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COLUMN: City taking taxpayers for a ride with rising levy on transit services

'First, the amount to be levied will amount to 10 per cent of our tax bill. Secondly this is a nine-per-cent tax increase despite a recent 62-per-cent drop in ridership from 1.02 million to 390,000.'
Murdock Alan-col
Columnist Alan Murdock

One of the interesting recent events that has stirred public interest lasting more than a couple of days has been the debates over our municipal government’s powers and responsibilities. Who owns St. Albert?

Like a recurring nightmare, the obsession with city ownership of public utilities by elements of city council and senior city administration has not been dampened by the recent election. Like an unbidden chronic migraine, this has emerged again in the latest proposed budget in front of our new council. Reading the latest budget documents is a little like opening the Eric Ambler novel Journey Into Fear.

But let us be fair. Inserted into the award-winning (Government Finance Officers Association of United States and Canada) dissertation entitled City of St. Albert 2022-2024 3-Year Proposed Financial Plan and 2022 Budget, one finds a page that is useful in at least attempting to respond to the mayor’s urgent call to St. Albertans — long suffering for a meaningful opportunity for input on where to make further cuts to services and limit taxes.

May I respectfully recommend, dear reader, that you look at page 21 of this 296-page tome. It contains a pie chart, which is helpful in summarizing where our homeowner tax dollars are charted to go in terms of city departments.

Certainly it makes sense that public works, fire, engineering, and police services should receive the bulk of our tax dollars (49 per cent). Whether central administration and corporate financing needs a three-per-cent increase and 23 per cent of all tax dollars is another matter.

At the same time, given the importance that citizens have placed on St. Albert being a "Botanical Arts City" with pride in its arts, culture, public attractions, and events, reducing the arts and culture allocation by another six per cent, and parks and recreation by a further nine per cent from last year certainly reflects the seriousness city administration places on the financial constraints the rest of us face.

But what is quite peculiar is the increased allocation of money destined for transit services (shown on the chart as buses). Firstly, let me be clear. Having an excellent transportation network is key to attracting business, working families, and having a safe community. And we have a deserving core of citizens who require public transport to go to university and work in Edmonton and to do local chores and shopping. Still, something is peculiar.

First, the amount to be levied will amount to 10 per cent of our tax bill. Secondly this is a nine-per-cent tax increase despite a recent 62-per-cent drop in ridership from 1.02 million to 390,000.

Indeed, the number of riders on our city buses has declined steadily over the past five years. And yet, each year our household tax levy for transit services has risen. It is now estimated that homeowners will subsidize public transit riders to the tune of about $8.8 million for 2022. That means, even if the ridership should rebound to 500,000 rides (not people) next year, each ride would be subsidized to the amount of more than $17.50. That does not include the additional amount to be levied by the city on businesses (perhaps this is confidential) or grants received from other levels of government (perhaps this is state secret), nor does it take into account the rider fee (no information is given). Something is wrong.

As Eric Ambler wrote: Methinks we are being taken for a ride.

Alan Murdock is a local pediatrician.