St. Albert Mayor Cathy Heron met with the Gazette’s editorial board on Wednesday to discuss a broad variety of issues and opportunities facing the city.
Heron says she’s already laying the groundwork for a collaborative relationship with Sturgeon County, which will be essential in order for the city’s planned land annexation to go ahead.
She’s hoping the city will be able to submit its application for annexation to the province without it being contested by the county. The type of high-density development the city wants to undertake in the annexed lands is something the county hasn’t been interested in undertaking itself, she says.
“There will be hurdles. Annexations are never easy,” Heron said.
The trick will be establishing that St. Albert truly needs the land. A new annexation negotiating committee has formed, which will include St. Albert representatives as well as ones from Sturgeon County, to hash out the details.
One priority for Heron is to claim a large enough piece of land that annexations won’t need to be a regular topic going forward.
“I would like to avoid repeating annexations every 10 years. If we could get 80 years of growth out of it, that would be nice,” she said.
Ray Gibbon Drive
“I think this council would be open to front-ending some money to alleviate pressures on the south side of Ray Gibbon Drive,” Heron said.
During the election, many of the candidates who were elected said a fix for the narrow stretch of road was one of their priorities. Talk circulated about having the city start work on the road and having the province reimburse them later.
Heron said city manager Kevin Scoble has a few ideas related to installing temporary measures on the southern stretch of the road.
“There was talk of a lane on the west side that would just bypass the intersection at LeClair, or a full expansion between LeClair and the Henday,” she said.
She expects the issue will be discussed more in-depth when councillors meet for their strategic planning session.
Proposed tax increase
With a proposed 2.9 per cent tax increase on the line for the 2018 budget, Heron says she’s confident people are willing to pay for the services they want.
“I think (the increase) is in line with what I’m hearing from residents, in what they want and need,” she said.
And although she expects the increase to come down as council tackles the budget, the future will likely involve similar increases.
“That’s what our city manager is warning us about: unless we find some other ways to generate revenue, 2.9 per cent is probably going to be consistent with what they’re going to bring us for the next four years.”
As for the city’s drastically underfunded 10-year capital plan, Heron said debt may be the answer.
“I would never want to take anything out of the plan,” she said.
“What I’ve witnessed for seven years is we just keep pushing things off. And at some point, we have to build, and probably taking on debt will be the way to do it.”
She pointed to the ice sheet, swimming pool and branch library as issues that are still important to her, along with development of the heritage trails from the museum down to Grey Nuns White Spruce Park.
“Those would be on my wish list still,” she said.
Heron believes some of the city’s capital funding and tax woes could be offset if St. Albert were to develop a separate stand-alone utilities corporation.
“We could generate a dividend and that dividend could go to infrastructure or to offset taxes, one or the other,” she said.
She points to Epcor as a prime example. Epcor’s sole shareholder is Edmonton and the money Edmonton receives from that company comes from the bulk water surrounding municipalities buy, such as St. Albert.
“Every time you turn on the tap, you’re subsidizing Edmonton’s taxes,” she said.
Although water may not be feasible for St. Albert to take on, other utilities such as electricity and heat may be – especially if the city moves forward with zero-waste processing.
City council will be receiving a report from Scoble on the feasibility of a utilities corporation in a few weeks.
Another idea Heron has for revenue generation is charging electrical franchise fees. She recalls a report council saw just before the 2013 election which included a recommendation for such a fee.
“Every municipality in Alberta our size has one,” she said.
The fee could start at five to six per cent and eventually work its way up to 18 per cent, generating roughly $5 million each year.
But how would residents react to a hike to their electrical bills?
“The report that I saw in 2013 said the residential electrical bill will not go up as much as our taxes could possibly go down,” Heron said.
“It generates some revenue either to offset taxes or that we could build with.”
Such a fee would hit bigger electricity users, such as light industrial, harder. That could reduce St. Albert’s regional competitiveness, but Heron says the fee could be set two to three per cent below the rest of the region to help maintain commercial competition.
She said she puts a higher priority on St. Albert staying competitive than she does on other upcoming initiatives, such as proposed changes to St. Albert’s stormwater rate model. Those changes are supposed to come to council for debate in the second quarter of 2018.
Changing the stormwater rate model to include an impermeability factor – including things that cause runoff such as pavement and roofs – would hit some businesses hard, forcing a few to pay orders of magnitude more than they currently do, although city staff are currently working to solve that problem.
Heron said she doesn’t think council will ever take it so far as to reduce St. Albert’s competitiveness.
“We need businesses more than anywhere in the region, I think, so we always have to be competitive on that side,” she said.
“If that’s the result, that our businesses are hit too hard, we’ll back away.”