St. Albert city council is set to begin budget deliberations at the end of the month, and up for debate with implications for next year's property tax rate are motions to provide funding for the newly formed downtown Business Improvement Area and to hire more Peace Officers
The motion to provide funding to the downtown BIA, which was put forward by Mayor Cathy Heron, could see the city match the BIA's operating budget next year by 100 per cent (up to $50,000), by 75 per cent in 2025, and by 50 per cent in 2026. The motion explicitly states that the funding would be generated through property taxes.
If passed, Heron's motion also entails the city providing an additional $10,000 in each of the three years specifically to help the BIA fund and organize the annual Snowflake Festival.
“Council has made downtown revitalization one of our five strategic priorities and... now that [the BIA has formed] I feel they'll have the best chance at success if they are given a little bit of support right off the beginning,” Heron said.
“I thought to get them going we can give them a little bit of operating support.”
The downtown BIA was formally established by council in September following nine months of organizing by Michelle McDonald, the co-owner of Tryst Wine and Small Plates, and Shannon Roche, the owner of Divine and Free Wellness Spa.
BIA's are technically corporations established through municipal bylaw and regulated provincially under the Municipal Government Act. There are more than 30 BIA's throughout the province, with most located in Edmonton and Calgary.
BIA's are funded through a tax levy assessed against all businesses located within a BIA's geographic area. The funds can be used for things like marketing, visitor attraction, event coordinating, strategic plans, and more.
Regarding the funding specifically for the Snowflake Festival, Heron said now that the St. Albert and District Chamber of Commerce have said they're no longer able to organize the event every year, such an event would fall under the BIA's purview.
“That downtown Snowflake Festival really does benefit the downtown businesses and that's the kind of thing that the BIA would probably be organizing anyway,” she said. “It's such a loved event here in St. Albert.”
More Peace Officers
Coun. Ken MacKay is looking to increase the number of peace officers employed by the city as he put forward a motion to hire two more officers, which would be funded through property taxes.
If MacKay's motion passes, St. Albert will have 13 bylaw officers on staff.
MacKay said besides the fact that the city is currently failing to meet its own standards of having one officer for every 5,000 residents, he feels as though the officer's jobs have gotten more complex and additional staffing resources haven't been provided to help.
“We haven't increased the numbers for quite a long time, yet we keep asking them to do more,” MacKay said, adding, “Whether it's patrolling the river valley, dealing with some of the issues downtown, dealing with some of the parking concerns, or dog investigations and just community standards in general.”
Hiring two additional officers would add nearly $340,000 to the city's 2024 budget, according to a report to council written by the director of emergency services, Everett Cooke. A $340,000 increase to the budget would amount to a 0.2 or 0.3 per cent property tax increase.
About $157,000 would be one-time material purchases to onboard the officers, including a new patrol vehicle, uniforms, and other equipment, Cooke wrote, although having two more officers would mean the city would have annual operating expenditures for salaries to the tune of $228,000 in 2025, and $242,000 in 2026.
One of the new officers would need to be a sergeant, Cooke's report explains, because the existing sergeant to general duty officer would be higher than the policy-determined maximum of 10 to one.
“By having a second sergeant, required administrative duties would be shared, increasing the ability of both sergeants to provide additional direct supervision while increasing their capacity to respond to calls,” Cooke wrote.
MacKay said the cost was more than he was expecting, but having the additional officers would be worth it.
Council meeting technology upgrades
Coun. Sheena Hughes has put forward a motion seeking to have almost $300,000 in reserve funding go towards upgrading the technology used to facilitate and stream council and committee meetings in St. Albert Place.
The motion specifically entails $175,000 in upgrades to council's chambers, where all regular council meetings take place, and $118,800 in upgrades to the Douglas Cardinal Boardroom, where all committee meetings take place.
The upgrades, according to a report written by city service desk analyst Shawn Kirkpatrick, include new “touch screen discussion stations” for each councillor in both council chambers and the boardroom, and new meeting management technology for administration's use.
The discussion stations, Kirkpatrick explained, function largely like computers as the stations would have microphones, cameras, and would be able to visualize meeting agendas and vote results.
Motions to reduce tax increase
Only a handful of motions have been put forward to date that seek to lower the proposed 5.5 per cent property tax increase, including multiple motions put forward by Hughes.
If passed, one of Hughes' motions would decrease the property tax increase by 0.2 per cent by using $287,900 in 2023 assessment growth and applying it against the tax requirement.
Assessment growth is tax revenue collected by the city from new properties that weren't budgeted for at the beginning of the year.
If Hughes' motion fails, the $287,900 will be transferred to the city's stabilization reserve, which is usually used for one-off spending on city needs throughout the year.
Another motion put forward by Hughes that will reduce the property tax increase, if passed, is to increase the projected revenue for Servus Place by $180,000.
Hughes said increasing the projected revenue was an option identified by city staff earlier this month in a report detailing how the recreation centre was projected to have a $1.5 million operating deficit this year.
The recreation centre's projected deficit is actually $740,000 less than what administration had budgeted for at the beginning of 2023, which administration said was a result of better-than-expected revenue from memberships, swimming programs, facility rentals, and day-admissions.
Hughes told the Gazette she was feeling “stuck” when it came to finding manageable ways to reduce the projected tax increase.
“I'm just going to try to figure out the best I can but I'm really feeling stuck on trying to figure out what I can do to reduce this,” she said, adding that most of the budget motions put forward to date will be adding to the budget, and increasing the property tax rate.
“We have all these motions to increase it... and I'm just feeling very, very stuck.”
Council is scheduled to begin budget deliberations on Nov. 27, with additional meetings scheduled for Nov. 29 and Dec. 4 if necessary.