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Coming Up: May 6

Council meets Monday night at 6:30. The most interesting agenda items:

  • Council Meeting Times: a proposal to start Council meetings at 3:00pm and change when Council Committees meet

  • A New Transit System Bylaw

  • Large Scale Tourism Event Funding: applications from Canadian Men’s Fastball Championships, Stompede, and Bear Creek Folk Music Festival

  • A New Council Code of Conduct

  • Property Tax Rates

  • Habitat for Humanity Project: Funding for land acquisition

  • Snowbird 8 Memorial Project

Following is more information and my take on agenda items.

As always, any mistakes or opinions belong to me and me alone, not to Council or City staff.

While I express my current views below, I always go into meetings ready to listen and with an open mind. I learn new information and participate in debate. This always informs and sometimes changes how I vote on issues.

If you would like to watch the meeting or read any of its supporting material for yourself, you can do so by clicking here. The City will post the highlights of Council’s decisions here.


Council Meeting Times

Management is suggesting meeting time changes which will potentially improve the flow of Council decision making and use staff time more efficiently

Right now, Council meets every second Monday night at 6:30pm.

The suggestion is to have these meetings now start at 3:00pm. Committee business and a few other agenda items would be conducted. There would be a recess for dinner. Then public delegations and public hearings would be held in the evening.

I will be opposing this change. Having Council be accessible to citizens is important for me. Holding our meetings in the evening helps with this. Afternoon meetings are more difficult for most people to watch and attend.

In addition to its regular meetings, Council also works through three Standing Committees. Two of these meet on alternating Tuesday mornings, one meets every other Tuesday afternoon.

Management is also suggesting that all Standing Committee meetings be moved to the Tuesday mornings when Council is not meeting. Having all committees meet on the same morning will make it easier for Council and City staff to attend.

I will be supporting this change to committees. I agree that it will improve efficiency. Additionally, having all committee meetings happen on the same morning will likely make them easier for citizens to attend.


Transit System Bylaw

We are unusual compared to other municipalities in that we don't have any bylaws governing transit use. Management has proposed that we change this to make transit safer and more comfortable for users and staff.

There are two big problems with not having a bylaw:

1) When drivers and members of the public ask people to change their behaviors, they often have no legal basis to do so. This sometimes causes the person being confronted to become argumentative or aggressive.

2) Without a bylaw in place, peace officers are unable to intervene. In cases where a driver calls for help, they need to call the RCMP and the behaviour needs to be addressed through the Criminal Code. This is an expensive, long, and extreme process. If warnings aren't enough to stop bad behaviour, often a fine by a Peace Officer is a better intervention than criminal charges by an RCMP member. A bylaw allows for this different type of intervention.

To address these challenges, Council will be debating a Transit System Bylaw on Monday night. You can view it here.

This bylaw is reasonable and will make our transit system more efficient and better for the public and for staff. I intend to support it.


Large Scale Tourism Event Funding

Large events which draw people to our City are important. They are good for the economy as they inject money into local businesses. They make Grande Prairie an attractive place for people in other communities to visit, move to, and invest in. They also provide our residents with experiences they would otherwise need to leave our community to have.

To encourage these events, the City has a Large Scale Tourism Event Fund. It is meant to support events which draw 2000 or more people and which have at least 35% of attendees come from 100km or further away. It currently receives annual funding of $200,000. Preference for this funding is meant to go towards new (less than 5 years old) or expanding events. You can find out more details about it here.

This year, three groups have made asks to the City. Following is some information and my take on these requests:

  • 2019 Canadian Men’s and Master Men’s Fastball Championships, Aug 28- Sept 1 ($25,000 request): The Grande Prairie Fastball Association will be hosting this event which is expected to draw ~2500 people, most of them from outside of Grande Prairie (there will only be 2 local teams). This event has a total budget of $153,640. The organisation hosting this event has never received Large Scale Tourism Event Funding in the past. I support funding this tournament: its ask is modest compared to other requests, and it is very clearly bringing in people that would otherwise never visit Grande Prairie.

