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May 2015 Mayor's Column

I would like to begin this month’s column by congratulating and welcoming our newly elected MLAs Maria Fitzpatrick and Shannon Phillips, who won the Lethbridge-East and Lethbridge-West ridings, respectively, in the recent provincial election.
My fellow City Council members and I look forward to working with our new MLAs on issues of importance to Lethbridge. Whether we work at the municipal or provincial levels, we are all elected to represent the same citizens – you – and so it’s important to foster collaborative relationships.
At the same time, I also want to thank our outgoing MLAs Greg Weadick and Bridget Pastoor for their many years of dedication in representing and advocating on behalf of our community at the provincial government level. I join many others in wishing them well as they move on from public life.
One of City Council’s most important responsibilities is to provide financial oversight and stewardship for the City of Lethbridge. Like most organizations, corporations and governments, we rely on independent professionals to conduct annual audits of the City’s finances which provide a thorough, unbiased analysis of our organization’s financial health. The external auditors have full, unrestricted access to the City Council members who comprise the City’s Audit Committee to discuss their audit and related findings as to the integrity of the City’s financial statements, including the adequacy of internal financial controls.
The 2014 Audited Financial report, which Council formally received and approved in April, should provide a great deal of assurance to Lethbridge residents that the City of Lethbridge continues to be financially well managed and on very solid financial footing. The City’s external debt decreased by $5 million in 2014 to $71 million, and we continue to have one of the lowest debt-per-capita ratios of any cities in Alberta.
On the issue of recycling, City Council adopted an Environmental Policy at our May 11 meeting. Our ultimate goal is to identify opportunities and implement measures that have the greatest environmental impact. The reality is that our City landfill has a finite capacity, and enhancing waste diversion will extend the life of the landfill for future residents. We understand that environmental stewardship is a shared responsibility of government, business, institutions, nearby communities and individual citizens.
Recently, City Council received a report from our Waste and Recycling staff which outlined a potential strategy for increasing diversion of non-residential waste from our landfill. According to the report, about 58 per cent of the waste that enters our landfill each year originates from the Industrial, Commercial and Institutional (ICI) sector, while 23 per cent is residential and 19 per cent is generated by the Construction and Demolition sector. The ICI Recycling Implementation Strategy was developed over the past two years in consultation with representatives from the ICI sector of our community.
The ICI strategy recommends that the City of Lethbridge take a leadership role in establishing targets for the waste diversion in order to reduce the per-capita volume of waste entering the landfill from the current level of 820 kg per capita annually.
The report also recommends a three-phase approach to waste diversion with the first phase promoting voluntary participation through education, awareness and social marketing. The second phase would introduce economic incentives for waste diversion by increasing the cost of disposing of recyclable material in the landfill. The third and final phase could introduce mandatory recycling or possibly banning certain recyclable materials from the landfill altogether.
As we go forward, we need to generate good data on which to make future decisions. This will be very helpful if our Industrial, Commercial and Institutional sectors can separate and measure recyclable and compostable materials at their source locations. Every effort should be made to divert these materials from the waste stream and the landfill.
Over the remainder of this year, Council has instructed our administration to: a) prepare a waste diversion policy that provides a framework to maximize diversion of recyclable and compostable material from the landfill; and b) develop a draft action plan by December, with community consultation, for implementation of a five-year waste diversion strategy for all sectors of the community.
Also at our May 11 meeting, City Council set the 2015 property tax rates. The overall average increase is 2.84 per cent or about $6 per month for the average home, which is one of the lowest rates of increase for cities in Alberta this year. Many residents wonder why increases are required and why property tax rates can’t be frozen or reduced. The answer is that the cost of providing existing municipal services rises each year due to inflation, and unlike federal and provincial governments, whose income tax revenues rise automatically as your income increases, the City has no other means of generating additional revenue to keep pace with inflation.
As I mentioned in my February column, there are many factors to consider in order to make an accurate comparison between residential property taxes from one city to another. Two factors significantly affect our property taxes. One factor is the ratio of commercial (non-residential) tax assessment base to residential. Lethbridge has a proportionately smaller commercial assessment base than most Alberta cities. Our commercial assessment base is 20 per cent of the overall tax base, while the average is 26 per cent among all Alberta cities.
The second factor is the comparatively high proportion of government-owned facilities in Lethbridge that pay little or no local property tax. The recent provincial budget proposed the elimination of provincial grants in lieu of property taxes on government-owned seniors’ residences and affordable housing. This created an unexpected shortfall of $825,000 for the City of Lethbridge which must be made up by remaining local taxpayers. I am working with 21 other cities in Alberta to get this decision reversed.
In closing, I would like to remind everyone that volunteers and sponsors are still needed for the 2015 Skate Canada International figure skating event, which Lethbridge will host from Oct. 31-Nov. 1. We are thrilled that Skate Canada chose our city to host this world-class competition, and I know our community will ensure an excellent experience for everyone involved.
Mayor Chris Spearman
May 15, 2015