A review of British Columbia's industrial property taxes has ground to a near halt, nine months after a promised deadline to resolve longstanding business concerns about those rates. But a government spokesperson has insisted the province is still committed to do just that, as it helps fund yet another study into the issue.
For many years, the private sector has felt some municipalities have been gouging them, forcing businesses to pay higher property taxes so residents can pay less.
Those feelings turned into headlines in 2009 when Catalyst Paper Corp. protested by paying just $6 million of the $23 million it owed to four municipalities, challenging the fairness of that bill in court.
Catalyst lost that case and eventually agreed to give three of the four municipalities their money - although its appealing the ruling.
In the meantime, back in March 2010, the province, the Union of British Columbia Municipalities and the Business Council of British Columbia committed to come up with recommendations for a better industrial property tax system.
The deadline for those recommendation was Fall 2010. But that season has come and gone without a resolution to the dispute.
And, according to business council executive vice president of policy Jock Finlayson, the review's steering committee hasn't even had a meeting for the past four months.
"The process sort of ran out of gas I would suggest in terms of where the government was going with it," he said, noting four different ministers have been responsible for the file since it was first opened.
To a certain extent, that's understandable given the recent political turmoil in British Columbia and the government's "preoccupation with HST."
Nevertheless, Mr. Finalyson said, the process has been "much slower than I envisaged at the front-end."
In the midst of that morass, UBCM has announced it's looking for a consultant to "determine the conditions under which municipal property taxes have a material effect on business decisions for major industry."
According to a bid document quietly posted on the government's procurement Website, UBCM is spending $50,000 for the study - with $25,000 of that amount coming from the province.
UBCM and the government have said that work is separate from but will inform the stalled review process.
But Mr. Finlayson questioned whether that study will give local government the answers it's looking for.
"If they want to go and do a study and get some more up-to-date information and shed some new light on this topic that's fine," he said.
"Although, as an economist I can tell you I think they're going to have some challenges in actually executing the study."
For example, it'll be difficult to measure how much impact the uncertainty of industrial property taxes - which can shift with the makeup of a local council - has on investment.
And, in any case, the study's results won't change the fact the province is ultimately responsible for both creating and cleaning up the present property tax mess.
After all, it's the one who gave municipalities the power to set those rates in the first place - 27 years ago.
The following is a complete copy of the aforementioned procurement document.