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Fiscal fracas

Municipal issues are everyone’s problem: that’s the message being sent out by a recent St. Albert campaign to get residents lobbying on behalf of the city.

Municipal issues are everyone’s problem: that’s the message being sent out by a recent St. Albert campaign to get residents lobbying on behalf of the city.

The city is pushing residents to ask local provincial election candidates for their stance on myriad social, fiscal and environmental issues. The campaign works by framing an issue (for example, “St. Albert has consistently been overlooked for funding to address appropriate housing needs”) and providing a sample question (“What will your party do to improve accessible housing options in St. Albert?”).

Despite the irony of that particular question, which comes in the wake of city council pulling the financial rug out from underneath the St. Albert Housing Society, each topic listed is worth pressing potential MLAs on. And what better way to turn up the pressure than to get residents fired up? Heck, if we yell loud enough, maybe the province will finally step up and give cities the stable, predictable funding they’ve been asking for.

The campaign points out Calgary and Edmonton are the only cities in Alberta that have long-term funding agreements with the province. That’s something that needs to be fixed, and it’s fair for cities to expect consistent funding so they can plan for the future.

But there are two things that get lost in this discussion: municipalities have complete control over their expenses, and while there may be three levels of government, there is only one taxpayer.

Asking residents to advocate on their behalf presumes municipalities have been good stewards of ratepayer dollars, and it’s the province and the feds who are to blame for municipal funding shortfalls. We know that’s not the whole story – after all, it was council that decided a decade or so ago to set a fixed amount of money for capital funding. The formula for that hasn’t kept pace with St. Albert’s growth.

Mayor Cathy Heron told the Gazette last week a lot of provincial decisions indirectly result in property taxes being raised. There’s some truth to that, but at the end of the day it falls to city council and not the province to make decisions around property taxes. Councillors bear the burden of weighing budgetary decisions against potential tax increases, and they are also the last line of defence against wasteful spending.

And if you’re trying to find examples of questionable spending, you don’t need to look much further than the recent decision to fund the million-dollar fencing of St. Albert’s rail line, half of which the city is on the hook for. Even small expenses – for example, December’s decision to fund a $7,500 hardware display case to show off the city’s various awards, trophies and plaques – add up.

A cynic might conclude the city’s campaign is an attempt to convince ratepayers that the next time there’s a property tax increase or a fee increase of any kind, council isn’t to blame – the province and feds are. The fact of the matter is it doesn’t matter where the money comes from – we’ll all pay in the end.