The province hasn't yet decided whether to expand its provincial homeowners' grant program, although the number of properties that broke through its ceiling exploded this year.

Some 97,646 homes were valued at more than $780,000 on 2007 property assessments compared with 54,518 a year ago, according to data extracted by Landcor Data Corp. from B.C. Assessment Authority assessment figures. That's an increase of 70 per cent.

Now 7.7 per cent of all residential properties -- excluding seasonal residences and rental apartments -- are above the cutoff for homeowner grants. Only 4.4 per cent of such properties topped the grant's ceiling a year ago.

Finance Minister Carole Taylor said her staff is reviewing the B.C. Assessment Authority's final report this week, adding that that government is "committed to making sure the homeowners' grant really does help" taxpayers.

"There's no question," Taylor said. "These increased assessments, if unaltered, would affect a number of people in B.C."

In the past, she said, the province's practice has been to structure the grant so that 95 per cent of households qualify for the assistance, which is used to offset the municipal property taxes.

Government, over the past three years, has raised the homeowners' grant's ceiling to account for skyrocketing property values. Taylor, in her last budget, bumped the threshold up by $95,000 and increased the grant by $100 to $570.

Taylor was less committal on whether the province would use some of its projected budget surplus to reduce the province's property-transfer tax, although the windfall from that levy is forecast to contribute $200 million to B.C.'s expected $2 billion surplus for 2006-07.

Taylor initially budgeted for $750 million of revenue from the transfer tax, but by the second-quarter update she forecast it would collect $950 million by the end of the government's fiscal year on March 31.

"We'll look at those [tax] numbers," Taylor said. "At this point, you have to say is that what [taxpayers'] preference would be, to reduce the transfer tax, or would it be to use that money for debt reduction, or some other tax relief?

"It's all trade-offs."

Taylor added that the government finance committee's public-consultation report for the 2007 budget listed items such as debt reduction and healthcare spending as top priorities.

In the meantime, BC Assessment officials have not yet been inundated with property-assessment appeals.

James Grant, BC Assessment's area assessor for the Vancouver-Sea to Sky region, said that provincewide, calls to BC Assessment offices following the distribution of assessments were down "noticeably" from a typical January.

Grant added that for his office, the call volume was down about 25 per cent compared with the same period a year ago. Traffic on BC Assessment's website, however, increased 10 to 20 per cent, Grant said.

Public inquiries at other Lower Mainland offices, however, varied.

Property owners have until Jan. 31 to appeal their assessments, and can do so online at:

[email protected]