

In the past six years, the group's efforts have resulted in business taxes being reduced from 53 per cent of the total property-tax bill in the city to 48 per cent. After this year's tax shift, residents will pay $45-million more, while businesses will pay that much less, out of the total $640-million tax revenue.

This year, because of the shift, homeowners will actually see a three-per-cent increase, not the 2.5-per-cent average in the budget, while businesses will only see a two-per-cent increase.

Coalition co-chair Leonard Schein said the group isn't critical of the way the Vision Vancouver council has handled finances.

He said city manager Penny Ballem has "saved millions of dollars" through her re-organization of city hall and cost-cutting.

"But there's more they could do. We see Vancouver as a leader in a number of things – the green economy, livability. We'd like to see Vancouver lead in not spending more money year over year," Mr. Schein said.

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