During the recent elections for the University Neighbourhoods Association (UNA), some family housing residents had questions about the taxes and levies they pay. To clarify the unique situation in the University Neighbourhoods, here is a brief summary of how money is calculated, collected and spent.
To understand the unique situation at UBC, you need to know the history of the campus. “The Endowment Lands were given to the University almost a hundred years ago, with the intention that the University build market housing on a portion of its lands to develop an endowment to support its academic mission,” explains Ian Burgess, Comptroller for UBC. “That process only got going actively in the ’90s. At that time the province insisted that the total property tax burden UBC residents pay be equal to what people pay in the City of Vancouver—that is, a resident would pay the same amount of property tax if the property value is the same regardless if he/she lives in the City of Vancouver or at UBC—and that the monies paid be used to provide services to residents equivalent to those provided in Vancouver.”
This is still true today—the University is mandated to ensure that the total property taxes paid by UTown@UBC property owners is the same as the City collects from comparable properties as property tax in Vancouver. “You pay the same ‘property tax’ as you would if you lived in Vancouver,” insists Burgess. However, UBC property owners pay their dues in two parts: a rural tax and the Services Levy.
The rural tax, which makes up 55 to 65% of the total tax burden, is paid directly to the BC government. “It pays for services the province provides to rural areas such as police and schools and the BC Assessment Authority, as well as services that are unique to the Lower Mainland such as TransLink,” explains Jan Fialkowski, Executive Director of the University Neighbourhoods Association (UNA), the society which provides services to family housing neighbourhoods in UTown@UBC.
The Services Levy is more complicated. First of all, it is called a levy rather than a tax because UBC is on unincorporated land and therefore not a municipality (for the same reason, the UNA is incorporated as a BC society, not a municipality.) The Services Levy is collected by the University and is held in the Neighbours’ Fund, a separate fund in UBC’s accounts that is audited annually. The University also deposits General Municipal Services Levy collected from rental housing projects in neighbourhoods to the Neighbours’ Fund. A portion of the money collected (5.6% in 2011) is deposited into the Neighbours’ Fund Reserves, which are held to meet future needs. The rest is used by the UNA to provide municipal-like services for the UNA neighbourhoods.
Reserve funds are required to ensure that long-term replacement of capital infrastructure does not result in “rate shock.” Reserve funds are common practice in municipalities and many other organizations and are required under the Neighbours Agreement between UBC and the UNA. As of March 31, 2011 the reserve funds total $8.19 million. They are divided into five reserves: infrastructure, capital replacement, rate stabilization, operation contingency and community access. Any spending from these reserves must be used in direct support of the UNA and approved by the UNA Board.
The remaining Services Levy money goes to the UNA, which spends it according to its Operating Budget. (The total is topped up by money the UNA generates, mostly through fees for activities and classes it provides through its community centre: $341,700 in 2011–12). The budget is approved by the UNA Board of Directors and is also submitted to the University, though for information only. The 2011–12 budget—a total of $2.92 million—is earmarked for recreational services (34%, split equally between community programming and community access), including running the community centre and athletic and cultural facilities; engineering services (34%), mainly maintaining public spaces and infrastructure; operations and administration (26%); special projects and community support (3%); sustainability (2%), notably the composting, energy-saving and recycling programs; and a small contingency fund (1%).
When homeowners get a property on campus they sign a 99-year ground lease. This document details all the obligations the University has to residents—things like providing landscaping and engineering services—virtually all of which are actually performed by the UNA.
Again, some history helps clarify the situation. “The UNA was created back in 2002, by agreement between UBC and Metro Vancouver,” explains Sharon Wu, the outgoing UNA Chair. “Before then, the University provided all those services. In 2002, there was one neighbourhood, Hampton Place, and about 2,000 residents. Now, we have five neighbourhoods and 8,000 residents, and it’s growing fast.”
The UNA Board includes four members elected by the residents, two UBC appointees, and one student appointed by the AMS. Membership in the UNA is voluntary, and about 3,000 adults are currently UNA members; a total of 5,200 residents have UNA Community Services Cards that provide eligible residents access to UBC facilities and membership in the Vancouver Public Library.
In a nutshell, the UNA delivers municipal services to residents and receives all of the residential or related tax-like monies raised from residents. It then uses this money to maintain parks, operate a community centre and repair roads, just like any municipal government. And like any municipal government, the UNA works with UBC to create bylaws to manage parking and noise, for example. It also does some extraordinary things few other municipalities bother themselves with, like running a comprehensive composting program for its multi-family housing.
“There are people who say, why buy access to pools or skating rinks that I don’t use?” says Fialkowski. “But the principle behind the UNA is that everyone will have equal access to all these services, just like in Vancouver, where people who have no children still pay the taxes that pay for schools.”
“I can’t think of anything we don’t provide that you would get in the City of Vancouver,” continues Fialkowski. “We’re about to discuss the feasibility of a skate park, for instance—it’s on the agenda for this month, we’re going to investigate that.”
“Some would argue that we have better access to things like the Museum of Anthropology, the Botanical Gardens, the athletic facilities,” adds Burgess. “There are way more of those sorts of amenities per capita here than you would find elsewhere. And at rates that are reasonable.”