The County of Stettler approved its 2020 revised budget at a regular council meeting May 27, but it seems councillors are not very happy with provincial government pressures on that budget.
As pointed out in the agenda memo provided by Chief Administrative Officer (CAO)Yvette Cassidy and Director of Corporate Services Christa Cornelssen, “The budget incorporates a zero per cent increase in the Municipal Property Tax Rate.”
It was noted several times at the meeting that even though the municipal portion had a zero per cent increase, it’s possible taxpayers will see a tax increase because of provincial government policies.
Much of council’s discussion before approving the budget though was about how to explain to taxpayers the likely chance their tax bills will increase this year.
Two major changes which affected the county’s budget included the shallow gas well relief program introduced by the provincial government in the face of oil and gas industry financial problems and increased police services also introduced by the provincial government but to be fully paid by local taxpayers.
The shallow gas well changes, apparently intended to give oil and gas producers relief from paying municipal taxes, totalled a 35 per cent cut in their tax bills with the corresponding hole left in certain rural municipal budgets.
Also, the provincial government apparently also requires education requisition, levied on Alberta property owners to pay for the education system, to still be fully paid on oil and gas properties, without taking into account industry has been given the 35 per cent relief.
Hence, some of the education tax burden for these oil and gas properties has been shifted from industry to local taxpayers.
These two factors caused a number of cuts to the proposed budget.
Coun. Cheri Neitz suggested a note included with tax bills explaining why a tax increase occurred if residents get one.
Coun. Dave Grover stated the note should explain that any tax increase comes directly from changes brought in by the provincial government.
Cassidy predicted those most affected will be non-residential zones, especially small, family-owned businesses and the largest hit will be the education requisition.
Reeve Larry Clarke said he was happy that Stettler County has been voicing unhappiness about this situation, but it seems some other municipalities that are even harder hit aren’t saying much.
Grover stated he was disappointed about county taxpayers getting hit for education funding when Clearview School Division was recently given over $1 million more provincial funding and also made a donation of about $147,000 to the food bank.
Neitz responded that the provincial government told the school board to do it.
Neitz also stated she thought Reeves should get together on this issue, work together and present a united front.
Coun. Ernie Gendre stated he felt that paying the increased taxation without protesting it was akin to setting a precedent.
Cassidy pointed out that if Stettler County, for example, decided not to pay the education requisition, the provincial government would likely just withhold Municipal Sustainability Initiative grant funding.
Grover said it might be worth a try anyway. “In all fairness, maybe it will get their attention,” said Grover.
Coun. Wayne Nixon asked how the education requisition problem would look spread across all municipalities, instead of only a half dozen or so.
Cassidy stated staff calculations predicted it would cost each municipality about $65,000.
Coun. James Nibourg stated he felt it was very important to explain to taxpayers where possible tax increases were coming from, including factors like property value, shallow gas well relief and increased police costs.
The budget memo also went into detail about the revisions to the budget required by things like the shallow gas well changes and new police costs.
The public also had a chance to comment.
“We received public input from the budget survey and presented the budget for public comment in December,” stated the agenda memo.
Cassidy added that a note will be added to the tax bills that if taxpayers are in financial hardship, especially due to coronavirus, to contact the county office.
Coun. Grover stated county council has already extended the tax payment deadline to Oct. 31, several months later than normal, and that should be as much as the municipality can be expected to do.
Councillors approved the budget, and also approved the 2020 tax rate bylaw which allowed the county to collect the necessary funds.
Stu Salkeld, Local Journalism Initiative reporter