The Town of Stettler seemed anxious and wary of the provincial government’s 2022 budget which was announced in Edmonton Feb. 24, noting at their regular council meeting important programs appear to have been nixed and that Premier Jason Kenney has balanced the provincial budget on local taxpayer’s backs.
At the regular council meeting March 1 Town Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) Greg Switenky presented a budget summary letter from Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver that reviewed many of the major announcements in the provincial budget.
The CAO noted, from a municipal point of view, the big announcement in the budget was “a severe haircut” in infrastructure funding, meaning funding for capital projects like paved roads and bridge rehab was being cut. Switenky stated most municipalities knew this coming as it’s been alluded to for quite some time.
The CAO also pointed out some other infrastructure programs which Stettler historically relied upon have apparently been rolled into the larger Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI) program and no longer exist.
Switenky noted the elimination of some of these programs came as a bit of a surprise to Town of Stettler staff but the ministry defended itself, according to the CAO, by noting that announcement had been made last October.
McIver’s letter bluntly stated how much infrastructure spending was being cut.
“As we discussed last year, MSI capital funding is averaging $722 million a year for three years, from 2021-2024,” stated the minister’s letter. Switenky pointed out if pre-2022 funding levels had been left in place, that figure would have been over $900 million meaning about $250 million has been cut.
Coun. Gord Lawlor stated that the amount cut from infrastructure is coincidentally roughly the same amount of money a new provincial police force would cost, according to provincial government estimates.
Switenky added it’s also roughly the same amount the Government of Alberta collects every year in property taxes.
Switenky stated municipalities will have to come to grips with the fact there are reduced funds available for infrastructure projects.
He noted that the Town of Stettler shouldn’t be affected in 2022 because of grant funds left unspent last year. plus reserves, but future infrastructure planning could be a challenge.
Mayor Sean Nolls agreed 2023 could be a challenge, noting an alternative could be budgeting for infrastructure projects only every other year to save up the grant funds.
Nolls stated he would like to see the Town of Stettler lobby MLA Nate Horner very strongly for more infrastructure funding “…because this isn’t fair and isn’t feasible,” pointing out large multi-year projects like Stettler’s downtown would be unfeasible.
More bad news for municipalities, noted Switenky, is that it appears the provincial government’s school requisition will increase this year; this is the property tax money collected for Edmonton by municipalities to fund the education system.
The CAO stated estimates are that Stettler taxpayers will owe Edmonton about $74,000 more this year but he pointed out Stettler also has new growth which may help cover those costs.
As councillors continued to discuss the impact of the 2022 provincial budget on the Town of Stettler Switenky pointed out he always looks closely to see what effects budgets will have on popular agencies such as the public library and FCSS, and it appeared to him that the 2022 budget is a “hold the line” budget, which means those agencies should see fairly stable funding.
However, Switenky added agencies have to deal with inflation too, which could affect their local budgets, so the town will have to wait and see how it plays out this year.
A bright spot in the town council’s discussion was a summary of changes to the way contaminated or “brownfield” sites are handled.
Switenky stated it appears that the province is going to clarify who is responsible for contaminated property with a “polluter pays” approach although councillors discussed the problem that some polluters were companies which no longer exist.
The CAO also pointed out the budget holds more money for crown prosecutors to address the criminal court backlog.
Mayor Nolls noted he and Stettler County Reeve Larry Clarke attended the budget announcement in Edmonton and gave his impression to council. “They were very proud of how they balanced the budget on the backs of municipalities,” said Nolls.
Councillors unanimously accepted the provincial budget report as information.
Stu Salkeld, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter