Archive for November, 2008

Are we flirting with a new depression?

Sunday, November 30th, 2008

OUTLOOK: Fidelity chiefs doubt quick recovery as global stock losses pile up


As the daily losses continue to pile up on global stock indexes, there is increasing belief that much of the world may be in a depression rather than a mere recession.

Most recent recessions have lasted six to nine months, although the United States did suffer negative gross domestic product growth for 12 months in 1970, 18 months in 1973-75 and 18 months again in 1981-82. By comparison, a depression is generally acknowledged to be negative GDP growth lasting for at least two years.

Three wise men from Fidelity Investments told a group of financial advisers not to expect a sustained recovery any time soon.

“People who say the U.S. recession could be over the middle of next summer could prove to be very optimistic,” said Michael Strong, who helps manage three global funds for Fidelity. “If you look at retail sales, this could be the worst Christmas in years . . . it could be well into 2009 or 2010 before we start to see any improvement in the U.S. economy.

“Banks are going to retreat further in terms of their intermediate lending, as auto loans, credit cards and various other debt defaults increase.” Strong isn’t alone in his thinking. “All the economic indicators I look at, I don’t see any signs of life,” said Bob Swanson, manager of a number of Canadian funds for Fidelity. “We’ve gone from playing in the crease to being back on the blue line; we’ve gone from a very offensive position to being defensive.”

Peter Drake, Fidelity’s vice-president of retirement and economic research, said three things have to happen to trigger a recovery — U.S. housing prices have to stabilize, credit markets need to normalize, and the American economy has to resume growth.

On the housing front, there isn’t much good news. TD Economics reports that 791,000 U.S. housing starts in October bring new residential construction to its lowest level on record. And residential-permit approvals, at 708,000 in October, were a record low going back to the 1960s.

A rebirth of the U.S. market is seen as the catalyst needed to reignite the fire under the U.S. financial system.

“We need to get leverage out of the financial system,” Swanson said.“That will lead to credit expansion and help the consumer side of the equation. And that won’t happen until we have stabilization of house prices.”

The Fidelity folk suggest investors stoically wait for the markets to play themselves to a bottom, where they could stay for months or years, then jump in to ride the recovery.

“Look at opportunities — a year and a half ago, there was Canada and infrastructure plays and that was just about it,” Swanson said. “Now we see opportunities all over the place. The questions are what’s cheapest, and what will be the pecking order when things turn around.”


Owners won’t (or can’t) pay for urgent repairs

Sunday, November 30th, 2008

Tony Gioventu

Dear Condo Smarts: Our strata owners have tried unsuccessfully at two separate general meetings in the past year to pass a special levy for the replacement of one of our building’s roofs. The roof should have been replaced over five years ago, and since then our strata has paid almost $70,000 for emergency repairs. The assessment is going to cost our owners an average of $5,000 each, but we have a large group of new owners who purchased with high mortgages who are voting against the resolution, mainly because they can’t afford the cost. However, we can’t afford to delay this repair any longer. Several suites are damaged, and we’re facing a pending lawsuit if we don’t get the work done. Are there any alternatives?

Dear CS: Unfortunately, voting against a resolution because an owner can’t afford the payment is becoming quite common.

This is a symptom of insufficient reserve planning by the strata corporation, aging buildings, and the effects of high-ratio mortgages in aging strata properties.

As buildings age, the rate of deterioration accelerates and so do the costs. We receive many calls from owners who can’t pay their assessments and may lose their homes. In essence, they could afford to buy the strata but they can’t afford to own it. By the time they add up monthly strata fees, mortgages, taxes and utility costs, they are often too overextended to be able to manage a special levy.

I suspect that in addition to your emergency costs, the failing roof also now requires significant roof deck restoration and replacement. C.S.’s

— C.S.

building is a sobering example for any strata that is considering deferring repairs.

