I often get asked about property taxes. Some residents have the impression that Lethbridge has higher taxes than other cities in Alberta and Canada.
This week, City Council received a presentation of a study commissioned by BILD Lethbridge Region, which represents local home builders. The study compared Lethbridge to 14 other cities across Canada and examined indicators such as fiscal capacity, taxes, utility charges, debt and reserves, the business community, expenses, revenue and employment.
Although the study found that Lethbridge compares well on a number of these indicators, it did question a few, one of those being the ratio of non-residential (commercial) property taxes to residential property taxes.
It's important at this point to note some local context. In Lethbridge, nine of the 10 largest employers are government entities that pay no municipal property tax, yet they benefit from the full array of municipal services we provide.
Cities have two assessment bases from which they collect property 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 to the fact 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. Ultimately, this would provide a better balance between residential and non-residential property taxes.
City Council is well aware of and sensitive to concerns we hear from residents about increases in property taxes. In preparation for our upcoming operating budget deliberations in November, City Council gave direction in May this year for our administration to prepare a draft budget that would:
- Maintain current service levels
- Absorb inflation
- Absorb community growth pressures
- Identify options for investments or service levels
- Provide us with a program-based framework that clearly identifies financial investments by services provided
At this point, after fulfilling the directives listed above, the additional operating costs from the scheduled completion of approved capital projects are creating upward tax pressure of 1.6 per cent, on average, per year in the new four-year operating budget. We are also challenged financially by new initiatives such as the need for additional support for policing as we seek to deal with rising drug use and petty crime.
Over the next six weeks, the challenge for City Council will be to balance the need for increased efficiencies with the desire among residents to maintain current levels while also considering the need to invest in areas such as public safety.
We want to thank everyone who has taken the time this fall to participate in online or in-person discussions that have been offered regarding City services. On Tuesday, Oct. 23 from 4-7 p.m. at City Hall, you'll have an opportunity to provide feedback to members of City Council on your priorities for City services.
Static displays will also be available Oct. 23-26 at City Hall and at ATB Centre. And on Nov. 5 at our Finance Committee meeting, an open mic session will be scheduled at 4 p.m. for you to provide feedback or ask us questions regarding City services and the draft operating budget.
Last week, we launched a three-phase community consultation process that's intended to help Lethbridge develop a community-based, community-driven drug strategy.
The first phase was all about listening to our community. On Oct. 10 and 11, we held four facilitated sessions where anyone in our community could come and share how the drug crisis is affecting them as well as bring ideas for constructive solutions. These sessions were well attended, and I've heard positive feedback from those who participated.
What we heard from those sessions is being compiled into a report to come to City Council by early November. The report will be shared with the public and will inform the next two phases of consultation with targeted stakeholders such as EMS, business people, social service providers, police, housing agencies, and harm reduction service providers.
The issues that our city is facing are complex and do not have easy solutions. These issues are creating divisions among some in our community. We will only resolve these difficult social problems by working together.
On Oct. 1, members of the Executive Leaders Coalition on Opioid Use presented to City Council. They identified what is being done in Lethbridge within the four pillars of Education & Prevention, Harm Reduction, Treatment and Enforcement, and they also outlined needs or gaps in services.
Within the next couple of months, we expect to have a draft version of a community-based drug strategy with immediate and longer-term objectives as well as a clear mandate for the committee Council is establishing to lead the implementation of that plan.
As you are likely aware, the possession and use of recreational cannabis became legal in Canada on Oct. 17. At this point, the City of Lethbridge is not introducing additional public consumption regulations because the combination of the Alberta Tobacco & Smoking Reduction Act and the Alberta Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis Act & Regulation already set out restrictions on cannabis consumption within enclosed public spaces and prescribed distances from certain outdoor public places.
I won't go into detail here on what those restrictions are, but you can find them at www.lethbridge.ca/cannabis.
These provincial restrictions are more stringent than those within current municipal bylaws such as the Smoking Bylaw and the Parks Bylaw. The province has the authority to introduce additional regulations to address any regulatory gaps that may be identified. At the municipal level, we will monitor the local implications of cannabis legalization to determine whether any additional measures are required.
Mayor Chris Spearman
October 19, 2018