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Mayor's Monthly Column - February 2015

​Curbside recycling discussion continues, many factors in city-to-city property tax comparisons  

The topic of curbside recycling has occupied much of City Council’s attention in recent weeks.  It has also been a focus for discussion in our city.  On behalf of Lethbridge City Council, I would like to thank those who have written letters and emails to inform us of your views.  If you have not already done so, please let members of Council know how you feel about potential increases to levels of recycling service. 

As Finance Committee, City Council members have approved curbside recycling in principle, but there are differences of opinion on the delivery model.  The options to consider are:

     1. A Blue Cart program which would collect unsorted recyclable items like cardboard, plastics, paper, metals and glass
     2. A Green Cart program which would collect organic food wastes such as table scraps, meat and bones as well as lawn clippings

We continue to encourage members of the community to educate themselves about these two options and let us know how you feel.  The feedback from the community to date has been excellent.  Members of Council have clearly heard that many of you are concerned about any added costs that these programs would entail.  We have also clearly heard that the responsibility for recycling and waste diversion should not be born exclusively by the residential sector. 

I will be proposing two resolutions at the March 2, 2015 City Council meeting.  The first resolution asks City Council to host a Community Issues Committee meeting on the topic of recycling.  This meeting would follow a similar format as the meeting we hosted in 2014 on the topic of urban drilling where we would have subject matter experts available.  Members of Council and the public would have the opportunity to ask questions and learn from these panellists. 

The second resolution that I am proposing is more controversial.  It asks City Council to inform the community that recyclable items and organics will not be accepted in waste carts and at our landfill after March 1, 2016.  If approved, this resolution would apply to all Institutional, Commercial, Industrial, Construction and Residential customers in our city.  This resolution would also focus our City Council and community on progress.  We could proceed with a pilot project.  We could also examine the costs of these new services to the residential customers in more detail.

Our analysis of current waste bin content in Lethbridge resulted in findings that, on average, only 27 per cent of the contents were actual waste.  The remainder were organics (47 per cent) and recyclable items (26 per cent).  Many residents have told us that they only put their current waste carts out for collection every few weeks.

It may be possible to fund a curbside recycling program with existing funding if we can get support and participation from the community.  Setting a goal of only accepting waste at our landfill may help everyone to focus on the solutions required to make that happen. We on Council understand the concerns we’ve heard about costs, and we recognize our obligation to minimize the added cost of any new programs
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The quality of life we enjoy in Lethbridge is often one of the key factors that attracts new residents from around Alberta and other parts of Canada.

We have a safe, clean city with abundant parks and other amenities for outdoor and indoor recreation. We offer world-class educational opportunities and an ever-growing diversity of career opportunities, and we continue to grow as the economic, commercial and cultural hub of southern Alberta. In short, Lethbridge offers many of the same things that people enjoy about bigger cities without many of headaches of big-city living.

Occasionally, I’m approached by newer residents who question whether the amount of property tax they pay on their homes is fair and appropriate in comparison to residential property taxes in other cities. I welcome these types of conversations because they provide opportunities to discuss what we value about our community and to be accountable for how public tax dollars are allocated to deliver services to the community.

Every city is comprised of two primary tax bases – residential and commercial properties – from which tax revenue is generated to cover the costs of municipal services. The residential-commercial makeup of the tax base is unique in every community, and it’s a delicate balance determining what the appropriate residential and commercial shares of the overall tax base should be.

In Calgary, 56 per cent of all property tax revenue is collected from commercial properties which comprise about 27 per cent of the overall tax assessment base. Meanwhile, in Lethbridge 38 per cent of all property tax revenue is collected from commercial properties, which comprise about 20 per cent of the overall assessment base. In Lethbridge, our commercial assessment base is somewhat smaller than the average of 26 per cent among Alberta cities.

If we were to shift the tax burden to Lethbridge commercial properties and businesses to the same extent seen in Calgary, I believe we would effectively drive existing businesses and jobs out of our city and discourage new businesses and employers from coming to Lethbridge. Conversely, shifting the tax burden away from commercial properties would only drive up residential property taxes.

When comparing residential property taxes from one city to another, there are many variable factors to consider in order to make an accurate comparison. Home values vary substantially from city to city as can the composition of their respective overall assessment bases.

One simple way of comparing city-to-city property taxation is to look at the total municipal tax revenue collected per person in each city. According to 2013 data, the total municipal tax revenue collected per person ranged from as low as $695 in Airdrie to as high as $4,841 in Fort McMurray. In Lethbridge in 2013, the total municipal tax collected per person in was $1,139. Ten Alberta cities collected more tax revenue per person than Lethbridge, while seven collected less.

What this data tells me is that Lethbridge is closer to the low end of the municipal tax spectrum than the high end. But that doesn’t mean your City Council is any less committed to seeking efficiencies in our municipal services to ensure that Lethbridge taxpayers receive good value for their tax dollars. In our recently approved four-year operating budget, Council introduced requirements for staff to report to us regularly on their efforts to find greater efficiencies within our city operations.

Council strives to understand the community’s values, and we do our best to ensure those broad community values are reflected in how we allocate funding in the City’s operating budget. It’s not simple or easy to do. Nor is it possible to please everyone because some residents have drastically differing values.

Many of the factors that make Lethbridge such an attractive place to live can be linked directly to the importance we and previous city councils have placed in our budgets on key areas such as police and fire protection as well as parks and transportation. As Council, we strive to serve the best interests of the entire community. After all, we on City Council are taxpayers, too. 

Mayor Chris Spearman
February 20, 2015