Squeezed between falling revenues and rising expenses, Red Deer city council has lashed out at the provincial government for failing to deliver on fiscal promises to municipalities.
For the 10th year running, the City of Red Deer received $300,ooo in total from the province for its portion of city policing costs — which is supposed to pay for three RCMP officers.
The problem is that each officer, with benefits and equipment, now costs the city about $158,000 a year — not the $100,000 each that the province has been paying for the past decade, said city manager Craig Curtis.
He noted the gap between what the province pays and the actual cost of policing gets wider every year.
On Wednesday, Red Deer city councillors had to approve $175,000 to cover the shortfall in 2019. And they weren’t happy about it.
Coun. Vesna Higham questioned the government’s priorities: With municipalities dealing with homelessness, the opioid crisis and rising crime, why is there a proposal to spend $40 million on creating a new provincial park in the Bighorn, she asked.
Coun. Lawrence Lee called it “unfathomable” why the government is giving the city a frozen policing grant that doesn’t take into account inflation or rising salary costs.
Coun. Ken Johnston said it‘s a ”glaring disappointment.”
Curtis said a larger issue is the disparity that continues to exist between rural areas, which get 100 per cent of policing costs covered by the province, and urban municipalities, which have to pass the lion’s share of these costs onto taxpayers.
The issue has been pressed by all Alberta cities, which argue this gives their rural neighbours a competitive edge through lower tax rates.
Another municipal funding shortfall discussed by council exists in 9-11 funding. The emergency service used to be fully funded with payments the city received from the province and phone companies, through land line charges, said Curtis.
Now that many people are dropping their land lines, a smaller amount of money is being collected from cellphone use. Curtis said future discussion are needed, because the funds the city now receives do not cover the cost of 9-11 service.
“It doesn’t make sense,” said Lee, since the costs of the emergency service remain the same, regardless of which phones are used. “I’m glad we’re on it.”
Council approved “subsidizing“ this $80,000 shortfall for 2019, and pledged to lobby the government for more funding for 9-11 in future.
Meanwhile, the Red Deer Chamber of Commerce is asking for a zero tax increase from city council, which has been trying to keep the 2019 tax hike at 2.5 per cent or lower.
The Chamber argues that “declining home affordability“ is contributing to slow home sales and building and difficulties in attracting new residents to the city.
Many chamber members are also struggling in a difficult economy, dealing with the need for layoffs and “unsustainable losses.” What seems like a “modest” tax increase could be “the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” states a letter the chamber sent to city council.