Quiet year ahead for most district councils

With the new year now upon us, municipal councils across the district are preparing to take on new issues and, in most cases, continue with old ones.
With the exception of Morley, all the other councils have been sworn in and held their inaugural sessions. Morley will be holding its inaugural meeting next Wednesday (Jan. 14) in Stratton.
For Emo Reeve Russ Fortier, provincial land tax reform will be front and centre on the agenda.
He said he’s hoping the new government in Queen’s Park will follow through with pre-election commitments to bring the large unincorporated areas within the district into the municipal tax base and thereby share some of the burden of paying for such services as road maintenance and garbage pick-up.
There also is the matter of financing land ambulance services and salaries for paramedics, whom Reeve Fortier says deserve a substantial increase.
“We’ll continue working with the Ministry of Health to deal with that and I’m hoping the province will increase its support,” he said, noting the province only covers one percent of such salary increases, which he feels is not nearly enough.
“That is way out of line with what they [paramedics] want and deserve,” he stressed. Any costs above and beyond that will fall on municipal governments.
Reeve Fortier noted proposed land tax reform would allow the province to tax unincorporated areas to pay for the services they currently are receiving for free.
But the biggest concern for smaller municipalities, he added, is the increasing burden of the costs of services imposed on them by the province over the past few years.
“As we have more stuff downloaded on us, all we can do is raise property taxes,” he remarked. “We need access to more revenue.”
According to Reeve Fortier, 52 percent of taxes collected go to Ottawa and 40 percent goes to Queen’s Park—leaving only eight percent for the municipalities.
Morley Reeve Gary Gamsby shared that assessment of the big issues.
“Yes, we have the ongoing issue of land ambulances and land tax reform, but I’d be surprised if the government does anything about it, even though it makes sense,” he said.
Reeve Gamsby predicted a fairly quiet year in Morley after the expense of the centennial activities and a considerable amount of infrastructure spending.
With all that behind them, the new council will concentrate on replenishing its reserve funds. The only ongoing project is the completion of 9-1-1 addressing, which Reeve Gamsby said probably will consume most of 2004.
Alberton Reeve Mike Hammond said council there also is looking forward to a fairly quiet year, with no major projects or problems on the radar screen. Over the last two years, the township has invested considerable money on road upgrades and repairs—and that will continue at a modest rate.
“Financially, we’re in good shape and we’ll just try to build up our reserves,” said Reeve Hammond, adding municipalities are expected not to run either deficits or surpluses.
Chapple Reeve Bill Clink also is not predicting any major projects or expenditures this year. After completion of the new lighthouse under the direction of the Heritage Committee, the only project currently on the go there is improvement to Barwick’s skating rink.
Reeve Clink said council is planning a new concrete base to replace the current one made of sand.
But there are some outstanding issues from the past that he would like to see addressed by the new provincial government.
In addition to provincial land tax reform, Reeve Clink said he would like to see a return to the pre-2000 system of property assessment.
Under the old system, the province conducted assessments every five years, which gave property owners the opportunity to appeal those assessments in time for councils to adapt to the revised tax base.
Since the changes, assessments are now done annually, which Reeve Clink says makes it difficult to plan budgets.
“The system is way out of whack,” he charged. “Property value doesn’t change that much in a year.”
La Vallee Reeve Emily Watson said her council’s agenda was not ready at press time and she had no comment regarding ongoing plans or priorities.
Council meetings in Alberton, La Vallee, and Morley traditionally are held on the second Wednesday of the month. Chapple council meets on the second Tuesday while Emo meets on the second and fourth Thursdays. However, Emo council is meeting tonight at 7 p.m.