By Jessica Jones
For the Independent
County of Stettler Reeve Larry Clarke has a lot to say when it comes to the recent United Conservative Party (UPC) provincial budget.
The Reeve, who is in his third term, responded to questions on how the budget would impact rural life and residents in the County of Stettler.
The budget was tabled on Feb. 27th, with the UPC planning its approval by the end of March.
Retaining health professionals is top of mind when it comes to the County, said Clarke.
Much like the modified policing costs that were strapped on municipalities, health care is another example where the province has lacked consultation with the appropriate parties, he explained. “We are feeling the urban lens is rather narrow, and considerations are not being made for all who live, work and thrive in rural Alberta,” he said.
“The County of Stettler has participated on the doctor recruitment committee since its inception, and we have invested thousands of dollars into attracting and retaining physicians to our region.
“The program was extremely successful over the years and we looked at it as an investment into our community and into the success of our community. The presence of hospitals, primary care facilities and emergency services in rural communities provides not only health benefits, but broader community benefits. These include attracting new residents, stimulating economic growth, and providing opportunities to educate the new generation of health professionals,” he explained.
“Similar to when the province decided to introduce a modified policing program, without consultation with rural municipalities on the funding impacts and the best ways to introduce a large program change like modified policing, they have neglected to consult again on the impacts (of how) a decision of this magnitude to our health care system would disturb rural life.”
Provincial Budget impression
Much of the budget implications affecting municipalities were announced in the fall of 2019, right in the midst of when council was undergoing its 2020 budget workshops, explained Clarke.
He said municipalities took a “very hard hit.”
“Absorbing the 35 per cent tax reduction to shallow gas and a new policing model — this will cost rural municipalities dearly,” he said. “This spring the budget also announced a $40,000 reduction to the Agricultural Services Board funding, which equates to approximately a 25 per cent loss to us,” Clarke mentioned, further adding that the County is anticipating more larger implications down the road.
Out of preparedness, Clarke said they took the steps to, “Amalgamate our Agricultural Services Board operations with our Public Works operations in an effort to cross-staff the operation requirements for both departments.
“This absolutely is not ‘putting Albertan’ back to work’,” Clarke explained. “But our municipality is adjusting as required to manage shortfalls realized under the UPC’s strict budget.
“It’s our job and we will continue to evaluate, re-evaluate and realize more efficiencies wherever we can.”
The County of Settler’s budget implications
Clarke said the County is currently, once again, looking at its own budget with the goal to maintain a responsible tax level.
“When we are hit with large losses in revenue due to uncollectible oil and gas taxes and further losses due to the 35 per cent reduction of shallow gas wells, we have to dig back in and really slice things down and find projects that can be put on hold and projects that can be suspended or combined to realize efficiencies,” he said.
The modified policing service that the province dowloaded on municipalities at the end of 2019 is going to be a tax increase in 2020, he said.
“It will appear on your tax notice through a requisition to all ratepayers, to recover the costs of what we will have to recuperate and remit to the province.
“Just like we collect senior’s housing tax for the province, and education tax for the Province, we will now collect for the modified policing as a tax, which will appear on your notice as a requisition,which means we collect it for the Province, and pay it to the Province.”
The proposed UPC budget is leaving the Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI) funding in place for two more government budget years before a new local government fiscal framework is introduced but details around this have been vague.
“We are most concerned with how the MSI funding will be replaced,” Clarke said.
“MSI funding impacts what we can do with our capital purchases and it will impact capital purchases in Public Works.
“Some of our capital projects will be delayed in all departments including waterline extensions and planned fleet replacements.”
Education and seniors housing remittance
The Province has mentioned that it is imposing a 4.2 per cent increase to education property taxes. People in, “Rural Alberta need to brace themselves,” Clarke said.
“The increase to education taxes by the province will be noticed on their tax bill,” he said. “Our municipality will collect this remittance and then give it to the Province, but it’s not the only one,” he said, adding that ratepayers will also notice the senior’s housing remittance on their bills as well.
“Because the Province didn’t put out a budget until late in 2019, the amount collected for them had to be based on 2018 budget numbers, and because assessment turned out to be low, the Province will be collecting the shortfall for senior’s housing now, so that remittance to the province is going to increase.
“That’s a big hit to rural Alberta that everyone will notice on this year’s tax bill,” Clarke said. “Council hasn’t set their tax rate yet and we are still working on a final budget.
Last week the Province released a list of cuts to the parks system, which included partial closures of what it deemed as “under-utilized” recreational areas in the province. Among some of those listed are parks within the County of Stettler, including The Narrows, Buffalo Lake and Rochon Sands Public Recreation areas.
The Province stated that these parks are, “Very small and under-utilized Provincial Recreation Areas and would be available for partnership opportunities or alternative management approaches.”
The cuts to parks feel like another download on rural municipalities, Clarke explained.
“Although they are not looking at closing the campsite completely, they are looking for partnership opportunities.
“It is in our best interests to ensure campgrounds in our area, which are very much in demand, remain open,” he said. “Tourism brings money to our area.
“We as a rural municipality, have already absorbed the download of covering off a 35 per cent tax reduction for shallow gas wells, a modified policing service model, which rural municipalities are footing the bill, and now in this budget an increase to collect for education taxes?
“The plan to off-load Alberta Parks to third party management feels very much like another download,” he said.
“Will rural Alberta, again, be picking up the bill? Again, where was the consultation on this subject? We are not afraid of change,” explained Clarke. “But we have interest, input and information to add to the conversation. Together, we could make more informed decisions.”