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Budget talks: Cochrane council looks at front-loading tax increase

Cochrane town council favours adding muscle to the 2022-24 draft budget after over a year of forced cuts and years more of leaving taxes alone.  

Cochrane town council favours adding muscle to the 2022-24 draft budget after over a year of forced cuts and years more of leaving taxes alone.  

By the end of the second draft budget meeting Nov. 22, administration was tasked to come back for the next meeting Wednesday, Nov. 24, with options that would examine front-loading a tax increase of up to 10 per cent in 2022 to immediately address growth and inflationary costs and then decrease in subsequent years.

"The property tax per capita tells the story of a community that has tried to keep taxes low, to a point where it's actually under-taxing the community," said mayor Jeff Genung, adding that as a resident and business owner, he does not want to see taxes increase either. 

The average tax per capita in Cochrane is about $1,450, compared to similarly sized communities like Leduc, Okotoks and High River with an average of about $2,400. 

"Nobody wants to raise taxes," said Genung. "But what I'm hearing over the last few years is that we've kept our taxes at a reasonably low rate that has not contributed to the organizational efficiencies that we would like to have as a community, but also to deliver those stellar services that we've become accustomed to, and actually, I think, we brag about."

As a whole, Genung said council has a user-pay philosophy and he believes much of what the draft budget addresses aligns with that. 

Administration's initial proposal for the draft budget included a seven per cent tax increase over the next three years, though Genung and the majority of council members walked away from the last meeting thinking an approach of "ripping the Band-Aid off" in the first year may be needed.

"I, for one, didn't run to be mayor or to be on council to keep the lights on," said Genung.

He said he wants to address community concerns but council is continually frustrated when told "we don't have the capacity to deal with them. 

"I don't want to do that for another year, or two years, or three, or stretch this to 2027 and slowly build with drops to the bucket."

For the next meeting, councillors are hoping to see a dollar amount per month that a new tax rate increase would equate to, to better put the amount into perspective for residents, and where they could expect to see the deliverables of the increase in the community.

Coun. Susan Flowers said she doesn't know what the increase is going to look like but that she believes it's necessary for the town.

"We have to bite the bullet this time, and we are going to have an increase," she said. "I don't know what the per cent is going to be, but I'm really looking forward to building this organization to be respected across the province and not just barely getting through the day with all the staff."

Coun. Morgan Nagel expressed interest in eliminating the role of a diversity and inclusion officer, believing that could be something covered by another organization in Cochrane.

Flowers was in strong opposition of this, citing a meeting they had with the Minister of Indigenous Affairs at the AUMA conference last week. 

"There's going to be a ton of funding coming down and movement in that area," she said. "There's going to be all sorts of programs coming forward and we have to be ready or once again, we're going to miss the boat and not get involved."

The topic of staffing has been hotly contested in chambers over the last two budget meetings as administration is proposing over a dozen new positions be added to the town, including managerial and non-management, and parks staff to be added over the next three years, some of which were jobs that had been previously cut. 

The administration is seeking $1.5 million for new positions in the proposed $32-million operating budget. It's also calling for about $1 million for staff cost of living increases and market wage adjustments, plus union-negotiated increases.

It also includes a jump to $931,857 from $478,844 in staffing costs for the CAO office, about a 94 per cent increase.

While Coun. Marni Fedeyko was in agreement that certain staffing additions are needed such as in community services and planning, she has been a vocal advocate pushing for more transparency on the new positions being created given the significant increase and confusion among council members. 

Coun. Patrick Wilson said he would like to see one of the new positions on the organizational chart include the responsibility to analyze the town's growth financially for preparation purposes. 

"I think the most important thing we're currently not doing as a council is having the ability to financially analyze new growth that's coming before us in the next four years. I would be interested to see if any of the new positions will help us with that."

During the seven-hour meeting, council and administration also reviewed the proposed capital budget and looked at the 10-year infrastructure strategy.

The draft budget includes capital projects totalling $29.4 million in 2022, $21 million in 2023 and $4.5 million in 2024 — grant funding will cover $20.5 million. 

Transportation projects within 2022-23 include Phase 2 of the Centre Avenue and Highway 1A improvements, a design upgrade to Township Road 262, the extension of Highway 22 and Phase 2 of Quigley Drive updates.

Non-transportation projects include a review of Jim Uffelmann Park, servicing Horse Creek Sports Park, a utility project from Highway 22 to Riverview Siphon, a water-licensing strategy and storm infrastructure for Glenpatrick Drive North. 

Council and administration opted to cancel the Nov. 23 meeting in favour of reconvening Nov. 25 to give administration enough time to address informational requests from council before further review of the 2022-24 draft budget.