  • Grande Prairie Stompede, May 29 - June 2 ($100,000 requested, Council recommended to support $50,000 in funding): The Grande Prairie Stompede is a very well established staple in our region. Last year it received $75,000 in Large Scale Tourism Event funding, and it received $50,000 in 2017. In 2019, it has a budget of $1,025,650 and is expected to have 6800+ people per day. I am very thankful for this event being in our region. However, I do not know if I will support funding it this year. The Stompede has significant reserves, ran a surplus last year, and is projecting a surplus this year. It certainly doesn’t need funding to be viable. The only way I will support funding this event is if representatives of the Stompede can show me how Tourism Event Funding will help it expand on the number of people drawn to Grande Prairie. At committee they shared some exciting ideas, but I’ll need to see numbers attached to them to support this request.

  • Bear Creek Folk Music Festival, Aug 16 - 18 ($87,500 request): Last year was my first year where I was in town for this event. I was impressed by its quality, size, and the amount of people I met visiting Grande Prairie for the first time because of it. This year, ticket sales are exceeding 2018 sales. The Folk Fest is expected to have 6,000 - 8,000 people per day and has a budget of $1,051,620. It has received $100,000 from the City in past years. In my mind, big investments from the Large Scale Tourism Event Fund are appropriate to help multi-year events start, but should not continue indefinitely. For this reason, I was happy to see the event decrease its 2019 ask by 12.5% from previous years. However, some feel that funding for this event should be scaled back quicker. I’m very likely to support funding this event in 2019 and I am very open to the full request. At the same time, I am also open to considering a slightly lower funding amount if one is suggested by my colleagues.

A Note for Those Who Oppose This Funding

I know some in our community oppose Large Scale Tourism Event Funding. I certainly understand where they are coming from. While I do think we get value from this investment, it is more a “nice to have” than a “need to have.” As we seek to spend City money better, I’m open to the idea that this program shouldn’t get funded to its current degree (or even funded at all). However:

The time for that conversation is during budget deliberations in the fall. In November, Council decided to fund this program with $200,000 in 2019. This amount is already built into our budget. And, since it was funded, organisations, City management, and Council have already put significant resources into creating and processing applications.

After setting its budget, it would be wasteful and disruptive for Council to re-debate specific lines every time their implementation came before it. That isn’t good governance. If Council has chosen to fund a program, I need to be very opposed to it for principal based reasons to try to change the City’s course once it is set in.

So, going into this meeting, I am not supportive of conversations about discontinuing this fund in 2019. Since Large Scale Tourism Event Funding has already been established this year, Council’s current conversation should focus on whether or not the applications before Council will effectively accomplish the goals of this fund.

That being said: the Community Living Committee has ordered a review of this program in the fall. When that review happens, I’ll be very open to the conversation of whether or not this funding should continue. And if it does continue, during budget deliberations, I’ll have an open mind if others suggest that $200,000 is an inappropriate level of funding for it.


Council Code of Conduct

The Municipal Government Act (MGA) was recently updated. This update introduced requirements for Council Codes of Conduct. On Monday, we will be discussing a bylaw which would establish an MGA compliant Code of Conduct for Grande Prairie City Councillors.

You can see the proposed bylaw here.

I will be supporting the passing of this bylaw.

However, I do have one concern that I may make a motion to address: it doesn’t allow for the municipality to cover the costs of independent legal advice when Councillors are deciding whether they have a Conflict of Interest.

This legal advice can be important. Whether or not a conflict exists is usually clear, but not always (especially when discussing procedural or technical matters). And there are big consequences if a Councillor decides wrongly on whether a conflict exists:

  • If a Councillor decides they have a conflict of interest and abstains from voting when no conflict actually exists, the people who elected them are left without representation.

  • If a Councillor decides no conflict of interest exists when it in fact does, they may be making a biased vote

The Municipal Government Act treats both of these mistakes equally. Both are grounds for removing a Councillor. And removing a Councillor has steep consequences for the municipality: it certainly requires an expensive by-election, and it may require an even more expensive legal fight.

I would hate to see the City spend hundreds of thousands of dollars (and months of time) on a process that might have been avoided had a Councillor received independent legal advice. Because of this risk to the City, I’m worried about any barriers, including cost, preventing a Councillor from getting good advice.

I am considering moving that independent legal advice be provided at the City’s, rather than a Councillor’s, expense. This isn’t without precedent: other municipalities have this provision in their bylaws.

