Town utility bills might be going up as much as $29, says mayor

(For many years this space has been reserved for Town of Slave Lake advertising. As of Feb. 1 the town ceased regular advertising in the local newspaper. The mayor’s column will likely continue to appear on the opinion page, (assuming it is submitted as usual). This week it wasn’t, but the topic is important, involving a big hike in utility bills.)

Tyler Warman
Mayor of Slave Lake

Council takes the budget process very seriously.

Balancing the wants and needs of our community, while respecting the current economic situation, remains the top priority in any budget cycle.

Over the past number of years Council has done a great job respecting that goal, with a 1.27 per cent tax increase in 2018, zero per cent in 2017, and zerro per cent in 2016. I would hazard a guess there are few councils across Alberta that could share similar numbers.

To accomplish this, council has extensively debate on service levels, costs of goods, program delivery and even staffing levels. Through the help of our administration we have reduced discretionary spending, rolled back travel, eliminated several positions, held the line on cost of living increases and taken on some our capital projects ourselves. I commend our team on its ability to do more with less and contribute to the solution.

While talking about things we have decreased, we should also take a moment to recognize the things we have added.

Since the fire in 2011 we have added a field house, indoor walking track, indoor playground, resurfaced parks, added outdoor ice surfaces, new playground equipment and spent approximately $40 million on new roads, sidewalks and underground infrastructure. We invested in the creation of the Legacy Centre, which provided new day care space, a community hall and allows for arts and culture programming. We also have invested in better drinking water, new programs, snow removal, community organizations, and our protective services.

In order to encourage development, administration and council worked with the Chamber of Commerce to amend many of our development and planning bylaws, softened our position on offsite levies and eliminated local improvement levies.

Internally we have been better protecting our own staff through the addition of a more comprehensive health and safety program, as well as improvements to our financial systems.

One of the top priorities after the fire was to build a better platform to communicate with residents. We created a position that focuses exclusively on that, rebuilt our website, launched a Town app, created an electronic newsletter, and have experimented with written and visual communication to respond to residents’ concerns.

We have also asked for you feedback in surveys on issues. These include snow removal, cannabis and chickens.

After almost 100 hours, council is close to completing budget 2019. A process that started in September that saw us projecting close to an eight per cent tax increase, the task has been daunting. As our philosophy towards funding roads will change again this year, it is difficult to communicate the exact tax increase, as we will be eliminating the road tax and absorbing it into general taxation. The net effect, though, will see the majority of residents paying similar to what they paid last year. For example, a $200,000 assessment will likely see a decrease, a $350,000 property will see no change, A $480,000 property can expect an increase of about $4.90 per month, and $600,000 home – which makes up about two per cent of our assessments – will see an increase of about $11 per month.

Utilities (our biggest issue and we need your input)

The Town has two utility projects scheduled for completion in 2019 which will require loans. These are projects where our investment will benefit our grandchildren and maybe even beyond.

The difficulty is that we can’t spread the payments over that lifetime and so the generations of today will share that financial burden. Our investment in a new raw water line and changes to legislation that require a massive investment in our sewer treatment plant are these two projects.

The cost of these loans must be covered by the utility users.

A new raw water line is required for a secure source of good-quality water for the water treatment plant. It is an $18.6-million project for which the Town is required to pay $3.2-million after successfully getting $15.4-million in grants.

This project will result in a $7.70 per month increase to the utility bills for an average user (20m3).

The sewage treatment plant requires upgrading to meet current effluent (treated discharge) regulations. This is a $14.1-million project, for which the Town must pay approximately $8-million after obtaining a $6-million grant.

This project will result in $21.30 per month increase on each resident’s utility bill for an average user (20m3).

Between these two projects the average utility bill (20m3) will increase by approximately $29 per month.

Town Council is looking at ways to reduce this net impact by examining other costs, included in utility bills. The rest of our utility charges come from garbage and recycling collection and so we are examining those service levels to decide if a change is warranted to help reduce the financial impact to users.

Council feels that there is little to be gained from removing garbage collection, but we have an extremely high service level when it comes to recycling.

Council is seeking input from the public on whether or not changes should be made.

Currently we offer recycling services at the landfill, as well as the recycle centre in Town near the airport and curb side pick-up for Town residential customers outside of apartments.

Getting rid of any service will likely increase costs in other areas, as the impact of those volumes shift. It should also be noted some of these options are tied up in contracts and so the financial effect of their removal will still need to be investigated. We anticipate if we eliminated the recycle centre in town we may save approx. $5.00 per month per household.

We anticipate if we eliminated curbside pickup we may save approx. $3.29 per month per household.

By eliminating either of these services, the cost of them will offset the increase you would see on your utility bills for the sewage lagoon upgrade and the raw water line projects.

As this is a big decision, we are again seeking public input to better understand how many of our residents use these services and what are the expected service levels from the public.

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