County residents will pay about $144 more in taxes next year under council’s 2018 budget, which includes a wage freeze for council and management.
Sturgeon County council passed the 2018 budget last Dec. 20, wrapping up three days of deliberations. The budget includes some $80.6 million in capital and operational spending.
Councillors started budget talks on Dec. 13 with a proposed 0.47 tax cut presented by acting chief administrative officer Rick Wojtkiw. That turned into a 0.49 per cent tax hike by the end of the talks after council approved numerous adjustments to it.
The tax hike will add about $8.12 to the municipal tax bill of the owner of a typical $445,765 county home, bringing it to about $1,665.12, budget documents suggest. Add in a projected $79 hike to the education and seniors levies and an average $57 increase in utilities, and most homeowners can expect to pay about $144.12 more in all taxes next year.
This figure could change by the time council sets its mill rates next spring.
Additions and deletions
Council added about 26 items total to the budget. There’s $100,000 for an agricultural master plan, for example, $225,000 for a Sturgeon Valley area structure plan, and $250,000 for a new online fire and pet permit software. Other additions include about $1 million to improve road maintenance, $146,856 for regional recreation cost sharing, and $150,000 for an external efficiency review of county operations.
Last Dec. 20, Mayor Alanna Hnatiw and councillors Dan Derouin, Karen Shaw and Susan Evans backed a $101,536 plan to hire a new full-time firefighter to improve service and reduce overtime.
Council also supported a move by councillors Patrick Tighe and Wayne Bokenfohr to add $244,710 to the budget to bulk-up the county’s reserves.
“The more we can put aside for savings the better off we are,” Bokenfohr said.
“We’re one culvert (failure) away from having to borrow money sometimes.”
Comeau, Hnatiw, Tighe, and Derouin cut a $40,000 item for new road crown measurement tools (which county transportation manager Shane Hogan said would have paid for themselves within a year if bought) from the budget. Derouin argued that road crews could make do with the slope meters they already used when maintaining gravel roads.
Bokenfohr joined them to cut a $20,000 project to study satellite offices for public works staffers from the budget, arguing that such sites should be established through negotiations with the county’s neighbours.
Hnatiw won the support of everyone but Shaw and Evans to freeze wages for managers and senior managers for a year, saving $84,874.
Hnatiw said this freeze was an acknowledgement of economic conditions in Alberta and not a knock against administration’s performance.
“In no way do we want to weaken or demotivate the leadership.”
Evans criticized the cut, saying that the county needed to pay competitive wages to keep qualified staff, and criticized Bokenfohr for talking about hiring local artist Lewis Lavoie to do a mosaic mural for the county’s centennial next year immediately after this cut passed.
“We just froze merit and (cost-of-living) increases for staff and now we’re going to spend it on a picture,” Evans said.
Evans convinced council to impose a similar freeze on its own pay to save $4,000, saying, “If we’re asking senior leadership for a freeze, then we should lead and do the same.”
As for the mural, Wojtkiw said administration would look into its cost and said council could fund it out of reserves later if desired.
Council also cut a $487,500 deposit on a new ladder truck from the budget and added $489,420 to address a backlog of drainage issues, $20,495 for libraries, and $15,000 for River Valley Alliance outreach events.
These items all come out of the roughly $15 million the county expects to get from the Sturgeon Refinery, and will not be funded unless the refinery starts operations (which is expected to happen sometime in 2018).
In an interview, Hnatiw said council would have to reconsider these items and possibly tap reserves if the refinery didn’t start full operations next year.
“I think we need to seriously reconsider what we’re doing to support libraries,” she said of the library funding, as libraries were taking on new roles with supporting the public.
The budget will be available at sturgeoncounty.ca in January.