Award-winning child-abuse prevention program aimed at Ontario’s French-speaking students faces bankruptcy over tax arrears.
By Laurie Monsebraaton | Social Justice Reporter | Mon., July 18, 2016
An award-winning non-profit organization that provides child abuse prevention information and training to Ontario’s francophone schools is facing a provincial payroll tax snafu that could tip the organization into bankruptcy.
“We are largely funded by government to do our work,” said Lisa Weintraub, executive director of le Centre Ontarien de Prévention des Agressions (COPA). “We just don’t have $40,000 sitting around in an account to pay this.”
The Toronto-based organization, which also serves many English school boards across the province, was shocked in January when a provincial auditor called to say COPA had neglected to pay its Ontario employer health tax and is facing back-taxes, penalties and interest going back to 2009.
Weintraub admits her organization’s own auditor made a mistake by not advising her about the tax.
But she says the federal Canada Revenue Agency also messed up by waiting six years to notify provincial officials that the tax was due. Ottawa usually notifies the province within two years when an employer’s payroll reaches $450,000 and triggers the tax.
“We can try to pay for two years of arrears, but to ask for six years will put us under,” said Weintraub, who took money out of her personal RRSP account to pay $7,000 owed for 2015.
NDP MPP Peter Tabuns can’t believe the government is playing hardball with the 21-year-old agency that operates out of his Toronto Danforth riding.
“This is ridiculous,” he said. “While one arm of government pays this organization to provide vital services, the other arm tries to shut it down. Who wins here? Not the taxpayer.”
COPA, which serves children from kindergarten to high school, is the only organization of its kind in the country and has received awards from both the Canadian and Ontario teachers’ federations for its programs. The Flemish government in Belgium was so impressed with COPA’s website, it created one just like it, Weintraub said.
Tabuns has appealed to Finance Minister Charles Sousa to intervene. But in a letter dated July 5, the minister says employers are responsible for understanding their employer health tax obligations and that “extensive information” is available on the ministry’s website.
While Sousa says he appreciates COPA’s difficulties, “to grant relief from the penalties and interest would be inequitable to other taxpayers who have been assessed under similar circumstances and subsequently paid the applicable tax, interest and penalties.”
Sousa is “acting like a bureaucrat and not a problem-solver,” said Tabuns. In a reply to Sousa, he suggests COPA’s main government funders, the education ministry and Women’s Directorate, should give the organization a one-time grant to cover the tax. It is money COPA would have asked them to pay in the first place, had the organization known it was due, he noted.
Sousa could then credit those ministries for the grant, he added.
“There is a way to keep COPA alive and keep the tax system whole,” Tabuns said. “The question is whether the government cares whether francophone children in the province receive training in abuse prevention.”
In an emailed statement to the Star on Friday, Sousa said he was not able to comment on COPA’s tax woes due to taxpayer confidentiality.
“However,” he said, “if a situation arises where a company or organization is unable to fulfill their tax obligations, alternative payment plans can be arranged.”