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City of Red Deer

City Council Forum Part 4: What is the appropriate approach to municipal tax increases?

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City Hall
In the closing days of the municipal election campaign Todayville has considered the issues that seem to be emerging as priorities for Red Deer voters.  We’ve taken the opportunity to send questions via email to all the Candidates for Mayor and City Council and we’ve promised we’ll post the responses of those who get back to us.  We are happy to add responses from those who haven’t gotten back to us yet over the weekend, but here is a collection from some of the contenders.
We’re separating the responses into the four questions we asked.  The fourth question is always a favourite of taxpayers.  With this question we are attempting to give you insight into how the candidates feel about their power to affect the rate of taxation. Here’s question 4.

4. How do you feel about the following goals: a. Zero percent tax increase? b. Tax increases which are lower than or are tied to the level of inflation? and c. Tax increases which reflect the need of the municipality to correctly provide the appropriate level of services to taxpayers, visitors, and those among us who don’t pay municipal taxes?  Are you committing to one of these options through your mandate?

Mayoral Candidates 

Buck Buchanan

We have had zero taxes and that certainly can come back to bite You when the adjustment has to be made which can amount to double digit increases down the road. The rate of inflation can be an interesting connection as many things the Municipality has to purchase or use are not tied to the inflation rate so again can be skewed number. I would like to see us figure out a better system to tie the Service Levels to Taxation. As a taxpayer I think people only want to know what they are paying for and in some instances what they are getting for their money. This can be difficult in some situations like the Balancing Pool in the Power situation where 50% of the bill is dictated by AESO the governing body that has oversight for Power for the province. I will definitely commit to the Value for Money in the Service Delivery and some of these audits have already taken place.

Ken Johnston

Taxes ensure that current city services are delivered and our infrastructure maintained. We were successful in a 0% tax for 2021 and also a 0% tax or 2022 in last year‘s budget. As you indicate taxation is very complex and cannot easily be tied to the consumer price index as often the  municipal price index is higher . For example the cost of steel, concrete, lumber etc. is typically higher than the consumer price index measurement of inflation. A dedication to operational efficiencies and value for money audits by both Administration and Council will continue if I am successful. We all want value for our tax dollar, that’s the critical measurement . I’ll ensure our citizens have a voice in how we deliver services and at what cost.

Council Candidates

Bruce Buruma

  • The City of Red Deer is a $500 million a year operation–including operating and capital budgets. Some of the most important work of Council is setting the direction for our budget. That requires individuals with experience recommending and implementing budget decisions, which I have. Most important is the need to invest wisely in our community, respect taxpayers and make responsible decisions.

  • There is considerable uncertainty facing City Council–the downturn in our economy has seen reduced assessment values, reduced the capacity of many to pay taxes and other levels of government are downloading costs onto cities. The province has given notice of a 25% cut to infrastructure funding, a major cut for our City. More cuts and downloading is likely which will require tough decisions.

  • The 2022 budget has already been set. This gives the new City Council time to gain a deep understanding of the budget that will allow us to make strong, responsible decisions for the following year. It’s about the balance between revenue and expenses – changes in one requires changes in the other. I have experience making these decisions through my work, as well as community involvement.

  • In the end we need tax rates that efficiently and effectively reflect the need of the municipality to provide the level of services for core operations and programs. We need to ensure we do so in the most cost effective manner that is understood by taxpayers

Brenda Campbell

I haven’t committed to one of the above options but know a majority of citizens prefer a zero percent tax increase. That being said, I’m all about conferring with other municipalities and noting how they best manage. I am frustrated by what I feel is a lack of facilities in Red Deer and have heard about the possibility of a 50 m pool for the more than 40 years I’ve been in Red Deer. I don’t believe in raising taxes for facilities but will do everything to emulate how a smaller centre like Grande Prairie made a 50 m pool and extensive recreational facility possible with their more limited tax base. As well other cities with a lot less population have as many indoor ice surfaces as Red Deer. Look at what Blackfalds is doing. If we draw more business and residents, we will have more tax dollars. Then grants and provincial and federal level monies need to be secured so we can address our hospital situation and other areas that citizens of Red Deer are asking for and deserve.There is money out there and it’s time for Red Deer to get its fair share of it.

Craig Curtis 

During these difficult economic times, my goal would be a zero percent tax increase or one at or lower than the rate of inflation. It is impossible for candidates not on Council to make such a commitment without knowing the current status of the budget or what downloading the Province may include in its budget.

Michael Dawe

I strongly support multi-year budgeting. That helps with planning and also helps keep costs in budgeting under better control.
I also support a minimum of a two-year tax freeze. With careful planning and expenditure control, I feel that this goal is attainable.
Fees and levies also need to be controlled as they are part of the costs of living and doing business in Red Deer.
Another cost of red tape. The City has started red tape reduction. Much more can be done and will make Red Deer a better place to do business and to live.

