COVID-19 financial relief struggles

The Village of Alix council wants to help its residents weather the financial aspects of the coronavirus storm, but at their regular meeting Apr. 1 they found disaster relief more complicated than it seems.

The discussion centred around two agenda items presented to councillors by village CAO Michelle White and staff member Peggy De Forge: deferral of municipal utility payments and 2020 tax penalties.

In her report to council White noted some local residents may be struggling with financial difficulties caused by the coronavirus pandemic and government’s efforts to prevent the pandemic’s spread, including the direct closure of some businesses and layoffs that have resulted.

White stated that other municipalities have been considering measures such as utility and tax deferrals, while some utility companies are following suit.

It was noted deferral meant bills must still be paid, but that account holders simply have more time to pay off the balance.

As councillors discussed the issues, it became clear these issues were much more complicated than they seemed.

Utility payments

Currently, the Village of Alix transfers utility bills unpaid past 45 days straight to the tax roll.

The CAO stated the village typically sees about $500 worth of late fees applied to utility accounts per month.

White stated it looked like council had three options regarding municipal utility payments, including deferring payments for 90 days with no penalties for those who made prior arrangements, deferring penalties alone for 90 days regardless of previous arrangements and deferring for 90 days penalties plus the utility payments themselves for those residents who make arrangements.

Mayor Rob Fehr very quickly commented he saw a problem with deferring the utility bills themselves, as over several months the bills could add up to a considerable amount.

White noted the option to delay the 3.5 per cent penalty on late utility payments, which would be considered a financial assistance.

The mayor liked that idea.

“I could live with that,” said Fehr.

Coun. Vicki Soltermann stated she also thought deferring the entire utility bill until later would be difficult for people pay off and suggested the village make it very clear bills are still expected to be paid.

Coun. Ed Cole suggested the word “postpone” be used rather than “defer” just to ensure everyone was on the same page.

Cole noted it seemed to him some people confuse the word “defer” with “gift.”

Councillors unanimously voted to not charge the 3.5 per cent late payment penalty on Village of Alix utility accounts for three months (March, April, May 2020) retroactively to March 1. 2020 tax penalties.

The even more complicated subject of 2020 village tax penalties was then discussed.

White presented a memo to council noting that the Village of Alix sends out tax bills in May with a deadline of July 31 to pay.

If tax bills are unpaid on Aug. 1, a mid-year penalty of nine per cent is applied, followed by an end of year penalty of 18 per cent on Jan. 1.

White stated that council appeared to have three options open to them on this subject, including leaving the Aug. 1 penalty in place, to charge the penalty but defer payment for six months or to waive penalties for the rest of the year.

Coun. Cole stated he wanted to help local residents but also didn’t want to see the village get into a deficit situation.

“I need to know what we can afford,” said Cole.

Coun. Soltermann stated, rather than a penalty, she preferred to see the village give residents an incentive to pay on time and as an example cited a 10 per cent discount on their bills.

Coun. Besuijen asked if it was vital for council to decide immediately on this issue.

White answered that it probably was, because tax bills have to be printed relatively soon and then mailed in May.

The tax bills must have penalty information on them and if councillors decided to alter the penalties that information must be clearly stated.

Coun. Barb Gilliat suggested pushing the penalty back later in the year.

Mayor Fehr and Coun. Cole both agreed with Soltermann’s incentive idea but Gilliat stated she didn’t like the idea of an incentive at one point of the year and a penalty at another time of the year.

Councillors eventually decided to have the CAO summarize all of their discussion for a decision on this issue at their next meeting, while each councillor also said they would poll local residents on this subject before a decision.

 

Stu Salkeld, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

ECA Review

About the author

Stu Salkeld

Stu Salkeld

Stu Salkeld, who has upwards of 28 years of experience in the Alberta community newspaper industry, is now covering councils and other news in the Stettler region and has experience working in the area as well.

He has joined the ECA Review as a Local Journalism Initiative Journalist.

Stu earned his two-year diploma in print journalism from SAIT in Calgary from 1993 to ’95 and was raised in Oyen, Alta., one of the communities within the ECA Review’s coverage area.

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