Oct. 15, 2016

In a city that calls diversity its strength, as of this week, only 13 organizations have received the ethno-cultural rebate for property tax in 2015. The Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre (JCCC) is hoping to be added to the list. Gary Kawaguchi, president of the JCCC, spoke at the Government Management Committee on Tuesday, asking for a property tax rebate under the City’s ethno-cultural program for the years 2012 and 2013. The organization says the amount in dispute is $230,000. The staff report states the outstanding amount to date is $305,408. They suggest three options for council to choose between: 1) do nothing (the JCCC would be on the hook for the full amount), 2) provide a one-time grant of $131,850, or 3) provide some other (lesser) amount.

Councillor Pam McConnell supported the request from the organization, and amended one of the options from staff to recommending the City give the JCCC $122,000. “I just think it’s time for us to give back and to support this organization.” Government Management supported her motion.

The issue began with a 2013 Municipal Property Assessment Corporation (MPAC) assessment that found 30% of the JCCC property (or space) was occupied by tenants and considered commercial, and so the rebate should not apply. JCCC’s argument was that some of those were actually “community partners” such as the newspaper Nikkei Voice, Japanese Social Services, and a restaurant that was categorized in the committee as being for cultural demonstration. Then, there was mediation that Kawaguchi says was not confirmed for over a year. According to a letter sent by the JCCC in April to the local Councillor Jon Burnside, the minutes of settlement were not confirmed in writing until January 2015. “We did not become aware of those minutes of settlement, and I refused to sign them until August, this year, because I thought that was forgoing my opportunity to appeal if I was accepting something. It was through the assistance of Revenue Services [staff] that suggested I should be signing that off to at least acknowledge what MPAC has said at that point, so we can try and get our Ethno-Cultural grant for those prior years.”

According to the City, the relevance of “community partners” is not so much about the organizations themselves, but whether the function of the space fulfils the intention and purpose of the ethno-cultural rebate mandate. “The dispute does not centre on whether certain 2012 and 2013 tenants should be considered under the program as they are not registered charities, rather it centres on whether the premises occupied by tenants in place are eligible under the ethno-cultural rebate program, in accordance with the eligibility requirements set out in Chapter 767 of the Toronto Municipal Code,” wrote Casey Brendon, Director of Revenue Services for the City of Toronto, in an email to Signal Toronto.

That passage in the Toronto Municipal Code defines an “Ethno-Cultural Centre”  as:

“A centre for the promotion of culture within the multi-cultural context of Canadian society and for the facilitation of communication and understanding of culture, education, arts and trade, the activities of which are accessible to the community as a whole or an appreciable portion thereof at minimal or no cost, and which are not contrary to public policy, and all parking space ancillary to such a centre.” (Chapter 767-17)

He further clarified that the idea of ”community” here is meant to refer to everyone; those native to the culture, as well as those involved for educational or cross-cultural purposes. In the case of the JCCC, that stipulation is a good thing. Kawaguchi said only one-third of their membership is Japanese.

The concern from some other councillors at the Government Management Committee was about whether solutions given by staff would set a precedent. Signal Toronto asked Revenue services if the staff report for this one item states that the JCCC qualified under the City’s Ethno-Cultural Rebate program from 1999 to 2011, couldn’t other organizations qualify as well? The response: Provided that an eligible organization meets the qualifications set out in section 767-19, they would be eligible to receive a 100 percent rebate of property taxes payable.”

Council will decide what amount to give the JCCC for a one-time grant, if at all. Kawaguchi spoke during the meeting about the history of Japanese people in Canada in internment camps and the current relationship-building in Toronto. Councillor McConnell echoed his message, adding, “I would say that certainly, some of our, what I would call our elder Japanese friends who are busy in Dickson Hall and contributing in those kinds of places, I think deserve our support, so it’s a very small amount of money that we’re adding, really in the context of our budget, it’s a huge amount in terms of theirs and it will allow them to continue this work probably for another generation.”

by Arianne Robinson