County residents may see a tax hike next year after all, now that council has decided to bulk up the budget.
County council met for two days of budget talks on Dec. 13 and 19, with a third and possibly final day of talks expected today.
The draft budget presented to council earlier this fall by now acting chief administrative officer Rick Wojtkiw featured no tax hike.
That became a 0.47 per cent tax cut at the start of the budget debate due to unexpected savings the county got by deciding not to buy a new utility vehicle and trailer and from receiving a drop in their Local Authorities Pension Plan and Workers’ Compensation Board rates.
Councillors have since made many tweaks to the budget that, if passed, would result a 1.26 per cent tax hike.
If the budget were approved with these changes, the average county owner of a $445,765 house would pay about $1,677.88 in municipal taxes next year, or about $20.88 more than they do now. Add in projected increases to utility, education, and seniors levies, and most homeowners would pay about $156.88 more in all taxes next year.
This figure is very likely to change before council passes the budget, however, as there are several more additions and deletions up for debate.
Drains in, fire truck out
The two biggest changes to the budget so far involve drainage and a ladder truck.
The budget has for the last three years featured a one per cent tax hike to address a roughly $10 million backlog of drainage problems, council heard. Those hikes meant that the county currently had about $1.2 million in the budget to address the backlog.
Wojtkiw said staff had left the hike out this time as they were concerned they wouldn’t be able to address both drainage and the large amount of road-work planned for this year.
Council supported Coun. Wayne Bokenfohr’s call to restore the one per cent hike.
“A lot of residents are annually being flooded,” he said, and it will be decades before their drainage problems would be fixed at the current rate of funding.
“Some people are going to be dead before their basement stops flooding,” he joked.
This addition, if approved, would add $489,420 to the budget.
Councillors Neal Comeau, Dan Derouin, Patrick Tighe and Bokenfohr moved to remove a proposal to set aside $487,500 for an elevated master stream fire truck from the budget. The truck, which features a ladder-mounted platform and water cannon, is meant to be funded over two years.
“With the substantial growth seen in the Industrial Heartland, this apparatus is considered a critical and irreplaceable asset to combat industrial fires,” said fire chief Pat Mahoney, and would also protect large homes and structures elsewhere in the county.
This truck would benefit both residents and big industry, Coun. Susan Evans said. It’s already been delayed once and now won’t arrive before 2020. Given the industrial growth expected in the next few years, any further delays would put the county at great risk.
“I’m not willing to take that risk,” she said.
Tighe, Comeau and Bokenfohr said they wanted to see if the county could use industry and regional partnerships to meet this firefighting need.
“Safety is not an open chequebook,” Tighe said, and the county needs to take a broader view of emergency services.
While this decision would free up $487,500 if approved, it would not directly affect the tax increase, as the money comes from the cash the county expects to get from the Sturgeon Refinery, which is managed separately from the main budget. Council had yet to allocate this money as of Tuesday.
Council supported a move to fund a $150,000 service level policy development and municipal comparator review. Mayor Alanna Hnatiw said this study would help the county determine if it was using its staff efficiently.
Council also agreed to add $22,000 to fund an RCMP clerk, $20,495 for libraries, $15,000 for River Valley Alliance outreach events, and $146,116 to hire someone to manage the local road reconstruction program (which aims to improve some 128 km of county roads in 10 years).
Check stalbertgazette.com for updates on the budget debate.