Hard for councils to be right and popular – Editorial

GEORGE BROWN / Off the Record

Messy business, this democracy thing.

At all levels, the fundamentals of democracy are visible and at play in Alberta today. From the health care debate in Alberta that is being driven by patients and their doctors, to the federal election call that was precipitated by a contempt of Parliament declaration by the Opposition, to businesspeople in Rimbey fighting town hall over removal of tax incentives, democracy is alive and well, if not a little battered.

It’s certainly easy for governments to make policy and enact laws but the real test of a government’s mettle is in defending those decisions to a gallery of iratepayers who come out of the woodwork when those decisions are considered to threaten their pocketbook or their enjoyment of the community.

In Ponoka, that means pilots and residents who don’t want a stand of trees FernGullyed without assurances the removal of the trees is absolutely necessary to fulfill a master plan for specific airport improvements that would benefit the community. But there was no plan, there is still no plan and there is no funding this year even if there were a plan.

At least twice, a delegation concerned enough about their community to attend a town council meeting was all but ignored by the mayor. In a democracy, you sometimes have to look your citizens in the eye when they disagree with you.

Council is also involved in a generational confrontation with residents of 38th Street over alleged irregularities in utilities projects and the costs of a local improvement charged to property owners. Nothing short of a judicial determination will satisfy this committee of residents who aggravate council. While the mayor, council and administration feel they have answered the residents’ question to the best of their ability, the same questions are now asked by the same people to a group of rookie councillors — the majority of whom live on 38th Street. FOIP issues prevent council from being forthright with these residents and three of the new councillors feel they are in conflict of interest if they participate in resolving this matter.

While councillors should demand a certain civility from delegations in the council chambers, it was somewhat outrageous for the mayor to threaten to sue his citizens whose statements during a council meeting, no matter how erroneous or defamatory, are protected by qualified privilege, the same as his. Empires have crumbled for lesser reasons.

Meanwhile at the west end of the county…

Ponoka town council is not alone in engaging its citizenry in battle. In Rimbey, council has moved to balance its budget by repealing a now controversial tax incentive bylaw.

The affected businesses in Rimbey don’t care town council is doing what it feels is necessary to repeal a bylaw believed to be ultra vires. It’s likely that most residents and businesspeople who did not benefit from the tax incentives were not aware council had such a bylaw on the books. It’s not a policy that was trumpeted annually, it was a carrot administration and the town’s economic development promoters would have dangled to encourage new businesses to establish in Rimbey or to coax existing businesses to expand or renovate — and in the end add valued assessment to the tax pool.

It might have been an easier bylaw to carry on the books during the boom when hotels, restaurants and new homes were springing up but today, when council is not blessed with huge year-over-year assessment increase to offset expenditures, removing tax breaks is a relative, if not short-sighted, no-brainer.

Certainly the previous council and town manager believed they were providing a legal incentive to businesses in the hopes of providing jobs and creating new assessment.

That two law firms would disagree on whether the practice is illegal is not at all surprising. If a majority of councillors felt they had an option the practice of granting tax incentives could be supported by a learned legal opinion. That lawyers disagree is not surprising; there aren’t many billable hours in presenting an opinion that agrees with another lawyer.

If councillors feel it is in the best interests of the community to continue with some form of tax incentive, their creativity can make it happen.

Rimbey is not going to become a ghost town because the tax holiday is cancelled but if businesspeople have to pay thousands of dollars more in taxes over the next few years, it will certainly see fewer employment opportunities, reduced sponsorship of community events and sports teams, stalled expansion, and the relocation of some businesses to the rural area or back into residential basements.

If the tax incentive is indeed illegal and council needs to repeal the bylaw, then it needs to be fair in dealing with these business owners. A phased approach to cancellation or at least a year’s notice would seem to be in order. These businesses would have budgeted for the lower tax rate and to take it away without notice is irresponsible. That’s not to say residential taxes need to rise correspondingly; this is a burden that bust be carried on the commercial mill rate.

Council should have advised the business community of its intention before moving to cut the tax incentive and now they must endure the criticism and listen to the options that will be presented to them. If nothing else, council must give the appearance of listening to its constituents.

It can’t expect to be both right and popular in the community.

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