The costs are likely 50 per cent or higher than this strata would have paid had they replaced the roof five years ago, and now they’re on the verge of lawsuits.

Here are the options if the owners won’t approve the levy: The strata might consider a loan for the project that could provide the strata with the funds up front but defer the payment schedule over five or 10 years. There is the cost of the borrowing, but the sooner the repairs are conducted, the sooner the costs stop rising. Another option is to adjust the special levy so that payments, with a contractor’s consent, may be spread out over six months or longer. The strata corporation must maintain and repair the common assets. Seek legal counsel if your strata can’t pass the required resolution for repairs. If the strata doesn’t proceed with repairs, the courts will eventually intervene at a much greater cost to all.

Tony Gioventu is executive director of the Condominium Home Owners’ Association

Sales slip as Whistler becomes buyers’ market

Friday, November 28th, 2008

Sellers forced to aggressively drop prices to attract offers

Derrick Penner

Phones are still ringing at Tourism Whistler’s booking office, offering some hope to a waning Whistler real estate market.

“Our real estate activity does flow from our tourism activity,” Patrick Kelly, an agent at the Whistler Real Estate Co., said in an interview, “particularly where the international — American and European — market is concerned.”

“If they don’t come [to visit], we don’t sell to them.”

Tourism Whistler reported its second-busiest booking day ever on Nov. 15, according to spokesman Jeff McDonald, an indication the resort may not experience the worst of projected declines in visits.

Kelly hopes some of the visitors will be buyers with money looking for real estate bargains in Whistler, where sales are way down from 2007 levels, and prices have edged lower.

Whistler saw 463 property sales up to November, 104 of them detached homes, according to data from Landcor Data Corp. That compares with 708 sales, 167 of them detached homes, in all of 2007.

The average price of a detached home in 2008 so far, according to Landcor, was almost $1.3 million, compared with $1.37 million in 2007.

“We certainly mirror what’s going on in Vancouver and across Canada, for that matter,” Kelly said.

Sales volumes has dropped significantly from earlier in the year, and also year over year, to levels probably more consistent with what we saw three or four years ago.”

As for prices, Kelly noted that the decline could have more to do with activity shifting from top-tier, multi-million-dollar chalets to mid-tier properties: family-oriented chalets under $2 million or townhouses.

Whistler did see a record $17.5 million paid for a home when an estate property at 6715 Crabapple Drive changed hands earlier this year.

However, of the top-10 transactions this year, according to data from Landcor, eight were homes that sold for less than $4 million. In 2007, Landcor’s top-10 list started at $4.4 million.

Buyers are “looking for value, and when they see what they want, they’re happy to pay,” Kelly added.

The psychology of the market is such that it takes longer to sell, with buyers enjoying a “significant advantage when it comes to making offers.”

John McGregor, an agent at Re/Max Sea to Sky Whistler, added that sellers do have to get aggressive about pricing their properties to draw offers in what is now a buyers’ market.

Whistler is very much a second-home community for a lot of owners, McGregor said, agreeing there may be some cases of second-home owners who have suffered losses to their net worth that will force them to bail out of their Whistler abodes.

“This would be a difficult time for [those individuals],” he added. “I don’t think it’s epidemic, but there certainly are situations like that for sure. Those are the people who have to get their prices aggressively lower to attract a buyer.”

However, McGregor said owners who do not need to sell are not listing their properties, although some may be shifting expectations for the properties they do own.

A couple of McGregor’s clients have moved properties out of short-term vacation-rental pools to sign longer-term leases of six months to a year, and that’s about the time frame when light starts to appear at the end of the tunnel.

At Tourism Whistler, McDonald said operators at the resort are bracing for a slower 2008-09 season compared with the 2007-08 season. Forecasts are for five to 12 per cent fewer visitors than the previous year.

However, they have been marketing aggressively and offering deep discounts to attract early bookings and mitigate those expected visitor reductions, and indications are that some of those efforts are paying off.

He said the United Kingdom tour operators are reporting that their winter sales to all Canadian resorts are down, but they are down the least for Whistler.

McDonald said officials believe that is because of growing awareness of Whistler’s status as co-host of the 2010 Olympics.

Whistler Blackcomb’s new peak-to-peak gondola, which will transport skiers from the top of one mountain to the other and opens Dec. 12, is another amenity the resort hopes will be an advantage in attracting visitors this season.

McGregor said that over recent years, the Whistler real estate market peaked in 2003-04, then dropped considerably in 2005 before picking up again in 2006.

As for the longer term, he said new developments such as the upgrade of the Sea to Sky highway will stand the resort in good stead.

For now though, McGregor said that if sellers “have a valid reason to sell, it’s a solid market, but most definitely a buyers’ market.”

© The Vancouver Sun 2008

Delay social-housing evictions until developer, financing ready: Critics

Friday, November 28th, 2008

Don’t crush 224 units that will displace 200 people on lengthy waiting lists for homes

Christina Montgomery

Pressure is growing on the province to reopen more than 200 suites of social housing in Vancouver that B.C. Housing is busy boarding up and preparing to demolish.

Redevelopment of Little Mountain, the six-hectare site that is one of the city’s oldest social-housing developments, has been controversial since a deal was struck last year to demolish the aging homes, sell the site to a private developer, have the 224 units rebuilt as part of a 2,000-condominium project — and use the profits from the sale to fund social housing across B.C.

Residents were given the right to return to the new 224 units that will be available some time after 2010, and had other housing arranged in the meantime.

But critics and residents say more social housing should have been included on the redeveloped site, and that evictions should be delayed until construction begins.

Demands to slow down — or reverse — the development reached a crescendo this week as uncertainty grew over delays and possible financial problems plaguing Holborn Development.

Late last month, Holborn’s excavation work on the Ritz-Carlton hotel, a prestigious hotel-condo project in downtown Vancouver, stopped. A second project on Kingsway has also been delayed.

Simon Lim, president of the Holborn Group, could not be reached yesterday for comment on the Little Mountain project.

According to a timeline attached to the City of Vancouver‘s memorandum of understanding on redevelopment of the site, the Little Mountain project is more than a year behind, with construction not likely to begin until well into 2011.

NDP MLA David Chudnovsky, the party’s housing critic, pushed Housing Minister Rich Coleman in the legislature Tuesday for an answer on reopening the units.

Coleman traded barbs but didn’t answer directly.

Chudnovsky told The Province yesterday he was angry not only that residents had been moved unnecessarily, but that they had displaced 200 people on lengthy waiting lists for social housing units.

“[Coleman’s] job is to provide adequate housing for the people in the province,” Chudnovsky said. “Instead, he wanted to play real-estate developer.

“He got caught.”

Incoming Coun. Ellen Woodsworth of the Coalition of Progressive Electors said she’ll push when city council reconvenes next week for re-opening all of the empty but habitable units.

“We’ve got a serious housing crisis in Vancouver, as well as a homelessness crisis, so why leave perfectly good units empty for at least two years, or possibly longer, when we could use them to house people?” she said.

Vision Vancouver Coun. Raymond Louie, whose party will hold majority power, said they would make contact with the province and developer immediately to explore ways of using the site. But he conceded that the city has no power over what the two parties decide.

Although Vision Vancouver incoming mayor Gregor Robertson said while campaigning that he was interested in seeing if Little Mountain could be used as a shelter, Louie noted that some suites may be uninhabitable.

“All we as a city can do is ask,” Louie said.

© The Vancouver Province 2008

Mon Bella’s menu shifts from ‘sharing plates’ to Kitsilano comfort food with mixed results, mostly positive

Thursday, November 27th, 2008

Crafty chameleon changes for circumstances

Mia Stainsby

Owner Brad Roark and chef Lauren Campbell at Mon Bella. Photograph by : Jenelle Schneider, Vancouver Sun


Overall 3 1/2

Food 3 1/2

Ambience 3 1/2

Service 3 1/2

1809 West First Ave


Open for Lunch, Tuesday to Friday; Dinner, Tuesday to Sunday

Restaurant visits are conducted anonymously and interviews are done by phone. Restaurants are rated out of five stars.

