Interview With Council Part 4: Social Media, Consultants, Split Mil Rate

Morinville, along with Alberta’s other municipalities, will be holding an election for Council on October 18, 2021 and nominations for the positions of Mayor and Councillors have already opened. With that in mind Morinville Online has approached present Council members about whether they will be standing for re-election this fall ands their views on what they feel has been accomplished and ongoing and future issues.

The responses to our questions are lead off by Mayor Barry Turner, followed by current Deputy Mayor Sarah Hall, followed by the Councillors in alphabetical order.

by Colin Smith

Q: How do you feel the wishes of Morinville residents, as expressed on social media, in communications with councillors, in letters and so on, should be balanced against the needs of the Town as determined by Administration analysis, consultants’ reports and generally acknowledged municipal best practices?

Mayor Barry Turner: This is not the right approach. Wishes of residents are not balanced against the needs of Administration. Council’s role is to balance unlimited wants with limited resources. Administration is made up of the very people that provide the services and amenities that residents wish for. Administration’s role is to advise Council on how to make these wishes a reality. Council then makes decisions to ensure the resources allocated are sustainable over the long term. Council needs the analysis and advice of Administration and consultants as well as the knowledgebase of other municipalities to come to the best decisions possible. At the end of the day, it is not feasible or sustainable to meet all expectations. Council has to make tough decisions on what to move forward given that all new initiatives or projects ultimately are paid for by residents.

Deputy Mayor Sarah Hall: As a Councillor, I believe we are the voice of residents, so when ideas and concerns come forward, of course they become part of our discussion and decision making process on specific items as they are brought forward. Ultimately, I think the “hopes, dreams and aspirations” of residents flow through Council in the strategic planning process.  After that, it is our duty to balance the needs and wants of residents with the recommendations of what is feasible from Administration, who are ultimately following our direction put forth in the strategic plan.

Councillor Rebecca Balanko: Our residents should be one of the loudest voices at our table, first and foremost. They choose our Council to be their voice, to hear their concerns and share their praises. I see the importance of consultants, however, they are not “invested” in our Town of Morinville. We have had many compelling letters shared by our residents in my term. Many have given me pause and redirection. I also feel if consultant reports are just a heavy paperweight collecting dust on a shelf, we’ve wasted time, energy and money. If the reports don’t have action-oriented responses, why are we bothering?

If we ask the questions, we need to be prepared for the answers. If residents take the time to write to us, we need to give weight to their concerns. I respect the professionals in the room, however they’re not driving our roads, crossing at our crosswalks or shopping in our businesses.

 Councillor Nicole Boutestein: I believe that it’s important to bring forward all concerns and questions from residents.  However, it is also important that Council represents the entire community when making decisions.  These decisions are based on information from administration and/or reports from consultants.

Councillor Stephen Dafoe: Social media is a dominant force in public discourse, to be sure; however, Council’s job is to weigh all available information before deciding on an outcome. That includes the experts inside and outside the organization and the residents driving down our neighbourhood streets every day.

 Councillor Lawrence Giffin: Council must take a big picture view to decision making. Council should and does take into consideration the desires of individuals, however, the needs of the many must have a greater weight. These are not always mutually exclusive but sometimes they are.

Councillor Scott Richardson: I think it’s been clear that residents are unhappy with the taxes in Morinville and I completely agree. That is why I have and will continue to work to lower taxes. Morinville is growing and that makes it challenging, but it can be done and it has to be done. I would encourage residents to go back and look at the motions I put forward or supported during budget discussions over the last four years.

Q: In 2018, Council adopted a split mill rate in line with a Long Term Tax Strategy for the Town that planned for a .1 increase each year for five years, resulting in a split mill rate of 1:15 residential to non-residential by 2023. However the split for businesses has not increased as planned in the last two budgets. Is the strategy still viable/desirable?

Mayor Barry Turner: Council’s current direction on this is to slow down the transition in the split mill rate to a ten-year time frame. Our business community has been clear that to move too quickly presents significant challenges for them, and it is important that this moves forward in a way that balances this needed change without undue hardship on our business community. Since 2011 when the split mill rate was eliminated, more demands were placed on residents to support the budget. By 2018, this inequity resulted in over $260,000 annually being borne by residents that would have previously come from non-residential taxpayers. With a 1% tax increase being equal to about $100,000, this amount equates to a single year increase of 2.6% that has been “transferred” over time from commercial property owners to residents. The cumulative total of this impact was over $1.6M dollars over eight years. This strategy needs to continue, otherwise Morinville will stagnate due to comparatively high taxation for residents. What is up for discussion is the 1:1.5 target. I believe this process needs to be evaluated annually, and when Morinville’s split rate is at the median for urban municipalities in the Edmonton Metropolitan region the goal will be met. This is would mean a target of between 1:1.3 to 1:1.4 based on current split mill rates in the region.

