Kelly Breaks and Juanita Vander Zalm of Blue Frog Studios received a $5,000 break on their city property taxes after a late adjustment to their assessment. Alex Browne photo

50 per cent tax hike had White Rock’s Blue Frog studio jumping into action

BC Assessment error helped boost bill by thousands of dollars, owners say

The owners of one of White Rock’s leading live entertainment venues said last week they were pondering the future after being “blindsided” by a hike of 50 per cent in commercial property taxes.

Kelly Breaks and Juanita Vander Zalm, of Blue Frog Studios saw their property tax bill balloon from some $18,000 last year to $26,800 for this year; a bitter pill after 15 months of their business being essentially closed – outside of selling concerts from their library of events online through their streaming platform.

“It’s a challenge trying to make good things happen – it never ends. Things are supposed to be getting better, but every day there’s more stress,” Vander Zalm said.

By Friday, however, the City of White Rock had dropped the bill by more than $5,000 to $21,581.

The problem, Breaks told Peace Arch News Monday, was that BC Assessment had mis-classified the Blue Frog Studios property, at 1328 Johnston Rd. which also includes Breaks and Vander Zalm’s residence.

“They put us as all commercial, instead of mixed use,” he said adding that he had challenged the assessment when it resulted in the high city bill.

“When I asked BC Assessment why it was all classed commercial, they told me ‘the highest and best use for your property is to be re-developed.’ I said, ‘No, we don’t want to redevelop, this is where we live and where we work.'”

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By the end of last week, BC Assessment had relented on the classification, which allowed the City of White Rock staff to recalculate and revise Blue Frog’s bill downward.

“Blue Frog Studios is a valued member of the White Rock community,” White Rock chief administrative officer Guillermo Ferrero commented Friday.

“The City has confirmed there was an error with BC Assessment that will be addressed shortly. Once addressed, this will significantly reduce Blue Frog’s property taxes for 2021.”

“This makes the tax more in line with what we paid in 2019,” Breaks said.

He noted that, when the assessment was first done in January, the value of the property went up by four per cent – and Breaks said he expected at the time that their tax bill would rise by a proportionate amount.

“But four per cent to 50 per cent is a big leap,” he said. “We were blindsided by this.”

Breaks and Vander Zalm say they recognize that many of the increased amounts itemized on their bill are taxes collected by the city on behalf of the provincial government and other bodies – which is why they’d like to see broader action taken by the province to address the onerous impacts on businesses.

“A lot of people want to slam the city on this,” Breaks said, “But, really, a lot of it is what they’re collecting for others.”

Notably increasing the load was a jump in provincial school taxes on their bill from $2,686 to $9,500.

“That’s a whopping 260 per cent increase in the school tax portion alone,” Breaks said.

“It’s just not sustainable,” he added.

The rise in school taxes can be partly explained by the province reducing them last year as a one-time COVID-19 related measure, Breaks said – but only partly.

“They’re not simply back this year – they’ve been quadrupled,” he said.

But he also noted that while Blue Frog’s property tax bill is more livable due to last week’s adjustment the White Rock component of the bill still went up some $1,100 alone.

“It’s still not great,” he said.

“If White Rock wants to be an arts and culture centre, it’s got to create an environment where these kind of businesses can survive.”

Blue Frog would also like to see the provincial government, as well as cities, take action to bring business taxes more in line with property assessments, Breaks said.

Surrey-White Rock MLA Trevor Halford – to whom Breaks and Vander Zalm had also reached out – said Friday the impact of COVID-19 and subsequent increases in taxes have hit small businesses really hard, and that’s going to continue to be a focus for the BC Liberal caucus in coming months.

“The provincial government has been missing in action for a long time on this,” he said, adding that arts and culture venues – like Blue Frog – have particularly suffered.

“Blue Frog has become a cornerstone of the arts and entertainment scene in White Rock,” he noted.

“We’ve relied on them as a business to bring us together. We need to be standing up for our smaller businesses, especially in the arts and culture.

‘We need to be there for them today so that they can be there for us tomorrow.”

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