– – –

Like a chameleon, food can morph to suit circumstances. Take Mon Bella’s menu. It began in September as a “sharing plates” menu but customers, perhaps in want of comfort, wanted meals with a capital M. Or, perhaps, it was just the demographics of this Kitsilano neighbourhood — more settled folks than the downtown singles who dine out to socialize.

And so now, the restaurant bills itself as a bistoriaa wordplay on bistro and trattoria — capitalizing on a comfort, French and Italian style with wholesome meals.

As it turned out, I had meals from both chapters in the short life of this restaurant and I have to say, I actually liked my “sharing plates” meal. Jay Brault was the chef back then and he came from Tapastree where he worked with Mon Bella owner Brad Roark.

Salt cod fritters with garlic aioli were delicious. Mussels with white wine and tomato garlic broth were fresh-tasting. Steak (striploin?) with peppercorn sauce was fine, although the ravioli filled with pulled pork was tough and pretty much inedible. (Not sure if that’s his fault. The next chef was already installed when I visited.) Desserts were the usual suspects — creme brulee, tiramisu, lemon tart.

On the next visit, I walked in on the debut of the new menu, under Lauren Campbell, who was formerly the sous chef. Her c.v. includes Bekta restaurant, one of Ottawa‘s best.

I started with a nimbly constructed tartlette aux cepes (dishes are expressed in French and Italian — that’s mushroom tart in French). The puff pastry stood tall and delicate and kind of exploded into pastry shards under my fork, a good thing. Arancini all’Arrabbiata (deep-fried risotto balls stuffed with prosciutto, fontina over tomato sauce) were perfect orbs; they needed just a little more seasoning. Marmite de Fleton Provencale (halibut cheeks stewed in a tomato sauce) was a generous serving and I do love halibut cheeks. It was slightly overcooked, however. Tagliatelle alla Bolognese with poached egg and truffle oil was hearty and ahhhh, comforting. However, the noodle was bucatini (house-made I’m told but it looked more like dried noodles); the combination of poached egg and truffle oil was great, especially when the egg yolk is broken to mix into the dish. I think, though, I should have tried what the bucatini was really meant for — a pasta dish with fennel, sardines, saltanas, pine nuts, saffron and breadcrumbs — a taste of Sardinia.

Desserts have an interesting newcomer. The zuccotto, an Italian dessert that’s said to mimic the Duomo’s cupola, thus, it’s dome-shaped. It has an outside layer of cake (liquored up in Amaretto). The belly of the dome is usually filled with whipped cream mixed with chopped nuts and fruit but this one had coffee chocolate ice cream. The dome was topped with a quenelle of mascarpone cheese.

Wines are a pleasant surprise. Servers seem to know what’s what and we were very happy with recommendations from the largely French and Italian wines. Roark keeps the wine list moving and he says he owes a lot to the sommelier he worked with at Tapastree.

Roark’s girlfriend Michelle Vella is the eye behind the great photographs of France and Italy on the walls. When the TV screen at the bar isn’t trained on the Canucks, it’s a gallery of 400 of her photos.

And about the blank chalkboards at the entrance — they need some chalk; if there aren’t specials to write up, even a “hi, how you doin‘?” would be better than the “couldn’t be bothered” message of an empty slate.

© The Vancouver Sun 2008

Tip of the fez to this treat

Thursday, November 27th, 2008

It’s a spread rich in luxurious, deeply satisfying delights

Mark Laba

Chef de cuisine Jason Toth and executive chef and owner Abdel Elatouabi with prawn and chickpea fritters and Couscous Royale. Photograph by : Gerry Kahrmann, The Province


Le Marrakech

Where: 52 Alexander St.

