United we stand, divided we fall

Written by Brenda Schimke

Rural Albertans said they wanted more policing. Kenney fulfilled his election promise although it came as a surprise when municipalities were told they would foot the bill.

According to Red Deer’s mayor, Tara Veer, Premier Kenney promised to discuss with them any changes to the emergency dispatch services, yet the mayors of Wood Buffalo, Red Deer, Calgary and Lethbridge learned about their local services being disbanded through the media.

Municipality leaders pleaded with the Kenney government to not go ahead with Bill 29, the Local Elections Act without changes.

New language will now facilitate secret donors and unreported large donations. Local politicians were adamant— money should never be a deciding factor, rather elections should be open, honest and transparent to avoid corruption and abuse.

In Kenney’s 2019-20 omnibus budget, operating dollars for municipalities were cut by six per cent over four years. Likewise, subsequent annual cuts to the Municipality Sustainability Initiative (MSI), a major source of infrastructure funding, were announced.

The Kenney government made a 50 per cent cut to what municipalities will receive in lieu of taxes for crown owned properties (schools, hospitals, government buildings). This cut takes an additional $81 million out of municipal budgets.

In 2019, Premier Kenney gave municipalities an offset credit after cutting taxes payable by 35 per cent for shallow gas wells and pipeline companies. In 2020, municipalities won’t receive a corresponding credit leaving local ratepayers to absorb the loss.

Now Kenney is proposing changes to how these properties are assessed which will permanently lower their tax liability and crush municipality budgets.

Taxes outstanding to Alberta municipalities are currently $173 million, up 114 per cent from last year. Ninetyeight per cent of these delinquent accounts are related to shallow gas wells and pipelines.

In 2019, Kenney legislated away a municipality’s rights under bankruptcy legislation to collect delinquent accounts, leaving costly legal action as their only redress.

Kneehill County just wrote off almost $600,000 in oil and gas unpaid taxes. Over this year and last, the County of Stettler wrote off $7.2 million in unpaid taxes, primarily made up of oil and gas companies. Kenney’s new plan will cost municipalities an additional $3 million to $4 million in the first year alone.

The Kenney government has stepped forward with financial help because of the pandemic. It has matched the federal government’s $500 million contribution to provide a total of $1 billion extra to municipalities to cope with the fall out of the Covid-19 shutdown and the safe re-opening of businesses.

The Kenney government is also putting money into municipal capital projects to create quick jobs. Municipalities are thankful, but for the ‘King of Cuts’, it’s an unwelcome diversion.

Municipalities are the lowest level of governance and yet provide the most basic of services—water, sewer, garbage disposal, recreational facilities, libraries, by-law enforcement, social services, housing for seniors, roads and bridges, public transportation, parks, walking/biking trails, hockey arenas, building and development standards, support for local businesses and economic development—to name just a few.

Municipal leaders are important voices to be heard yet Kenney doesn’t see their value.

Edicts come down from above without consultation or after a mere two-week consultation period which is simply inadequate to be meaningful.

Being a local politician is no easy feat—their decisions get challenged every time they walk the street or sit in a coffee shop.

These leaders go into politics not for fame or fortune but to make their communities a better place.

Alberta is at its strongest when the provincial and local governments work together to serve their citizens.

Kenney’s obvious disdain, or a death wish, for Alberta municipalities, is mystifying.

About the author

Brenda Schimke

Schimke is a Graduate with Distinction from the University of Alberta with a BCom degree. She has lived and worked in Alberta, BC and Ontario.