City council is on the verge of turning taxpayers into shareholders in a new business venture: a city-owned utility corporation.
As St. Albert councillors prepare to hear from residents on the proposal at a public hearing Monday, they need to be open to the possibility of changing their minds. More importantly, before any decisions are made, they need to take the time to conduct extensive public consultations to ensure taxpayers are fully aware of the plan and the risks they will be asked to shoulder. Residents and businesses who will be forced to accept services from a city-owned monopoly rather than their current providers in a competitive private marketplace need and deserve similar consideration.
Not all councillors are on board with the utility corporation yet, but taxpayers should be very concerned that others say they are ready to cast their votes in favour before they've even taken the temperature of the room. All of them will bear responsibility for its success or failure. If it fails, the corporation will leave taxpayers on the hook for millions of dollars.
Councillors have been told profits from a city-owned utility corporation will reduce the pressure on property taxes. Of course, the opposite is also true, losses will lead to even higher property taxes. And, if the corporation isn’t profitable offering its services at a competitive rate, well, its “exclusive right” to provide those services will make raising those rates a rather easy process won’t it? Imagine how residents and businesses will react to being forced into that situation. Council needs to give those residents and businesses all the details, the time to thoroughly understand what is being proposed and ample opportunity for input before any decision is made.
Coun. Sheena Hughes isn't convinced the financial numbers in a business case for the company reflect reality. A month ago, after the city released its business case, Coun. Ken MacKay told the Gazette he still needs "a lot more information" before deciding whether the proposal is viable or not. At that time, Mayor Cathy Heron also admitted a lot of information is still unknown – including projected budgets for each service the company would offer, staffing costs and the exact customer base – although she also noted there is evidence the markets for this exist. If the mayor and councillors are still uncertain of its viability, in spite of CAO Kevin Scoble promoting a utility corporation since arriving here from Wood Buffalo (Ft. McMurray) two years ago, how do they expect residents to feel? Do they not owe their taxpayers the courtesy of a thorough public consultation? Do they really expect us to take a leap of faith? We sure hope not.
The public needs to have a thorough understanding of what they are agreeing to before council proceeds – and if the proposal is indeed sound, it should withstand intense public scrutiny.
Residents should be able to review the risks associated with this corporation, which have not been publicly released on the excuse it would prejudice the competitive position of the city and how those risks might be mitigated. Really? We’re expected to accept that somehow potential competitors don’t already know what the city is contemplating? Give us some credit. And give us some respect. Residents will be shareholders of this corporation. Before we invest our tax dollars, we deserve full disclosure from an open and transparent municipality. Nothing less.