Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to present at the Chamber of Commerce's annual State of the City event. This is a unique chance to talk directly to business owners and community leaders. I was very impressed with this year's strong attendance. I am always in awe of how dedicated and engaged our local business community is. These are people that have innovative and creative ideas on how we can make our community better and are passionate about Lethbridge.
Over the last several years, I have focused my State of the City address on our taxes. We know residents have concerns around tax rates and it's important to understand how taxes are calculated, why Lethbridge has a lower commercial tax base and where tax dollars are spent. It is equally important to share with the community the things being done to help reduce the tax burden on our residents.
One of the most important things City Council does is to set the City budgets. 2018 was a big year as we approved the next four-year operating budget. Throughout this process, City Council was very aware of the pressure being felt by our taxpayers and a significant increase wasn't something we were willing to do. Knowing there were issues we needed to address, finding the right balance of low taxes and increased service was extremely challenging.
In the end, we managed the lowest increase in over 20 years at just 1.82 per cent over the next four years. The increase works out to an average of $3.50 per month ($42 per year) on an average single-family residential home with an assessed value of $267,300.
To start the operating budget process, council also instructed administration to conduct an independent fiscal performance review of all City operations over the next three years. We want to improve Lethbridge's standing in the province when it comes to the level of residential property tax. The results of this review will help us make thoughtful, fact-based decisions that will get more value out of every tax dollar and I look forward to getting this work underway.
Another big item of discussion at the State of the City address was the City's acquisition of the Lethbridge Airport. In March of last year, we announced that we had reached an agreement with the Lethbridge County to assume ownership of the Lethbridge airport. This officially came into effect July 19. We are very optimistic about the potential for the airport to become a significant business hub and economic generator for our city and the region.
Today's economy demands next day service and delivery, and we have local businesses saying that can't happen if everything has to be shipped to Calgary before it gets flown out to world markets. If we want to attract world class companies, we know we have to be able to fly out of Lethbridge and ship out of Lethbridge.
The airport transition committee has done a lot of work already and this will continue to be a major priority and focus in the months ahead. This will include the approval of governance and operating models that can help expand services at the airport and better meet the needs of our community.
On June 21, we welcomed the first ever, Westjet flight to the Lethbridge airport. Since then they have offered 3 flights a day and I'm happy to report some very positive stats:
- 94% increase in passenger traffic from Nov 2017 to Nov 2018.
- 1300 new seats/day being filled with the introduction of Westjet service
- Consistently strong passenger volumes for Air Canada flights
This tells us there are lots of new customers coming to the Lethbridge airport. These are people who probably drove to Calgary or Great Falls and are now using the Lethbridge Airport and this is extremely promising and exciting.
The business community has also been impacted by the drug crisis, particularly the perception of safety in our downtown core. This week, Council heard presentations from several departments on what is happening to ensure we have a safe and clean downtown.
The 2019 Downtown Clean and Safe Strategy can be found at Lethbridge.ca and explains work the City is doing related to enforcement, security, outreach, cleaning, promotion and education. This, combined with new initiatives approved in the operating budget and additional provincial funding for health care services will help our city immensely.
2019 Downtown Clean and Safe Strategy
In the end, we know the biggest impact we can have, on any challenges we face, is to create a community approach and work together. I want to encourage residents to be part of a positive change. It's people that make for a vibrant and healthy community. People shopping, dining and attending events will help everyone realize the wonderful and unique opportunities Lethbridge has to offer.
To conclude the State of the City address, it was inspiring to stand before a room full of people and share the amazing things coming in 2019. Never before has Lethbridge had so many big events and milestones happening in one year. The opening of ATB Centre, introduction of curbside recycling, 2019 Pioneer Hi-Bred World Men's Curling Championship and the University Men's Hockey Championships – just to name a few. These are things that have taken years to plan for, events that require the dedication of hundreds of volunteers and activities that will show the rest of the country - even the world - how amazing our city is. Get ready for 2019!