It's been a rough week for St. Albert's businesses, organizations and residents.
The impact of budget cuts from a province struggling to balance its books continues to play out, touching schools, small businesses and the municipality itself in the form of reduced funding and grants. Meanwhile, the economy continues to languish for residents and entrepreneurs. Lowe's announced it is closing nearly three dozen Rona stores across the country, including the one in St. Albert. News broke of the fallout from the removal of a cap on insurance rates, which means residents could see their various insurance rates skyrocket next year, increasing the cost of living even more.
The belt-tightening around the province is no doubt making it hard to breathe for some groups and organization who already had the wind knocked out of them over the past few years of economic freefall. It's a bleak time for Albertans, politically, economically and fiscally, and the end doesn't appear to be in sight any time soon.
Here at home, there was never any doubt we would be getting another property tax increase. Council made sure of that earlier this year when they approved a mandatory 1.5-per-cent increase in order to cope with uncertain provincial grants for the city's repair and maintenance budget. Late budget cuts from the province hit the city's pockets to the tune of an additional $600,000 as revenue from fines and grants in place of taxes for provincial buildings dropped dramatically. These cutbacks add a burden to municipalities across the board as they have to make up some of the difference out of their own – or taxpayers' – pockets.
Downloading onto municipalities is nothing new, but in this time of austerity, the cuts are keenly felt. It would have been the perfect excuse for St. Albert to introduce an even higher than expected tax increase, but Thursday's budget deliberations showed a level of restraint St. Albertans will no doubt appreciate, as councillors delved into their own spending – the council contingency fund, for example, and Mayor Cathy Heron's own office budget – to look at how they could ease the burden on taxpayers.
Remarkably, councillors voted to freeze their salaries for a year – a marked departure from the year-over-year increases that have traditionally been approved, and a signal to residents that city leaders are willing to do their part. It's a small gesture, amounting to just over $6,000 in savings altogether, but a meaningful one that sets the right tone.
In all, the cuts councillors made on Thursday mean the proposed tax increase, originally set at 2.4 per cent, is only expected to rise marginally to 2.5 per cent, instead of the three per cent it would have been at without council interference.
Times are tough for Albertans. It’s difficult to predict what 2020 will bring us, but based on what is known, it looks like we’re in for a continued bumpy ride. City councilors have taken note.