A building is put for lease in Stephen Avenue Mall on Tuesday, May 28, 2019.
Azin Ghaffari / Postmedia Calgary
Some local entrepreneurs had their worst fears confirmed this week after city council eliminated one of the last remaining options to provide financial assistance to struggling businesses this year.Council voted Monday to kill a proposed small business grant program that was largely viewed as a flawed but potentially viable option to assist local businesses, and city officials say it’s now likely too late to come up with an alternative form of tax relief for commercial ratepayers in 2019.“I’m not surprised but I’m very disappointed,” said Brian Imeson, owner of Circa Vintage Art Glass in Inglewood, who has seen significant increases to his property tax bills in the past three years.“They’ve known this problem has been ongoing now for the better part of three years — and the fact that it sort of slipped off the table completely, and that now we’re going to see no benefit (or) any form of tax relief is just extremely, extremely disappointing.”City council has been struggling for months to find a way to address the so-called “downtown tax shift”: a $250-million hole in municipal finances created by Calgary’s vacant downtown office towers. The downtown has gone from shouldering 32 per cent of the non-residential tax burden in 2015 to just 18 per cent in 2019 — leaving businesses outside of the core to pick up the slack.To alleviate the pain in previous years, the city spent $41 million in 2017 and $45 million in 2018 on one-off rebate programs aimed at capping tax increases at five per cent.However, this year, commercial property owners are expected to face the full weight of the tax shift without any assistance from the city.“I think there’s a lot of disappointment today,” said Annie MacInnis, executive director of the Kensington BRZ, who has seen an uptick in business closures in the trendy shopping district.“Throughout the recession, I was losing businesses but gaining more than I was losing. But since January, I’ve lost about 15 businesses — which is a lot. Those are businesses looking at the taxes this year and just deciding that they can’t go any longer. That’s concerning.”Many business groups had urged the city to take steps to rebalance the share of the property tax burden borne by commercial properties: currently, businesses pay 53 per cent of municipal taxes, while residences pay 47 per cent and typically receive more services.But a proposal from Coun. Jyoti Gondek, which would have seen some of the tax burden shifted to homeowners to pay for a larger tax cut for businesses, failed to win over a majority of council members at a meeting last month.Gondek offered a frank assessment Tuesday of council’s failed bid to address the tax shift:“Property taxes are due this month and there is nothing we can do because we have bungled this,” Gondek said. “The problem is, we’ve delayed it so long now we couldn’t even add it as a line item to the tax bill to give anybody a rebate. It’s not good. We’ve failed the business community.”Barring a Hail Mary pass in the next few months, city officials say there likely won’t be any help coming for businesses before 2020. A new working group of council was struck Monday to continue studying the problem, including possible solutions to achieve “greater tax parity” between residential and non-residential properties.More than 8,000 Calgary businesses — about 64 per cent of all commercial properties in the city — will face double-digit tax increases this year, according to city data.“I had a (restaurant) owner say to me a year or so ago: ‘if I had five more people eating at my restaurant every day, I could sleep a little easier’ — that’s how small the margins are for small, independent businesses” said MacInnis.“So you might say a business can afford a couple thousand dollars, but maybe not. It may be the straw that broke that camel’s back.”email@example.comTwitter: @mpotkins