By Stephen Dafoe
Gibbons – A question on taxes during an open house Wednesday night lead to a frank and blunt discussion on what Sturgeon County residents could be facing in the new year – higher taxes and possibly less services.
Sturgeon County Council travelled to the Gibbons Community Hall for the second consecutive night of open houses, an opportunity for residents to meet with county staff and ask questions directly of council. Tuesday night’s meeting in Villeneuve drew about 21 residents, largely from the Sturgeon Valley. Wednesday night’s gathering in Gibbons drew a small but enthusiastic group of 24 rate payers.
Although both evening’s sessions consisted largely of questions about County roads and other transportation-related matters, Wednesday night’s meeting featured a caution to council to live within their means when considering taxes from one attendee.
Councillor Don McGeachy said it was the first time in the two nights the matter of taxes had been brought up, something he was pleased to see brought out Wednesday night. Councillor Ken McGillis shared McGeachy’s pleasure at the raising of the subject.
McGillis went on to give those in attendance a blunt appraisal of Sturgeon County’s tax situation, comparing an average priced property in Sturgeon County with the same type property in Strathcona County. Annual taxes on the former would be approximately $1,300 per year while the Strathcona property would be taxed at approximately $1,700 per year. The councillor went on to say if Sturgeon County taxed properties at the same level as Strathcona County it would generate approximately another $4 million in revenue, something the councillor said could fund additional services. “If you want services, you’ve got to pay for them,” McGillis said, adding it is quite likely county residents could see less services next year with higher taxes.
Challenged by an audience member to simply make cuts, Councillor Ken McGillis asked what the resident would cut. “It is easy to sit in the audience and say cut, but it is hard to stand up and say where to cut,” McGillis said.
The councillor was not alone in delivering the blunt assessment. Councillor Karen Shaw pointed out Sturgeon County has 142 bridges of which 57 per cent are in need of replacing. Shaw went on to say bridge replacement represents a 1.7 per cent increase to taxes alone, and that at the County’s current rate of repair and replacement it would take 42 years to fix them all.
Like McGillis, Shaw did not pull any punches that services translate into taxes. “If we want that increased level of services, we have to pay for it,” she said. “Nobody likes taxes, but if you want services we have to pay for them.” Shaw told attendees council and administration are trying to find efficiencies, savings and cost cuttings to keep taxes as low as possible.
Sturgeon County Mayor Don Rigney attached a number to the discussion, pointing out current early figures indicate a 14.4 per cent tax increase to maintain the County’s status quo with no new services added to the mix. Rigney said this year could see the largest increase in taxes in his memory.
Council has just begun the process of talking to administration from the various departments on budget 2012. Final numbers will be achieved over the next two months.