Lacombe-Ponoka MLA Ron Orr and Ponoka Mayor Rick Bonnett gave interviews to Ponoka News on Feb. 28, a day after the proposed provincial budget came down, and both of them had a lot to say.
The provincial budget was tabled Feb. 27 and the United Conservative Party (UCP) plans to approve it by the end of March.
MLA Ron Orr
Although Orr says he hadn’t had a chance to delve too deeply yet into how the proposed budget will affect Ponoka specifically, he mentioned the province has already supplied some funding for the Calnash Ag Event Centre, and he plans to look into why the helicopter pad at the Ponoka hospital was closed.
Orr says funding for municipalities is now more reliable and predictable, and municipalities will have more authority to make decisions.
Orr recognizes that Alberta is facing fiscal challenges and the revenue from oil and gas is “simply not there,” adding he receives “heart-breaking” calls weekly, from people who have lost their homes, their marriages, or their lives are generally in distress.
The UCP is not cutting the net funding for doctor compensation, it’s simply not increasing it anymore, says Orr.
The government will hold it at $5.4 billion, (which is 25 per cent of the entire health budget and the second largest expense).
If the government had kept increasing doctor compensation, by 2023 it would have cost the province an additional $1.9 billion by the 2023 budget year.
The main change with doctor compensation has to do with ‘complex modifiers,’ an up-charge physicians are allowed to bill for patients that need complex, more in-depth care.
Before, doctors had to spend 15 minutes with a patient before they could bill an additional charge, and now, the government is asking doctors to spend an additional 10 minutes with patients before billing the complex modifier fee, starting March 31, 2021, says Orr.
“It actually allows doctors to spend more time with their patients and they are refusing to do that,” said Orr, adding if they’re threatening their patients with shorter appointment times, that’s their choice.
The use of complex modifiers has increased by 35 per cent since 2013, according to Orr, who says that means doctors are choosing to increase the amount of patients they bill as complex to increase their billings. The increased billings are now claimed for roughly half of all doctor visit billins.
Orr added that no other province in Canada pays doctors an additional compensation for complex care, and Alberta doctors have taken advantage of it.
“I don’t think doctors are being fair with their patients and I’m quite comfortable saying that publicly.”
Orr says of the local Ponoka physicians, it’s only a few who are claiming the change will lead to shorter appointment times and inconvenienced patients, and that it’s a “negative tactic.”
Orr added there are still significant pieces in the budget to support the recruitment and retention of rural doctors, and the compensation part will be phased in.
“It won’t hit them all at once.”
Some doctors, including a few in Ponoka, have been asking for Alternative Relationships Plans, a simpler billing structure, for a number of years, and the province hopes to move towards that.
While the proposed budget is still in the red, it reduces the deficit by 1.2 billion, bringing it down to $6.8 billion.
Orr says the UCP are on target to balance the budget by 2022 or 23.
Oil and gas
The provincial budget foresees a recovery of the oil and gas industry, but not for at least two years.
Estimating the energy sector’s revenue was “challenging,” says Orr, because there are a number of factors to consider.
There has been some increase in revenue through railway traffic, which as been rising slowly, and the budget includes some funds in the third year for pipeline expansion.
“We’ve been modest about how much benefit we may see from that,” he said, adding they don’t expect the transportation issue to be solved overnight.
There has also been an economic impact from the coronavirus in China, which lead to falling demand for Alberta oil there.
Although the government isn’t projecting that the virus will grow, they are being cautious because of the uncertainty the current situation presents.
Wolf Creek Public Schools will be a one per cent funding increase in this new budget, compared to the budget that is just wrapping up, says Orr.
School superintendents and board chairs spoke with the education minister on Feb. 28, according to Orr.
Back to work
The provincial budget includes a “Blueprint for Jobs,” a five-point action plan to get Albertans back to work: 1) Support businesses, 2) Red tape reduction, 3) Invest in infrastructure, 4) Skill development and 5) Selling Alberta to the world.
Ponoka Mayor Rick Bonnett
Mayor Rick Bonnett says the provincial budget did download expenses to municipalities a little bit more.
Grants in lieu of taxes were cut again, leaving the town feeling unsure about how to fund things, and the town will have to look at its expenses before April, says Bonnett.
School tax increase
The main hit affecting Ponoka is the province imposing a 4.2 per cent increase to the portion the town pays to the province in education property taxes.
“This is one that really hits me in the heart,” said Bonnett.
It means costs will either have to be passed on through higher taxes, or cutting services.
Bonnett says the town will continue to lobby the government, before the final budget is passed by the end of March, to not impose the education property tax increase, calling it “intrusive.”
“I would like them to find a different funding model,” he said, adding he believes they are better ways to fund education.
The town has withheld education property taxes before, in an effort to be heard about the need for a field house in Ponoka, and that’s something they may consider again.
Bonnett says the town will continue to have talks with the government, to try to understand why the change is being made.
If the increase is approved in the final budget the town may not have any choice but to raise taxes, which will make them “look like the bad guy,” said Bonnett.
The proposed budget is leaving Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI) funding in place for at least two more government budget years, (2020-21 and 2021-22) before a shift is planned towards a new, local government fiscal framework.
No details have been given on what this new framework will look like as far as parameters or dollars, says Bonnett.
Field house funding
As far as the hoped-for funding for the proposed Ponoka field house, that remains a question mark.
The province asked for funding from the federal government for small municipalities as part of the Fair Deal panel, requesting $2.4 Billion back in transfer payments, but no answer has been received from the federal government as of yet.
“The field house is tentatively not dead, but definitely under restraints,” said Bonnett.
“We’re not very hopeful at this point,” he said, but added the town will continue to push and lobby for that funding.
STATEMENT FROM THE TOWN
The Town of Ponoka requested on March 5 for the following clarifying statement be added to this article:
“The 4.2 per cent increase to the education property tax that the Province announced on Feb. 27 in its provincial budget is not part of the Town of Ponoka’s Budget.
“The education property tax is a provincial tax. Like all municipalities, the Town of Ponoka is required to collect the education property tax on behalf of the Province at the same time that it collects municipal property taxes each year. The Town then forwards 100 per cent of the education property tax back to the Province.
“In his interview with the Ponoka News on Feb. 28, Ponoka Mayor Rick Bonnett stated ‘there is only one taxpayer’ so when the Province increases the education property tax by 4.2 per cent, that places a burden on ratepayers that Town Councils have to carefully consider before approving their final budgets and municipal property tax rates in the spring.
“Mayor Bonnett did not state that Town Council may consider withholding the education property tax again. That was incorrectly reported in the above article.”