The plethora of proposed changes in the provincial government’s revised draft of the Municipal Government Act (MGA), tabled at the Legislature last month, weren’t as bad as they might have been, according to Ponoka County Reeve Paul McLauchlin.
McLauchlin explained in an interview early this week that no changes have been suggested to the way agricultural land and farmers’ homes are assessed as well as how linear property (pipelines, wells, power lines, etc) is taxed, meaning the county will continue to see the same amount of revenue from those items. Another area that won’t see any change is how intensive livestock operations are governed.
“I thought it was interesting to see the province decided not to make any change to the way farmland was assessed, since it hasn’t changed since sometime in the 1980s,” McLauchlin said.
What could become a critical piece of the new legislation is what the proposed changes to non-residential taxation, McLauchlin mused.
Currently, the MGA only allows for residential and non-residential classes. The new legislation would see municipalities allowed to set separate classes for various kinds of non-residential, as well as to see residential and non-residential taxation linked so that the highest non-residential class is no more than five times higher than the lowest residential tax class.
“Right now, the county is at a ratio of 5.85 to 1, so if this goes ahead we would be required to revisit our mill rates,” he stated.
“We know, at first, we are going to feel it a bit, but I also know that I think we can absorb that in our budget right now if we had to.”
One wish that McLauchlin and the other rural municipalities had that wasn’t in the new MGA was some mechanism for municipalities to recover taxes owed on linear property, something Ponoka County is presently looking at legal options for, in order to recover about $450,000 from two bankrupt oil and gas companies.
There is one change suggested in the bill that McLauchlin is certain will be contentious – inter-municipal collaboration.
“While I’m certainly not against it, I think it’s all going to be about managing expectations,” he said.
“Historically, the belief is that counties have a lot of cash, but believe me we have not buckets filled with money. Yes, Ponoka County is debt free, but it leaves me wondering if the province wants financial integration, then when is the big ask going to come.”
McLauchlin added though it makes sense to come together on large infrastructure and transportation projects, as will be a requirement for provincial funding for these type of projects should that clause remain when the MGA is passed.
“To provide some context, it would make sense to work together on servicing the industrial lots out on Highway 2,” McLauchlin stated.
“Putting services like that and regional infrastructure on the table is good financially and makes for good planning. That said, the trend in a lot of places – including the U.S. and Europe – is small communities are being absorbed by counties and I think this is a first step to future amalgamation whether anyone likes it or not.”
The new MGA has passed first reading in the Alberta legislature and officials from Municipal Affairs have begun meeting with municipal officials and the public at 20 different locations to receive any feedback and discuss the proposed changes. It’s anticipated the new act will be approved next spring and taking full effect prior to the next set of municipal elections slated for October 2017.