LETHBRIDGE: City residents are potentially facing a 2.89 per cent property tax increase per year over the next three years, the lowest increase in more than a decade.
Lethbridge city council arrived at the number after wrapping three days of budget talks Wednesday evening. They approved the 2.89 per cent increase (which amounts to an average increase of $53 per year on an average single family home worth $285,000) as finance committee, and will now need to vote as city council this coming Monday to finalize the number. If they do keep it at 2.89 per cent, this would be the lowest property tax increase Lethbridge has seen in 12 years, when it was 2.67 per cent in 1999.
"I think it's absolutely excellent that we were able to keep a budget under three per cent," said Mayor Raijko Dodic shortly after the decision Wednesday. "There was a lot of give and take between council members. We didn't all agree on every initiative and on every project, but when push came to shove we came together."
Much of the reason why they were able to stay below three per cent was the aldermen's decision to vote down the biggest ticket item that would have come from taxation. The Lethbridge Regional Police Service had 10 proposals in front of council for "new initiatives." The price tag on the request was about $1.2 million over three years. While the initiatives found passionate support from Mayor Raijko Dodic, who used to sit on the police commission, Ald. Tom Wickersham, who currently sits on the commission, and Ald. Jeff Carlson, a six-three vote meant the police request was denied.
Ald. Joe Mauro, Ald. Bridget Mearns, Ald. Ryan Parker, Ald. Faron Ellis, Ald. Jeff Coffman and Ald. Liz Iwaskiw mainly argued they were happy with the police service the way it is now and pointed out the LRPS had already been granted an increase to their regular funding, which total base budget amounts to about $28 million each year.
The majority argued police already had adequate funding, plus a little extra for growth, to maintain the service levels they offer now. "This is something that gets me really worked up," said Iwaskiw, who also sits on the police commission, during debate. "No one will be less safe if we don't pass these new initiatives. Please be clear on that. Because I think that whole fear factor gets people all riled up. All of these initiatives are extras."
Police chief Tom McKenzie said he was disappointed with the decision, but understands that council has to operate according to what they hear in the community. And he added even though he didn't get the funding for the new programs he had in mind, it may still be possible to bring them forward with a little internal re-jigging. "Maybe that will mean the cancellation of some programs to allow for new programs," he said. "We need to sit down and sharpen our pencils and take a hard look at the services we're providing and see how we can go about achieving what we set out to do."
Council also denied taxation funding to STARS air ambulance, the Lethbridge Therapeutic Riding Association and tax relief for local bingo groups. But they did approve smaller taxation grants for the two local food banks, Habitat for Humanity and the Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden.
In addition to the 2.89 per cent property tax increase, utility rates are expected to go up an average 1.65 per cent per year, which works out to an increase of $2.60 per month in 2012, $3.40 per month in 2013 and $3.08 per month in 2014. Wastewater, recycling and residential garbage rates are expected to stay unchanged at their current rate until the end of 2014.