Payment/reservations: Major credit cards, 604-688-3714

Drinks: Fully licensed

Hours: Mon.-Thurs., 5 p.m.-11 p.m., Fri.-Sat., 5 p.m.midnight, closed Sundays

W hat do organ grinder monkeys, Shriners and Moroccans have in common? They all look good in a fez of course. The Shriners and the monkeys also fit well into teeny-weeny cars although how the Shriners do it still remains one of the great mysteries of life. And, for the record, the monkeys are terrible drivers.

But that’s beside the point. It’s my long-harboured envy of their fez-wearing abilities that laid the cornerstone for my latest dining adventure. For I too have a fez, dusty and forgotten in the back of my closet, a souvenir from a more frivolous time when it adorned my melon-shaped noggin occasionally during a drunken soiree. But age and responsibility along with my wife have banished my fez from human sight. Well no more, I declared as Peaches and I were on our way to this Moroccan bistro on the edge of Gastown. I would wear it proudly and jauntily at this restaurant where it would truly be appreciated. Peaches nonchalantly knocked it off my well-coiffed comb-over and simply said, “Over my dead body.”

So fez-less I stepped into this den of all things Moroccan, a veritable casbah of North African ornamentation with rich brocaded textiles and pillows, traditional hand-craved Moroccan seats, which are really fancy, low-sitting stools with no backs (the only unfortunate part), equally ornate tiled tables, metal wall sconces casting shadows of intrigue and a reddish-gold glow infused throughout the place. It really is a world away from the everyday supported by some exotically-named martinis.

And the food is just as transporting as the atmosphere thanks to owners Leo Fouad and Abdel Elatouabi. Elatouabi was once the executive chef at a five-star hotel in Rabat and most recently ran the now-vanished Bravo Bistro, a Coal Harbour spot I was quite fond of.

Peaches and I began our edible caravan with a bunch of small plates from the mezze listings. Lamb meatballs lolling in a spicy tomato sauce with a sunny-side-up egg hovering on top ($9), which our waiter called “the Moroccan breakfast” was excellent. Meatballs as tender as a lamb bleating for its mother and a sauce with the brooding temperament of Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. An order of humus ($7) soothed the spice with a whisper of its lemon and garlic tinged breath.

Next up was Dungeness kebe ($11), a bulgur wheat and potato croquette construction stuffed with chermoula-spiked crabmeat. Chermoula is a Moroccan herb and spice mix but with a fresh infusion of flavour from ingredients like coriander and parsley. A very pleasing dish, subtle and rich and the side salad of pea shoots with lemon pistachio vinaigrette was a nice, light touch.

My only complaint would be the cost considering there are only two, small croquettes but that’s perhaps the price you pay when you want to play with the heavily armoured crustaceans.

We finished with mussels in a spicy chermoula sauce ($16) and a main dish of braised short ribs atop saffron couscous ($24). The generous portion of bivalves were as big and plump as the biceps on Spongebob Squarepants and my only thought was the sauce could’ve used a bit more punch. I ordered some house cut fries ($5) and these thin-cut ‘taters were excellent sprinkled with sparkling nuggets of sea salt.

The braised short rib wore a luxurious coat of caramelized onion and raisins with hints of spicing harmonizing sweet with savoury and the beef was a textbook example of perfect braising. Winter veggies in all their root-like glory created a tasty and textural perimeter around the dune of couscous. Mint tea concluded the ceremonies.

It’s a menu that’s steeped in exoticness from the lamb shank tagine to golden beet salad tossed in rose water and pomegranate vinaigrette and though I may remain fez-less in Vancouver I was certainly well on the road to Morocco minus Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and the surly camel.


A sultan’s feast complete with weekend belly-dancing.

