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Conception Harbour, N.L., owed hundreds of thousands in unpaid taxes, can’t pick up the trash

The mayor of Conception Harbour says the rural Newfoundland town is owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid taxes and municipal grants, and until the situation is resolved, services like garbage collection and town lighting will suffer.

Provincial Department of Municipal Affairs is helping to sort out the town's financial problems

The mayor of Conception Harbour says the rural Newfoundland town is owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid taxes and municipal grants, and until the situation is resolved, services like garbage collection and town lighting will suffer.

On Aug. 28, the town announced in a Facebook post that garbage collection would be delayed.

In another post three days later, following questions from residents about why garbage wasn't being picked up, Mayor Craig Williams outlined the problems with the town's finances.

Town council doesn't know who owes taxes or how much they owe, he wrote, and under provincial privacy legislation, he wrote, council doesn't have access to that information.

"We are in the process of hiring a temporary town clerk," wrote Williams, who refused an interview request from CBC News.

In addition to the lost tax revenue, said Williams's Facebook post, the town on Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula — with a population of 624 in the 2021 census — hasn't received its operating grants from the provincial Department of Municipal Affairs.

"For council to obtain our municipal operating grants we have to submit audited financial statements," he wrote. "There is a delay in our 2021 and 2022 financial statements due to ongoing issues before the courts."

A review of the town's finances has occurred and has identified a significant gap in tax collection.

– Department of Municipal Affairs

Williams didn't explain what the legal issue is or if it's connected to former town manager and clerk Bonnie Lynn Wade, who is facing 31 charges of fraud, theft and breaching trust.

Court documents show the fraud charges stem from allegations Wade used a town credit card 10 times, spending a total of $3,600.

Wade is due back in court next week, when she is expected to enter a plea.

Accounts in arrears heading to court

Williams's post said council is working with the town's auditor and Municipal Affairs to sort out its financial situation. The town will also be taking residents who are more than two years in arrears to small claims court, he warned.

In the meantime, he outlined a list of expenses the town is having difficulty covering. Garbage collection costs $8,000 a month he said, and street lighting costs $4,000 a month.

"We will be reducing the lighting by at least half," he wrote. Snow clearing is needed six months of the year, he added, and the contract is $7,500 per month, with ice control materials costing an additional $1,500 a month.

According to the mayor's post, the unpaid poll tax owed in 2021 was $251,393, and he said the town expects that number to have doubled in 2022. The town's poll tax — a fixed tax levied on every resident over 18 — is $425 a year, raised by council in December from $375.

In a statement to CBC News, the Department of Municipal and Provincial Affairs said it's aware of the situation and is working with town officials to help them resolve its financial issues.

"A review of the town's finances has occurred and has identified a significant gap in tax collection," the statement read.

"The department is in the process of appointing a comptroller to work with the town in the completion of necessary actions to address its financial situation. These include the town increasing tax recovery measures and completing outstanding audits dating back to 2020."

Last year a $30,000 special assistance grant was awarded to the town to help with operational expenses, said the statement.

Town wants municipal operating grants released

Williams also wrote that the town has asked the department to release what he says it's owed in unpaid municipal operating grants to pay for garbage collection and to meet the town's financial obligations.

In an email, Municipal Affairs said the town has requested about $58,000.

In his Aug. 31 post, Williams said council and its maintenance team were working to resolve the situation.

"We could have easily resigned or had Municipal Affairs appoint an administrator, as we did ask them to do that but they understand the issues we are having and are helping us to correct them."

On Wednesday, Williams posted again to the town Facebook page, saying a representative from Municipal Affairs would be in the town office working with its auditor by the end of the week.

The department has said, via email, it is looking for a comptroller and plans to have one in the town soon.

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    ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Elizabeth Whitten is a journalist and editor based in St. John's. When she’s not chasing her next story, she's cuddling with her dog and reading a good book.

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