If the municipality pays for legal advice, I do think the amount that can be spent should be capped. For example, Victoria limits the costs a Councillor can incur to $500 per issue and $1500 per year (although I think a per-4-year-term is better than a per-year cap). If I make a successful motion to change the funding of legal advice, I’ll also follow up with a motion to “direct administration to draft a policy to govern Council access to independent legal advice, including caps on how much can be spent per consultation and caps on how much a Councillor can spend on legal advice per term.”

I’m still thinking about this matter and don’t know what I will do on Monday night. I’d love to hear your thoughts. You might also be interested in seeing a great conversation about this in the GP Round Table Facebook group.


Pinnacle Ridge Special Tax

There is a large water fountain in Pinnacle Lake and a smaller water feature at the neighbourhood entrance. These cost approximately $16,700 per year to operate. In 2010, the City was going to stop operating both features. However, local residents gathered 700 signatures asking for a special neighbourhood levy to continue funding them. Council approved this initiative, and has been charging the levy to nearby residences ever since.

Right now, this levy sits at $25/house. An annual bylaw needs to be passed every year to continue issuing it. Since the neighbourhood asked for this and I have not had anyone in it express disapproval to me, I currently intend to vote "yes" to this bylaw.


Property Tax Bylaw

Municipal Taxes

In November, Council approved the 2019 budget. This budget delivers many service enhancements (including to police and roads) while also reducing expenditures. You can find more details about it here.

The 2019 budget requires $115,848,846 in tax revenue. That is $1,089,591 less revenue than was collected in 2018.

On Monday, Council will be debating a Property Tax Bylaw to authorize collection of this revenue. These are the proposed rates and how much will be collected from each type of property in the City:

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These rates will result in a 4.1% municipal tax reduction for an average residential property.

On average, the value of residential properties increased by 2.35% over the past year. This means that if your assessment went up by 2.35%, you will pay 4.1% less municipal taxes in 2019 than you did in 2018. If your assessment went up by less than 2.35%, you will get a larger decrease. And if you assessment went up by more than 2.35%, you will see a slightly larger increase.

The proposed rates will also result in a 0% increase for the average non-residential property.

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Provincial Taxes

It isn’t just the City which uses property taxes to fund operations. A large portion of your property tax goes towards the province. The province requires the City to collect property tax on its behalf for use in the education system.

Municipalities are in an awkward position in that a provincial budget has not been released yet, and it likely won’t be until the fall. But it is the provincial budget which tells us what the province will be requiring us to forward to it from property tax revenue. The province also requires us to send out property tax notices this month. That means that we need to set tax rates while only making an educated guess as to what the province will demand we pay forward to them.

The provincial budget created last year did include projections for future years. It suggested that, province wide, more property tax for education funding would be collected in 2019. In creating the proposed City Property Tax bylaw, this projected number is being used.

Additionally, how much the province takes from each municipality is based on the total value of assessed property in their jurisdiction compared to other jurisdictions. Over the past year, Grande Prairie has seen a higher value increase than the provincial average.

The province is likely to require more money from City of Grande Prairie properties in 2019 than it did in 2018. Our staff’s best estimation is that the province will require City of Grande Prairie tax payers to pay $29,820,732 in 2019. This is a 3.5% increase over the 2018 level of $28,818,503.

This estimation is built into the proposed Property Tax Bylaw.

There is a risk that the province will require the City to forward a different amount of money to it. If it does, then 2020 rates will be adjusted to ensure that tax payers pay the appropriate total amount for 2019 and 2020 combined.

Provincial taxes make up about 1/4 of a residential property tax bill. When added to municipal taxes, they significantly effect the total rate charged for property taxes. So the City is aiming to collect 4.1% less from residential properties. But when provincial increases are factored in, the average residential property (that had a 2.35% increase to assessment) will be seeing a 2.6% reduction in its total property taxes. The average non-residential property (with a 2.1% increase to assessment) will have a 0.1% increase.


Grande Spirit Foundation Requisition

Provincial legislation also allows the Grande Spirit Foundation (which provides affordable housing to seniors and families) to require the City to collect property taxes on its behalf. The amount of tax it is collecting from City properties is going up by a little over 2% in 2019. However, it is only requisitioning $445,642 total, so this has an incredibly minimal impact on total tax rates.

