Before I comment on the 2020 budget (see story https://www.townandcountrytoday.com/westlock-news/westlock-county-settles-on-212-per-cent-provisional-property-tax-increase-1979956), let’s review the facts.
Westlock County already has the highest tax rate of surrounding counties and is in overall poor financial condition. County operating and capital cash reserves ($12M) are 25 per cent less than the County of Barrhead’s and 58 per cent less than Thorhild County’s.
Westlock County’s net equity (assets less liabilities) of $39M is 65 per cent lower than Barrhead and 92 per cent lower than Thorhild.
If one uses an analogy, Westlock County has older, run down assets (equipment, buildings, roads etc. with a total book value of $148M) without much left in the bank to pay for their replacement.
Taxes are going up at least another 2.12 per cent. If property assessment values also go up, which they have done for the last several years, the total tax increase for 2020 will be greater than 2.12 per cent.
Adding more taxes will only confirm our status as the highest taxed county of all surrounding rural municipalities with the second highest (farmland) tax rate in Alberta.
What is most disappointing is that there is nothing in this budget that improves the county or explains how the county will dig its way out of a financial hole.
We are not getting more services and our roads are not getting better. We still don’t know when the roads will be graded as county policies are not followed or reported upon.
Council is not replenishing bank accounts (operating/capital budgets drain cash reserves by another $407,000) or cutting overhead in any meaningful way.
This council has done nothing to reduce our tax burden and make this county attractive to new residents or new businesses. We are paying more taxes for less service.
At a minimum, when your revenue is reduced (or is uncertain), you reduce spending, identify how you can operate with less and live within your means.
There is a saying council should take to heart — if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.
According to surveys conducted in 2019, council and administration are not meeting many ratepayer expectations. Despite this, and the fact that the county is in a poor financial position, council has no problem voting themselves, and senior staff, a 1.75 per cent pay increase, plus benefits. So much for leading by example and managing expectations for the next round of union contract negotiations.
Council is already well paid and enjoys a number of employment benefits that are 100 per cent paid for by taxpayers.
I note the Oct. 8 council minutes indicate that council approved amendments to the CAO’s employment contract.
It looks like the CAO is also getting a similar increase to his $220,000 compensation package.
I hope council/CAO enjoy their pay/benefit increase, knowing that over 7,200 county ratepayers lives will be a little more difficult next year as a result of them voting themselves a pay increase with our tax dollars and increasing our taxes once again.
The lack of council leadership in an environment of fiscal restraint is inexcusable. It appears council has made questionable decisions, failed to provide adequate capital reserves to replace county assets like graders without taking on more debt, and is addicted to spending.
Council has now approved three budgets since October 2017 and has offered up a range of excuses for continually raising our taxes — the only one missing is “but the CAO told us we had to raise taxes each year” excuse.
Unfortunately, it is current and future generations of ratepayers that will be paying for council’s mismanagement and lack of fiscal discipline for years to come.