Victor Doerksen

From the perspective of a taxpayer, taxes are always too high. As a councillor candidate, it is a fool’s game to take a firm position on say “zero percent’ position or any other taxation approach. I will take the time to analyze the budgets in detail to gain better objectivity on spending and programs. My general approach is that people and governments should live withing their means and my bent is always to find ways, if possible, to lower taxes.

A word of caution: Inflationary pressures, burgeoning deficits, and mounting debt at all levels of government are likely to “throw a wrench” into the best laid plans and budgets.

Vesna Higham

For the current two year budget cycle (2021 & 2022) adopted by Council in the fall of 2020, our property tax rate was wholly appropriate and defensible at 0% for both years on the operating side and 0.5% per year on the capital side. Given the extraordinary impacts of Covid, a global recession, and low global oil prices, it was the right, responsible thing to do. Having said that, over the past 27 years that I’ve lived in Red Deer, I’ve seen years where
Council has approved 11% and 13% tax increases respectively over two consecutive years! That is wholly unacceptable and I vowed that I would do all I can to prevent such a thing from ever happening again. So, have our property taxes increased disproportionate to our economic realities? Yes, for sure they have and it’s critical that we not allow those kinds of shocking double-digit increases again. There’s simply no defensible rationale for it.

Having said that I likewise don’t subscribe to the “hold the line – 0% tax increases” indefinitely, because it’s not sustainable in the long term. The general level of inflation for consumer products varies significantly from the types of products/services municipalities must purchase to properly maintain a city of our size. Thus, there’s a separate inflation rate calculated annually to reflect inflationary pressures on the average basket of spending municipalities need to purchase (like gravel, snow plows, waste treatment equipment, and bullet proof vests, etc.).

So I’m likely more comfortable with a version of (b) that accounts for the average municipal spending inflation rate. However, with skyrocketing Federal/Provincial debt and rising inflation, it’s critical that governments everywhere (but particularly municipal governments, who have essentially only one major revenue stream: property tax) rein in spending and prioritize tax dollars on the most essential amenities and services. Therefore, Council needs from time to time to consider how to spend less in absolute terms during challenging economic times.

Cindy Jefferies

The option I would choose is not reflected in your question. I think it is important to maintain a level of service that works for our community. If we choose not to account for inflation and population growth, we are choosing a cut in services or service levels. I am all in favour of reviewing services and service levels, and making choices, but continually expecting to “get more with less” is unrealistic. The services the city provides are valuable. We all depend on them everyday. City services contribute to our quality of life. Equity within our community is important.

Ryan Laloge

This question is part of our all things to all people approach to Municiple governance that needs change.  It assumes that services are based on property taxes, rather than asking what services can we remove if we need to limit our property tax costs to financially strapped home owners and renters.  The problem is not the rate of increase in taxes, but rather what can we no longer afford if we are to make our downtown more livable and reduce significantly crime statistics (like even to the national average). They are not statistic but our lives. This needs council team work urgently and not in a year (again a task force with a deadline and not external consultants).

Lawrence Lee

For me it will always be to continually assess our revenue streams and efficiency of operations in order to provide the required level of city services residents demand. My view is to be fiscally responsible within every decision making process and especially the budget for both operations and capital. There are also huge advocacy opportunities illustrated by our tens of millions in Federal grants annually by our participation with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. Being the government closest to the people allows for funding to be allocated in the best interests of the local community.

Janise Somers

I believe we will need to adjust property taxes to reflect the level of inflation to maintain our current service levels and work on improving the ‘culture of service’ to our customers, the taxpayers. I would only consider proposing an increase if we can show value to taxpayers by reducing crime and addiction, and to kickstart economic growth.

Dianne Wyntjes

Council members, when reviewing and debating the City’s Operating and Capital budgets must be cognizant of the local economy and specifically the challenges for individuals, families, seniors and businesses from the past 20 months, and before that.

This past term, City Council moved to a two year budget process. Council passed a 0% tax increase for 2021 and 2022 with a mid year budget review for the next Council. The next Council will debate the two year budget process in 2022 for 2023-2024 and then again in 2024 for 2024-2025. Council must also be cognizant of the effects of increasing any fees and charges such as transit fees, recreation fees, facility rentals and development fees. The question is how another two years of 0% tax increases will affect the delivery of municipal services, operations, reserves, the future two year Capital budget and plan and the ten year Capital plan, along with impacts of inflation. The City will continue to pursue any available grants or competitive grants accessed through the Province and Federal orders of government.

