Ponoka opts to withhold tax money from province

Town to stop sending education portion in hopes of getting fieldhouse project funding

The crusade by Ponoka Mayor Rick Bonnett to fund a field house has just accelerated a notch.

At the town council meeting Tuesday, Bonnett ceded the chair to Coun. Teri Underhill to introduce a pair of motions designed to push the provincial government to help fund the combined Ponoka-Stettler project.

The first motion called on the province to release the federal government’s portion of the Infrastructure Canada plan funding, amounting to about $6 million. With Coun. Carla Prediger absent, the motion passed unanimously.

The second motion, which passed with Coun. Sandra Lyon being the lone dissenting vote, empowers the town to begin holding in trust the education portion of Ponoka’s property taxes until the province’s approximate $4.5-million share of the project is acquired, or until the province meets its obligation to the project.

Once the province supplies funding, the town would release all of the funds held in trust and any interest accrued to the province. In 2018, Ponoka remitted nearly $2.3 million in education taxes to the province in quarterly payments.

“We have been working on this with the government for over three years, and it’s now time push came to shove,” Bonnett stated in the lead up to the motions.

Plans took a turn in early September when the province changed how its share of infrastructure funding is supplied — stating its one-third would come from municipal sustainability initiative funds, which would normally be used on projects like road and utility upgrades. For 2018, Ponoka saw $1.28 million through the program, though the agreement only extends until 2020.

Prior to the votes, chief administrative officer Albert Flootman advised council that while there are no prescribed penalties for not turning over the education taxes, the province does have options.

Referring to a memo he wrote to council, Flootman said the province may take any grants payable to the municipality should it default on the requisition payments, for as long as it takes to credit any outstanding amounts. He also explained the province could take other action — such as conducting an inspection or inquiry into the municipality’s affairs.

If those lead to a determination of irregular or improper conduct, the minister could order the removal of a council member, the chief operating officer, or dismiss the entire council.

Coun. Kevin Ferguson is torn on the issue. However, he feels supporting Bonnett’s motions is a must after watching how the province went from “gushing” over the project a year ago to stating this fall there is no money.

“To quote one minister we met with, ‘This is exactly what we want to see.’ Fast forward, and suddenly, the tone had drastically changed.”

Ferguson noted all council received were gloomy faces at recent meetings from cabinet ministers and platitudes about there being no money.

“The problem though, is the provincial money is the key to unlocking the federal funds,” he added. “That looms as a double financial loss.”

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