Tax rate steady in a ‘no-fun’ budget

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After the dust settled and the final seals of approval were stamped, what was arguably the main overarching goal of town budget deliberations was maintained: keep local property tax rates the same in 2021 as they were in 2020.

There are some significant deviations from the initial draft budget town staff prepared for council, which pegged tax increases at 1.27 per cent, 4.29 per cent and 5.71 per cent over the next three years. Increases for 2022 and 2023 are now set at 1.9 and 2.52 per cent respectively.

Choosing to go a different direction than town staff, it was apparent that councillors were looking to use the tax rate hold as a tangible measure for showing consideration to Cochranites struggling financially during the ongoing pandemic.

“Once we crunched the numbers and we knew what the actual cost reductions were, we projected what the tax increase would be, and it actually turned out to be higher than we originally calculated,” said Katherine Van Keimpema, the town’s corporate services manager.

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“However, we did hear from council very clearly that they were very concerned and wanting a zero per cent tax increase in 2021, as well as in 2022 and 2023 to have a more reasonable level of tax increase than what was originally proposed and the lower the better.”

While the property rate was held for next year, other municipal expenses are set to go up (growth and inflation and all).

To manage the gap, cost reduction measures included adjustments to staff benefits and postponing some new hires, projects and reserve contributions. Because some involve private information, some of the reductions are not public.

“It does deliver the zero per cent tax increase in 2021, it delivers on your priorities, and it does focus on our core services,” Van Keimpema told councillors last month.

“And that was the philosophy that we went into with the budget, and I feel that we’ve accomplished what we’ve set out to do.”

“I think coming into this with a really financially responsible perspective, and trying to rein things in this year was a really wise move,” councillor Morgan Nagel noted.

“We’ve really focused on the absolute necessities in our core services, and we’re delivering a zero per cent tax increase this year and a marginal increase in the future years planned.”

Some public figures noted over talks in November and December that 2021-2023, the first full budget prepared following the arrival of COVID-19, is ‘different’. It’s a little less forward-facing, and a little more pandemic mitigation.

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“It’s not a fun budget,” said councillor Tara McFadden.

“Usually it’s about building something and this is a crisis management budget. It’s tight times ahead. I also agree that as a municipality, we’re in a very strong situation and we can adapt and amend things.”

However, mayor Jeff Genung wanted to make it clear he didn’t think the town’s financial plan for the next three years was all about putting out fires. He noted new opportunities provided by both stimulus grants and some internal shuffling.

“We have, in my opinion, a really solid document in front of us that speaks to the needs in the community and I don’t feel that it leaves a ‘hole’ in the community services,” he said.

“If I can spin it to an optimistic side, I’m happy that it looks like we’re going to land on a zero per cent tax increase this year. Yes, there’s some change but we’ve got some exciting things planned for 2021 and with this budget I’m looking forward to putting those into action.”

There are many opportunities for local government to alter the course of the 2021-2023, particularly for the final two years but also this one as well. Adjustments can be made in the spring as per the provincial Municipal Government Act, and expenditures can be assessed on an individual level before they’re signed off.

“There’s quite a gap between future proposed budgets and the reality,” noted councillor Alex Reed.

“But you know, I think we need to keep our eye on the ball. I think we’ve got a really good budget in front of us, we’ve worked hard to get up to this point.”

“We have the ability to change things whenever we need to,” added mayor Jeff Genung.

“This year’s been actually a great example of that.”

Property assessments will be mailed out later this month. More information on how they’re calculated is available at Cochrane.ca/130/Assessment.