By Amelia Naismith and Jeffrey Heyden-Kaye
MLA Rod Fox recently provided Ponoka County and town councils with highlights from the legislative budget, and he didn’t have many positive facts to share.
“We’re trying to get the word out there that it’s not the counties and the councils that are increasing taxes. It’s actually in the provincial budget,” said Fox.
The biggest change in agricultural and rural development is the loss of the farm fuel distribution allowance, which cuts approximately $32 million out of the budget. The Alberta Livestock Agency will see a $8 million cut.
Thirty full time agricultural employees within the department will be cut.
The agricultural ministers’ office, the Farmers’ Advocate and the deputy minister’s office all experienced increases in the budget.
The Department of Agriculture is facing a $307 million cut.
“Within this there’s a bit of a tie to municipal affairs. It doesn’t affect the rural areas as much as it does the small urban communities,” said Fox. The new ties will cause tax increases for some communities throughout the province will see tax increases.
Due to a 39.5-per-cent increase in the provincial education requisition Blackfalds residents are looking at a $400 to $500 increase in property taxes, the fifth highest in the province.
Other areas, such as Chestermere, Buffalo Region and Waterton areas saw an 80-per-cent increase.
Ponoka residents will see an approximate $30 increase stemming from the education requisition.
The government plans $477 million on new schools, with a long-term plan to sustain the spending for a total of $1.4 billion over the next three years on new school, modernizations and maintenance.
Educations operational funds are frozen, which are estimated at $2.51 billion.
Fox doesn’t believe the province will meet its target of 50 new school and 70 improvements before the next election.
MLA Fox speaks to Ponoka councils Energy
In carbon capture and storage the government spent $1.55 billion as of 2012. Within the next few years that number will have increased by $1.5 million.
Due to the drop of bitumen oil and natural gas royalties there’s an estimated $668 million shortfall.
Environment and sustainable resources
The overall operational spending of the ministry is up approximately $6 million, which is still $305 billion less than the expected expenditures of the 2012/2013 fiscal year.
Budget funds for climate change were reduced by 16.8 million.
The Land Use Secretariat — the institute responsible for regional planning — received another $1 million for their budget.
Funds for environmental sciences were reduced by $3 million.
Health and seniors
Advanced home care received a cut of $4.86 million.
Seniors drug benefits received a cut of $79.98 million.
Health services providing correctional facilities received an increase of $8.7 million.
$5 million has been set aside to provide insulin pumps for eligible diabetics.
Alberta’s Seniors and Benefits grants program, including alimony and disability, is changing and Fox says approximate 6,000 seniors are being kicked from the program. The program is facing $16.5 million less than last year.
Last year family care clinics earmarked $75 million but only spent $1 million. This year $50 million is earmarked but Fox isn’t sure how many clinics will be built in the next year.
Addictions and Mental Health
The department is facing a $5 million cut.
The Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI) will stay the same at $46 million.
The minister’s office received an increase of $221,000.
Instituting the mandatory New Home Warranty program is estimated to cost $1.7 million within the next year.
Fox feels funding for disaster recovery is low; at $244 million it’s the same as in 2011/2012.
One of the biggest ways the budget will affect Ponoka County is through the local bridge program.
Coun. Paul McLauchlin says there’s always been infrastructure in the province and now MSI money is turning into bridge funding. “So we’re going to have a capital asset problem over the next five years trying to and replace these local bridges.”
He feels, two years down the road municipal budgets will have to focus on capital asset replacement rather than contributions to the community.
County CAO Charlie Cutforth said if the province allowed municipalities an untouched tax base these problems wouldn’t be at the forefront. “To me the very simple solution has always been, if the province would simply leave the local tax base to the local municipality to provide all their own services then we don’t have to come hat in hand to the province for anything.”
If municipalities retained the tax revenue that is funneled to Edmonton they wouldn’t need the funding they now require, said Cutforth.
Town council concerns
Betty Quinlan, director of corporate services, suggested the MSI grant process is almost the same as what Alberta Transportation uses to determine where funds go. “Even the forms are the same…They should hand that over to Alberta Transportation and let them administer it from the infrastructure that they’ve already got in place because it would save a lot.”
MSI funding is administered through the province and Quinlan would like to see it come from one place.
Mayor Larry Henkelman feels MSI dollars would help with the construction of a new north bridge. “The counties they do get money from transportation for bridges.”
“It’s not only used by the citizens of the Town of Ponoka but it’s used by rural citizens also,” he added.
Henkelman wants to see grant money for municipalities to maintain their bridges. Another area he feels affects Ponoka and even Wetaskiwin is when Four Nations use recreation buildings in town. “We seem to be putting the burden on the local taxpayers…Their comment to me is we should be installing a 100-per-cent user fee in our facilities, which our council does not want to do.”
Coun. Loanna Gulka feels that most users are willing to pay their fair share for recreation in Ponoka whether they live in the county or town. “So it comes down to a provincial mandate of how things are divided. It’s not the residents themselves.”
She does not believe use of recreation is a question of “us against the county.”
“When you cut it down to its base level, people are going to pay their fair share,” added Gulka. “They want the facilities, they want the services.”
“The mandate is not equal and the residents are expressing that,” she stated.
Henkelman also raised a concern over the cost to pay for RCMP officers. When a municipality has a population of more than 5,000 the cost then falls on the taxpayers but not in the counties.
“When are the governments going to get involved and have all citizens that use RCMP pay their fair share?” asked Henkelman.
Communities such as Ponoka and Rocky Mountain house have a large rural population and town residents pay the cost of rural policing, he added. “This is all over Alberta, it’s not only in Ponoka.”
He suggested some communities have considered paying for their own police force and then not having to worry about the rural areas.