Huge tax hike hits tiny town

Residents in the tiny community of Willowbrook are being faced with a huge jump in their property taxes this year — a large expense after back-to-back years of flood woes.

Mary MacCullough and her husband Roger were hit about as hard about as anyone by the increase. After paying just over $2,450 in property taxes in 2017, the couple owes just under $4,650 this year.

"We weren't notified at all, we just got our notice in the mail like everybody else," MacCullough said. "My husband was excited because he turned 65, we thought he'd get that seniors rebate and realized that it actually doubled."

While the couple was spared from flood damage this spring, most of the community wasn't, and MacCullough said it's a costly time for many.

"One poor lady said 'we're just going to walk away,' because they can't afford the mortgage, the taxes and the repairs."

Residents in the community are also paying $1,008.05 for water connections, more than double last year's rate of $437.50 — related to upgrades to the water system.

The community has been under a boil water notice for two years due to flood issues, and MacCullough said many residents are currently without water because of flood damage.

Area director Terry Schafer said the increase in property taxes is due to the province transferring costs onto the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen — largely related to the cost of the Willowbrook Volunteer Fire Department, which jumped from $69,319 to $216,807 for taxpayers.

All fire departments in B.C. now adhere to a standardized "playbook," and in Willowbrook additional training is mandated for members, as are upgrades to the firehall, including a new truck.

"There's only 120 residents here, and for us to be paying that kind of money for a fire department... is ludicrous," MacCullough said. 

Schafer said the tax increase is a one-off, but said he wished it would've been phased in instead.

"It's a travesty... For a small hamlet like Willowbrook to get an increase like that is unconscionable," Schafer said, noting some residents are facing a property tax hike of up to 150 per cent.

"I'm doing my damnedest to try to dig into why this happened. I've been talking with fire chiefs all around and other (area) directors."

Schafer said it's more difficult for service areas like Willowbrook to pay for local services compared to incorporated municipalities, which he said have more flexibility. 

He said at the Union of B.C. Municipalities in the fall, he plans to lobby to the region's Rural Directors Caucus for some sort of change in how rural areas can be governed.

"It's desperately needed. The inflexibility is painful."

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