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Candidate Q&A: Taxation

St. Albert candidates running for mayor and city council sound off on whether increasing taxes could be a viable solution for addressing funding issues.

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The Gazette has reached out to all St. Albert candidates with a list of 12 questions, and the answers will run in The Gazette each week as the Oct. 18 election approaches. Question topics touch on taxation, climate, development, funding shortfalls, business, traffic, transparency, reconciliation, the city’s Badger Lands solar-farm project, and more. Now we want to hear from you. What questions are at the top of your mind going into St. Albert’s municipal election? Email us the questions you'd like candidates to answer: [email protected]

While raising taxes is one option to address St. Albert’s infrastructure funding deficit, a tax hike could make living in St. Albert less affordable. 

Property taxes have increased annually about 1.8-per-cent over the last 10 years. Now, the city is eyeing a four- to five-per-cent tax increase beginning as soon as 2024 to cover its funding shortfall. 

To offset every one-per-cent tax increase, the city has said $1.2 million in revenue will have to be generated. The Gazette asked all 2021 mayoral and council candidates running in St. Albert whether they say raising taxes is a solution to the city’s problems, and to explain their reasoning. 

Mayoral candidates had 120 words to answer the question: 

Bob Russell: Raising taxes is only one of the methods of dealing with deficits. Cutting spending is a first step, and then we look to reduce the costs of developing new areas with an emphasis on commercial and industrial development. Again, I would look to the municipal planning commission to hold hearings on every new development to ensure transparency and to keep city costs to a minimum.

Cathy Heron: No. We have identified many efficiencies over the last term and the operation review has outlined many more. Next term we will be able to implement many of them. We have also introduced priority-based budgeting and I would explore multi-year budgets. If you look at our record over the last many years, our change in taxes has been lower than the cost-of-living increases, which demonstrates efficiency discoveries. Our community continually expresses no desire for service reductions, so the next step is new sources of revenue. There are lots of other revenue sources we can explore before putting the burden on taxpayers. We don't need to raise taxes. 

David Letourneau: Raising taxes should always be a last resort when trying to address solutions to the city’s problems. On the cost-savings side, rather than relying on costly external consultants, we need to leverage the city’s talented internal expertise for innovative solutions and cost-saving efficiencies. On the revenue side, as stated in the previous responses, there are also other sustainable ways to create revenue other than having residents shoulder the burden. 

Angela Wood: Increasing taxes as a solution to a city’s issues should not be the first course of action. We must hold the line on excessive spending. We need to do more to get our fiscal house in order, which includes looking at current processes, programs, and projects.  Council needs to make it a higher priority to look for efficiencies, which is paramount given St. Albert's high tax rates. The recent operational review is a starting point to have further discussions on how we prioritize programs and our operating and capital spending decisions. We must ensure St. Albert is a desirable and affordable place to live for all people who choose to make this city their home.  

Council candidates had 80 words to answer the question:

Kevan Jess: Raising taxes is never a solution, but simply prolongs the problem. Increases past average inflation should only be for higher levels of service. Spending $1 million for a consultant to ask staff to find savings is unreasonable. Was this outside the scope of existing internal resources? The city needs to create a culture of continuous improvement, asking: “Can we can do this better? Does this continue to provide value and reflect the values of the city? Is the city the most effective provider of this service?”

Sandy Clark: I am all about fiscal responsibility and common-sense decision making. Unfortunately, property-tax increases are a potential reality as costs to run a municipality increase year over year. However, I would seek to ensure that any increases are kept to a minimum and that residents receive the best value possible for the taxes that each of us pay to live in this wonderful city.  

Ross Guffei: My answer is no. What problems are we talking about? The lack of transparency by administration? The last council never asking for any details on spending proposals, and approving every budget blindly? The lack of desire to make the traffic on St. Albert Trail flow properly? I believe that the real problems in St. Albert are systemic in nature and require a massive change in attitude at the city. These issues cannot be solved by increasing taxation.

Mike Ferguson: We are taxed at a very high rate. It must be our spending. Trim some of the fat, as they say.

Gilbert Cantin: I think Alberta has been hit enough from all sides in the last seven years. The last thing people need is a tax increase. St. Albert needs to attract more business and industry so the tax burden is not just on residential owners. With the annexation underway to the west and north, we can reserve more land for industry and business.

Isadore Stoyko: No. Less spending on wants instead of needs. Until we can balance a budget and see some savings on internal programs and capital spending, the city is going to have to take a real hard look at all programs and services that the city is providing right now.

Joseph Trapani: I do not support raising taxes for past council actions (what is referred to in the question as “problems”). However, I do support putting funds in our budget every fiscal year to fund the past mistakes. We need to cut back what we can, but not stop altogether to support our city community. Stop wasting money, like making disability sidewalks where there is no way to go. Check out Perron Street and St. Michael Street.

