Kneehill County council listened to a presentation from an unhappy ratepayer who discussed a number of concerns, including a large increase to the farmland tax rate. The presentation was made at the Feb. 27 regular meeting of council.

Property owner Kevin Niemi appeared before council as a delegation, noting his concerns initially rose over the farmland tax rate hike. 

“That’s a concern that opened up a whole other can of worms,” said Niemi to council.

Niemi stated the county forecast an increase of 17 per cent increase to farmland taxes rates in 2024 which Niemi described as “far beyond inflation.” 

He added that between 2018 and 2023 farmland tax rates doubled.

“I consider it a management shortcoming on the financial side,” said Niemi, stating no other land class faced such tax increases.

He then commended Couns. Carrie Fobes and Laura-Lee Machell-Cunningham for voting against the 2024 budget and added that five other councillors saw no problem with the unreasonable tax increase. 

Niemi stated he was further concerned Kneehill County doesn’t appear to consider belt-tightening or cost cuts when budgeting.

Another concern he saw was Horseshoe Canyon which he noted was listed in the budget under a $3.2 million project for an interpretive centre and washroom facility. 

“I think that’s just crazy money that sounds like someone’s Taj Mahal for unknown glory,” said Niemi. 

He pointed out that figure is about 10 per cent of the county’s annual budget and on top of that the county wants to use reserve funds too for a project with unknown value and no financial return.

Looking again at the budget Niemi stated a parking lot project is listed at $350,000 which he balked at, noting no parking lot should be that expensive.

The roadside weed control budget was also a concern noted Niemi, who reminded councillors it was Kneehill County that brought the weed kochia into the municipality via contaminated gravel.

He next stated his concerns about a Public Works employment opportunity, a partsman, that’s listed in the budget as $100,000; Niemi stated that suggests roughly $40 per hour for a low-skill position. “I find that way out of line,” said Niemi.

He then pointed out the large portion of county coffers that comes from linear taxation, or the tax revenue from things like pipelines, rail lines and power lines. Niemi stated farmers have to deal with these developments on their land every year yet were paid only once; Niemi stated the tax revenue from linear should be given to property owners and not the municipality and in any event the large tax revenue from linear developments means no large farm tax hike was needed.

Niemi also stated he felt the county’s ratepayer engagement seemed heavy on style and light on substance.

At this point Coun. Fobes interjected by noting the Ag Service Board (ASB) decided to try a different mowing strategy this year which explains an increase in its budget.

Coun. Machell-Cunningham stated she sympathized with Niemi’s concerns about how much tax is collected and where it’s spent.

After the presentation councillors and staff responded to Niemi’s comments. Much of that time was spent discussing the partsman job opening. 

Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) Mike Haugen stated the $100,000 figure is an “all-in” amount which includes things like benefits. Haugen later said the position would likely have a salary between the mid-$60,000 to mid-$80,000 per year, noting it required a journeyman applicant which is a skilled position.

Haugen also stated Kneehill council previously decided the municipality, when it comes to staff salaries, would be in the 50th percentile; that is, when comparing Kneehill to similar municipalities, half of them pay more than Kneehill while half of them pay less.

During discussion the topic of a “sunshine list,” or list of exact staff salaries, was mentioned. Haugen stated that according to provincial privacy laws, municipalities can’t do that. The CAO also noted the topic wouldn’t come to council because staff salaries aren’t a governance issue.

Reeve Ken King interjected that council have a chance to set staff salaries by choosing the percentile Kneehill County appears in.

King said he wanted to discuss Niemi’s ratepayer engagement comments. King noted that when he was first elected to council Kneehill County did virtually no stakeholder engagement but now he’s very happy to see multiple events that appeal to the average county resident. King also claimed Kneehill’s open house-style events receive positive feedback from the community.

The parking lot comment was discussed; staff noted the $350,000 figure is for multiple parking lots, including the county office, FCSS building and medical clinic, and includes costs such as engineering, not just paving.

King acknowledged farmland tax rates have gone up substantially over the past six years, with the CAO noting it’s a regulated rate set by the provincial government. Haugen repeated the fact the vast majority of Kneehill’s tax revenue comes from linear sources and that Kneehill relies greatly on that revenue, adding linear actually subsidizes other property owners.

The discussion ended after councillors noted reserves may be tapped into because they have been set aside for that purpose: covering expenses to keep tax increases affordable.

By Stu Salkeld, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Mar 06, 2024 at 14:03

This item reprinted with permission from   East Central Alberta Review   Coronation, Alberta

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