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June 2015 Mayor's Column

​Annual property tax bills went out in the mail recently, and I suspect few readers will be surprised that I have been fielding complaints from some residents who are unhappy that their tax bill is higher than it was last year.

The average overall increase is 2.84 per cent this year, one of the lowest for cities in Alberta. Depending on how the market value of your home has changed in comparison to the rest of the community, your increase may be greater or less than this average percentage, and I encourage you to contact staff in our assessment department if you have questions.

I'm like most people. I don't want to pay any more than I have to for anything, whether it's property taxes, a house, a vehicle or my monthly groceries. So I can empathize with those who contact me to express frustration that their share of the overall cost for tax-funded municipal services is going up – even if it's by just a few per cent.

But readers may also be interested to know that, at other times of the year, I hear from just as many people who think the City should be devoting more resources to services such as snow removal, street repairs or public transit. This illustrates one of the key challenges for City Council as financial stewards of the City of Lethbridge, which is to balance our resources with the needs of the community.

Inevitably, we as Council may fail to meet the expectations of some in the community who want to pay less in property taxes without sacrificing any municipal services or others who want greater levels of service with no increase in taxes. Ultimately, Council seeks to do what's best for the entire community while respecting that the community's capacity and tolerance for tax increases is limited.

As I've stated before in this column, it's worth noting that, unlike provincial and federal income tax revenues, municipal tax revenues do not rise automatically with your income. Although provincial and federal tax rates (the percentage of your income withheld as income tax) may remain the same from year to year, the actual tax revenues increase annually as incomes increase. This automatic indexing of tax revenues doesn't occur with municipal property taxation. As our costs rise annually with inflation and other cost pressures, we must adjust tax rates accordingly.

Demonstrating financial stewardship is a strategic priority for this City Council. We are committed to reviewing service levels across our municipal organization to ensure you are receiving maximum value for the services paid for by your property taxes. Many of these services are such an integral part of our everyday lives that it's easy to take them for granted.

A significant portion of your property tax dollars is allotted to ensure the safety of our residents. Almost 27 cents of every tax dollar collected is allocated for protective services (Lethbridge Regional Police Service and Lethbridge Fire/EMS). Because we are a municipality with a population greater than 5,000, we are required to fund almost the entire cost of policing from local property taxes with only minimal funding from the province. The LRPS includes 171 sworn officers plus civilian support staff who provide around-the-clock policing as well as specialized services such as a Tactical Unit and Explosives Disposal Unit for dealing with high-risk situations.

For more than 100 years, the Lethbridge has had an efficient integrated Fire/EMS system in which our firefighters are cross-trained to provide emergency medical care.  Although the province assumed governance over ambulance services from municipalities in 2009, Lethbridge has continued to provide the ambulance component of the integrated system under contract with the province. 

Almost 15 cents of every tax dollar pays for a fairly broad range of community services including operational costs for our swimming pools and arenas, the ENMAX Centre, the Yates Memorial Centre, the Helen Schuler Nature Centre, regulatory services and cemetery services.

Many visitors to Lethbridge are impressed with our urban forest as well as the many parks and other green spaces we have.  Initial landscaping work began this spring on Legacy Park, a 73-acre addition to our parks north of the Uplands neighbourhood.  There is a cost to providing these green spaces, and approximately six cents of each tax dollar collected goes towards ensuring that our beautiful urban parks and green spaces are properly maintained.

Lethbridge Transit and ACCESS-A-Ride account for 6.2 cents of each tax dollar collected.  For mid-sized cities such as Lethbridge, it is common for public transit to be heavily subsidized by local taxpayers. Revenues from rider fees cover only 21 per cent of the combined operating costs for these services; taxpayers subsidize the other 79 per cent.

Additionally, 6.6 cents of each dollar is allocated to the Pay-As-You-Go program and internal debt repayment. These two programs have allowed the City to leverage provincial and federal grants to assist in building capital projects.

About five cents of each tax dollar pays for road maintenance which includes snow and ice control, pothole repairs, street lighting, traffic signal maintenance, street sweeping and sidewalk maintenance.  Corporate Services such as information technology, financial services, human resources, and assessment departments account for 4.8 cents of each tax dollar.

Governance and Community Development represent three cents of each tax dollar collected.  This category includes economic development, the City Clerk's office, City Council, the City Manager's office, the City Solicitor's office and the Mayor's office. The final component of the property tax dollar is referred to as "Other Infrastructure Services" which account for 1.7 cents.

It's also worth noting that your overall property tax bill includes two other components besides your municipal property tax levy. One is the Provincial education levy which this year accounts for almost 24 per cent of the overall bill. The other is the levy for the Green Acres Foundation, which helps fund seniors' housing in our community, and which accounts for 1.2 per cent of your overall tax bill.

Tax time can be challenging for seniors in our community who are on limited incomes. For these folks, the provincial Seniors Property Tax Deferral Program is worth considering. This voluntary program allows eligible seniors to defer their residential property taxes through a low-interest home equity loan with the Alberta government. For an eligible senior, the Province will pay property taxes to the City, and the loan will be payable in the future when the senior sells the home. For applications and eligibility details, contact Alberta Health toll-free at 1-877-644-9992 or visit http://www.seniors.alberta.ca/seniors/property-tax-deferral.html.