Wes Brodhead: Simply raising taxes to fund requests to the city for support is never the answer. Councillors need to balance the needs within the community with the ability of the community to pay. Since 2011 the average annual tax rate increase was 1.8 per cent, while the average annual inflation rate was 1.72 per cent. This council success was accomplished through tight fiscal management. The challenge for future councillors is to identify new funding sources to offset the need to address inflationary costs through taxation. 

Wally Popik: Raising taxes should be a last resort. Looking at other options will always identify areas of waste and redundancy if we get the right people involved in those discussions. If we keep simply raising taxes, we will too soon find people on fixed incomes will no longer be able to afford to live here and we will no longer be able to take care of our infrastructure. The results will not be favourable.  

Natalie Joly: St. Albert is one of the most safe, vibrant, and beautiful family communities in Canada. We also have some of the healthiest financial reserves and lowest per-capita debt. That said, challenges relating to aging infrastructure and declining support from higher levels of government mean that revenue opportunities or service reductions must be explored. Operational efficiency is addressed in the fiscal review and remaining options include service-level reductions, increasing non-traditional revenue, or increasing traditional revenue like fees and taxes.

Jennifer Cote: Incremental changes to tax rates should be expected over time. However, sharp raises should always be a last resort. We need to carefully evaluate the purpose of any proposed increases: Is it to enhance the breadth and scope of services offered to our community? Is it to alleviate a shortfall due to irresponsible or unnecessary spending?
 The incoming council must carefully review how tax dollars are being spent, and identify areas where we can scale back spending to avoid sharp increases in the future.

Mike Killick: I believe we have a spending problem; we need to look at getting better value for existing taxes, not raising taxes. We need to grow the tax base, especially by attracting new businesses. Increasing taxes could have a negative effect: it could drive residential and business development to other municipalities where taxes are lower. Raising taxes would also negatively affect our seniors living on fixed incomes who have built our great city.   

Shelley Biermanski: Raising taxes is never the first solution. By constantly raising taxes, administration is given the go ahead to not look for cost savings and being efficient. Value for tax dollars is the council’s job to protect. Council should be the voice of balance for all taxpayers. 

Ken MacKay: No. I believe that an important job of a city councillor is to develop our community for future generations, but it must be done responsibly, carefully stewarding the tax dollars of today’s generation who pays for it. However, without predictable and consistent revenues, it is challenging to provide consistent levels of service to residents. I remain committed to not using taxpayer dollars to deal with our challenges; however, I will continue to explore ways of generating new sources of revenue. 

Louis Sobolewski: Council has a variety of methods to solve our city’s financial issues and although raising taxes is one of those methods, I believe that it should be our last method of choice — just like how you can’t out-train a bad diet, you cannot out-tax wasteful spending. Fixing our city’s financial problems must begin with evaluating our spending first before we can even think about raising taxes. 

Donna Kawahara: Raising taxes should never be the solution; we pay enough in taxes as it is. Many residents are already feeling the rising cost of living from other areas. We should be finding efficiencies within the budget to ensure that tax revenue is spent wisely. We should find other sources of revenue to fund new expenses before any new construction begins. 

Sheena Hughes: During my eight years on council, I have focused on keeping tax increases to a minimum. I have fought against hidden tax increases, such as the electrical franchise fee. Value for tax dollars, focusing on finding efficiencies, and challenging the current spending habits need to be the focus over raising taxes. St. Albert needs to be affordable for all, and the taxes are a barrier for many. This must remain top of mind with each spending decision. 

Shawn LeMay: No. That’s the last thing I ever want to do, and I strongly believe there is no appetite among electors to go down that road. I’m convinced the previous council was wasting money, overspending, and committing too much on too little. Everywhere I go, I see opportunities for savings, and I’m hearing that these observations are shared by far too many voters. We need to attract more businesses to the city that can contribute healthily to the tax base. 

Leonard Wilkins: No. Raising taxes is our largest problem. Reducing spending is the solution. Waste examples: Borrowing $34 million to build a solar farm when not one other municipality in Canada has made money trying the same thing. Spending $3.5 million to install a single-lane traffic circle on a four-lane road (by City Hall). Spending $240,000 for the “Asparageese” in the traffic circle by City Hall. Spending about $800,000 recirculating pond water down two artificial creeks in Heritage Lakes.

Rachel Jones: It is one solution — but not necessarily the best one. Increasing the tax burden for residents should only be done where it’s a necessity. It is not sustainable to keep raising taxes for residents and not explore and build other streams of revenue. If taxes keep climbing, residents will be unhappy (e.g. low or fixed incomes, single parents, seniors) and St. Albert will be seen as an unaffordable city to live in.

Rachel Narvey

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