There is always room for improvement! I feel however, it is pretty decent and they are approachable. I certainly have felt through the pandemic , people have been tested. Often the way one interprets an email, when we have been unable to meet face to face, can be problematic.

I don’t think it’s any different with anyone else doing the bulk of their work through digital means. I feel our Town Administration is working very hard and I often pick up the phone instead, or pop in for a distanced chat.

I have always appreciated the line” the biggest misconception about communication is thinking it has already happened”.  We could solve a lot of life’s issues by just being candid and honest in conversation, in our everyday life.

Deputy Mayor Sarah Hall: Long months were put into creating our long-term tax strategy and our long-range financial plan.  Part of that plan was to start moving the needle towards more balanced taxes for residents and businesses. Residents had long taken on more of a burden due to our 1:1 split mill rate, meaning residential and non-residential were paying the same rate, a strategy that a past Council used to stimulate business growth, but which in the end was not successful. Our approach to balance this was to split that mill rate over a period of five years to bring back the balance, lowering residential taxes and raising business taxes to a ratio that was fair and brought us to the median in the region. Our strategy has changed since the original plan was voted on, however. We came to the realization that businesses could not sustain the quick escalation in a five-year time frame and have adjusted the split to happen more gradually, over a 10-year period. I believe this strategy is very much needed for us to continue to grow and be fair to our residents, however, I realize the pandemic has hit our businesses hard and have no appetite to make their lives harder. Though the 2021 budget has been voted on and passed, the discussion and decision about the splitting the mill rate is a hard one this council will be having this spring.

Councillor Rebecca Balanko: When we had a stable workforce and incomes, this was absolutely viable. When businesses are having to close to personal services, limit their admissions, and spend exorbitant amounts on PPE, cleaning and staffing, this is not permissible. At this time, I feel it would do more harm. I can’t in good faith ask someone to pay more in taxes, when they’re doing with so much less. Many of our Morinville business owners live in Morinville. Their basic livelihood is the priority at this time. We can’t retain businesses if they can’t operate. We need to adjust and hold, in my opinion.

Councillor Nicole Boutestein: I believe Council is still on the right track as our end goal was trying to get one step closer to the 80% residential/20% non-residential split.  Although it may take a few years longer to get there, I feel we can no longer continue to place this burden on our residents by offering the same mill rate for both residential and non-residential.

Councillor Stephen Dafoe: Before Morinville had equalized assessment the split was 1:1.2. This Council opted for 1:1.5 over five years, then dialed that back to over 10 years due to a larger than average assessment increase. Of course, pandemic economics resulted in my motion to freeze it again, which Council supported unanimously. I support keeping a split mill rate but think the next Council may want to revisit where it ends as far as a ratio. Ideally, we make Morinville an affordable place to live and run a business so that what the split is doesn’t matter so much as what is coming out of the people’s wallet and into Town coffers.

Councillor Lawrence Giffin: Council is very aware that the residential tax rate in Morinville is high. This is because we have a very small non-residential tax base. We are all aware that commercial business is finding it difficult to compete when we are so close to cities. The majority of residents work in other municipalities and often shop there also. The problem is that the tax-supported budget is in a deficit. Unfortunately, the town has had to support the operating budget by drawing money from the utility budget. This leaves us in a precarious position because that money is meant to be there for utility repairs and upgrades. Ideally, we would have an 80/20 tax split: eighty percent residential and twenty percent non-residential. Unfortunately, we do not. This is why council wanted to increase the ratio of taxes that businesses pay. The problem has been that business in Morinville is struggling and because of that council has not raised the mill rate. This may change when the economy improves and businesses starts making money.

Councillor Scott Richardson: This is still desirable, but given the hurdles businesses have faced with COVID I don’t see it happening by 2023. I also think to get to this split mill rate we don’t need to tax businesses more, we need to reduce spending and lower taxes for residents. We could split the mill rate without negatively impacting residents and or businesses.

Part 5 of this series will run on Monday and look at Council’s relationship with Administration as well as accusations of secrecy.

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