Taxes: they’re one of the two certainties in life, and a perennial topic of discussion in any community. Sturgeon County is no exception.
A recent analysis provided to the Gazette by county commissioner Peter Tarnawsky found that Sturgeon County had the lowest residential tax rates and the sixth highest non-residential rates out of 12 towns, cities and counties in this region in 2017.
But are residents getting value for their money? This week, the Gazette asks mayoral candidates Alanna Hnatiw and Tom Flynn about taxation in Sturgeon.
Residential vs. commercial
While he acknowledged that there had been some steep residential tax hikes in the first two years of his term, Flynn said those early hikes were due to the county’s efforts to address legacy issues such as drainage problems, and that the county still had one of the lowest residential rates in the region. Council also approved a tax cut this year.
“I don’t see any reason for us to be increasing taxes,” Flynn said, and he suggested that residential tax cuts may be possible due to upcoming revenues from the Sturgeon Refinery.
Residential rates are competitive, but the county’s commercial ones are not, Hnatiw said. A recent study by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business ranked the county 63rd out of 87 municipalities in terms of “property tax fairness” (which it defined as the ratio between residential and non-residential rates, with a ratio of 1.0 indicating complete fairness), she noted.
“We need to consider lowering our commercial taxes to encourage growth in business that in turn creates jobs.”
Flynn said that the county long ago decided to put more weight on the industrial-commercial sector to keep it off homeowners and farmers. Still, he acknowledged that non-residential rates had crept up, and would have to be reined in as more revenues came on-stream. He also questioned the utility of the CFIB study, noting that some small communities in it had “fair” tax ratios because they had little industry to tax.
“Our commercial taxes are competitive with those of Edmonton, Strathcona and Fort Saskatchewan. They’re just a touch higher,” he said.
Hnatiw also argued that the county’s commercial tax rates “must have been a consideration” in Champion Petfoods’ recent decision to build its new plant in Parkland County instead of Sturgeon.
Flynn disagreed, saying administration had told him that the biggest factor was transportation – Champion needed road access, but couldn’t get it at its preferred county site because the province was dragging its feet on improving the Hwy. 15/37/823 intersection.
Frank Burdzy, the president of Champion, said time and transportation were not actually the main reasons behind their decision on the new plant.
“We were looking for something that was ready to go,” he said, and Parkland had one of the few sites that qualified for their timelines.
Too much staff?
A report to council last June found that the county had about 217 full-time positions as of 2017, or about 15 per cent more than it did in 2013. In that time, staffing costs rose about 40 per cent and inflation went up about six, while county population and assessment rose about five and 24 per cent, respectively. The county had the seventh-highest staff costs per capita compared to 11 other similar municipalities.
Hnatiw said the growth in the county’s staff was out of line with that of its population.
“I’m all for creating jobs, but that’s a large increase in a short period of time.”
Hnatiw called for a complete external operational and efficiency review of county operations similar to the one recently done by the Town of Morinville to make sure the county’s staff were getting results.
Flynn said the county needed these additional workers to manage rapid regional growth and the St. Albert, Edmonton, Bon Accord and Gibbons annexations, and said provincial stats show that the county was at the low end of the capital region when it came to wages and salary.
“It’s something we continually have to review,” he said.
Flynn said county residents were seeing value for their tax dollars.
“We’ve started to see a lot of our drainage issues cleared up,” he said as an example, and now have improved fire service in the Sturgeon Valley – something that has helped some residents reduce their insurance rates by 20 to 30 per cent.
Hnatiw said residents were dissatisfied with county services (as reflected in the county’s most recent resident satisfaction survey), and wanted to see more value for their money – particularly when it came to roads.
Roads and infrastructure will be the subject of next week’s mayoral Q&A.