WESTLOCK – Following consecutive zero per cent tax hikes in 2020-2021 due to the pandemic, then a 1.9 per cent jump in 2022, rising costs for road repairs and energy, coupled with a commitment to expand services and add more staff while socking away more money into reserves, means Town of Westlock property owners face a three per cent tax hike in 2023 — a jump that will see an “average” homeowner fork out an additional $66 annually, while business owners will pay roughly $117 more.
Following close to 30 minutes of debate at their March 13 meeting, town councillors voted 7-0 to pass the municipality’s 2023-2026 operating budget, a balanced 27-page document that counts $19,797,014.30 in revenues and expenses for the coming year — the audited financial statements are scheduled to be in front of council March 27, while the tax rate bylaw will follow. At their Feb. 13 meeting, councillors unanimously approved the municipality’s 2023-2028 capital budget, a document that counts $5,203,556 in carryover projects from 2022 like the new public works shop, 108th Street work and $600,000 to demolish Jubilee Arena and pave over the site, plus $1,699,700 in new spends ranging from $190,000 for a handful of new trucks, a tractor and trailer, to $84,000 to add camping spots to Mountie Park, $120,000 for an emergency lighting generator for the Rotary Spirit Centre (RSC), $37,000 to replace the wet sauna with a dry sauna at the aquatic centre and $423,000 worth of upgrades to Heritage Building contingent on a $200,000 provincial grant — federal and provincial grants account for $3.15M of the funding, with the rest, $3.75M, covered by restricted and unrestricted reserves.
In a follow-up release, mayor Ralph Leriger noted that “every municipality in Alberta faces a significant reduction in support for capital infrastructure as provincial grants continue to decline at an alarming rate” and while “no one wants taxes to rise, those taxes pay for our services and future.” As it stands the town is getting $90,000 via the province’s Municipal Sustainably Initiative (MSI) operating grant, while the MSI capital grant has been frozen at $541,202 — MSI is ending in 2023 and the province has yet to announce its successor.
And while calling it a “status quo” budget, Leriger went on to note it represents council and administration working together to achieve a common goal for ratepayers, while CAO Simone Wiley said they have a “reciprocal, trusting relationship” with council and there isn’t an acrimonious back and forth during deliberations.
She said in the lead up to the budget, administration talked about service levels, and which needed to be increased or decreased “or changed in some way” while finance director Julia Seppola noted they’ve reached a point “where the directors are more informed and the better information they have, the better product we have at the end of the day.”
Coun. Murtaza Jamaly called the budget “council’s most important document annually” but said it’s a team approach and “permeates” the municipality from “top to bottom.”
“This was our easiest budget yet and it’s not that the work is easy, it’s just that the process has improved so drastically year over year, that the decision making is all that’s left,” said Jamaly. “We don’t muddle through. Administration gave us an excellent first draft to work on.”
What it means for ratepayers
For residents, the town says that a home valued at $250,000 in 2022 that paid $2,509.60 in property taxes, will now have an assessment of $247,850 and will face a tax bill of $2,584.94. Factoring in the Homeland Housing requisition, along with an estimate for the Alberta Education requestion, the total bill for 2023 is $3,390.71 compared to $3,324.46 in 2022.
Citing a $500,000 business as an example, in 2022 the owner would have paid $8,772.70 in tax, $308.65 to Homeland Housing and $2,042.05 to Alberta Education. This year, that business is now expected to be valued at $518,900 and will pay $9,104.31 in taxes, $331.20 to Homeland Housing and $1,805.41 to Alberta Education for a total increase of $117.53.
“Building a reasonable and workable budget is seldom something that is appreciated. This budget was carefully prepared and thought out. I'm so proud of the work administration and town staff accomplish for our community — roads, utility, recreation, development, so many things that go unseen and unsung," said Leriger via the release.
Coun. Abby Keyes noted that following the back-to-back zero per cent increases, then the 1.9 per cent jump in 2022, they had to play catch up this year “but not like other municipalities that are jumping to five or six per cent” while Leriger said this budget allows them to put needed dollars into reserves that were tapped during the zero per cent years.
“I think we’re being modest and being able to allocate for building repairs and road maintenance and transfers to reserves and the investment in programs that support the Town of Westlock will be essential,” said Keyes. “Recreation is important but the No. 1 concern amongst all residents are the roads.”
Added Leriger: “Streets and sidewalks, water and sewer and utilities. That’s our core business for sure.”
While councillors all chimed in on their highlights, the RFD notes the inclusion of three new positions — a human resources/safety coordinator, one executive assistant and another bylaw officer, which will be contingent upon grant funding — plus the continuance of the building renewals program for “needed repairs and maintenance of key building infrastructure.”
"We will continue with repairs and maintenance of building infrastructure and roads to refurbish and extend life and usability; this is constantly ongoing work,” said Wiley in a release. “With this budget, we are investing in asset management software to further and support our data-based decision making as it is embedded in all our planning. We are continuing to work on developing the Clean Energy Improvement Program (CEIP), which will assist residential homeowners in updating the energy efficiency of their homes. We've included additional funding for Family and Community Support Services (FCSS) and will continue with the large item pick up event and the town-wide community garage sale."
Jamaly, who’s president of the Family and Community Support Services Association of Alberta (FCSSAA) and chairs the Westlock and District FCSS advisory board, lauded the additional funding within the budget for “FCSS 2.0” but also highlighted additional dollars heading towards roads and other infrastructure. In a follow-up email, Wiley said that the province has recently announced an additional $5 million for FCSS but what that means locally remains unknown and “with that in mind the town has budgeted for an over contribution of up to $30,000.”
“This budget reflects what we’ve heard in the community. We know that infrastructure is priority one and we are responding with improved asset management and the road surfacing program which will allow us to maximize dollars,” he said.
“And FCSS 2.0 means there’ll be some program changes, but also some new programming will be added to address what the social needs assessment contemplated. FCSS 2.0 will require more funding and I applaud council for responding to that call with an over contribution beyond the legislated amount.”