Some visitors in Sylvan Lake agree with cannabis ban on the beach. Photo by Mamta Lulla/Advocate staff

Tax watchdog takes aim at municipal labour costs

Blackfalds mayor says “blatant sensationalism” behind Canadian Taxpayer Federation’s report

The Town of Blackfalds’ payroll was among the fastest growing of the province’s mid-sized communities from 2014 to 2018, says a Canadian Taxpayers Federation report.

Blackfalds municipal labour costs jumped 52.8 per cent, increasing $2.8 million, in the five years ending in 2018, says the Municipal Labour Cost Report released Thursday.

The taxpayers group says it released its report to show that municipal labour costs in many communities do not reflect the realities facing workers in the private sector.

“These costs are out of touch with the years of hardship that Alberta families and businesses have faced,” said the federation’s Alberta director, Franco Terrazzano.

“It’s time for municipal governments to take some air out of their ballooning labour costs.”

The federation says collectively, the province’s municipalities increased their payrolls by 16.9 per cent, or $873 million, at a time when compensation for all Alberta’s workers fell by six per cent as the economic downturn ate away at wages.

Blackfalds Mayor Richard Poole took issue with the taxpayer group’s inference, noting the numbers do not take into account what the community’s costs are compared to other communities.

A recent Canadian Taxpayers Federation annual report shows that Blackfalds’ overall spending is 33 per cent lower than the provincial average for medium-sized communities, said Poole.

“This report does not take into account the opening of new facilities, in our case, the Abbey Centre, that added 29 (full- and part-time) staff for our new field house, fitness area, indoor playground and our outdoor water park,” said the mayor.

“Our community added approximately 1,000 new houses and we needed to ensure our staffing complement was able to meet increased demands from this growth.

“There are many factors that contribute to the labour costs within a municipality, and the federation’s use of this chart is blatant sensationalism to use an incomplete story to try and create opinions that justify their organization’s stand on municipalities.”

In 2017, statistics showed Blackfalds’ population increased 48.1 per cent between 2011 and 2016.

Those impressive numbers meant Blackfalds was not only Alberta’s population-growth leader, but No. 1 among the 25 fastest-growing communities in all of Canada with a population over 5,000 outside a metropolitan area.

According to the taxpayer federation, after Blackfalds, only the Municipal District of Taber, where labour costs increased by 56.1 per cent ($3.1 million), and the Municipal District of Greenview, where the payroll increased 54.8 per cent ($4.9 million), showed higher increases over the same period among 74 municipalities.

Sylvan Lake was in seventh place with labour costs increasing 42.8 per cent ($3.7 million).

The town’s corporate services director, Darren Moore, said between 2014-2018, the community experienced rapid growth, especially in the early years of that period.

“I think we had some pressure in some departments where we had to add staff in the last number of years to play catch up and deal with increased demand for service.”

Sylvan Lake’s position as a significant tourist draw also has an impact, said Moore.

“We’ve got some additional demands on us that maybe a lot of other communities in Alberta don’t have,” he said, pointing out Banff comes in 10th on the same list.

“I think that’s a factor.”

The province puts out financial indicator graphs that provide a snapshot of where each community stands. By that standard, Sylvan Lake is not a big spender, he said.

“In that report, it shows that every year, Sylvan Lake is below the median in wages and benefits,” he said.

The town has also had a longstanding policy that ties employee wages to the 50th percentile of other comparable communities in Alberta, which keeps pay within a typical range for Alberta.

Rocky Mountain House, where labour costs rose 37.8 per cent ($1.8 million), was also among the higher increases, in 11th place among mid-sized communities with a population of 5,000 to 30,000.

Among the province’s 14 cities, the City of Red Deer’s labour costs increased 15 per cent ($19 million), the fourth lowest hike.

Leduc had the highest increase at 33.3 per cent ($10.1 million), and Medicine Hat the lowest at five per cent ($6.1 million).

The data came from the Alberta government and covers the beginning of the oil price collapse in 2014 until 2018, which was the last year statistics are available.

Red Deer & District Chamber of Commerce CEO Rick More said labour costs are a big expense to businesses, and said municipalities and council should take a close look at that as it negotiates the next round of staff contracts.

“It is important to compare to other municipalities, but that is not the end-all, since every municipality is at different levels of operations and services,” he said.

“We have to really consider long-term effects now and be prepared for unforeseen economic surprises.”

Other central Alberta mid-sized communities ranked

•23rd — Red Deer County, +28.2 ($2.8 million)

•29th — Lacombe, +25.9 ($2.7 million)

•39th — Stettler, +22.2 ($1 million)

•41st — Olds, +21.5 ($1.2 million)

•43rd — Ponoka County, +21.1 ($950,844)

•46th — Lacombe County, +20.5 ($1.9 million)

•47th — Ponoka, +19.7 ($930,558)

•62nd — Innisfail, +11.1 ($572,814)

•65th — County of Stettler, +10 ($670,975)



pcowley@reddeeradvocate.com

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