The County of Stettler council waived penalties applied to a ratepayer’s unpaid firefighting bill after it was claimed there was confusion in the billing process.
The decision was made at the March 10 regular meeting of council.
A letter from a county ratepayer explained they had a fire on their property and ended up with a substantial firefighting bill, plus their tax bill. They paid their tax bill but didn’t realize the firefighting bill also had a penalty connected to it.
“We had a grass fire on April 25, 2020 which the Stettler Fire Department was called in to assist with,” stated the March 2 letter, which had names and address removed and while the signature was present it was not legible to this writer.
“July of 2020 we received an invoice in the mail for the cost to have the Stettler Fire Department out.
“We then consulted with our insurance in regards to having the invoice paid through them for which we were advised that if we did so our yearly premium would have a much larger increase overall and it would work out to be over and above the cost of invoice from the county.”
The ratepayer explained they intended to eventually pay the bill but didn’t make it a priority due to financial hardship and also didn’t know it had a penalty connected to it and could be rolled over onto their tax bill.
“How were we supposed to know this?” asked the ratepayer. “…not once were we informed on or in any form of communication that we could be charged interest/arrears or penalties until we were being charged them.”
A staff memo in the agenda package stated the ratepayer was correct.
“In December 2020, the fire invoice that had incurred in July of 2020 was transferred to taxes on Dec. 31, 2020,” stated the memo from Sharon Larsen, tax and assessment clerk.
“Once the invoice is transferred to taxes it falls under the tax bylaw for the February penalty of eight per cent.
“The accounts receivable invoice did not show that the outstanding amount can be transferred to taxes and could receive a penalty.
“We are adjusting the accounts receivable fire invoices to show this information.
“After speaking with the ratepayer, they are experiencing hardships from this last year,” added the memo.
Larsen noted in the memo that the penalties on the firefighting bill added up to $148.
During discussion Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) Yvette Cassidy noted the County of Stettler will be using a portion of its Municipal Operating Surplus Transfer (MOST) grant from the provincial government to offset unpaid taxes and penalties.
The MOST grant was offered to municipalities by the Alberta government to address lost revenue or expenses caused by the pandemic.
Andrew Brysiuk, director of municipal services, noted there was no fire ban in effect at the time of the fire in question, and he also noted that county staff will change the way certain billing is handled to ensure all firefighting bills and penalties are as clear as possible.
Coun. Wayne Nixon stated that property owners are aware they are responsible for fires on their own property and added that he himself also had to pay costs for a fire located on his property.
Councillors unanimously approved waiving the penalties as requested by the ratepayer.
Stu Salkeld, Local Journalism Initiative reporter