On Monday, October 18, 2010 seven people were all smiles. And justifiably so. They were just provided a stamp of approval by the voters and acknowledged as the newly elected officials of the Council of the City of Wetaskiwin. Mayor Bill Elliot and Aldermen Patricia MacQuarrie, Mark McFaul, Glenn Ruecker, Joe Branco, Dale Crabtree and Barry Hawkes were granted 3 years of opportunity to ‘shape’ the future of Wetaskiwin. .
Although they had participated in demanding and energy draining campaigns, getting elected was the easy part. It’s kinda like getting married. The courting, engagement and wedding are challenging but fun. Paying the bills and taking on new and extra responsibilities and having to listen to someone else’s demands…..well, that’s when the reality sets in.
Reality has set in and the honeymoon is over for City Council. They are constantly faced with tough and often unpopular decisions. Main Street Revitalization, the Aquatic Centre, development of the airport. They are plagued with complaints about potholes, absence of serviced land to offer developers, being named the crime capital of Alberta, businesses closing and the general dirty and unattractive appearance of the City. Ratepayers are filling out the report card and the general mood is that the City should be doing better….much better.
The Next Steps 2012 Public Budget Presentation
Most recently all the challenges blended into one…balancing the present budget and preparing a new one. On Monday, November 21st, 2011 the public was invited to hear Mayor Bill Elliot unveil a review of the breakdown of the proposed tax hike of 5.25% that will be passed on to the residents of the City of Wetaskiwin.
Mayor Elliot in his presentation, ‘ the Next Steps 2012 Public Budget Presentation’, explained there are two tax rate classes in Wetaskiwin; residential and non-residential. Both are comprised of three categories: Municipal, Education, and Wetaskiwin Area & Lodge Authority as shown below. He was quick to point out the City is the collecting body for the education and Wetaskiwin Area & Lodge Authority and has no control over those levies.
Next spring, when ratepayers trudge down to City Hall to hand over a cheque to pay their property taxes they will be questioning the management of their annual investment in Wetaskiwin. Taxes are not a voluntary payment or donation, but an enforced contribution and an added 5.25% contribution is a big number. They won’t be jumping-for-joy with the experience but most will accept the fact that the City needs resources to operate and provide programs and services for this community.
Sifting through the numbers presented by Mayor Elliot, the proposed Aquatic Centre will cost approximately 1.5%, Airport Service improvements 0.9% and inflation 3%. This will mean an increase of $107.00 per year on a $300,000 home. Add another $7.52 per month for water, sewer and garbage and the amount will increase to almost $200 per year.
Are taxpayers O.K. with the Tax Increase
Are taxpayers O.K. with this increase? To understand it better, let’s simplify the taxpayer/City relationship. The words ‘ratepayer’ and ‘tax’ tend to have an association with discomfort and pose questions about how hard-earned money will be used. Maybe we need to view our City governance using corporate terms. Change the name ‘taxpayer’ to ‘investor’ and ‘tax’ to ‘investment’. We can go a step further and call the Mayor the CEO or President who is responsible for the overall direction of the operation. City Aldermen are the Board of Directors who monitor how the ‘investment’ will be best used. They all act on advice from the CAO (Chief Administrative Officer who is responsible for administrative management). Continuing with corporate terminology, each and every ratepayer is an investor.
What is the Role of the Investor (Taxpayer)
As investors we should want an accurate assessment and specifics of what our ‘return-on-investment’ is. But, let’s be fair when judging this information. We can grumble about the decisions that are being made by the City. We can also, as investors, take an active role in helping shape those discussions and decisions. For a community of 12,000 people attendance at some of the Open Houses and information sessions was dismally low. The City had done its part. They offered ample opportunity for the ‘investors’ to access information and offer their input into the important decisions. So, we can we assume taxpayers are content with how their money is invested (taxes) and the returns from their investment (services provided from the investments)??
Services vs. Taxes
Asking the investors to put their money into the new projects, a Revitalized Main Street and a new Aquatic Centre are decisions that would be much easier to consider during great economic times. These are not great economic times. For the 2012 budget year the estimated City debt will be $27,360,000 or 78% of the debt limit the City is allowed to accumulate.
You can play the numbers anyway you (or the City) wants so they are best suited to whoever is scrutinizing them. But that aside, the stark reality is, unfortunately our elected officials cannot be committed to lowering or even maintaining taxes at the existing (2011) level. In the long run, this kind of thinking could cost us more money and simultaneously provide us with less service.
Is 5.25 % the correct number. One can only speculate on the possible impact of not increasing taxes. The majority of residents may grumble, but in the end will opt for this increase in taxes to protect a valued service. We are not prepared to give up our Library, parks such as By-the-Lake Park, playgrounds, trails, recreation facilities and programs, RCMP and by-law protection, economic development, fire services, snow removal, airport maintenance, road maintenance, building inspection, FCSS and Archives. Oh, did I mention snow removal, snow removal, snow removal…..
Can We Continue to Carry the Tax Burden
Taxes are defensible as they fund activities that are necessary and beneficial to Wetaskiwin. Although the cost of providing those services rises every year, the burden of paying for them falls on the same, too few. It is critical economic development must grow and the Wetaskiwin is the beneficiary of productive results that will create jobs and generate new property tax revenues to share the tax burden. Economic development is not one person, one department but everyone in the community. However, the City Economic Development Department must take the lead with creating economic progress by attracting businesses through unique characteristics such as economic sanctions, lifestyle, location, healthcare or education opportunities. Wetaskiwin has lots of these but we need to do a better job of convincing others of that. Only then, will the people of Wetaskiwin find they do no longer have to carry the entire tax burden. Only then will Wetaskiwin plug the hole of outsourcing; people seeking product and services outside this community. Only then will we stop the downward spiral Wetaskiwin is struggling with and move forward. Too few have done too much for too long.