By Stan Ashbee
Sunny South News
Nobleford held the first Lethbridge County open house session last Monday night to discuss options to help fund aging infrastructure projects now and into the future. The county, as well as most municipalities throughout the country, are faced with failing roads and bridge woes, as infrastructure becomes outdated.
Mayor Don McDowell noted the turnout was approximately 30 rural residents from both the PIcture Butte and Nobleford area, along with county staff and councillors. “Reeve Lorne Hickey and county reps gave a great presentation,” said McDowell, as breakout sessions were also created with some good discussions.
General opinion, McDowell added, was the county should have done this years ago. “But better late than never.”
Lethbridge County has proposed a new tax on livestock and farming operations but the open house sessions were held to get some public consultation on the issue with a proposed first reading of a taxation bylaw expected at an Apr. 7 council meeting.
Village of Nobleford Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) Kirk Hofman noted there seems to be no appetite for an increase in property taxes, as most residents feel taxes are already maxed out. “And is not a fair and equitable way to deal with the road and bridge issue,” said Hofman.
Hofman added the general opinion of residents at the open house seem to be those that use the roads and abuse the roads should pay the most.
A number of suggestions, Hofman said, included less bureaucracy by the county and more efficiency in construction, maintenance and administration. “Strong support for getting more money from gas tax grants from government,” Hofman said, was another suggestion from residents at the open house.
“This road issue has been discussed by past county council but never any action. I compliment this county council on taking steps forward on this important issue,” Hofman said.
Other open house sessions were held in Lethbridge, Picture Butte, Coaldale and in April in Coalhurst and the former McNally School.
Even though Lethbridge County is proposing a tax to fund aging infrastructure throughout the county, consensus in Picture Butte is the county needs to look within to cut spending before asking county residents to chip in to pay a new tax to keep the county’s market access network alive and well.
A market access network is more than just one piece of infrastructure. “It’s not just the roads, it’s not just the bridges, it’s not just the culverts — it’s everything combined,” said facilitator Michelle Tetreault, president of Public Works Management Corp. The facilitator was on hand at one of the recent Lethbridge County open house sessions held in Picture Butte last Wednesday morning to discuss a proposed tax to fund aging infrastructure, as well as other possible options.
According to Tetreault, the county is looking at a fair and equitable distribution of costs to the main users. “They want to minimize closures and detours to the heavy haul roads.”
The Municipal Government Act (MGA), Tetreault noted, only allows municipalities to collect revenue through certain streams and the MGA is going through review with the Alberta government and it is believed a new MGA will be tabled this year. “But they don’t know what that will do to allow them to collect additional revenues. What they’re looking at for this year is how do they get the $3.5 million for 2016,” she explained, adding if the MGA after it is tabled allows other options, then the options discussed at the open house sessions may not exist in 2017.
Rick Bacon, director of municipal services for the county, said infrastructure is a collection of various physical assets that provide service and benefits to its residents and businesses. Infrastructure inventory in Lethbridge County, Bacon explained, includes 1,227 miles of local roads, 167 bridge files, and thousands upon thousands of miles of ditches and drainage ways.
Bacon added county road restrictions and road bans are not always adhered to either, which isn’t good for local infrastructure. “It’s a common occurrence.”
In 2015, Bacon explained, the county replaced two bridge files, which ranged from $400,000-$600,000 for those replacements. “The funding for these had to come from other sources, where in the past prior to 2015, there was bridge funding available — which is no longer available to municipalities for bridge replacements,” Bacon said.
A proposed tax for infrastructure funding, Reeve Lorne Hickey said, is not something that’s 100 per cent set in stone but the county does need to look forward to developing a market access network that does suit the needs of the residents of the county. “Agriculture is the most vital component of the county. It’s a renewable resource and we have to ensure we have the ability to get to market and make this fair and equitable to everyone as possible,” Hickey noted.
Consideration was given to a lot of different options, Hickey explained, but again the county is only allowed to generate funds or revenue through the ways set out in the MGA. Hickey said the two options the county has to move forward with are a business tax or a special tax. The business tax is a method in which revenue generation is collected by the size of property or organization and is based on the animal units based on licensed numbers through the NRCB number. The special tax is simply for dryland and irrigated land.
After the county’s presentations residents were split into groups to discuss the options in regards to a proposed tax or other ideas to bring forth, as funding possibilities. Some of the notes brought forward by the groups included the county needs to address its expenses, “Have a closer look at what’s going out, as opposed to what’s coming in,” one group stated.
Bridges support irrigation, one group stated, therefore irrigation should pay for the bridges. Another group noted one-third of funding should come from the federal government, one-third from the province and one-third from local funds. The county, according to another group, should consider how the county can remain competitive with other municipalities in terms of agricultural operations. In terms of other options, one group stated, the county should consider implementing a variation of the proposals at half rate for the first three years and build in a review on how the new tax is working.
For more information and to check out a tax rate calculator visit lethcounty.ca.