Things could get rough for rural municipalities

Joe McWilliams
Lakeside Leader

Nobody is exactly crying wolf yet, but it is fair to say rural municipalities in Alberta are getting nervous. Why? For years, ‘big oil’ has been trying to pay less in the way of property taxes. Municipalities have been resisting it, more or less with provincial support. But the latest indications out of the Rural Municipalities Association (RMA) are that the current government is lending a sympathetic ear to the industry.

“It appears they may have gotten to the government,” said M.D. of Lesser Slave River CAO Allan Winarski in a telephone chat last week that covered a range of topics.

Winarski bases that impression on recent communication from the RMA that says the government “is proposing changes to the assessment system that are opposed by the RMA.”

No matter how the thing is spun, it comes down to oil companies paying less in property taxes. That would leave municipalities with a deficit they would have to make up either by raising taxes for everyone else, or by cutting staff and/or services. Or – more likely – some combination of those.
More detail comes from RMA President Al Kemmere. He tells The Leader from what he’s hearing, some rural municipalities could take as much as a 40 per cent hit in their tax revenue from that source.

“You can only imagine what it’s going to do to some M.D.s and counties,” he says.

Some municipalities rely very heavily on oil and gas assessment. The worst-hit will be those east of Hwy. 2 and south of the Yellowhead, Kemmere, says. But others are in the line of fire as well.

“The M.D. of Smoky River,” he offers as a Peace Country municipality that could be in big trouble. “They’re in a cash flow crunch (already).”

The government has yet to make its final decision.

“We’ve got about a month,” Kemmere says. In the meantime, he and his staff are urging municipalities to “talk to their MLAs.”

Other news out of the M.D. is that a senior management position has been filled. His name is Ryan Tufts, and he is the new director of Transportation and Utilities for the M.D. It’s been a while since the M.D. had anybody in that role. Other employees have been filling in admirably, Winarski said.

Winarski himself has been filling in for the non-existent director of finance.

“We had someone on the hook,” he said. “But her husband got a job in central Alberta.”

So back to the drawing board on the recruitment effort, which has been turned over to a headhunting firm. It’s probably the same outfit which the M.D. has engaged to find a replacement for the CAO, who is going to “fade to black.”

(his term for his resignation) at the end of September.

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