Residents chime in on budget
Councillors take turns talking with forum attendees
By: Peter Boer
| Posted: Tuesday, Nov 06, 2012 06:15 pm
Issues ranging from taxes to policing were aired Monday at a new style of town hall forum that put citizens face-to-face with councillors.
It was the first of three such meetings this week, part of the deliberation process that will lead to the passage of the city’s 2013 budget in mid-December.
Approximately 20 taxpayers, as well as every member of council, city manager Patrick Draper and 15 staff members, sat down in Sir George Simpson School to discuss city finances and the proposed 2013 budget.
“This evening is really about you and listening to what you have to say about the budget,” Draper said following a 20-minute presentation on the proposed budget, which calls for a possible tax increase of 5.14 cent. Mayor Nolan Crouse has said he would like to limit the increase to three per cent.
Rather than using a traditional town hall forum in which residents addressed their questions and concerns to council and city staff as a whole, one after another, those who attended were scattered across the room at tables in groups of four. Councillors sat at each table for roughly eight minutes before Nolan Crouse, who did not sit at tables and instead hovered in the room, asked councillors to move to a new table.
The only common theme across tables was the city’s high residential tax rate. The budget proposes a 2.32 per cent increase to maintain service levels, as well as another 2.82 per cent hike to fund 38 new projects, or business cases.
Resident Bill Tuchak came to the forum armed with 10 years worth of property tax bills. He told Coun. Len Bracko that his taxes had increased $1,900 over the last decade, which he averaged out to 6.8 per cent annually.
Plotting his property taxes on a graph shows a relatively constant rate of taxation through the 1990s, then a sharp, escalating increase starting early last decade.
“It looks like a hockey stick,” Tuchak said. “It’s all about the money.”
But at other tables, discussion was mixed between such proposals as hiring six more police officers over the next three years, the city’s proposed bids for the 2019 Canada Winter Games and adding to the non-residential tax base.
“There is a case to be made that we do need industrial, more economic development,” said Lynda Flannery, former president of the St. Albert Taxpayers Association. “We are revenue poor.”
But any such development has to include some way of measuring the value of the city’s investment, Flannery said.
“We don’t have any way of measuring the results. You’re spending a whole bunch of money. You have no idea if it’s linked to the results,” she said.
Adding more police officers was also seen by some as problematic. Ken MacKay, who has served on the Servus Credit Union Place task force and community services advisory board, as well as the council remuneration committee, wondered if the city wasn’t approaching policing backwards.
“How do you build a business plan for six new police officers without a long-term policing plan?” MacKay asked Coun. Cathy Heron. Completion of the plan was approved in the 2012 budget, but it has not yet been finalized.
After she switched tables, Heron also listened to Ted Durham share his concerns about the proposed bid for the 2019 Canada Winter Games, wondering how much St. Albert businesses would benefit from a large-scale event over a short period of time.
“It benefits business over the short-term, increases taxes over the long-term, which hurts those businesses,” Durham said to Heron’s agreement.
A second open house was scheduled for Tuesday night at St. Albert Catholic High School after the Gazette’s print deadline. The third and final town hall goes Thursday from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Youth Community Centre in Grandin mall.