By Stephen Dafoe
Sturgeon County – The County’s proposed 2011 budget ended up very close to where it began when three full days of budget deliberations closed Friday afternoon. Originally suggested as a 6.1 per cent tax increase when the initial discussions began Nov. 19; the final proposed figures ended up at 6.2 per cent at the end of discussions Dec. 3. The tax increase had rose as high at 10.24 per cent during Council’s discussions of next year’s budget, but was trimmed back down Friday.
The final proposed figures and budget, set to come before Sturgeon County Council at its Dec. 14 regular meeting, represents an average increase in County taxes of approximately $74.83 per household. That figure is based on the average Sturgeon County property being valued at $410,000.
The proposed 6.2 per cent increase to the 2011 budget is built from a 0.8 per cent increase to the County’s operating budget, 1.9 per cent increase to its capital budget, 1.8 per cent increase in debenture financing commitments from 2010 and a 1.7 per cent increase in assessment losses.
Based on the average impact to tax payers, County residents would see $24.16 of their tax increase going to operations, $17.92 going towards capital projects and the remaining $32.75 covering debentures and assessment losses.
The numbers are considerably lower than if County Council had approved all the additional budget items brought for their consideration during the discussions. Although the majority of council were in attendance through all three days of budget discussions, Friday’s deliberations which were focused on narrowing down which of 62 service enhancements would stay after initial cuts were made Dec. 1, had the full attendance of the mayor and council.
Services enhancements approved by County Council included $5,000 in repairs to fencing around a pit in Villeneuve, $277,000 to go into a reserve fund to repair the County’s aging bridges and $100,000 for the creation of a BMX bike park. Some enhancements removed or deferred from the 2011 budget were an $80,000 commitment to help develop a County gravel pit, $81,000 to hire an additional senior accountant and $100,000 to address highway / county road intersection concerns due to the County’s growth. Other enhancements were paired down from what was presented to Council. A plan to install two new servers so County buildings could share electronic records was paired down to one additional server at an estimated cost of $10,150. Additionally, a proposed $25,000 injection into County festivals was trimmed back to $10,000.
Twenty-five of the original 62 enhancements survived Friday’s deliberation process, although Sturgeon County Council was not unanimous on all items.
A $30,000 enhancement to provide dispatch services for the County’s peace officers that would eliminate communications interruptions and allow the County to locate officers in emergency situations passed with a 5-2 vote. Mayor Rigney and Councillor Kluthe were the lone opponents to the enhancement.
Vacant lots could see taxes increased
County also struggled with a suggestion put forth by Councillor Tom Flynn to increase the mill rate on vacant lots in the County’s subdivisions. Sturgeon County currently has a reduced tax rate on vacant lots for the first two years after a subdivision is approved. Subsequent years are at a vacant lot rate until the lot is developed. Flynn suggested eliminating the reduced rate altogether and increasing the vacant lot rate, items that would increase taxation on the County’s current vacant lots from $514,000 to $672,000 in 2011, adding approximately $158,000 to the County’s revenue stream.
Mayor Rigney was opposed to the idea, stating reduced rates for vacant lots were introduced to encourage subdivision development in Sturgeon County. The mayor’s stance was that eliminating the reduced rate and increasing the vacant rate could serve to punish developers twice when the market goes bad.
Flynn defended the suggestion saying it wasn’t designed to pick the pockets of developers but might serve to get some developers moving on developing their properties.
The suggestion was directed to Council after a 4-3 vote – Mayor Rigney and Councillors McGeachy and Kluthe being opposed to the idea.
Final figures won’t be the final figures
While the proposed budget represents a 6.2 per cent increase to County rate payers, additional factors could bump figures higher when tax bills are sent out this spring. Requisitions from Alberta Education and taxpayer contributions to the Sturgeon Foundation, which operates seniors’ housing facilities in the region, have yet to be determined.