After much wrangling about if or how much taxes should increase, and a break for lunch, Lacombe County councillors settled on a hike of about 1.5 per cent, which was down significantly from the 2.75 per cent increase originally proposed for the municipal portion of the tax bill.
The 1.5 per cent figure was what staff proposed in their discussion paper for councillors at the May 9 meeting. However some wanted the tax rate held.
The reduction to 1.5 per cent was possible, said Tim Timmons, the county’s manager of corporate services, because of increased assessment values, mainly in the areas of machinery and equipment and pipelines/wells.
If they’d stuck to the 2.75 per cent used to craft the interim budget in December, the county would have collected an additional $283,250 in property taxes.
At their meeting two weeks prior, councillors had already wrestled with a $2.7 million surplus from the 2012 year end.
“How do we legitimize any tax increase?” asked Councillor Rod McDermand.
County Commissioner Terry Hager cautioned councillors to “take a longer range look at it. In any given year we could probably not have any tax increase. See what’s going to happen over 5-8- 10 years.” He also reminded councillors that the province has just said it won’t fund any more bridge work.
“What we don’t want to do is nothing, nothing, nothing and then all of a sudden five per cent,” he said. “Even at 1.5 per cent we’re probably slightly below inflation. Services we’re providing are appropriate, residents generally appreciate the services they’re getting. Taxes are moderate to low.”
Councillor Cliff Soper said, “I wasn’t opposed to the original interim budget. For the health of the county I think we have to stay with inflation. When you look at the surrounding areas, I think we’re doing very well.” He predicted that without the increase a future council would have to face a substantial increase.
“I don’t see, in the future, having to spend less money. We’re going to have to spend more money.”
McDermand countered, “I wouldn’t be adverse to see zero, I don’t think it would be out of line, don’t think Lacombe County would suffer.”
Councillor Keith Stephenson agreed with Soper and made the motion to go with 1.5 per cent as the tax rate increase.
“With the upcoming Nova expansion there’s no need for a tax increase,” said Councillor Brenda Knight. “We just announced a $2.7 million surplus. If we do increase at all it’s how can we get out to the public we went from 2.75 down to 1.5. Our public is still feeling Lacombe County’s pockets are full, deep, we don’t need to increase taxes.”
Stephenson replied he’s had the opposite reaction. “People comment to me how well the county is being run. There’s lots of options to use this money.”
Councillor Paula Law agreed that one thing she hears is how well the county does in managing operations.
“Nova is future money and I don’t like banking on future money,” she said. “The comment on bridges, we have bridges we have to deal with, we have to look now at what we’re going to do. The county always put money away for future projects. These are going to be big projects.”
McDermand remarked, “$2.7 million was rolled into reserves. People say obviously you didn’t need that money.”
However Reeve Ken Wigmore noted, “$2.7 million is nothing new to this council. Look at how reserves have grown in the past years. I have no objection to 1.5 per cent.”
In the end councillors approved the county’s operating budget of just over $53.6 million and the capital budget of almost $20.7 million.
Based on increases of 1.5 per cent to the municipal tax rates, when Alberta Education charges and the requisition collected for Lacombe Foundation are factored in, the increase in the total residential tax rate will be 1.35 per cent. Farmland rates will increase by 1.4 per cent while non-residential will see a 0.36 per cent increase and machinery and equipment will increase 1.45 per cent.
Samples provided by Timmons indicated most residential properties will see a slight decrease in the amount of money needed to pay this year’s bill. The sample for Kuusamo Krest showed a 3.5 per cent decrease (the assessment went down from $892,900 to $849,980) while a residence and detached garage in the rural Eckville area would see a decrease of 0.7 per cent in the total tax bill.
He explained this is because there was a little bit of decrease in market value of residential properties all across the county.
The bill for vacant farmland increased 1.4 per cent while for farm units the samples suggested a range between -0.6 per cent and +3.3 per cent. The tax bill for the sample in the Eckville area increased 2.1 per cent.