RATINGS: Food: A- Service: A Atmosphere: A

In my exuberance to play political pundit last week, I included the Jolly Alderman in my Top Five list of places to ponder the civic election results. But as reader Iris Ivanoff pointed out, the place has been closed for over a year and, in her words “is nothing but an empty hole.” Now I know why it was so cold and dank and the service was so bad when I went there for a drink a few weeks back.


Selling Point: A veritable pork-a-rama of ramen soup goodness and flavour in this stylishly sparse and tiny noodle shop.

What To Eat: Try the Nagahama Ramen, named for a street full of ramen stalls in the Nagahama district of Fukuoka, the capital city of Kyushu Island where pork-based tonkotsu broth has its origins. Don’t forget to order a seasoned boiled egg added to the mix. Also check out the home-made pan-fried pork and vegetable gyoza, a great deal at $4.80 for eight. There’s also the Nagasaki Chanpon, a ramen concoction with mixed veggies, meat and seafood or you can order the Ramen Noodle Set that gets you ramen, gyoza and Takikomi rice ball cooked with kelp, veggies and deep-fried tofu.

401 W. Broadway, 604-873-3277

Panne Rizo Cafe

Lowdown: There are those who walk among us who take the no- gluten, no-wheat route when it comes to their food. I personally shuddered at the thought until I tasted the stuff at this bakery/deli/café. I’m not exactly a convert but these rice-based breads ain’t too bad.

What To Eat: Try the turkey and cheese grilled panini on rosemary and scallion focaccia — the focaccia is amazingly dairy and wheat-free and yet still tasty. Go figure. There’s also a very nice tuna and sun-dried tomato sandwich with cheese and spinach, a very savoury chicken pie or macaroni with extra old cheddar and parmesan cheese. Plus a choice of two daily homemade soups and some spiffy desserts that may be wheat free but certainly don’t lack for sugar.

1939 Cornwall Ave., Vancouver, 604-736-0885

© The Vancouver Province 2008

Apartment investors suffering with credit squeeze

Tuesday, November 25th, 2008

Lenders seek more equity in down payments

Derrick Penner

Sales of rental apartment buildings in the Lower Mainland collapsed earlier this year in the credit squeeze and they haven’t recovered as 2008 winds down, according to research from a major commercial realtor.

Avison Young Commercial Real Estate tracked 76 building sales worth $270 million up to November, down 50 per cent from 153 sales worth $519 million made in all of 2007.

There is “a disconnect between vendors and purchasers,” Avison Young principal Rob Greer said in an interview.

“Vendors, when they’re giving us a call wanting to list their properties, they’re still looking at that price we told them it was worth last year,” Greer said.

In reality, lenders are demanding buyers put down more equity now, and as a result prices are “significantly off last year’s pricing.”

Avison Young noted there were only seven building sales in downtown Vancouver in the first 11 months of this year, with prices averaging $183,534 per unit compared with 13 in all of 2007, when prices averaged $239,002 per unit.

Vancouver’s west side has seen 10 sales for the year to date with prices averaging $200,010 per unit, compared with 27 sales and per-unit prices of $206,322 a year ago.

However, Greer said areas farther from Metro Vancouver’s core have seen prices hold up better because properties there have better returns on capital.

If difficult credit conditions persist in 2009 though, Greer said re-pricing could mean a drop of as much as 20 per cent in some Metro Vancouver areas to realign capital returns with the needs of investors under their new conditions for obtaining credit.

The evaporation of debt markets in the wake of the U.S. sub-prime mortgage crisis is a key culprit in the situation, said Michael Brodie, Avison Young’s multi-family real estate advisor.

The buyers of apartment blocks could once obtain financing for 75 per cent of a building’s value. Today, however, they need bigger down payments and can leverage only 60 to 65 per cent.

