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Budget 2020: Impacts of Provincial and Federal Decisions

Budget 2020: Impacts of Provincial and Federal Decisions

Next week, Council will be debating Budget 2020. Recently, I wrote about what we heard from the public regarding the budget. In this post, I’ll be writing about the impact provincial and federal decisions will have on the City’s budget.

There are many changes happening at the provincial and federal levels. Because of these, the City will need to make up for millions of dollars in lost revenue and increased costs between 2019 and 2020. This lost revenue will have an impact on local services and/or taxes.

Budget 2020: Public Feedback

Budget 2020: Public Feedback

One of my biggest focuses on Council has been increasing opportunities for public engagement. As Council heads into deliberations for Budget 2020, I’ve been excited to see new efforts to involve residents.

City administration has prepared a report with what it has heard about the budget. You can read it here.

Here are the observations I’ve made from reading this report:

  • For respondents, good services are a higher priority than lowering taxes

  • Most City services are providing satisfactory results

  • People need to be shown better value for their tax dollars

  • Roads and public safety should be top priorities

  • Snow removal needs attention

  • Policing needs continued attention

Following is more information about how people were invited to engage in the budget process and expanded explanations about the take-aways I see from their responses.

Police Funding

Police Funding

The provincial government is taking a look at how police in Alberta are funded. I am hopeful that significant changes will be made…

Cities and towns with populations of 5000 or more are responsible to fund their own police through property taxes. But the province takes responsibility for police costs in other municipalities, including those with large urban “hamlets.”

In other words: across Alberta, city residents and businesses need to pay significant amounts of municipal property taxes to fund their own policing. They also have a portion of their provincial taxes go towards paying for police in surrounding municipalities.

This is a fundamentally unjust system. It leads to people living or running a business in a town or city of 5000+ needing to pay significantly more in property taxes than those in other municipalities….

As more demands are put on police while the province also seeks to reduce spending, it is appropriate to start requiring ALL municipalities to share in the cost of their policing….

Police Governance

Police Governance

While I have a great deal of faith in our local RCMP members, I think there is a gap in our community: we don’t have the full degree of civilian oversight which legislation allows us to have.

The Alberta Police Act is the main piece of legislation laying out how police interact with their local communities. It does not grant City Council any degree of oversight to our RCMP detachment. However, the Act does allow Council to establish a Policing Committee. If formed, this Committee would have legislated oversight of the RCMP. For example, it would have a say in who our Detachment Commander is, and it would work with that person to develop yearly plans and strategies.

Any community would be well served by having this type of police governance in place. However, I think there are new circumstances making a Policing Committee especially important right now:

  • Growing concerns about crime. As concern grows, residents are looking for more evidence that their priorities are reflected in our policing. A Policing Committee can ensure the RCMP are acting on local priorities. A Policing Committee is also well equipped to report back to the public on RCMP matters.

  • Unionization of the RCMP. RCMP members are unionizing, and this will likely raise their employment costs significantly. As taxpayers contribute more to policing, we need to ensure good value is being returned. A Policing Committee will provide the necessary oversight to ensure we are getting the best possible results from our RCMP contract.

  • Upcoming changes to municipal policing. It is very likely that the way the RCMP handles municipal policing will change dramatically in the next 5-10 years. As it does, we will need local civilians who are familiar with police governance to help our community navigate change. A Policing Committee will allow us to grow that capacity in Grande Prairie.

Encampments FAQ

Encampments FAQ

Something that has received a lot of attention lately: tents and other encampments in the City.

There has been a lot of questions raised, especially concerning the area surrounding Rotary House. Some want those living in these encampments dealt with more sternly. And some think the City’s approach is too tough considering the lack of treatment and daytime shelter services in our community. I don’t think anyone thinks the current situation is ideal.

Because there is so much concern, I want to discuss the questions I receive most frequently.

But before I do, I want to offer some push back on two suggestions I’ve had pitched to me. Those are:

  • “Lock all those people up.” I certainly think that we should prosecute property and violent crime whenever possible. However, I don’t buy that every person living in encampments is a serious criminal. I do think that the vast majority are struggling with mental health and addictions. And jail isn’t a solution to those problems. It is also worth noting that the courts are outside of City jurisdiction and would not jail these people, even if Council wanted that to happen.

  • “Leave the encampments alone: they aren’t harming anyone.” On an emotional level, it doesn’t sit well with me that we are dismantling encampments on vulnerable people. However, encampments raise a number of concerns. The big ones to me are inadequate physical security and sanitation. Encampments have large risks, both for the people living in them and the wider community. We need to ensure that the people living in them have other places to go. But we shouldn’t allow people to camp on City land.

I also want to push back against those who suggest that these encampments and the challenges related to them make our community a horrible place to be. I wholeheartedly disagree. Our city certainly has challenges: I won’t minimize that. But it is the only place I want to raise my kids: it is beautiful, it has lots to do, it is safe, and it has amazing people. Grande Prairie is where I’ve chosen to make my home, and I am very proud of it.

Following are some questions I frequently receive and some information to respond to them.

Municipal Election Rules

Municipal Election Rules

At tomorrow’s Corporate Services Committee meeting, I’ll be bringing up rules for municipal elections. There are two changes I would like to see considered: an increase to the number of signatures needed for nominations, and an overhaul of rules governing campaign signs.

Following is my thinking behind those changes.

Elections are a very sensitive thing. Arguably, they are THE thing any democratic institution needs to get right. So, change needs to be made carefully and with open conversation. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what I’ll be proposing. I think these ideas are worth consideration, but I also have an open mind as they get discussed.

Did Taxes Go Down? And How Do Taxes Get Set?

Did Taxes Go Down? And How Do Taxes Get Set?

in 2019, Council’s budget delivered a 4.1% decrease to an average residential property.

However, there is a problem with averages: most people fall above or below them.

I heard from a number of people who were grateful to see their tax bills go down. But Council also heard from a number of people who said something like “my taxes didn’t go down- what the heck!?”

To help ourselves and the community get a better picture of what happened with tax changes, Council asked for more information about how many properties received increases and decreases. This report was received on Tuesday. You can read it here.

Following is some of the information Council received about the changes in tax bills. I’m also including information about how your tax bill gets set.

Paying for Stormwater Systems

Paying for Stormwater Systems

One important service the City provides is a storm water system.

This is also an expensive service to deliver: in 2018, the City spent $6,325,000 on projects associated with storm drainage.

Currently, this work is primarily financed through tax revenue. However, Council is exploring moving towards a utility model for storm water. Under this model, property taxes would no longer go towards paying for drainage systems. This would lead to a tax reduction. However, property owners would receive a separate storm water utility bill….

I have no idea if I will ultimately support this change. However, I am looking forward to more information. A utility model for financing the storm system deserves consideration. It has a few potential benefits, the largest one being that it would likely deliver City tax payers a net financial savings.

Below is a bit more information about this idea and some potential benefits I see.