Having lived in Red Deer for over 40 years, I recall when one Council had 0% tax increases during the term. I understand that in the years that followed, the next Councils were faced with challenging decisions and citizens of Red Deer later faced double digit tax increases. Good municipal operations means regular review of services, looking to innovation for delivery of services, cost savings where possible and when appropriate, and if it makes sense/cents for Red Deer. Compared to other Alberta municipalities, Red Deer is often in the middle of the pack for property taxes. Respect for tax dollars must always be a priority when making Council decisions along with ensuring there is not a big catch up tax rate for us as tax payers.

There must also be an appropriate balance between the residential and non residential tax rate. I believe the Council of the day should attempt to keep pace with inflation, or they will be adding to future municipal challenges and governance decisions that will need to be addressed by future Councils for Red Deer citizens.

With the local economy, and recognizing the rate of inflation so far this year, and effects of reduced City revenue from fees and charges, the new Council must be brought up-to-date on operating and capital budgets, while at the same time acknowledging inflation and how that will impact City operations and capital budget decisions and city tax payers. At this time it is too early to commit to any tax rate until up-to-date information has been reviewed by Council. Throughout Red Deer citizen opinions, there is a multiplicity of services that each of us, our family or businesses relies upon. The goal of our municipality is to provide these services, through the lens of affordability, reliability and change. And at the same time, Council should work with the business and development community for ease of doing business with City of Red Deer and the lens to economic competitiveness and retaining and attracting businesses to Red Deer.

 

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Alberta

Alberta Ombudsman can’t do anything about City of Red Deer complaint about 9-11 Dispatch

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Ombudsman Responds to Municipalities’ Complaint About Ambulance Dispatch

Marianne Ryan, Alberta’s Ombudsman took the unusual step of publicly commenting on a complaint received involving Alberta Health Services.

The City of Red Deer, along with the municipalities of Calgary, Lethbridge and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo filed a complaint to the Ombudsman regarding Alberta Health Services’ consolidation of ambulance emergency dispatch services.

The Ombudsman Act authorizes the Ombudsman to investigate administrative decisions of government ministries and many related bodies, but the Act specifically prohibits her from investigating decisions of Alberta Health Services (AHS).

“My office thoroughly analyzed the complaint and confirmed that the decision to consolidate ambulance dispatch services was indeed made by AHS. While many government-related bodies fall under my jurisdiction, AHS is not one of them,” stated Marianne Ryan, Alberta’s Ombudsman. “In fact, the Ombudsman Act specifically states that my powers of investigation do not apply to health authorities. My ability to investigate AHS decisions would require a change in legislation. While the issue being complained about clearly affects many Albertans, I am bound by my governing legislation to only investigate matters that are clearly within my jurisdiction.”

Investigations by the Ombudsman are conducted in confidence, and it is the Ombudsman’s general practice not to comment publicly on complaints, especially ones that are not being investigated.

“Given the substance of the complaint has been widely reported in the media and that it relates to an issue affecting a great many Albertans, I advised the mayors that I would be making a public statement.”

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City of Red Deer

14% of City Employees still unvaccinated as mandate comes into effect Monday

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City Hall

Employee immunization policy comes into full effect Monday

On Monday, The City’s employee immunization policy takes full effect with proof of vaccination or proof of negative rapid antigen testing required, per the timelines outlined in The City’s Covid-19 Employee Immunization Policy implemented on October 5, 2021.

Starting Monday, City staff who have not submitted their immunization records must provide proof of ongoing valid negative rapid antigen testing, tests are valid for 72 hours.

As of today, 1,256 (86%) staff have submitted their vaccination records; however, this number may change as more staff continue to complete vaccination and send in records. The City has set up a process for those who opt for negative rapid antigen testing in lieu of being vaccinated.

“We are pleased with the number of employees who have provided their immunization records, and we anticipate the majority who have not, will choose to provide proof of negative rapid antigen testing come Monday,” said Tara Lodewyk, Interim City Manager. “Many thanks to the staff who have worked together to bring this to implementation. The policy respects the preferences of individuals without compromising the health and safety of our employees and our community. In creating good policy, we need to do what is best for the overall organization.”

The City will do its best to work with all employees to navigate the complexities of the policy; however, the small number of staff who choose not to submit immunization records or provide proof of negative test will not be able to work and unpaid for that time.

The COVID-19 Immunization Policy implemented on October 5 applies to all City of Red Deer staff. The City Manager is delegated the authority under the Municipal Government Act to make decisions and create policies, which includes safety and business operations for the City of Red Deer. The current Employee Immunization Policy falls within this authority.

City Council will receive a report in January about what a potential policy for members of Council may look like, as well as potential timelines for implementation.

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