Candidate debate tax increases
Okotoks: Council's fiscal record defended
By: Don Patterson
| Posted: Wednesday, Oct 16, 2013 06:00 am
Candidates on the campaign trail in Okotoks are saying it’s time to give homeowners a break after seeing tax increases for more than five years in a row.
It has some candidates calling for a closer look at the Town’s spending.
“I certainly think that taxes need to be looked at,” said mayoral candidate Larry Albrecht. “As I go out door knocking, that’s probably one of the highest rated comments that I’ve been getting door-to-door is higher taxes. They continue to go up year after year.”
He said tax rates must be something people can live with.
Albrecht said town council has over spent in the last term. In particular, he said too much has been spent on legal challenges to the Wind Walk development and studying water issues without any long-term solution.
“I’m not suggesting that we’re spending wildly, but I am suggesting that it probably would be a good exercise to sit down and look at all of the expenditures that occur in the town and look at what our sources of income are,” he said.
Albrecht said Town spending needs to be evaluated and Town departments can’t just assume because they received a certain amount one year they’ll get it in subsequent years.
He said the Town should consult with residents to determine whether they want to see cuts service in order to reduce taxes.
“I think we have to have that consultation, and we don’t have to pay tonnes of tax dollars doing it,” said Albrecht.
However, Mayor Bill Robertson said town council has done a good job trying to hold the line on taxes as much as possible.
“I believe that we’ve been responsible overall in being as prudent as possible with the tax dollar and at the same time trying to meet the needs of residents,” he said. “People certainly want more recreation amenities, for example.”
Robertson said people still look to the Town to provide services and amenities.
“I’ve gone to close to 6,000 homes now, nobody has said to me we want less services,” he said.
Robertson said the Town has a good track record of building infrastructure, such as the Foothills-Okotoks Field House, while limiting the impact on taxpayers.
Using the field house as an example, the Town used provincial grants from the Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI) and its reserves to pay its share of the facility, which Robertson said will be paid off in three years.
In August, council set the maximum potential tax increase in the Town’s 2014 operating budget at 3.8 per cent. The level is based on the Municipal Pricing Index, which measures the inflationary pressures more specific to municipalities rather than the consumer price index (CPI), which is a broader reflection of inflation.
While the Town noted MPI for the Calgary area was 3.8 per cent, Statistics Canada determined CPI was 1.1 per cent in August.
Robertson defended using the municipal index.
“The MPI is what affects municipalities and the pricing and services they provide,” he said.
Council candidate Geneva Clark said the Town should be using CPI as a gauge for tax levels.
“If anything, taxes shouldn’t be higher than a maximum of two per cent,” she said. “We can even have taxes this year at one per cent.”
Clark said the Town needs to ensure people on fixed incomes, such as seniors, can afford tax increases.
Clark also said Okotoks is taxing small business out of town.
Okotoks does not actually have a business tax, however, taxes on non-residential properties (which includes commercial and industrial sites) have risen in recent years.
Business owner Jared McCollum taxes paid by businesses in Okotoks are still favourable compared to other communities.
“I know for myself, prior to coming to Okotoks for a space half the size I was paying $2,500 per year (in taxes), and it’s like three hundred something,” said McCollum. “It’s so different, it is so much less.” Council candidate Carrie Fischer said encouraging new business to come to Okotoks is critical because a growing business base takes pressure off homeowners.
“We need to diversify the tax base and meet the targets for commercial and industrial growth,” she said. “If we can diversify the tax base we will alleviate the burden on homeowners.”
Incumbent Councillor Ed Sands said the differential tax rate charged on non-residents in Okotoks has increased, but it’s still lower than many other Alberta communities.
He defended council’s record on property taxes.
“We’ve been careful over the years to try not to pick the pocket of the residents too much,” said.