The Town of Princeton has no uniform policy when it comes to how it leases the property it owns.
According to Mayor Frank Armitage “it’s fair to say” that different arrangements have been made by various past councils regarding property the town acquires either through purchase or tax arrears.
Last week, the Princeton Crisis Assistance Society petitioned council for a reduction in rent. While there is no lease on file for the municipally-owned property at 111 Vermilion Avenue, that group has paid between $452.25 and $448.25 per month for the building that has housed its thrift store since 2007.
In 2017, approximately 40 per cent of the thrift store’s revenue was returned to the town in rent.
Following that meeting The Spotlight, using the Freedom of Information Act, obtained a copy of the town’s lease with the Similkameen Masonic Lodge, located at 187 Vermillion Avenue.
The masons recently renewed their lease – first approved by council in 2012 – in the amount of $10 for a five-year period. The original lease allowed for the renewal on notice, not requiring the signing of a new document.
The lease states the lodge will pay for maintenance, utilities and liability insurance related to the property, and also sets out that the town will collect property taxes on the lot and building, under section 229 of the Community Charter “unless council of the town is authorized to and chooses, in its sole discretion, to exempt the property from taxation.”
According to documents, the Masonic Lodge has received a tax exemption since at least 2014.
Armitage, who is a member of the lodge, was not on council when the original deal was struck.
He said the arrangement was explained to him as “consideration” given to the town when the building was sold.
“I understand it was negotiations between the town, when they took that building, because of the price they received for that location.”
He added the yearly approval of the tax exemption bylaw does not present a conflict of interest as other religious groups – for example churches – receive the same consideration.
Relating to the request from the Crisis Assistance Society – which runs the local Christmas hamper campaign and provides emergency funds, food and shelter for people in need – Armitage said “we are definetly looking into that”.
Tuesday The Spotlight made further requests under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. The request are for a disclosure of the sale price of the lodge, a list of all municipally owned property that is occupied by a third party and the associated rental agreements.
In an interview with The Spotlight, Masonic Lodge secretary Graham Gould stressed “the town pays absolutely nothing towards the operations for the building.”
He declined to disclose the amount the municipality paid for the building in 2002 but called it “a sizeable amount.”
Gould said: “The reason the town got it was because the town pretty well owns that block, and when we were deciding that we were going to sell we approached them and they took the offer.”
The museum, the fire hall and the municipal hall are all located in the same area.
The masons meet in the building four times a year.
According to Gould the lodge is not as active as it once was, because of an aging and declining membership.
The building was originally put up for sale because the lodge could not afford the upkeep, he said, and the lodge has not paid taxes on it since it was sold.
“We pay the water and the sewer and we pay insurance for the building and we pay the light and heat…Why would we sell the building to them if we had to pay property taxes?”
The lodge used to sponsor bursaries and make other community donations, said Gould, but can no longer afford to do so.
There are 30 members.
“We are not able to do an awful lot. What we do through the masons is in our dues that we pay annually to the Grand Lodge.”
Those dues are used exclusively to fund a program called Cancer Car, which provides free rides to Okanagan residents who must travel to Penticton or Kelowna for cancer treatments.
Unfortunately, he said, that program does not extend its services as far as Princeton, because of the distances involved.
“They don’t come our way and we are upset about that,” he said.
Orv Robson, a Summerland mason, said it’s not uncommon for lodges to sell buildings and lease them back for nominal amounts.
“[In Summerland] we had an arrangement with the Presbyterian Church and we sold our lodge to them and we had free rent for 15 years…We served out our term with them there and after 15 years they moved on.”
Robson described the Masons as “a brotherhood, and we are inclined to work in the community and outside the community in a way that is in keeping with the morals and beliefs of the bible.”
He said the lodges incorporate “various rituals,” and women are not permitted to join.
“If someone asks me ‘are you a mason?’ I am proud to say I am a mason. We are known as a secret society. I don’t know what is secret about us. Nothing would be further from the truth.”
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