© The Vancouver Sun 2008


Protecting retirement savings from seizure

Tuesday, November 25th, 2008

It wasn’t until last week that RRSPs were also finally shielded by law It wasn’t until last week that RRSPs were also finally shielded by law

Miriam Maisonville

Economic uncertainty is at the forefront of everyone’s thoughts these days. Personal bankruptcies are on the rise and individuals cannot help but feel vulnerable. Worry surrounding the future ability in this economic climate to provide for our retirement is among the many issues that concern British Columbians today.

The vast majority of British Columbian workers, entrepreneurs, small business owners and professionals do not have access to corporate or government pension plans — they must save for their retirement themselves.

Government policies, both federal and provincial, encourage these individuals to plan and save for their retirement through vehicles such as Registered Retirement Savings Plans (RRSPs). What many people do not realize is that, up until now, pension plans were exempt from seizure from creditors, but individual savings through RRSPS, DPSPs, and RRIFs were not protected under B.C. law.

This anomaly was recently righted last Thursday when the Minister of Finance Colin Hansen introduced legislation to protect these invaluable savings instruments from seizure by creditors through provisions in the Economic Incentive and Stabilization Statues Amendment Act.

The significance of the government’s actions is immeasurable. According to the government’s 2008 Small Business Profile, small businesses in B.C. represent 98 per cent of all businesses, employ over 46 per cent of the population, and represent 33 per cent of the province’s GDP.

First introduced in the 1950s, RRSPs have become an essential part of Canada‘s retirement system. According to Statistics Canada, as of 2005, Canadians have saved $600 billion in accumulated RRSP assets. Today, RRSPs are more popular than employer pension plans.

Unquestionably, it remains the duty of debtors to pay their creditors. Those who are self-employed, however, are now on equal footing with people with government or company pensions in that their Registered Retirement Savings can now enjoy the same protection as those who benefit from a registered employer pension plan.

Many professions are undertaking increasing responsibilities and new liabilities. Greater protection of their savings would not reduce liability, but would offer some security that their retirement savings would not be at risk.

Introduced by the government as part of a package to offset some of the difficult economic times we are experiencing, this measure injects fairness into the system, and could not come at a more appropriate time.

Most of us will never have to rely on this measure. But we can all derive value from it, in knowing that should circumstances require it, our RRSPs will be there when we need them — just as a pension would be. Knowing that we can remain self-sufficient in retirement and not have to rely on any social safety net is invaluable to an aging population.

Miriam Maisonville is the president of the Canadian Bar Association, B.C. Branch.

© The Vancouver Sun 2008


Getting around treasurer who controls with ‘iron hand’

Sunday, November 23rd, 2008

Tony Gioventu

Dear Condo Smarts: At our condo in Victoria we elected seven council members at the AGM in August. In early September, six of the seven council members resigned, leaving only the treasurer. Our strata basically ran with only one council member controlling everything until the owners signed a petition to call for a special general meeting to elect a new council.

The treasurer refused to call the meeting so we had to wait until the time expired and convene the meeting ourselves. This is not the first time this has occurred, involving the same person, who controls our finances with an iron hand. We couldn’t find anything in our bylaws or the Act to solve the problem without an SGM, and we don’t know how to elect a new council without this person.

— GW, Victoria

Dear GW: Electing only the council members that you want is a simple governance decision under the Act and Standard Bylaws. At general meetings, all matters are decided by a majority vote unless a higher voting threshold is required. The election of council is by majority vote.

You don’t have to elect seven council members, but you must elect a minimum of three. When the vote for the nominated council members is called, one person should request that the vote be conducted by secret ballot, regardless of the number of nominations, and then each person is elected based on those who receive a majority of the votes that are cast. Having a firm hand on the finances is not unto itself a problem, However, if the treasurer acts contrary to the decisions of council, or refuses to provide copies of all the treasury information, council needs to replace that person quickly and act to protect the strata’s financial assets.

