City council decided this week it will not implement the proposed stormwater utility, which will leave a $4 million deficit in the 2024 budget.

The decision came during Monday’s regular council meeting after receiving the second round of public engagement on the proposed utility.

“I would say that the stormwater utility, as a separate bill, that conversation is dead for now,” said Mayor Jackie Clayton. 

She said it may be a topic that comes up again for future councils since many municipalities bill stormwater similarly.

The city was considering a stormwater utility instead of funding the repair, maintenance and operation of stormwater infrastructure through municipal taxes, as it has in the past. 

The city budgeted to have the utility model implemented in July.

Coun. Dylan Bressey said the 2024 budget included the $4 million it expected to collect in stormwater utility fees this year. 

Council directed administration to quantify the cost of stormwater services in the city’s 2025 budget.

According to the city’s recent engagement report, an additional 2.5 per cent property tax increase will be needed in 2024 and another 2.6 per cent in 2025 a stormwater utility is not adopted.

In November, the city announced a 3.28 per cent property tax increase for 2024. If another 2.5 per cent is added due to the cancellation of the stormwater utility, city residents could be looking at a total increase of 5.78 per cent to their 2024 tax bills.

“We’re required to pass a balanced budget, so administration will bring back some options on how we do that before we set the mill rate, which is scheduled for mid-April,” said City Manager Shane Bourke.

Mayor Clayton said that more information before the mill rate is set will help with “deciding how to absorb that difference that would have been collected through a stormwater utility fee.”

“I think there’s always consideration whether it be taxation, whether it be reserves. 

“The other thing is at the beginning of April is when we get our Q1 update, so there are potentially some gains that you may see in that financial update, so we’ll have a better understanding of how that impacts the ratepayers.”

Last month, Bressey said, “if we miss that July 1 implementation date, it starts having a big financial impact on the city.”

“Every year administration does a significant deep dive into finding opportunities for savings,” said Clayton. 

“This leadership team has taken council’s direction of being extremely fiscally responsible, making sure that we operate as efficiently and as lean as possible.”

Public consultation

The results of the second round of public engagement were presented to city council this week. Council opted to deploy a second round of public engagement after it postponed its decision to move forward with the utility in February. 

The results of the engagement sessions vary from one performed in 2022.

The previous engagement session found that a slight majority of respondents preferred a user-fee-based model to fund the stormwater system.

The city’s second and most recent round included two public open houses, an online survey and a stormwater utility charge estimator tool. 

The 2022 exercise also included an online survey, an estimator tool, and in-person public consultation sessions. 

The second round of online engagement found more than four times the number of respondents than the 2022 engagement sessions. 

In 2022, online engagement had about 602 visitors, while 2,567 visitors engaged online last month. 

About 250 people attended last month’s public open houses.

Last month’s results showed that citizens are concerned about the utility’s fairness and transparency, the impact of charges on residents and businesses, and control over costs if managed by a third party. 

The utility was going to be managed by the city, and Aquatera would provide billing. City communications director Philip Cooper said it was a common misconception that Aquatera would be managing the utility. 

The city had previously engaged with stakeholders such as the Grande Prairie & District Chamber of Commerce, realtors, the Economic Development Advisory Committee and schools.

Not the right time

Overall, councillors at Monday’s meeting said they appreciated administration’s work in creating the stormwater utility. 

Administration created four different models, which include tiered models with billing caps and no billing caps, flat fees, and a bracket model.

“This was not a new Grande Prairie only idea; stormwater utility is exercised in many municipalities across Alberta as a way not to have that stormwater expense collected through your property taxes, so that, in essence, was the reason behind it,” said Clayton.

She said having the stormwater as a utility would have made the city’s tax rate more comparable to other municipalities that currently collect a stormwater utility outside of municipal taxes.

Council first began discussing a stormwater utility in 2019. 

“When this utility was first raised to the council, and we started talking about it, it struck me that the current way that we pay for stormwater is not fair to everybody because it’s paid through taxes,” said Coun. Gladys Blackmore.

“I really had great expectations that we would be able to find a model that was more fair than the model we currently use, and I have not discovered that’s happened. 

“It seems to me the models that we looked at are increasingly unfair to an increasing number of people.”

She said she would not support a stormwater utility in the future but she also noted that she believes there are fairer models than what was presented. 

Bressey said he struggled with the decision.

“I really do you think that we should have a stormwater utility model in this community,” he said, noting one that looked at impervious material on a property as well as incentives that encouraged residents to shed less stormwater.

Bressey said some residents didn’t understand the importance of the stormwater system. 

“This really is an essential service, and I don’t think we’ve done a good job helping residents understand it.”

By Jesse Boily, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Mar 14, 2024 at 09:04

This item reprinted with permission from   Town & Country News   Beaverlodge, Alberta

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