My Take on the Property Tax Bylaw

I am proud of the City’s efforts to be better targeted and more efficient with its spending (click here for more details). We have a budget that delivers a tax decrease without significant cuts to service. That is a very good thing.

However, 1.5% of the proposed decrease comes from refinancing debt. I’ve written in depth about this financial strategy elsewhere (click here for one example). I could support refinancing if the temporary cash flow increase it generates goes towards something that will permanently enhance our community. However, I cannot support increasing our debt servicing costs only to create a temporary tax decrease. I have a very strong, principal based objection to using refinancing to lower taxes.

I’ll also note that the City’s first quarter financials are currently projecting a $1,185,000 deficit in 2019. This only represents 0.69% of the budget, so I am confident that savings and efficiencies will be found over the rest of the year to eliminate this deficit. However, there is a risk that we will finish this year in the red. I’d be a lot more comfortable with that risk if more of the cash flow from debt refinancing was going to reserves (which are used in the case of year end deficits).

One of my primary goals going into the 2019 budget debate was to see us decrease the tax burden. But not at the cost of increased debt for the City. I would like to see the proposed Property Tax Bylaw updated to no longer use cash flow from debt refinancing as part of our tax reduction strategy (this would change the average residential decrease to ~2.6%). For that reason, I will not be supporting passing the bylaw on Monday night.


Habitat for Humanity Land Acquisition

Habitat for Humanity makes home ownership available to low income families. Habitat does this by leveraging its experience building cost effective homes with volunteer labour and philanthropic giving. Habitat families put 500 hours of labour into their home and pay for a mortgage, maintenance, and property taxes. If if they decide to move, they sell back to Habitat so that the home can go to other families in need.

Habitat for Humanity has obtained philanthropic commitments to build 5 new homes in Grande Prairie. It is hoping the City will contribute land. The City does not own any appropriate property. However, several parcels costing approximately $500-600,000 are available for purchase in the City.

The City also has $879,723 in Provincial Affordable Housing Grant Funding available. The province has said that it would like this money to be designated soon.

It is recommended that Council request that the province release up to $879,723 for the purchase of land suitable for the Habitat for Humanity project.

I will be supporting this recommendation. We have funding available that is restricted to affordable housing creation and which we might lose if it goes unused for much longer. This is a project which is ready to go and is in partnership with a great organisation that has proven its ability to deliver.

Worth noting: I love this Habitat for Humanity project because it is being led by a non-profit organisation and most of its funding is coming from private donations, not from the City. Creating more affordable housing is a priority for the City. But this is how we should do it- by supporting others as they meet community needs, not by doing it ourselves. Government is an important partner in addressing community challenges, but is rarely best positioned to fill them on its own.


Snowbird 8 Memorial Project

On May 3, 1978, Captain Gordon de Jong of the Canadian Forces Snowbirds was involved in a fatal accident at the Grande Prairie Regional Airport. The Peace Country Recreational Flyers Association (PCRFA) is working with the Grande Prairie Airport Authority to develop a memorial. It will honour Gordon de Jong and highlight a piece of local history while providing a sculpture for visitors and residents to enjoy at the airport.

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This project has a total budget of $228,000. The PCRFA has already raised $115,000 in Gift in Kind donations and it is actively raising additional support. It has asked for some City participation.

The City has a Public Art Reserve which is currently funded with $69,906. The Arts Development Committee has recommended that Council approve $15,000 from this reserve being allocated to the Snowbird 8 Memorial Project.

I’m likely to support this recommendation. We have reserve funding available, which means supporting this project has no implications on taxes or other approved projects. It is appropriate for the City to invest modestly in public art: it increases the quality of life for residents and makes us a more attractive place for others to visit, move to, and invest in. This piece is particularly appropriate for welcoming visitors as it will sit at our airport, which doesn’t have much in the way of aesthetic improvements. And as we invest in any community enhancement projects, ones which are drawing most of their resources from other sources are desirable. Supporting this project makes sense to me.


That’s what is on our agenda for Monday. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

You can comment below. Or, you can contact me at dbressey@cityofgp.com or 780-402-4166. I'm happy to talk online or over the phone. I'm also always willing to setup a time to meet for coffee.

We also always have great conversation in the GP Round Table group on Facebook.

After Council meeting, you will be able to find highlights posted by the City here.

Thanks for reading!

-Dylan