When the strata fails to elect a council, or the council resigns, there is no provision for a meeting to be called. Even with only one council member there is no provision for that person to call a meeting without a petition of the owners. It may be possible to address this problem with a strata bylaw amendment that requires those council members forming less than a remaining quorum to convene a special general meeting for the election of a new council. I recommend that each strata seek legal counsel to ensure the bylaws comply with the Act and Regulations.

Tony Gioventu is executive director of the Condominium Home Owners’ Association

[email protected]

© The Vancouver Province 2008


B.C. Government meddling in freezing BC assessments to 2007 levels

Saturday, November 22nd, 2008

Bill entrenches meddling in assessments

Don Cayo

“When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

— Humpty Dumpty, as quoted by Lewis Carroll

So, too, with making a law — at least one specific law that was apparently written by a panicky government scrambling to cover for its leader’s rashness in shooting from the lip.

The nub of a just-tabled bill to legalize the property assessment freeze announced weeks ago by Premier Gordon Campbell means just what the provincial cabinet chooses it to mean — neither more nor less. In one fell swoop it eviscerates the 10-year-old legislation that gives B.C. one of the world’s better property-assessment systems, it endows cabinet with jaw-dropping powers to aid or hammer any individual property owner or any class of property owners it wishes, and it opens up 2009 property tax collection to potential chaos.

And, as I see it, all this merely because the premier announced the freeze — ironically intended as an economic stabilization measure — before anybody bothered to think it through.

The bill amends several existing acts in order to accommodate the premier’s announced intention to freeze assessments at the July 1, 2007 level and to grant property owners the opportunity to defer property tax payments. When it comes to business and residential assessments, the bill — nominally, at least — entrenches what Revenue Minister Kevin Krueger told me it would do. It sets aside the usual provisions of the B.C. Assessment Act and establishes as the basis for 2009 property tax bills either the July 1, 2007 assessment level or the July 1, 2008 level, whichever is lower.

But then it goes on to give the cabinet power to ignore what the bill says and to override virtually every provision it sets out. Cabinet is specifically empowered to change the rules to:

– Add anything left out.

– Make the legislation more effective, ease transitional difficulties, or fix any errors, inconsistencies or ambiguities.

– Correct any unfairness.

– Do anything cabinet “considers to be in the public interest.”

And, you guessed it, “public interest” isn’t defined.

If all that is not scary enough, cabinet can also make its rulings retroactive, and use different methods and standards to determine the value of properties in the same class. And — despite specific provisions in the old Assessment Act — no one can appeal these cabinet decisions.

Revenue Minister Krueger called me Friday to underline his view that an option to have 2009 tax bills based on the lower of 2007 and 2008 assessment value will be advantageous to most business owners, as well as to homeowners.

I agree about homeowners, although I’m skeptical about businesses. As I’ve argued previously, “average” or “median” figures obscure the radically different way that values change within the same property class. In Metro Vancouver, for example, office towers continued to soar in value long after more modest commercial buildings stalled or began backsliding. The same is true in many smaller communities, where malls continued to escalate in value at a time when Main Street was starting to falter.

In these cases, merely allowing each property owner to pay tax based on the lower of two assessment values doesn’t make it fair. Because if some properties — the malls and/or the big office towers — get a very large break but other business properties get just a small break, the result is a shift of tax burden from big to small.

In principle, the all-inclusive power the government is trying to give itself to meddle further with assessments could provide the cabinet with a tool to help its friends and harm its enemies, and on that basis alone it should never become law.

But I honestly don’t think that’s the intent. And I don’t think that’s what would happen during the one year assessments are to be done differently.

Rather, I suspect, this bill is intended to forestall a flood of appeals to BC Assessment. And it will result, instead, in a flood of supplications to the cabinet itself.

After all, by giving itself the power to right any perceived wrong, the government implicitly invites every unhappy property owner to seek a special intervention. And, boy, if I were running any of the many businesses that’ll be shafted by this ill-considered tinkering, I’d be pounding on cabinet’s door the very day my next tax bill arrives, if not before.

© The Vancouver Sun 2008