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June 2018 Mayor Column

With property taxes due at the end of this month, this is the time of year when residents have questions about their tax bills and how their tax money is spent to provide municipal services.

As mandated in the provincial Municipal Government Act, we only collect sufficient tax revenue to meet the approved budget set by City Council to run the City. We allocate taxes to homeowners equitably based on the market value assessment of their properties.

This year, the tax collected annually for road maintenance isbased on property assessment values rather than on lot sizes. Previously, a special tax for road maintenance was charged to properties more than 10 years old, which created the potential for modest older homes on larger lots to be charged proportionately more for road maintenance than more expensive homes on comparatively smaller lots, regardless of age. This special tax has been eliminated, and property taxes are adjusted slightly to make up the difference.

The money collected each year in property taxes is used to provide important public services such as police and fire protection, road maintenance, public transit, parks, public libraries as well as cultural and recreation facilities.

The tax-funded portion of the 2018 City of Lethbridge operating budget is $168.02 million. Here's a breakdown of the major budget areas:

  • Police                                            21.6%                     $36.29 million
  • Other Community Services          20.4%                      $34.28 million
  • Fire/EMS                                       14.1%                     $23.67 million
  • Transit & ACCESS-A-Ride              8.4%                      $14.2 million
  • Parks Management                        8.1%                      $13.55 million
  • Debt & Pay-As-You-Go Capital     7.8%                      $13.08 million
  • Streets & Roads                             6.8%                      $11.47 million
  • Corporate Services                         6.4%                      $10.71 million
  • Governance                                      3%                       $5.04 million      
  • Other Infrastructure Services         2.3%                      $3.89 million
  • Planning & Development              1.1%                      $1.84 million

Cities have two assessment bases from which they draw taxes to help fund their annual operating budgets: residential and non-residential (commercial). When residents ask me why residential taxes in Lethbridge aren't lower, I point out that in Lethbridge, our commercial assessment base makes up a smaller proportion of our overall property assessment base than other mid-sized and major Alberta cities. Most are around 25 percent, while in Lethbridge it's only 19 per cent.

By working hard to attract new business to Lethbridge, we want to gradually increase our proportion of commercial assessment base, which would allow us to shift some of the tax burden from residential taxpayers.

Council will be setting a new four-year operating budget later this year. Heading into that process, we have directed our administration to prepare a draft budget that:

  • Maintains existing levels of municipal services
  • Absorbs inflationary pressures
  • Absorbs community growth pressures
  • Provides us with options for service level investments or adjustments
  • Clearly identifies financial allocations by service areas

Council members recognize this will not be easy to achieve, but we are determined to strive for added efficiency in every area of our municipal organization.

For local seniors who find tax time financially challenging, I encourage them to consider the provincial Seniors Property Tax Deferral Program. Details are available from Alberta Health at 1-877-644-9992 or at http://www.seniors.alberta.ca/seniors/property-tax-deferral.html.

If making a lump-sum tax payments is difficult, you might consider enrolling in our convenient monthly Tax Instalment Prepayment Plan (TIPP). Visit www.lethbridge.ca/tipp for details or stop by City Hall to enroll.

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The escalating epidemic of drug use has garnered a great deal of attention in recent weeks in the local news and on social media.

The City and our partner organizations on the Lethbridge Executive Leaders Coalition on Opioid Use have been collaborating since late 2016 to pro-actively respond to this crisis. For many of us on the coalition, it's been like preparing for an oncoming storm and bracing as its impact is felt. The sad truth is that Lethbridge is not alone. Many cities across Canada and North America are facing the same crisis.

Residents are justifiably worried about the impact this public health crisis is having on our community. We share their concern. Residents are also hungry for accurate, reliable information on how keep themselves and their children safe from the risk of discarded needles.

Provincially-mandated harm reduction programs and practices seek to help a vulnerable, high-risk segment of our community and prevent the spread of infectious diseases. Their efforts have sometimes been misunderstood, or in some cases, misrepresented. Contrary to what some have assumed, the City does not deliver provincially-mandated harm reduction programs. Our efforts are focused on community safety, which means having our own front-line staff as well as contracted agencies or programs involved in removing drug debris from public spaces.

Here is what the City of Lethbridge has done to date to address drug debris and community safety:

  • Funded the ARCHES Needle Pickup Hotline - http://www.lethbridgearches.com/needle-pick-up/
  • Developed a Safe Needle Disposal Guide for city residents, which includes advice for parents of small children - www.lethbridge.ca/needle
  • Supplied needle disposal boxes in more than a dozen areas where needle debris has been a chronic problem
  • Recently allocated provincial funding for homelessness to expand the Downtown BRZ Clean Sweep program and Mobile Outreach program to supplement other efforts to deal with needle debris in the community

Our Parks staff are also trained in the safe handling and cleanup of needle debris. Since 2017, needle cleanup programs outside the City's regular operations have been funded with up to $172,500 in provincial money and a total of $63,500 from the City of Lethbridge.

To connect our residents with authoritative, accurate information, City Council has resolved to hold a Community Issues Committee meeting as soon as possible on the opioid crisis. We intend to invite a panel of health, addictions and harm reduction experts to help explore ways to reduce needle debris in our community. We will announce a date for this meeting as soon as the details and panel participants are confirmed.

In the meantime, if you happen to find needle debris, please call the ARCHES Needle Pickup Hotline at 402-332-0722 to have it picked up and disposed of properly. The hotline operates every day from 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. except statutory holidays.

Mayor Chris Spearman
June 15, 2018