By Stan Ashbee
Sunny South News
Nobleford’s Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) Kirk Hofman said students from Noble Central School will tell you a tax bylaw is the most important bylaw a council deals with. “They got it and so did our council,” said Hofman.
“That started years and years ago when rural Alberta recognized taxes have a big impact on how your community grows. If they’re too high — people don’t want to live there and they leave. But, you have to have revenue somewhere to pay for something called streets, sewer, water, garbage, and fire services. How do you budget so you have enough money to provide good services and keep taxes low?” asked Hofman, adding it’s always been the challenge.
Back in 2004, Hofman explained, council of the day recognized problems within the community. Council then outlined goals and objectives to move the village forward into the future.
“Not just wishes — things we had to achieve in order to have at least a sustainable municipality,” he said, adding to be sustainable a municipality has to be a healthy place to live. Nobleford, Hofman noted, wasn’t a healthy place to live between 2000-2004.
Hofman was once an elected official for over 10 years, prior to becoming the village’s CAO. At that time, Hofman said, councillors saw issues personally with the desire to do something better for the community. But, as an administrator, hands are tied and council decides what is to be done.
According to the CAO, the council of the day went back and forth with administration and worked hard on a plan to come up with basic fundamentals in a one-page plan.
Identified in the plan, Hofman said, was the need for Nobleford to be competitive to attract residents and businesses to the village. Quality services matched with relatively low taxes compared to anyone else was imperative for the village to thrive. The village’s objective, it was decided, was to provide higher services than any other municipality but keep the taxes lower than any other municipality.
“There’s so much work that went into those two parts to make it work and we have realized that consistently since 2008,” said Hofman.
“We’re in a position now where we can probably maintain this tax regime where we are right now, for a very long time. I’m going to say it — a 20-year plan. If we follow the basic principles that have made Nobleford successful.”
There’s one key, Hofman noted, and that is a municipality better have a council that works together and can focus on the objectives of the future.
“If you can’t get that, then forget about it.” A municipality also needs a council that can trust its CAO and a CAO that respects council, Hofman explained.
According to the CAO, Nobleford’s position right now with taxes — the average property owner in Nobleford pays under $100 in municipal tax for their home.
“It’s the outside impacts on Nobleford that we have no control over,” said Hofman, adding taxes are paid out for education and seniors across the province.
Since 2008, Nobleford has offered low taxes and the lowest In the province, Hofman said.
“We’re going to do it again in 2015. In 2016, we’re going down again. In 2017, they’re going down a little bit again. In 2018, no municipal portion on the tax.”
How can Nobleford do it? Hofman said the village put money away three years ago.
“It’s not a money issue, it’s how you manage your money,” he said, adding the village office for one, is modest and at times frugal.
Which is a benefit to the ratepayers in the community, according to the CAO, and council and the village spends the money elsewhere where it is needed most.
Hofman also added current council governs with consensus, which means all councillors need to walk out of a meeting in agreement with the decisions made.
The value of Nobleford back in the early 2000s, Hofman said, was about $20 million — the value of Nobleford now, which is measured by sewer lines and water and roads, is $120 million.
“We are the highest asset value of municipalities our size in Alberta. What that means is, we are very modern. Modern meaning, half of Nobleford is brand new. We have quality water and quality distribution. If you look at our parks, we’ve put over $1 million of work into our parks over the last eight years,” he said.
“We partner with societies regularly and work with the provincial government on matching funding. That’s what brings those soft services in.”
Every year, Hofman said, Nobleford introduces one new recreational and cultural activity facility in Nobleford. “The spray park was a pretty big deal here a few years ago. Before that it was the modernization of the community complex. Last year, we matched funding for the school playground.” The recent Legion Legacy project was another recent matching project. There will also be another upgrade to the community complex for 2018, as the village partners with the complex society for a $50-70,000 project, which will include staging work and exterior painting.
“These recreational facilities — they drain finances out of a municipality. It’s always a challenge how to meet that balance of service versus cost. Up until this year, Lethbridge County was sharing in some operations of our recreation facilities in Nobleford. Soccer fields are a good example. We’ve got a couple of hundred kids in Nobleford and area playing soccer in our fields. The past three years the county has been sharing in some of those costs. This year, they’ve decided to tighten their budget up and no more money to Nobleford,” said Hofman.
“The bulk of the users of our recreational facilities are non-residents of Nobleford but all the residents of Nobleford are paying through taxes for maintaining the facilities.”
As for the Centennial 220-lot subdivision in Nobleford, the concept started between 2004-2005, with five phases. Phase Five is being completed this year with another 38 lots coming online and the lots were put up for sale in April.
“Before we started this, Nobleford didn’t have 200 lots with houses on them. We’ve physically doubled the size. The population has more than doubled. Unofficially, we’re probably about 1,250,” said Hofman.
The Village of Nobleford has also self-developed all of the Centennial subdivision.
“That means the village takes the risk of building these subdivisions, marketing and selling the land and we issue building development permits and walk right through the building your new home process with you,” he said.
Nobleford, also has a bustling industrial sector, according to Hofman, which is two years old with 24 commercial/industrial lots. Hofman added Nobleford also has the lowest commercial/industrial taxes. There are currently 18 lots for sale. Hofman added businesses in the community also hire local employees. Adjacent to Nobleford, there has been recent growth along Highway 519, with more jobs.
“We’re a healthy commercial and industrial place. You can live here and work here,” said Hofman.
Lethbridge, Hofman noted, is a big influence on Nobleford — with great amenities utlized by southern Albertans, including Nobleford residents.
“We’re 15 minutes from Lethbridge. Quality recreation facilities that we couldn’t even consider to build.”
Hofman said Lethbridge is at the centre of many rural municipalities and is the trading place to go in southern Alberta.
Also, after 30 years of discussions with the province of Alberta, Hofman said, the Highway 519 and Highway 23 intersection is going to see a round-a-bout.
“We’re looking real forward to this improvement taking place. That again, is going to be an asset to our community, just for the quality of living,” said Hofman, which will be an over $4 million improvement.
On top of Nobleford having low taxes, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) did a study back in 2014 and identified Nobleford as the second-most sustainable municipality in Alberta, Hofman said. And, there’s only 12 municipalities in Alberta considered sustainable with Medicine Hat as number one. “It’s great to have those natural resources — they’ve got gas. We’ve got things like water — we actually convey water outside our municipality,” said Hofman, adding Lethbridge and Nobleford are the southern Alberta conveyors of water.
“We don’t exploit that advantage we have — we share that with other municipalities. The cost of the water plus five per cent, that’s what these municipalities are paying — Lethbridge County and Barons.”
The CFIB has listed salaries as one of the reasons for Nobleford’s sustainability, according to the CAO.
“Nobleford has the lowest per capita salary and wages and benefits in our class and possibly in Alberta, if you compare them all. We’re half of what the median is,” said Hofman. But, pay is good for the CAO, he noted. Hofman said the CFIB identifies wages and salaries are big expenses for municipalities across Alberta. “We have a staff that does an excellent job but we have a minimal staff. We hire good staff and we pay them well and we treat them well.”