By Kevin J. Sabo For the Independent
Larry Clarke, the County of Stettler councillor from the ward of Botha-Gadsby, has been acclaimed as Reeve of the County for another one-year term.
Clarke, who joined the council three years ago, was acclaimed during council’s recent organizational meeting held Oct. 21st.
“I’m honoured for the acclimation into this position for the fourth term, and what this year can bring,” said Clarke in a recent interview.
“What we do next year really affects the next council, in the next council period. It’s going to be key, what we do this year and how we set it up for the following years.”
Not content to rest on his laurels, Clarke is looking to build on the past successes of the County moving forward.
One thing at the top of the priority list is working with provincial government partners to collect up to $7.6 million in unpaid debt to the municipality.
“Currently we are sitting at about $7.6 million in unpaid debt, and the majority of that is from oil and gas companies that haven’t paid their taxes. In the past we could collect on that, but then there were some government rulings that came out in the last year or two,” said Clarke.
“The Virginia hills decision really stifled us in collecting those unpaid taxes. We need to collect that money to run our county.”
Still, thanks to Clarke’s leadership and the County of Stettler council’s advocacy work, some changes are being made.
The provincial government’s planned assessment review is one such example. The province put forward plans that would have slashed assessment revenues to counties by up to 30 per cent. Due to a number of critical voices, including the County of Stettler council, the government blinked, and is going back to the drawing board with its assessment review, this time promising inclusion of all the stakeholders.
“We went up to the legislative grounds, showed how disappointed we were, and how disgusted we actually were at the decisions that had been made at that point,” said Clarke.
“In doing that, we changed things – rural (counties) did change things. And they did appoint a different minister to Municipal Affairs.”
Currently, Clarke, the rest of council and County of Stettler administration are working on the budget for 2021, aiming to get it passed by the end of the year.
“We are setting our goals and living within our means,” he said. “Income from oil and gas over the last 10 years has decreased every year, and we need to get to the point where people, our residents, totally understand what services they are asking for, and what the cost for those services are, and what we need to do to provide the services.
“It may be we can’t provide the service is the answer. If it’s insisted that we perform the service, where does that money come from? Do we have to cut something else, or do we have to increase residential or agricultural taxes?”
As part of the budgeting process, Clarke and the rest of council have started the process of going through the County’s strategic plan, making sure that the budget and vision for the future align.
“For our (strategic) plan, we met last Wednesday, which carries over year after year. We have to readjust what our priorities are,” said Clarke.
“It comes down to the point where sometimes we have a champagne taste with a beer budget, and all of us have to sit down together to discuss what we can fund. There’s only one way of getting wants fulfilled – you either have to cut something else, or increase taxes to get that service.”
The County of Stettler currently operates with a roughly $15 million a year budget.
Of that, $9 million is operational funding for the County with the remainder going to the provincial government for school taxes, seniors housing and policing costs.
“It shows up on our budget, but really all we are doing is being a banker for the provincial government,” said Clarke.
Of the $9 million operation budget, $2 to $3 million is paid for through grants of some type, such as the Municipal Sustainability Initiative. The remaining $6 to $7 million is paid for through taxes.
“There will be a lot of meetings between now and December to go through and get a finalized budget,” said Clarke.
Clarke, and the rest of council, intend to continue working for the ratepayers for the coming year, leading into municipal elections in the fall of 2021.
When asked whether or not he will consider running again, Clarke was not definitive.
“Sitting here right now, I’ll say yes,” said Clarke.
“It will be totally dependent on this year, but I do feel like I will run again.”